Making of the Mob: Stelio Savante Talks About Playing Joe Masseria

The Making of The Mob New York: NYC's own Stelio Savante spills the beans on playing Joe the Boss.

Joe “the Boss” Masseria ate off too many plates. Giuseppe Masseria rose through the ranks of New York crime virtually unscathed as “The Man Who Could Dodge Bullets” in the early 1900s. He couldn’t duck a barrage of bullets that came at him after a meal and some cards with Charles “Lucky” Luciano. The death of the first real “Boss of Bosses” opened the door to usher in a new regime in crime.

AMC is continuing its annual “Mob Week” programming with the ongoing history series The Making of The Mob: New York. The narrative tells the story of how crime went nationwide after young New York upstarts like Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel shook off the old world ways of “Mustache Petes” like Salvatore Maranzano and Joe “the Boss” Masseria.

“Though he was known as ‘Joe the Boss’ his insatiable appetite could have won him the nickname `Joe the Glutton.’ He attacked a plate of spaghetti as if he were a drooling mastiff. He had the table manners of a Hun,” wrote Joseph Bonanno in his authorized biography, A Man of Honor. Masseria headed what is now the Genovese crime family.

Masseria was born in Marsala, Sicily in 1886. He came to America to duck a murder charge in the homeland. Masseria got to New York during the Mafia-Camorra war, which was a battle between the Sicilian Mafia and the Camorra out of Naples. The Morello family, fathered by Nicolò Terranova, AKA Nicholas “Nick” Morello from Corleone, Sicily, ran the Napolitano out of their neighborhood. Masseria was part of their crew.

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Masseria’s reputation for ducking bullets started on Aug. 9, 1922. Two gunmen tried to take out Masseria right outside his 2nd Avenue apartment as payback from a rival mobster. The hitmen jumped on the running board of their getaway car and chased Masseria across East 5th Street, blasting into a crowd of Ladies Garment Industry Union workers. The assassination squad shot six people, killed two and a horse, but ran out of bullets before they got Masseria. One bullet passed through his hat.

The Castellamarese war started after Masseria pulled a $10,000 disappearing act in a power play for Joe Parrino, but Parrino was shot before he could take the helm. After Frankie Yale died in July 1928, Joe Masseria got it into his head that he wanted to be the boss of bosses of all the New York mob gangs. Sicilian father Don Vito Cascio Ferro sent Salvatore Maranzano to America to take over Masseria’s turf.

Masseria pulled in the “Broadway Mob” from fellow Sicilian Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Lucky didn’t swear his oath over a burning saint, but he was a loyal, if ambitious soldier. Along with Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky, Benny Siegel and Louis Lepke, Luciano carried out jobs for Masseria.

On April 15, 1931, Joe Masseria went to dinner with Luciano at Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. They played some cards when they finished eating. Luciano went to bathroom. While Luciano was washing his hands, twenty bullets sprayed the place. When it was over Joe the Boss was dead with an Ace of Spades in his hand. From that day forward, the Ace of Spades was known as the “death card.” What a legacy. Street gossip says the job was done by Benny Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis.

Stelio Savante plays Joe the Boss on The Making of The Mob: New York. Savante was the first male South African born Screen Actors Guild nominee for his recurring role on the popular series Ugly Betty, where he played an underworld character. Savante further earned his gangster bona fides in a guest role on The Sopranos and as Eddie Izzard’s criminal right hand man in My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Savante chatted exclusively with Den of Geek about acting tough and gaining weight to play the gluttonous capo di tutti capi.

Den of Geek: You are from South Africa, is there a big following of gangster movies there?

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Stelio Savante: I left South Africa in 1990, so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the local beat anymore, and we also didn’t get TV until around 1976. The Godfather had a bigger impact on me than any other film I’d seen when I was a child. The characters and their lifestyles were simultaneously chilling and seductive to me.

Do you have any favorites?

Le Samourai the Meville film with Alain Delon. I love its subtlety. The Godfather of course, for the reasons mentioned. Goddard’s Breathless is an absolute masterpiece. And the obvious ones: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, Infernal Affairs. I love Heat as well, a very contemporary gangster film.

