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‘There were times when I thought like a gangster’
Nikhil Taneja  18th Oct 2014

Anatol Yusef in a still from Boardwalk Empire.

natol Yusef, who played gangster Meyer Lansky on Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's crime drama, Boardwalk Empire, talks to Guardian20 about playing a real-life mafia kingpin for five years and the psychological effect this has had on him.

Q. As fans, we are crushed that Boardwalk Empire is coming to an end. What was the last day of the shoot like for you guys?

A. Well, it surprised me how sad it was. Because, you know, the show has been winding down for a little while, and you prepare yourself for that kind of thing. As an actor, you're more used to things ending than carrying on. But then I did my last scene with Steve Buscemi, we gave each other a hug and said, that's it, that's the last time Lansky and Nucky are going to do a scene together. Moments like those got quite emotional. I was actually there on the final day of the shoot, which I wasn't involved in, because (chuckles) I went to see if I could take a suit or two. Steve gave a beautiful speech to everyone, and there were many more moments where these little memories along the way were remembered and exchanged. It felt like the right time for things to end, and we had a nice celebratory drink and from then on, really, there was party after party after party after party, so we said goodbye to the show quite well.

There was paranoia associated with men like Meyer Lansky from that era. They’d build speakeasies with eight different exits, which was very much an illustration of their depressed and sociopathic minds. There are moments when I’m aware that there’s paranoia I’m adopting in situations, and that really has nothing to do with me. There were times when I became aware that I had been thinking like a ga

Q. Do you remember what Terence Winter's brief to you was all those years ago, when you auditioned for it? Has your interpretation of Meyer Lansky remained steady?

A.Terry, in my first read-through, told me how much he enjoyed my audition and just asked me to keep following my instincts and keep doing what I did. I just listened to that. There was very little footage of Lansky historically, so I did a lot of research but, to be honest, I knew that imagination would have to do a fair bit of job here. My job as an actor was, along with the great writing and the rich palette that the era provides, to try and capture the sound, the expression and the lilt of the kind of early wave of Jewish immigrants in America.

I remember that I had to give a speech in episode four of the first season, and I was told by someone who knew Lansky's grandson that he found it scary how my mannerisms, the sound, and indeed my height were exactly like that of his grandfather. Lansky's family has enjoyed my portrayal of him and, in fact, his grandson, through one of the writers, actually sent me a sketch he had done of his grandfather as a kid. You get goosebumps at moments like that, and that's one of the things I'm proud of, as an actor, because I know I've done my job well, not being from that era, or being a New Yorker, or being Jewish.

Q. One of the striking things about your portrayal of Lansky was how you humanised him. Was that a difficult thing to do, playing a gangster?

A. I don't think of myself as an actor who played a gangster. And I didn't play Meyer Lansky as one. I played him as an immigrant who came from great oppression, who wanted to find his identity and make his way to the top, and who thought of himself as very much a businessman. So he was human to me from day one, of that there is no doubt.

Lansky came from a Jewish culture where knowledge and studiousness were great tools, but he was also hard as nails. I mean, Lucky Luciano said about him in one of his biographies, "Pound for pound, he was the toughest gangster I knew." Understanding what all those young men shared in that era, the ones that survived and the ones that didn't, is that they were desperate for a place in this new world, this kind of wild east. You know, nowadays, we live in comfort and that's all that the modern age is about. Back then, those guys weren't conscious of the term "survival", but they were literally surviving. So, you know, that's a side of human nature that's very recognisable.

Q. What was the scene that made you connect with Lansky the most?

A. There was a scene in S04 E04, where Lansky loses a father figure in Rothstein at the poker table, and then seeks another father figure in Nucky, who overthrows his business in rescuing his deal, and all this while he'd witnessed this man at a poker table being mildly anti-semetic to Rothstein. And after the deal with Nucky, it is the first time you really see Lansky on his own ­— you see him frustrated and excited, and you see his need for identity and family and home clearly. And that manifests into this moment where he beats that man to death for being anti-semetic, and doing so while speaking Yiddish, no less. That was the closest I felt to the real Nucky, not because he was a killer or I am one, but because deep in his heart was a real anger and lust to make things fair and even, at least in his own eyes.

Q. Being so long on a show like this, which is about powerful men and the process of evil, does that somehow start empowering you in real life too?

A. I know what you mean, but I think the opposite is true. Because when you get that little bit of lust for power out of your system during your work, you are a little more humble when you get home. A show like this does inform your understanding of the society and human nature. Although it is set in a completely different era, I see its echoes in modern society too.

Q. Let me ask you this, then: after having played him for five seasons, do you ever find yourself thinking like Lansky off screen?

A. Yeah, definitely, in approaching business, for one. I've learnt from Meyer that you've to do business straight because then you're less likely to get any trouble, and it's very useful for me in the business I'm in now. But there are also things that I haven't enjoyed. There was paranoia associated with men like Meyer, from that era. They'd build speakeasies with eight different exits, which was very much an illustration of their depressed and sociopathic minds. There are moments when I'm aware that there's paranoia I'm adopting in situations, and that really has nothing to do with me. There were times I was aware that I had been thinking like a gangster.

Q. Since Lansky was also a New Yorker and the show was shot in New York, have you ever had people coming to you with stories about him?

A. All the time! Lansky had his fingers in so many different pies that it was likely that somewhere, one of your grandfathers in New York brushed with him or one of his organisations. So I've sat in bars and all kinds of people have come to me with stories. One story about Lansky that's really stayed with me came through someone who knew his grandson. His grandson talked about this look that Meyer had. That he'd be affable and lovable, a good father, a good husband, a kind man, but there were moments where he'd give you a look that would chill you to your bones. And I loved that image, that he would sometimes do it knowingly and playfully, and sometimes do it to put someone in their place.

Q. Looking back, what has been your favourite memory of working with Martin Scorsese?

A. The actors didn't work with Scorsese directly but I do remember meeting him at premieres over the years and him telling me how I was his choice for the show, that he enjoyed my portrayal a lot. Five months before Boardwalk Empire happened to me, I was living in New York and had applied for a green card and made a quiet promise to myself that if it didn't work out, I'd go back to England and try my luck there. So coming from that five years ago to moments where one of our great modern artists knows your name and likes your work, that has been the most amazing thing about Boardwalk Empire for me. I'm so proud to have been a part of the show.

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