Vincent Piazza interview: Boardwalk Empire, Lucky Luciano

As Boardwalk Empire season 5 arrives on DVD, we chat to the man behind Charlie Luciano, Vincent Piazza…

Warning: this article contains Boardwalk Empire spoilers.

When Boardwalk Empire wrapped production last year it wasn’t without disappointment, not least because for some characters there was a sense that things were only just getting started. Chief among those was Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, whose actor, Vincent Piazza, spoke to us about father figures, droopy eyes and reverse-engineering a Sicilian bad boy…

The end of Boardwalk is quite a big one for Charlie. We’ve seen him grow from the impatient young hothead of 1920 to someone a little more world-weary and considered. How did you approach the task of showing that ten-year growth while keeping true to the character?

Thank you for that. It was always the hope that we’d be able to get to the arc where he’s beginning to find power and I’d say that might be the optimal word, power and the difference between force and power. In the beginning he was a thug with a hair-trigger temper and maybe a lack of couth or of understanding of business or maybe the larger picture. It was interesting to explore because he would work for Arnold Rothstein, as we’ve seen in the show, he would be an enforcer, we saw him sent to kill Jimmy Darmody or hurt people and collect money and get rid of bodies, all sorts of things that are pretty terrible but that’s the job of an enforcer or just a young gangster. Over time, getting to work with guys like Michael Stuhlbarg [Arnold Rothstein] and Ivo Nandi [Joe Masseria]and see him grow and learn and now we see him where there’s a young boss forming. It’s fun to play.

Ad – content continues below

I bet it is. It’s interesting that you talk about learning, as Charlie had his own mentors didn’t he, Rothstein and Masseria and now Maranzano. It’s pretty unlucky for them, I mean, they don’t last very long.

[Laughs] It’s unlucky. When you put it that way, it’s daddy issues. He gets rid of all the father figures in his life. Rothstein and Masseria Maranzano… he definitely had trouble with authority and you know, at the time there were so many bosses because they were very provincial, they were like these warlords. They would cover very limited or narrow fields or neighbourhoods and really didn’t trust anyone outside of it, they would enforce their control over it and it was very tough to do business in such a fragmented way. He had a wider vision, a very American vision actually, of a democratic board of directors to create these things so that’s pretty fascinating as a study.

It is. It’s quite disappointing though, because in 1931 he’s really just getting started with that and the Commission. It would be wonderful to see him go on and grow into the 1930s and beyond. 

It’s actually very funny and I’m about to segue about that, if you don’t mind, but in the research, the reason why he ended up getting arrested in 1936 which is five years into his historical reign, even though he reigned from prison and beyond years later, when he was a free man in America. The problem he ran into is that because Prohibition was repealed, he had roughly five hundred guys working for him and he said ‘my god, I’m going to get killed by one of these guys if I don’t have them making money’ so he moved into organising prostitution just to keep people fed, so he had his guys go out and open up brothels or make brothels that already exist work for them and in the process it was the women who stood up and had him put away. And I thought that was a fascinating bit of information that it was the repeal that was part of his trouble. 

This is something that the season explores, with Nucky trying to foresee that and make his business more legitimate and to stay ahead of the curve, as he did when Prohibition came in. So I think it’s an unusual juncture to be leaving at when we’ve got these characters who are trying to shift in their time. But I do think it’s interesting how there’s a difference between Charlie and Al Capone. As you say, Charlie is a bit more business-like, a bit more forward thinking, whereas Capone has become this archetypal gangster.

That’s right. He’s a big fish in a smaller pond. Chicago, don’t get me wrong, was a very important city but it wasn’t New York and New York itself was very important for the country and it still is, but you’re right in what you’re saying, he was absolutely provincial in his thinking and ultimately, he left the scene for that reason.

Ad – content continues below

I’d like to talk about your portrayal of Charlie. I’ve noticed that there’s a bit more of a heaviness to your physical performance as the character and you’re obviously depicting him ten years on from where you began with him. Was that intentional on your part, to change the way that you moved?

Yes, I wanted, because we had this incredible opportunity to show the historical scars that took place in 1929, that we didn’t get to see on camera but the droopy eye and the scar was from a kidnapping. [Luciano was abducted from Manhattan and dumped on a beach after after being beaten, having his throat cut and being stabbed with an icepick.] I felt from the research that that point in 1929 was a real pivotal moment for him when he decided that he needed to change his ways. I was able to look at his arrest records, and no one will ever know the truth, but the arrest records are documents that I could pore over.

