Stephen Graham (Vincent Macmaster) is a cast regular on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” for which he has shared two Screen Actors Guild awards, and appeared in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” His feature films include “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Best Laid Plans” and “Public Enemies.”
Interview with Stephen Graham
How do you feel about playing the notorious Al Capone in his early years?
To be honest, I got a call about two weeks before filming that Martin Scorsese wanted me to play Al Capone. There wasn't really time to be afraid of the task ahead so I just dived in. It's been one hell of a journey, and it's been great to learn what Al Capone was up to, mucking about in New York in his early days.
Why do you think Scorsese wanted you for Capone?
I think he thought I'd bring something new to the character. We've seen Capone played so many times as loud, aggressive and slightly unbalanced. What we were able to do was bring some humor to the character, bring out the human side of him. We wanted the audience to like him.
There have been dozens of representations of Capone in film, how did you decide how you wanted to play him?
Marty said he didn't want me to watch any of the other performances, though obviously I'd seen Robert De Niro's portrayal in 'The Untouchables.' He wanted me to create something fresh and different. We wanted to put a different slant on it.
So you decided to play him with a comedic touch.
Not as a vaudeville clown, but we did want him to have some lightness in him. There is also some sadness to the character, which comes across in the episode where he's telling Jimmy about his deaf son. He does things as a character that make you think, "This guy is crazy." But at the same time, it makes you smile a little bit. He's a young man who'll play a trick on his boss, but really he just hasn't learned the Dos and the Don'ts just yet. This is the episode where he realizes if he wants to make something of his life, he's going to have to start taking himself a little bit more seriously.
Al's encounter with the elderly Jewish man at the bar mitzvah seems to be a real coming-of-age moment for him. Do you think the growth is genuine?
Absolutely. We put a lot of care into that moment because we wanted to show it as the moment Capone goes from being a young lad who messes about to young man who's getting serious. He has a lot of respect for Torrio, and he realizes that if he wants to serve him well-and get a better life for him and his family -- he has to grow up.
What was it about the old man's comment in Episode 10, "All of us who are worth anything spend our manhood unlearning the follies of our youth," that had such profound impact on Al?
It's certainly "the follies of our youth." Capone is no idiot. He's very shrewd and streetwise. He reflects on how he's acted the last year since he left New York, and he realizes now is the time to be a man. From this day forward, he's going to be responsible for his actions.
How is the reformed Al going to be different?
Aside from the hat, I think we're going to see him become the Al Capone that we all know. There will still be elements of the character that we've already created, but he's going to start climbing up the ladder.
Was that encounter based on a real event?
It was a purely fictional moment.
What historical research did you do to prepare for the role?
I read a lot of biographies and did research on the computer for weeks. One thing that stuck in my mind was a story about him and his friends who used to go down to the naval base down by the docks in Brooklyn. One day, there was a big soldier who had trouble getting the marching exercise right and the boys taunted him mercilessly. When the soldier threatened to fight them, the 10 or 11-year-old Capone stood right up to him. The commander came over, calmed the situation and wrote a letter to his commissioner that read, "I met a young boy today named Alphonse Capone. If we get a hold of this boy now, he would make a fantastic soldier. If not, I dread to think what this man may become." He could've gone either way.
In the series, we get a glimpse of the gangster's home life.
It was important to show that side of him. He adored his wife, whom he married when he was really young. He was also a bit of a mommy's boy. He never lived anywhere without her and brought her out to Chicago with him. As he moved up, he got jobs for everyone else in his family as well. He was very much a family man. It was nice to play him in that crowded home with his mom, his wife and his little boy, where everyone is stepping over each other and he's just standing there cooking sausage.
Your Brooklyn accent is pretty convincing. Was it hard to nail down?
The gaffer on set, Charlie, was my voice coach. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and we got on well socially. The whole crew looked forward to the days when Al's character was there, since we knew we'd be doing some shooting or playing a joke. There was tremendous support from the whole crew. Charlie especially would help me out with each line. I'd go back to him after a scene and he'd give me his take.
How would you characterize Al and Jimmy's relationship?
They have a fantastic relationship that we got to play with. These two young men who have nothing and came from nothing want to try and succeed a little bit. Both have different methods of work. Jimmy is more calculated; Al's more, shall we say, opportunistic. There is some underlying tension about Al's lack of service in the war. There's a lot of love there, but you can never quite let your guard down. There is a real substance to it.
What can we expect to see from Al in season two?
I think we might be seeing less humor and more pain. Pain inflicted on other people, that is.
Stephen Graham answered some fan questions from our Facebook page.
Do you speak Italian or did you just learn the lines for the last episode?
I was lucky enough to live in Rome during the filming of 'Gangs of New York,' so I picked up a little bit. But this was an entirely different dialect. This was a Neapolitan dialect, which is a little more slang, kind of similar to Brooklyn street language actually. I just learned the words that I had to say, but it was great fun.
Did you use any historical footage or audio to learn the mannerisms of the character?
There was nothing at all. The only thing I could find was a black and white reel of Al Capone walking out of a car when he was about 30.
What would you say is the most similar personality trait that you share in real life with Al Capone's character?
A sense of humor. I played a few good pranks on set along with Michael Pitt, though I don't think I can share them here.
What was your favorite scene to act out this season?
The scene when Al explains to Jimmy about his son. We got to show the depth of what was behind this façade of bravado. We got to tap underneath the surface and the history. Though I have to say every scene playing Al Capone is fun.