Arts & Culture

Meyer Lansky Lives: Talking With Anatol Yusef Of Boardwalk Empire

We talk to the British-born actor who plays the famous Jewish gangster on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Read More

By / December 12, 2011
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It’s an odd twist of circumstance that a television show, which sought out to re-tell the story of crime and corruption in Prohibition-era Atlantic City has, in its second season, become the most Jewish show on TV, thanks in part to the show’s introduction of history’s most famous Jewish gangsters Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Seigel, Waxey Gordon, and Meyer Lansky (and the fictional Many Horvitz). The choice to tell the story of Lansky’s Lower East Side bootlegging dynasty is especially poignant being that Lansky is one of the most well-known Jewish tough guys ever.

We caught up with Anatol Yusef, a British actor from a Turkish family who plays Lansky on Boardwalk Empire to find out the extent of Judaism’s importance in the Lansky ethos.

Tell me about the experience of getting the part of Meyer Lansky on Boardwalk Empire?

I read the Boardwalk Empire pilot about 18 months before I auditioned for the show and it was one of the best TV scripts I’d ever read so I told my manager, “If there’s ever a chance to get work on that show I’d love to because the quality of the writing is so high.”  Then I got the call to audition for this character and in the breakdown it said it was for this 18-year-old tough, Jewish kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was like, “Well, I’m not 18 or a kid or Jewish or from the Lower East SIde of Manhattan.”  But the scene I auditioned with was the first one I did on the show with Chalky White.  We’re inside his warehouse and he thinks that I’m trying to police him and I was lucky to have such a rich scene to audition with.

I went in and did a decent job but I thought they might have been thinking that I was too old to play the part, so I went back in, had a proper shave, put on a hat and seemed to do enough to get the role.  At the time I knew who Meyer Lansky was and I knew a bit about him, but nothing like what I know now.  But I think that was a bit of an advantage so I just played the character on the page. He’s a great real life character to read about or research but the character written on Boardwalk by Terrence and Howard is just a great character to play.

I think that it’s interesting that you auditioned not knowing so much about Meyer.  This is something I find it writing as well, it can be freeing to go into a job not knowing so much about the subject, having no preconceived notions, then letting the research shape your notion of the subject.

Exactly, it’s a balance and that’s your job.  When you’re taking on a real person, as an actor, sometimes you can be weighed down by too many facts, and that’s not always helpful.  But if you’re half decent at what you do, your instincts should be good.  If the people who created it feel like your instincts are good and they’ve cast you, you kind of continue on that track until told otherwise.  Of course, since getting the role and learning more about Lansky there are things that I’ve quietly incorporated and indeed the writers have as well.  As you see the character in more situations you understand more him and his relationships.

One thing that I find interesting is that you’re playing this real character who existed before video or major technology.  So, it’s almost as if you’re inventing him in terms of mannerisms.  I’m wondering if you’ve had any old guys come up to you saying [in an old Jewish man accent] I knew Lanksy, he didn’t talk that way!

All the time!  It happens to me a lot in New York when people know I’m playing Meyer they’ll come up to me saying, “Oh I knew Meyer, or my grandfather worked with Meyer,” things like that.  First, because he was involved in so many things, he had his fingers in so many different pies.  Also because I live in New York City and he was so much a New York man, let alone a New York gangster.  It’s interesting what you said about mannerisms and footage.  The most important thing I think is to research the era.  There are certain trends in the era for say a young boy.  For, many of them English was their second language. They were immigrants fighting their way out of poverty.  There are certain things across the board that an actor can apply to a boy growing up in that era.  But in Lanksy’s case, he came from Grodno on the Russian/Polish boarder and watched Jews being axed to death in front of him and then came to a country where he had to fight for everything.  So that gives you some indication to the character as well as the relationships he has on the show, historically with Lucky and especially with Arnold Rothstein who was very much his mentor.  So Michael Stuhlbarg’s work on the show has been a great help to me apart from the fact that he’s a great help to me just by being a great person and actor.   There’s also plenty in the writing to give you indication as to hs character.  For instance, he’s a pretty articulate for a kid from the Lower East Side and that tells you that he reads, that he’s trying to elevate himself.