He was arrested quite a lot in the twenties and then it started to lighten up by the late twenties and I said, well, he’s changing, the arrests are different and they’re not for the same crimes as in the early twenties, so he was maturing, he was keeping a low profile, and I think that with the kidnapping and beating that he suffered a near-death experience, it was enough to change someone and I looked at his age and he’s a man that was in his twenties and he’s now in a new decade of his life, in his thirties and with the wear and tear he’s a little slower, he’s a little more thoughtful and he’s learned from really great teachers, guys like Rothstein and Masseria  and he’s getting wiser and I wanted to physically show that.

Well, it’s certainly coming through. How about the eye, how was that done in make-up?

The make-up department’s wonderful but it was so hard for me to get used to because they put this little prosthetic piece on my eyelid, which takes a while and, as you can imagine, is a very sensitive part of the skin. At times I would work a 12, 14, 16 hour day and that piece sometimes would lose its effectiveness and would have to be taken off and a new one put on and the irritation of that process and also the irritation of once it’s on, getting used to it. That was one of the hardest things of the season, just getting physically used to negotiating my eye. So it was fun. [Laughs]

So you are suffering for your art then!

Ad – content continues below

[Laughs] Yeah, totally.

You’ve talked a lot about your research and it’s really coming through that you’ve involved yourself in your character. How did you begin that, what was your approach?

I guess in real life it reflects the character, I had great teachers. Early on, when I was cast I wanted to… I was scared of television to be very frank. I was nervous if I was on a show that ran a long time I’d run the risk of typecasting and whatnot for playing that kind of character, so I said ‘well, what’s the right way to do it?’ and I spoke with my coach and we had long conversations about the best way to do it is to find the truth of what he was, not only the essence of him but physically and verbally. I had six months before we started shooting so I pored over all the books and documentaries and any photographs, the FBI files, I pretty much grabbed everything. I then went through it and created my own blueprint, my own notes and said ‘what’s the arc of this guy?’.

I felt like I was vindicated when I got to meet with Mr Scorcese at the very beginning before we started shooting the pilot. He said watch this movie by Rosi [Francesco Rosi, director of the 1973 film Lucky Luciano] about the man that history came to know as this very powerful guy. This wonderful actor Gian Maria Volonté played him in the movie, [Scorsese] said that’s really what you want to strive to so now we have to, in my words, ‘reverse engineer’ him, see how would a young guy, this Sicilian kid come off the streets and learn how to become ‘this guy’? That’s really where all the questions came up about force and power. I had all this great supporting research to kind of insinuate, I wouldn’t say prove it, but insinuate that this guy was doing a lot of leg work to get to that point of power.

That’s been one of the most fascinating things, looking back over the five seasons, and these characters who have become so well known as gangsters, as part of the twentieth century, is seeing where they came from as young guys starting out, making mistakes and their process of learning, whether from experience or from the older guys around them. But you could say that you were a bit of a veteran now, after five seasons so what advice would you give to a young actor just starting out in a TV show?

Well, firstly congratulations. TV has gotten so strong in its quality that to be part of the great television that is being made right now is a pretty cool thing. But I’d say that it really depends on the role. If it’s historical in nature, fall in love with the time period and the people. Find the passion to do it. I guess the cautionary words are pace yourself. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and the mistakes I made early on, were really for myself as an actor. I’m certainly not ashamed of any of the work but I was definitely was very engaged too much all the time. For the first year or so I surrendered a lot of my life so definitely looking back it might have been a little wiser to go in knowing that this is a long game. 

Ad – content continues below

OK, final question. I have to ask you this. What’s your favorite Jason Statham movie?

My favorite Jason Statham movie? OK, I am embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen a Jason Statham movie but I can tell you this, my father is a rabid Jason Statham fan. He’s hooked on The Expendables and he recently saw another one that he prompted my mother to call me to pitch me to watch at the next available opportunity. It’s one he made in the last couple of years. Is a name coming to mind?

He’s done a few. He’s got one of those busy, busy schedules. 

He does, but this seemed like it had a lot of action but it had a slightly different narrative form to it. There was him and a leading lady.

We shall IMDb him and find out.

Yeah, it’s an IMDb question that I’m about to pull up on my phone because I can’t think of the name of the movie but they were over the moon for it, so I’ll check it out. I don’t have one yet but the jury’s out.

Ad – content continues below