Now that you’re living in New York, do you spend time in the neighborhoods of the Making of the Mob series?

Actually I lived in New York for 16 years but now I live in Los Angeles. Made the move out in 2007 for a recurring role on Ugly Betty, which came with a SAG nomination for those of us in the lead ensemble cast, and work has been plentiful since then, so we moved permanently.

I lived in Manhattan for about 12 years and in Queens for the last four. I did spend a lot of time in various ethnic neighborhoods. I’m an immigrant, so I found them fascinating: Astoria, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Sheepshead Bay. I wasn’t as big a fan of Little Italy because it was always flooded with tourists, but Mott street was always fun; comes with a lot of history.

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What kind of preparation did you do for the role of Joe Masseria as far as the accent and the history?

Technically I’ve lived most of my adult life in New York, so the accent is pretty much my own now, and I think like a New Yorker. It’s just a natural extension of me. I had prepped the role for Boardwalk Empire and got very close to booking it (according to my reps). So I already knew who Masseria was psychologically and emotionally. He was an only child, didn’t play well with others, didn’t trust anyone.

What did you do physically? How do you go about gaining weight for a role and how long is it fun?

Physically, I wanted to gain weight because he was a glutton. He was sloppy, horribly impulsive, never comfortable. Eating was his vice. I look to give all my characters a vice that feels natural. Now I didn’t weigh myself to impress myself with how much weight I’d gained, but I know that my waist had been a size 36 on my prior shoot, and when I got to the wardrobe fitting for The Making of the Mob it was a 42.

For weeks on end, I had enjoyed third and fourth helpings at every meal. But losing it once the shoot was over was going to be a major uphill climb. I enjoy food, so it was good until I started to feel the impact of the weight gain. I was out of breath easily, I was always tired. I’ve been an athlete my entire life (I came to the USA on a tennis scholarship and played football and tennis at UWA) and continue to be very active, so the added weight made it difficult.

I saw Joe as uptight, never comfortable, always second guessing. I wore really tight wardrobe that was too small, to help me feel claustrophobic, in discomfort and pissed off. It truly helped me. I felt like he always set himself, there was no unnecessary movement with him. I made a very concerte effort to not portray him as a screamer, as it felt more natural to rule without being loud about it; to simmer quietly and then explode spontaneously–Masseria could easily become predictable to other characters and to the audience.

What’s your take on Joe the Boss, historically and as a character?

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Masseria was literally one of the last true real “Dons.” He was old school, very easily threatened, didn’t have much foresight or Luciano’s wisdom. So he was a dying breed. If he’d have been more open to working with anyone other than Sicilians (who ended up setting him up and killing him anyway), it would have helped him. Historically he’s remembered as ruling with an iron fist and being greedy, violent, short tempered, and dominant for almost a decade. As a character, I hope I’ve done him justice.

How is something like this different than The Sopranos as far as the set, production and hanging out with the other actors?

The Sopranos was early on for me, I was still fairly green, although I’d done a lot of high level theater in New York.  But I was the least experienced person in my episode. On this set of Mob, I was easily the most experienced actor. I’m over 60 projects in now. So on Sopranos, I was friendly, I spent my time observing and soaking things up like a sponge.

I learned a lot from director Allen Coulter, and have become friends with some of the cast, even hired them for the plays I’ve produced and performed. The late James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Jamie Lynn Sigler, and Annabella Sciorra were all in 110 Stories at either The Public or NYU Skirball with me. We filmed at Silvercup Studios, which was literally five minutes from where I lived. Quintessential New York.

On the Mob set, I went out of my way to not interact with any of the actors personally. I just needed my isolation and unfamiliarity from all of them as Joe, which also meant I didn’t like rehearsing a lot. I wanted the freedom to improvise some if it happened, so I was very grateful to director John Ealer because he is confident in his craft and was supportive of my process.

Shooting on location in West Virginia was truly like taking a step back in time. The buildings, the locations, the locals were all so welcoming. Very different than shooting at Silvercup where people are still cool but productions have been ongoing for years.

