He's Not a Gangster, He Just Plays One on TV: An Interview with Boardwalk Empire's Anatol Yusef

Playing infamous baddie Meyer Lansky is a challenge the actor very much enjoys.

By , Columnist

In HBO’s acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire, Anatol Yusef portrays Meyer Lansky, one of the most notorious gangsters of the Prohibition era. Anatol's origins are a far cry from his character and the world the show depicts. He was born in London, England. As a teenager, he did some television acting before attending the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theater School, where he immersed himself in his craft.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Anatol about his career, his love of acting, and his role on Boardwalk Empire.

You trained at Bristol Old Vic Theater School. What can you remember about those early days of learning your craft?

Well, it was a bit of a peculiar experience for me. I was 18 when I went there which is quite young to go to a classical drama school. I’d already done some stuff. I’d done some television and a couple of movies so I’d already had some experience. [At school] we had a very high standard of drama and a fantastic drama teacher.

I learned a great deal. You don’t really realize what you’ve learned and indeed how much you’ve still to learn until you start working. Many of the things I learned at drama school, particularly the classical training, I’m still yet to really put into practice.

We did a touring year where we toured three plays around Bristol and the west country and they really worked us hard. It gives you a kind of very philosophical look at acting and you realize that it can be a very delicate and muscular thing.

meyer_1.jpgYou didn’t look down your nose at television acting even though you were primarily a stage actor for a long time.

No, you don’t need to look down your nose at anything. Acting is about being open to possibility. You’re already at a loss if you’re looking down your nose at anything and this isn’t just television. In the end, the medium is secondary to the quality of the writing.

When you were very young, you were on the television program Jeeves and Wooster with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. What was that like?

That was great. I just had fun. I used to just sit there and giggle at Hugh Laurie and Stephen and Clive [Exton] taking the mickey out of each other. I learned some pretty rude jokes at the age of 12. They were clever rude jokes but they were rude nonetheless.

No, that was great fun. I wasn’t endeared by the fact that they were Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I was endeared by the fact that they were really good at what they did, had loads of fun doing it and had an incredible camaraderie during that time. I’ll never forget that.

Congratulations on Boardwalk Empire’s eight Emmy wins this year. On the show you play the infamous gangster, Meyer Lansky. How would you describe him?

It’s impossible to do in a short time really. He was known for being enigmatic and that was his greatest strength. His employees in his casino never misbehaved because you never knew when he was there. He could be there and you’d never know it was him. He was incredibly intelligent, incredibly ruthless.

The truth was that he was, you can’t overstate it, a mastermind, I mean, in all terms of that word. And also a great learner as are all great minds and overachievers, which Lansky was.

There are so many facets to the man. He was fascinated by the mechanics of things. He learned how to fix cars and one of his nicknames was Goldenhands. Goldenhands Lansky. I think that’s indicative of his personality.

He was fascinated by the shape of things and how to put things together, and that’s not just limited to machines. He loved language, poetry. He read Shakespeare. He was self-educated, a massively intelligent overachiever and a ruthless, ruthless man.

You’ve obviously done your homework on your character. How long did your research take?

meyer.jpgWell, I came into the show halfway through the first season so I had a much shorter space of time. I think I got the job and then I shot three weeks later. I had a much shorter space of time and actually think I benefited from that because I wasn’t weighed down by what the man became. I was able to come in as an actor playing a character written on the page.

Because Boardwalk Empire’s Terry Winter’s Meyer Lansky is not necessarily the Meyer Lansky. We’re not making a documentary. It’s sort of a fiction so the primary thing is to play Terry’s Meyer.

Is this role a great departure for you?

Well, I’m not 20 years old. I’m not Jewish. I’m not from the lower east side of Manhattan. It’s a lovely leap for me to make which is very exciting. At the same time it is what we do as actors, and I think sometimes the more imaginative the leap, the [more] it brings out of us.

You were in four episodes last season. Will we see more of you this time around?

Yes. I’ll be a lot more episodes this season. I’ll be in more than double that. You know, all of us playing the “baby” gangsters kind of have a similar round of presence this season because it’s in line with the historical slow rise of these characters. They’re not quite taking over but they’re definitely making their move in their own way. [There’s] Meyer Lansky, Lucky [Luciano], Al Capone, and we have the introduction of Bugsy [Siegel] this season.

How is it filming on the streets of New York?

It’s rather nice, to be honest. We shot in John’s Restaurant on 12th Street and Third Avenue, which is one of the many places in New York that’s as it was in the 1920s. It’s rather lovely to work and put on a costume and go to a restaurant that they make look like they don’t actually have to do much to. Shooting in New York is a real pleasure.

Do you enjoy the costumes and the atmosphere and the ambiance of that era?

How can you not? You’d be mad not to, right? The costumes are beautiful to wear, beautiful to look at. A lot of the work’s done for you on this job so it helps you with the character. To put the costume on, put that collar on on a hot summer’s day in New York City, you really realize that these guys meant business.

And [it’s] not just the costumes and the production design, but all the crew. I know a lot of people say this but it’s a real special kind of family atmosphere on our sets so it’s a joy to go to work.

You have to affect a New York accent for the role. Is that hard for you?

No, I’m fortunate to have a good ear for accents for whatever reason, perhaps because I grew up with different languages.

My father’s Turkish, well, my family background is Turkish, but I was born in England. We were very English but at the same time Turkish families have a different sound so I have a good ear for accents.

You know, Lansky is written in a certain way. He has a cadence to his words which is very specific and very clever on Terry and the writers' part. It’s a very deliberate way of speaking. He’s quite articulate for a kid from the lower east side of Manhattan.

It’s amazing how young these characters are supposed to be because they certainly look older.

Well, yeah. I mean, if you look at the photographs of these guys, these young kids, we’re talking about pictures of Lansky, Lucky, Bugsy when they were 18, 19, 20, 21, they looked like little old men partly because of what they’re wearing.

They’re wearing these three-piece suits and big hats partly because by the age of 20 they’ve gone through what most people living in the western world will [never] go through. In Lansky’s case, his fellow Jews were axed to death in Poland, and on the streets of the lower east side there were beatings and murders and all sorts of stuff going on.

But also physically, these guys lived in poverty so they were weathered at a very young age. They smoked like chimneys, drank like fishes. It’s a very clever piece of casting to cast older actors.

What can viewers expect from this season?

There's going to be some huge surprises and a lot more action this season because this show sets up so many characters and relationships. We’re going to get deeper into some of the characters. I really, really believe it’s going to be a great season of television.

Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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