The first time we see Eli this season is the moment he is standing alone outside of prison. He really looks like a changed man.
I physically transformed for the role; that was important. And I talked to Terry [Winter, series creator] and Tim [Van Patten, episode director] about that. But we didn't create a lot of backstory about what had happened to Eli. Hopefully the audience has a visceral response to seeing him. I love that there's no talking about his prison time. I wanted the audience to get a sense of what it was probably like for Eli for 15 months in there, that it was a brutal time.
I'm afraid every time I strap Eli on each season. You dig a little bit here and there and it starts to come. But in that moment Eli is really scared of the unknown and what's going to happen. There's so much coursing through me.
Can you describe some of what was coursing through your mind as Eli in that moment?
Family is the most important thing to me and to do without them was an excruciating experience. I also had time to ruminate on my relationship with my brother. It means the world to me, even though it's true I tried to go against him. That really took its toll on me - on Eli - in prison.
Do you think Eli saw Nucky during that time?
I have my thoughts on that. Steve [Buscemi] and I didn't discuss it but I have a feeling he didn't drop by too often.
By the end of Season 2, was Eli feeling remorse for having attempted the coup against Nucky?
Yes. This season is really about me trying to find where I fit in, trying to get my bearings back. I think there is a tremendous amount of love between Nucky and Eli, but it's a truly complex relationship. There is remorse and there is a lot of hurting - on Nucky's part too.
Eli understands Nucky perhaps more than anyone else and how he can hold a grudge.
Sure. The fact that I was spared tells me I need to make sure I do what's asked of me.
Was Eli expecting someone else to pick him up?
Mickey was the last person I was expecting. Truth be told, I was hoping Nucky might come by and grab me with Eddie.
Did you and Paul Sparks (Mickey Doyle) discuss the scene in the car?
We don't do a lot of talking. With Eli, I just have a strong point of view about whoever I'm dealing with and I don't play the scene, I'm just in the moment with that point of view. And Paul is very easy to work off of. He's an extraordinarily gifted - and comedic - actor. We just let that play out in the moment.
Can you explain Eli's hostility towards Mickey?
I used to be Nucky's right hand man, but I've been usurped by Mickey. I don't think he's capable, and now he's got me under his thumb? I'm going to have to pay the piper with Nucky it seems.
Eli refuses Mickey's job at first but turns around pretty quickly. What makes him change his mind?
Whatever Nucky asks me to do, I'm going to do. It's difficult but I have to start at the bottom rung of the ladder again, in the warehouse. I know what I have to do to get back into Nucky's good graces. I want to prove to him that I will run through a house on fire for him if I need to. I have seen the error of my ways.
There's the homecoming scene of Eli greeting his family.
I love the way that Terry, Tim and Marty [Scorsese] sprinkle that in with Eli. It's such an anchor for me - how much Eli cares about June and the kids.
Like when Eli makes the model airplane for his son...
Yes, Eli sees how quickly he's grown up.
Is that part of the reason he swallows his pride and works for Mickey?
Certainly I want to lead by example for my son, so I do what I have to do. But at the end of the day, Eli's got a lot of pride. So I think working for Mickey is more because Nucky says he has to. So I do it.
Is there anything that helps you get into character in particular?
It's an interesting year for me because I got rid of the costume: the boots and the Sheriff outfit. You'd think it wouldn't be that big a deal, but it's a big deal to take that suit off. And to not have that gun strapped right to you. I found myself missing it this year, for sure. It's a very internal season for Eli.
And you now have that hat.
We looked at a bunch of hats and that one spoke to me.