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Is there a difference in how things are run on the actual set of a dramatic series as opposed to a historical representation series?

The biggest difference is in the budgets of course, and you’re almost always shooting on a studio-lot with primetime dramatic series. Outside of that the professionalism of the crew, the production company, etc. was not that different. I liked that we were allowed to ‘breathe’ as our characters on this, instead of having to fill every second with dialogue.

Is there a different style of acting, like there is a specific style of acting for a soap opera?

Film, television, etc. are all different. But I think that theater is by far the most unique for all the obvious reasons. A live audience, one take, a physical presence of broader delivery catered in playing to the audience. You perform everything in chronological order, which is far more natural.

Films and series are hardly ever shot that way. I’m not quite sure what you mean by different styles of acting. I always commit to the truth of the character. My process all starts with one question: ‘What drives the character at their core?’ Everything stems from that. Then I create a backstory and build a character bible with every other character that interacts with mine and those mentioned in the scene that might not be present. I seek my truth and pursue conflict, and I hopefully become it. It carries me into my scenes, which again means that I don’t like to rehearse a lot.

Tell me about Eisenstein In Guanajuato.

What an experience working with Peter Greenaway who is one of the greats of indie-art films, the Goddard of this era.  We shot in Guanajuato, Mexico, a city that was literally the last stand against the Spanish, so it felt like a Spanish colony if you will. Rich with culture, timeless architecture, the museum of mummies, the subterranean tunnels. The city used to be made up of silver mines. It was a thrill-ride because it’s exactly where this all happened all those years ago.

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Peter is very unconventional. He directs unlike anybody else, which means that wonderful discoveries were made. I adore him, he brings so much wisdom, could literally teach courses on travel, film festivals and journeys of life. My fellow cast was unbelievably brave and all good people, true artists.  I’m elated that the film was nominated at Berlin and is being seen all over the world in theaters, including later this year in the U.S.

What are your feelings on Eisenstein’s works and that time in film?

Eisenstein’s greatest contribution was obviously as the pioneer of montage. It is most obvious in his film Battleship Potemkin, and I feel that he is underestimated, underappreciated and hope that this film does a lot to change that. That was a fascinating time in film, because it was a renaissance of sorts. There were no rules and he still broke them. He literally shot hundreds of hours of footage and was frowned upon, but isn’t that what we do today?

The fact that his friends included Chaplin, Rivera and Kahlo at a time when communism was feared here in the States, you can just imagine the tension and the conflict he was dealing with. Back in Russia they were afraid that he would bolt and not return. But he did, and I can’t wait for the world to discover this film. I’m so happy for Peter. He’s wanted to tell this story for many years.

Do period pieces interest you specifically? Is it freeing to play in other times?

I, like most of the public, am very drawn to real stories about real people. Not just period pieces, but true stories. The most impactful that I’ve been a part of was the play 110 Stories [by playwright Sarah Tuft]. Being part of that production for so many years has been very freeing, a very cathartic way of dealing with the tragedy that affected my city. First person accounts of 9/11 from photographers, homeless people, preachers, firemen, etc. I portray Bolivar Arellano, one of the leads, and spent a lot of time with him. In order to understand what drove him, what made him tick. I last produced it in N.Y. in 2011 for the ten-year commemoration. I have since produced and performed it in L.A.

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Portraying the role again, opposite some incredible storytellers, Billy Crudup, Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon, Jeremy Piven, Kathleen Turner and many other great talents. They too were drawn to a period piece of sorts, a real event, a day that everyone remembers where they were. I think that any actor worth their salt would be drawn to a period piece or a project based on a true story.

Do you have favorite directors?

Well here are some favorites that I’ve not yet worked with. Inarritu, Aranofsky, The Coen Brothers, my friends Wayne Kramer and Cyrus Nowrasteh who elicit incredible performances out of their actors. In my dreams, because they don’t often if ever hire U.S. based actors: Abbas Kiarostami – he doesn’t even use actors, Zhang Yimou and Emir Kustirica.