Q&A With Guy Who Played Boardwalk Empire's Meyer Lansky

Tony Sokol, the admitted "Gangster Geek" at Den of Geek, wrote an excellent story about The Godfather that he allowed Cosa Nostra News to republish. Now, he's lent us another gem. From January 2015, an interview with Anatol Yusef, who played Meyer Lanksy.

Meyer Lansky as portrayed by Anatol Yusef.
Tony also writes for a host of interesting sites, among them, The Chiseler, KpopStarz.com, and hypnocloud.com. Previously, he wrote for Altvariety, Coed.com, Daily Offbeat, Dark Media Press, Wicked Mystic and other magazines. Tony also is a musician and is a playwright who has had more than 20 plays produced in NYC, including Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera “AssassiNation: We Killed JFK.” He also appeared on the Joan Rivers (TV) Show, Strange Universe and Britain’s “The Girlie Show.”

The real Tony Sokol, in his 20s... 

In the beginning, Boardwalk Empire had vast potential to fill the great void created when The Sopranos ended. The show was filled with great character actors, slickly written dialogue, lush wardrobes and well-crafted scenery. Some major highlights included Gyp Rosetti, a fictional gangster from New York who lent Boardwalk Empire some much-needed intrigue and conflict.

The show's superb casting, another highlight, brings us to guest blogger/friend Tony Sokol, who writes for Den of Geek, where the following interview with the actor who played the mob's financial wizard, Meyer Lansky, first appeared. I excerpted segments from the larger Q&A.

Boardwalk Empire washed into the surf after five years on HBO. The last sands of a once towering castle that ruled Atlantic City were swept off the planks when Jimmy Darmody’s kid took out Nucky Thompson. Thompson, played by the perennially solid actor and all around goodfella Steve Buscemi, had just turned his empire over to the new crew. The Organization was a democratic committee of crime that had been put together by wisest of guys, Charles Lucania, aka, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky.

On Boardwalk Empire, Lansky was played by Anatol Yusef, and Vincent Piazza got to get his eyes drooped as Luciano. 

Den of Geek got a chance to talk with the ruling committee of this criminal organization. Michael Noble took a crack at Piazza and I interrogated the brains behind the next generation of crime, Anatol Yusef.

Anatol Yusef has lived in New York since before Boardwalk Empire was even a done deal, but he doesn’t sound like Meyer Lansky. Yusef was born in Essex, on the outskirts of London. He is a Bristol Old Vic Theatre School-trained actor and was aresident member at the Royal Shakespeare Company. While, as Lansky, he may have cursed in Yiddish as he pummeled a gambler into the pavement, Anatol sounds like he might ask one lump or two, but he once played the young version of a Bob Hoskins character which, at The Cotton Club, is a bonafide gangster pedigree.

Now that Boardwalk Empire is coming out on DVD do you have any kind of celebration? A pub crawl?

No, unfortunately no. But I’m looking forward to, we got nominated for an ensemble Screen Actors Guild Award,so it’s a chance for all of us to get together. It’s probably the only thing I enjoy about the awards stuff is the time we get together. Because even when we’re on the show, we all operate in so many different worlds that we rarely get to see each other. Any opportunity we have to get together, we all enjoy it very much.

Vincent Piazza, left, as Luciano with Arnold Rothstein ( Michael Stuhlbarg)

Having done Boardwalk Empire, are you on any kind of HBO shortlist for upcoming projects?

I hope so. I don’t know but I certainly hope so. It seems to me that HBO are quite mindful of that. If you look at the cast of Boardwalk, how many there were involved in other HBO shows.

Were you a gangster fan before you took the part?

I don’t know if I was a gangster fan, but I love, some of my favorite films are the American quote-unquote gangster films. I think some of them are beautiful films. Even being about gangsters, there's a kind of epic quality to them, almost Shakespearean, Greek tragedy, a classical quality, in American culture and American history. They’re almost anti-royalty if you like.

What was the difference between what you found about the real life Meyer Lansky and Terence Winter’s Meyer Lansky?

I think it’s pretty accurate. We don’t know that much about the young Meyer. Lots of criminal records of that time have disappeared. One idea is that it was part of the deal that Meyer did with the government when they asked Meyer and Charlie to rid the docks of Nazi sympathizers, when they were fearing Nazi U-Boats were coming in during the Second World War. That would cancel out their prohibition criminal records. So we don’t actually know that much about Meyer as a young man. We only know through hearsay and stories generally told as the kinds of things gangsters say. We know more about the man Meyer became. I think Terence Winter’s Lansky is pretty accurate.

