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Meet Lucky Luciano: Interview with Vincent Piazza

HBO Lucky gets some surprising news from Rothenstein about "Mrs. Darmody" in Episode 6... How does he feel about learning he's with Jimmy's mother, not his wife?

Vincent Piazza 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 - wether 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.

HBO 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?

Vincent Piazza He's a 22-year-old young man who has no therapy, no one to talks about sexual dysfunction and this woman embodies the cure - this is arguably the first woman who has made him feel like he's 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.

HBO But later, with Nucky, he talks trash about Gillian.

Vincent Piazza It's a complex male psychological thing but when you have you 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 beacause you really care.

HBO You did six months of research, reading biographies and sharing information with Michael Stuhlbarg [Rothstein]. Was there anything specific that you discover that unlocked the young Luciano for you?

Vincent Piazza 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 mos 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 degreeof accuracy.

A lot of people say, "I always knew Lucky Luciano as a very smooth, very elegant, very powerful man." All the account of him as an older man were that he was 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 animosty 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 his nefarious character.

HBO Was it hard to find details that traced this back into his early manhood?

Vincent Piazza 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 acutally, 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 that just beign a pimp or a dealer on the Lower East Side.

HBO How does Lucky feel about  Rothstein?

Vincent Piazza
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 of a corporate ladder that's in place but back then, it was almos 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.

HBO And yet Rothstein is using Lucky as his force

Vincent Piazza 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

HBO Did you talk about the issue of having and Italian working for a Jew at that time?

Vincent Piazza 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.

HBO You've done a lot more than read a couple of books. Have you ever done this much research for a role before?

Vincent Piazza 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.

HBO How does the research become part of your process?

Vincent Piazza
You can't play the research. You have to learn it and let it go. And the 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 responsability that I didn't quite understand but I'm happy to be doing it and hopefully everyone likes it.

HBO Do you have a favorite gangster habit that you get to indulge in on the show?

Vincent Piazza Clearly impotence [laughs]. No. It's terrible. Terrible! It's shaken me. No. I've picked up a great appetite for pastrami on rye and nice cream soda. It is fantastic. So I have to be careful or I'm going to just get really fat


HBO Vincent Piazza graciously answered some fan questions from our Facebook page

From Melissa S. How thick was that pipe in the gonerrhea [sic?] scene? *ouch, and I'm a girl* lol

Vincent Piazza It was thick enough to make me squeal like a child. I think it was a few millimeters thick. Just looking at it was frightening enough to make me yell. I can't believe that someone thought "Oh yeah, this is the solution to the problem". Who's the first guy to agreed to do that? It's insane. And by the way, he was getting those treatments once a week for a year. So it can certainly help shape whou you become.

From Robin P. How does your take on the character and performance differ from what is in the collective memory of the moviegoer?

Vincent Piazza A lot of people are familiar with Luciano's power. But not a  lot of people are familiar with his force. And you need force to beget power. As you're coming up, you need to make room for yourself and the way you do it is by being violent. By making you bones, as they say on the street. Most takes on Lucky Luciano are after 1929, when he survived that beating, as he's assassinating the other leadership, and in control. Thi is prior to him being a leader. He lacks his entourage. There's no full-blown gang behind him. It's just a few rogue players.

From Kristi M. Do you find yourself thinking like Lucky off set?

Vincent Piazza At times, yes. There's a certain rigid way of thinking and temper that develops playing a character like that. While you're in the thick of it and working on the character, there's a temper and impatience that bled into my life between episodes. And of course, forgetting to pronnounce the letter "r".

From Paul B. While researching the role, what was the most surprising fact you learned about the character?

Vincent Piazza How vas this man's life was. This man lived like five lifes. The amount he had accomplished, good or bad (I'm not here to judge) - he had done so much in his 60- odd years of living. I was taken by how prolific someone could be as a gangster


Tags: actor / actress, interview, television - hbo

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