Interview With Vincent Piazza
Lucky gets some surprising news from Rothstein about "Mrs. Darmody" in Episode 6... How does he feel about learning he's with Jimmy's mother, not his wife?
It's startling! We actually tried that take a lot of different ways because there are a lot of things going on. First off, he's there to do something very sinister, which is kill — whether it's a husband or a son. But it's definitely unsettling to realize he was with this man's mother. At the same time to counter that, there's a bravado.
Lucky really confides to Gillian about his affliction — that's a lot of honesty for a gangster. What is it about Gillian that gets him going?
He's a 22-year-old young man who has no therapy, no one to talk to about sexual dysfunction and this woman embodies the cure - this is arguably the first woman who has made him feel like his old self again. And his old self is, what, a year prior? But a year when you're 20 feels like a decade. So it's almost idolatry: She's blonde, she's a dancer; this is a woman that's out of his league. So he has this very intimate moment with a beautiful, exotic, sexy woman and she is seemingly returning very genuine affection to him. Also, he doesn't have a relationship with his own mother and he finds out this woman is a mother and he's opened up to her, it's almost a psychological epiphany - "Oh my God, I talked to a mother. There's a mother in my life." There's something very Freudian tied into the whole thing.
But later, with Nucky, he talks trash about Gillian.
It's a complex male psychological thing but when you have your manhood back, you're kind of sowing your oats. He feels he's got his groove back. He feels he can charm, he can bluster, he can just loud mouth off a bit to Nucky. Also, there's something very intimidating about Nucky, and Lucky has a real feeling of inferiority around him so he can't show he cares about anything. If you act like you don't care it's because you really care.
You did six months of research, reading biographies and sharing information with Michael Stuhlbarg [Rothstein]. Was there anything specific that you discovered that unlocked the young Luciano for you?
There isn't one thing and that's what makes Lucky such an interesting character to play and also a real challenge. I was given a very nice road map by Marty [Scorsese] in my first meeting with him. He pointed to the performance of Lucky Luciano by the actor Gian Maria Volonte in the 1974 Francesco Rosi film 'Lucky Luciano,' and that was, according to him, the most accurate portrayal of Luciano as an adult. So having seen what kind of grace and elegance, yet viciousness and power he achieved, you need to work backwards. There are a number of very traumatic events that shaped his life that I learned about through criminal records, through his own personal accounts. The other thing is, you're not always going to tell the truth about yourself so I relied on a lot of other gangsters chiming in as well. You kind of find the truth and hopefully tell it with a degree of accuracy.
A lot of people say, "I always knew Lucky Luciano as a very smooth, very elegant, very powerful man." All the accounts of him as an older man were that he was very genteel but he still had the look of smothered violence behind his eyes. Well if he had smothered violence as an adult, there had to be violence existing as a young man. He had to learn how to suppress his natural animosity towards people he doesn't care for. So we find a number of these events throughout his career that taught him tough love: arrests, beatings, deals gone awry, loveless relationships. All these things shaped him into this nefarious character.
Was it hard to find details that traced this far back into his early manhood?
There are some stories. The gonorrhea episodes and how he derived the name Lucky, for example. A lot of people associate it to a 1929 kidnapping and beating where he got the droopy eye and disfigurements on his face. But actually, it was when he was a young man and won a rigged craps game he wasn't supposed to win. And that name was reaffirmed in 1929 when Lansky visited him and said "You really are Lucky Luciano. You shouldn't have lived."
We found arrest records from 1923 where he was processed and booked under the name Lucky so he was already "Lucky" at this point. An arrest record can tell you a lot - Wait, he was dealing heroin when he was 17, 18? He was arrested in New Jersey? That's odd for a Lower East Side guy - what the hell was he going out in New Jersey? So we knew he already had a bigger vision than just being a pimp or a dealer on the Lower East Side.
How does Lucky feel about Rothstein?
Well Michael and I got to talk a lot about that mentor-student relationship. Lucky, coming for the poverty he came from, sees this man who's making it, who's defying authority, defying the odds and is willing to teach him. There was an innocence -- maybe today there's more of a corporate ladder that's in place but back then, it was almost an apprenticeship, "I'm grooming you to one day take over." And Michael and I talked about that being a conversation that may have taken place: "You take care of me, I'll take care of you." He taught him how to use a knife and fork, speak with a woman, to gain power without using force. That's really the whole debate: When force applies and when power applies. And Rothstein was the one that taught him how to do that.
And yet Rothstein is using Lucky as his force.
That's the beautiful thing of it. "You're in year one of this apprenticeship, I need you to do this. Paint the fence, sand the floor. You're doing things I don't want to do myself but in the process of that I'm going to teach you how to rig games, run casinos, teach you about the world, about behavior." If it wasn't so violent, it would be a beautiful relationship.
Did you talk about the issue of having an Italian working for a Jew at that time?
We did. When I got into the writer's room - they had asked to debrief me about all this stuff - I wanted to make it clear that at this time, there was a lot of racism at play. There was a lot of fear amongst different nationalities, Jews, Italians, Irish. Even smaller factions - Neapolitans wouldn't trust Sicilians. Sicilians wouldn't trust Calabrese. It was a very fearful, dangerous time. And for a Sicilian to go work for a Jew was kind of a radical thing. He was doing something that some people shook their head at and it might have even caused some friction.
You've done a lot more than read a couple of books. Have you ever done this much research for a role before?
No. It was kind of startling because once you start, you can loaf it and go - "Ah, this is enough. I'll let the writers decide the rest." But once you get in Pandora's box, if you like the subject matter you can't stop. There's a fantastic new biography that got released about three weeks ago that I'm reading now and passing along details.
How does the research become part of your process?
You can't play the research. You have to learn it and let it go. And then you're just in the scene. There are certain fictional liberties we take with the scenes. We know some things happened but we don't know how. So you have to play the moment-to-moment stuff and let the research pass through your system and trust you're making the right choices to play this character. It's a responsibility that I didn't quite understand but I'm happy to be doing it and hopefully everyone likes it.
Do you have a favorite gangster habit that you get to indulge in on the show?
Clearly impotency [laughs]. No. It's terrible. Terrible! It's shaken me. No. I've picked up a great appetite for pastrami on rye and a nice cream soda. It is fantastic. So I have to be careful or I'm going to just get really fat.