Lucky Life: Boardwalk Empire's Vincent Piazza

As told to john vilanova | June 19, 2013 | Past Events

“I've never knew I was going to be an actor—I took my first acting class when I was 24 years old,” admits Vincent Piazza, the rising star of HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire. Piazza is eminently charming—his youthful rakishness is evident the second he steps into the studio for his cover shoot. A crooked smile deflects the camera’s lens as he shrugs off compliments about his growing resumé—the feature film 3 Nights in the Desert in wraps; The Wannabe, a film of his own in development; off-Broadway theater; and, of course, his performance as real-life gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano on Boardwalk Empire, the Golden Globe–winning drama set in Atlantic City under Prohibition.

In full gangster getup, one could venture to call him Brando-esque—the thick brows, sleepy eyes, and tough exterior. But he’s more slight, lacking quite the heft and darkness of soul. He’s really just a boy from Queens, New York, who wanted to be a hockey player. He played in college at Villanova University, but saw his dreams derailed by a shoulder injury that ended his career. After college he worked in finance—“Perfect to get into Boardwalk Empire,” he jokes—but quickly soured on cubicles and cutthroat deals.

“I got so cagey being in an office all the time that I’d start impersonating clients… other brokers, our boss,” he recalls. He and a friend would prank call others in the office, with Piazza mimicking their boss’s nasal tone and disciplining other workers. “When we were done laughing, my friend’s like, ‘Man, you’re wasting your time in this business. You should be an actor.’”

The friend’s tragic passing in a car accident shook Piazza to the core. “It was a young bout with mortality for me,” he says. “He was such a great influence and a wonderful guy.” Piazza had lost not just a friend and fellow trickster-in-arms, but he had lost his first scene partner.

“I was trying to find the meaning of it—loss—and make sense of it,” he says. “You work so closely with someone for so long; then you show up one day and their stuff is just cold, you know? So I decided I owed it to him and myself to explore it. I wanted a safe career, so I left finance and went into acting,” he says, smirking.

Jack Huston, who plays the growling, disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow on Boardwalk, sat down with Piazza in between filming scenes for the show’s fourth season, set to premiere this fall. The two are old friends now—their affable conversation is easy and playful but undergirded with respect for each other’s work on Boardwalk and optimism for the show’s continued success. Although the additions of Jeffrey Wright, Ron Livingston, and Brian Geraghty to the lauded ensemble are already generating press, it’s Piazza’s classic style and devotion to the craft that have him poised to be the show’s breakout star.

JACK HUSTON: So I came into the show a little late. Before you got cast, what were you doing?
VINCENT PIAZZA: Here’s the crazy thing: I had made an audition video in between two indie films I’d done in which I played a classic gangster. This was like two years before Boardwalk Empire came out. I just had an itch—I felt like there was going to be a need for this. I found a book of children’s stories, and I said, “How cool would this be… being a young gangster like this from one of these classic stories?” I gave it to my agent, and she goes, “Well… what do you want me to do with this?” After [another pilot] didn’t get picked up, she comes and says, ‘[Martin] Scorsese and HBO are looking for a young Lucky Luciano and a young Al Capone. I sent them your gangster tape, and they loved it. They want you in the project. They don’t know where yet, but you’re in.’”

JH: That’s amazing. You put something out in the ether—and suddenly it happens. It’s a great thing for any actor as well. If you have an urge to do something, go and do it and make it.
VP: It always makes me think of the adage you told me—that no work is ever wasted. Anything you experience in life, anything you ever do, it’s applicable to what we do.

JH: Absolutely. That’s really the case in this sense. Did you have any knowledge of Luciano before Boardwalk?
VP: I knew who he was because he’s buried [in the town] where I grew up. There were two famous graves nearby—Harry Houdini and Lucky Luciano. I knew he was a historic mobster, and that he’d organized crime. And then, as I researched, I was like, “Oh—this is the guy.”

JH: That’s a good lead-in actually. So when you’re approaching a character, let’s say something like Lucky Luciano, who’s such a giant in this gangster world, do you believe in doing as much research as possible?
VP: I would say I did as much as I possibly could. The other reason, too, is because being from New York and being half Italian, people will put you in a box. There’s a certain stigma. So I said the greatest way I can create distance between me and a character seen every week is by trying to find a truth. If I can find the truth of him, that’s not necessarily my truth. So I can find things about him that would create enough distance where I can hang it up like a suit whenever the show ends, and do other work. That was like my big fear, so I had to work through and research the hell out of it.

JH: I think one should also always have a certain amount of fear, because that’s what makes it exciting. The edge is what gives you the edge. How are you about playing the same character? Are you someone who enjoys the process of getting deeper and deeper into someone?
VP: It’s like dating all of the time. You get to play a role for six months, nine months, and move on. You can find a new “date.” But now we’re kind of married. I feel like we’re in this marriage, and it’s great. I love it.

JH: It’s a good analogy. There’s ups and downs. You’ve got to work at it, but it’s filled with love. For someone who is new to Boardwalk or your character, what would be your favorite moments through the seasons?
VP: Working with Marty [Scorsese] and Terry [Winter], and that first episode for me was epic. It is burned in my memory. I remember what I ate; I remember what it smelled like. I remember every embarrassing moment, weird moment, awkward moment. There were tons of them. And I’d say the scenes when we get the historical characters in a room, like when we shot at John’s of 12th Street [in New York City]. They never redecorated it. It’s like more than a hundred years old. There’s something so rich about it. There’s something there, something really spiritual. You’re in the same space that they had these deals go down, ready to murder someone or whatever.

JH: You’re also working on a movie. Tell me more about that.
VP: The backdrop is also the mob, but it’s about people. Patricia Arquette is on board, Michael Imperioli’s on board. We’re going to shoot in October and November.

JH: That’s just fantastic.
VP: It’s beautiful, man. We’re also doing a little revival of a play called Frozen. It’s a Broadway piece, but we’re doing a more intimate revival. It’s a real great character setting, a harrowing piece, but at the end of it all, an optimistic one.

JH: You’re one of the people who I encounter on set and always find startling, because you’re someone who transforms completely. You take on this persona of Lucky Luciano, who’s totally different from who you really are.
VP: I think it ups everybody’s game to be in such a stylized piece. I actually described it recently to someone else on set. I said, “I watched an episode of Boardwalk again just recently, and it’s like a moving oil painting.”

JH: So talk to me a little bit about how Atlantic City fits into all of this.
VP: Atlantic City was a getaway. It was a resort. It was a place to go and let loose. It was a place to go relieve yourself of your everyday stresses, and it’s always been kind of a middle-class paradise. My parents would drive down to Atlantic City for a weekend away, and I’d go with my friends to watch a boxing match, or something like that. I didn’t realize what a rich history it had, not only for crime and all that, which is obviously a big part of our show, but for vaudeville and entertainment. These guys were sharpening their teeth and honing their craft on the stages of Atlantic City. It was the original.

JH: What are your aspirations for the new season?
VP: We pick up somewhere between six and nine months later at the end of season three. They really stepped on the gas at the end there. It got very gangster heavy and incredibly violent. And what’s great about the first episode, the reentry, is a lot of that bad blood lingers, but they’ve found a whole other thing that’s happening—and I think it’s going to catch a lot of people by surprise. They always find a way to one-up themselves.

Categories: Past Events

Photography by Jeff Gale; Styling by Mark Holmes at See Management; Grooming by Kristen Shaw for Oribe Hair Care

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