The writing is full of such quality and detail, and the production as well.  This job, without wishing to sound like … (laughs). The job is made very easy for you.  The writing, the amazing production the costumes, they’re of such high quality that your imagination does the rest.  This job is full of these little bits of inspiration that bring about that spark to your imagination, be it a suit you’re wearing, a set you step onto, or another actor, or just the writing, so much of it is already there for you.

How did you prepare to become Meyer Lansky?

Lansky wouldn’t have been who he was if he wasn’t Jewish.  What the Jews were suffering in Eastern Europe and what they were fleeing from, and then indeed what they were suffering on the streets of New York is important to understanding Meyer.  There’s a persona that I hope I’ve at least gone some way to acknowledge that young Jewish men had on the streets of Manhattan.  There’s a similar thing for young Irish men and young Italian men, it wasn’t a multi cultural society like we have now, so everyone had a kind of persona and character.  It seems to me that there was a very careful and self-defensive diligence about being a young Jewish boy on these streets.  You had to watch your back all the time and many of these kids were brought up being taught that the way to get ahead was to be diligent, to study and have as much knowledge as possible, but there was also a deep anger.  I think it’s reflected in the story Lansky and Rothstein.  Rothstein met Lansky at a Bar Mitzvah and saw something in this boy, so he took he out took him out to dinner at the Park Central hotel I think in 1918 or 1919.  Both of these guys weren’t particularly religious in the conventional sense, obviously because of what they were doing with their lives, but they were very aware of being Jewish and they were very aware of how they were treated because of being Jewish and they wanted to excel beyond just being “The Jews” as they were known on the streets.  If you read about AR and Meyer Lansky and that speech that he gives to Lansky about the future of communication and how the Italians were running everything and there should be a new order and it shouldn’t just be one group.  His Jewish identity was very important and I think throughout his life he had a constant dance between retaining that Jewish identity and also getting beyond it.  Him and Lucky Luciano the big thing they did with organized crime was they made it multi national, multi cultural.  They encouraged the Jews, the Italians and the Irish to work together.  In those days identity was given to you less by what you wore or what football team you supported or music you listened to, than by your race and your religion, so anyone wishing to excel had to think outside the box. That also gave Lansky a lot of fuel.

He tells this story very passionately about when he was in Grodno and the pogroms were sweeping through.  This young Jewish soldier took a lot of the young Jews into the woods and Lansky followed them, which gives you another indication as to his courage at such a young age.  The soldier gave this speech about the Jews rising up and fighting, standing their ground and not accepting this.  I think that stayed with Lansky until the day he died, to not let it slide.  I think that became not just about being Jewish but about many things as he moved through the different echelons in society.  As you can see I can go on through ages about Lansky’s Jewish identity, it’s a huge part of his existence in so many different ways.

The show this season has turned into a serious force in TV drama and has really become comfortable in its skin.  I’m wondering whether threes a sense from within that the show that season two is making a big splash.

I think that once you get to know characters, even from an acting perspective, but certainly from an audience perspective, your enjoyment is increased because there’s a familiarity.  The depth of the writing is such that, you don’t really immediately experience it.  I’m really proud to be part of a show that’s bold enough to take its time.  I’d like to think that audience now, in such a fast moving world are willing to put in the time.  What were doing on Boardwalk is not unlike a novel, if you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded with some incredible stuff. The last few episodes have been pretty full on.

They sure have.

I think that’s because you’ve built a relationship with those characters.  People are very quick to dismiss or worship things.  I like that Boardwalk is bold enough to say “Wait!  We’re going to take our time and if you stay with us you will be surprised, shocked and enthralled.”  I think that’s brave stuff I hope there’s a trend of that coming back into television.