By Jane Mulkerrins
BST 07 Oct 2011
A disused car lot in a less-than-salubrious part of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is not the first place you’d expect to find the largest set ever built in New York film and TV history. The 300 ft-long period-perfect replica of the Atlantic City boardwalk cost over £2m. Happily, HBO is getting good use out of it; the second season of the visually sumptuous drama Boardwalk Empire, shown here on Sky Atlantic, begins tomorrow.
The Prohibition-era epic weaves a web of bootleggers, gangsters and showgirls in the New Jersey city which was for many “the world’s playground”, and, for others, “Sodom-by-the-Sea”. The alcohol ban in 1920s America was flouted with abandon here: it became a haven for hedonists and hustlers, as those who controlled the contraband booze amassed illicit fortunes.
Boardwalk Empire was no small investment for HBO: the pilot episode cost £18 m and was directed by Martin Scorsese. But more than seven million Americans tuned in, making it the cable station’s second most-watched show after the saucy vampire saga, True Blood.
Although some dissenters have branded the show “Bored Walk Empire”, attacking its leisurely pace and lack of action (a criticism which appears to have been addressed in the brisk and darkly comic season two opener), the critics have, by and large, been approving, and the trophy haul healthy. Last month, the show won eight Emmys. Its star, Steve Buscemi, also won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the city’s charismatic but crooked treasurer, Nucky Thompson.
Buscemi, 53, defends his alter ego. “He’s a career politician, he enjoys his position, and he likes to spread the wealth,” he says. “He’s corrupt, yes, but he wouldn’t consider himself a gangster… he just deals with gangsters.”
Season one ended on Election Day, November 1920, and the action resumes four months later, with Nucky’s grip on power waning. “He is in even more trouble and danger than he was in the first season,” Buscemi says. Those closest to him, including his brother Eli (Shea Wigham), the town’s sheriff, and his ex-protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), are conspiring against him.
But at least one area of Nucky’s life is flourishing – his relationship with Margaret Schroeder, played by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, State of Play). Margaret underwent a dramatic metamorphosis in season one: from downtrodden immigrant widow and member of the women’s temperance league, to Nucky’s lover, luxuriating in the trappings of his wealth and success.
“She really annoyed me at the beginning,” confesses Macdonald, 35. “I remember watching the pilot and thinking, ‘God, she's so weedy.’ [But] this season she even gets Nucky out of a few tight spots, so she can be strong. [Although] she still battles with her Catholic guilt over her choices.”
This season will introduce fresh faces, including George Remus (Glenn Fleshler), a lawyer and bootlegger. Like many characters in Boardwalk Empire, for example the young Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Remus is a real-life historical figure: he made millions scamming the sale of medicinal alcohol to pharmacies and was reputedly the inspiration for the title character in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The show’s painstaking historical accuracy is a large part of its appeal: all actors, even the extras, receive a 1920s haircut; 80-year-old Martin Greenfield, a celebrated Brooklyn tailor, cuts the characters’ suits in a strictly traditional style (no pins, just chalk); Nucky’s car is the original Rolls Royce Silver Shadow that the real Nucky Thompson drove.
Creator Terry Winter (who wrote much of The Sopranos) is already working on season three, set in 1922, and is keen to follow the tumultuous Twenties right to their conclusion: the Wall Street Crash. Most of the cast say they’re happy to stay as long as their storylines allow. Macdonald, however, does have concerns for Margaret. “She started off as this goody two-shoes, in the temperance league. I do keep thinking if the series runs and runs, she’s probably going to end up a hopeless alcoholic.”
‘Boardwalk Empire’ returns on Saturday 8 October on Sky Atlantic/SAHD at 9.00pm