I read in Tough Jews that Lansky had to kick heroin.

Tough Jews is a wonderful book. Forget the subject matter, it’s a great book. I sat with Rich Cohen, more than a few times actually, and we talked about that side of Lansky and that time. Around the time he had his first son who was born with, I don’t remember if it was multiple sclerosis or spina bifida, things got bad. He kind of lost his way. That would be a fascinating thing, to explore that period in Meyer’s life. Anything could have happened in that time.

Did any real-life gangsters show up on the set of Boardwalk Empire?

Not that I know of, but I’ve had plenty of people tell me that, in some way, they’re connected to a real life gangster who is in some way connected to Meyer Lansky. That has happened on quite a few occasions. I have no way of knowing.

I met someone on the West Coast, a very nice man whose best friend was called someone Levine. He told me that his father was a gangster and we established that it might well have been a man called Red Levine. I suppose you read in Tough Jews that he was Meyer and Charlie’s main assassin in Murder Incorporated. That was one of the few moments that I saw these guys are still relevant and present.

I read that you attribute your easy way with accents to your Turkish upbringing, but how do you actually train to keep the accents consistent? What does a dialog coach actually do, hit you when you mispronounce something?

I don’t work with a dialog coach, so I can’t answer that. I attribute my accent to having different sounds when I was younger. There wasn’t a lot of Turkish spoken around, but my ear had an agility, if you like. In England, we grow up with the American accent in a way that Americans don’t grow up with any other accent. A large percentage of what we consume is American - cartoons and movies, things like that. I think I’ve got some kind of natural whatever for it.

In Meyer’s case, there’s something about the accent that’s logical, once you get the general sound and the quality of the writing. He was a kid from Eastern Europe, Russia, so that sound is pretty clear and strong. You add that to the Brooklyn or Lower East Side accent and you get that sound. But also the vocabulary allows you do that to yourself. My father didn’t speak English until he was nearly the age 11 but his vocabulary is better than mine will ever be, because that desire to assimilate and excel and do all that with a sound. All those things, some of them are conscious, some of them not, add to Meyer’s sound. And the great thing is that you get five years to hone and develop it. It’s something I find easy and enjoyable about acting.

You went from the person who was on his knees in a garage in the first season to an elder statesman in the last. Do you adjust your weight or does it come naturally?

It’s all natural. You are mindful of it in some ways. I consciously allowed my voice to shift to a slower, lower place as the seasons went on, closer to my voice. I think, in the early seasons, I was trying to be young. I don’t know if that was necessary, but I was older than Meyer was. So, you think about that but it should happen naturally. The situations he was in, they all certainly had power. Well, you do what you need to do when you have that huge arc. The situations he finds himself in, the way he deals with it, gives it that sense of weight and heaviness.

My favorite thing about Boardwalk Empire, and HBO in general, is how they pay attention to the comedy in the drama. How do you find the comedy in a role like Meyer?

With Meyer you have to, it would be very easy to make Meyer very studious and just the man who ran the numbers. But it is important to give him some charisma. Also, my character and us, came from their youth. On one level, they’re just a bunch of kids trying to get ahead. That in itself is the comedy. I don’t think one looks for comedy, but we’re mindful that it’s a violent show, in many ways a dark show. Whatever the year is, life is like that. It was such a crazy time in history that there was a comical edge to it.

Is there a different work ethic between British and American film and television?

Possibly yes. It depends on which medium. I think the training is different in England. The kind of classical training is more prevalent in drama schools in England, whereas here there are different schools of training and they all kind of compete. Each has established their own techniques. I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that British actors work hard or American actors work harder.

What is different is that we have generally more of a theatrical training, theater-based training, which brings about a certain approach. Certainly the core, the initial way to approach acting as a young actor is different from someone who hasn’t had that training. An American might want to do theater less because one of America’s main exports is film and television. Film and television is part of the fabric here in a way that it’s not in England, so that’s different.

Hard work is a bit of a misnomer. Some actors are better when they work hard. Some actors are much more free and creative when they don’t work as hard or don’t prepare as much.

Read full interview