[DC]A[/DC]natol Yusef began acting as a teenager with parts in the likes of Grange Hill and films Batman and Aliens, but it was training at the Bristol Old Vic and a move to the States that solidified his career and when a part in Boardwalk Empire came calling, he jumped at the chance. We chat early inspiration, leaving the UK and the notorious Meyer Lansky with the East Londoner.
LET’S GO BACK TO THE START, WHAT DREW YOU TO ACTING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I had a great drama department and great teacher at school. Although I was in to most things, I played football and was reasonably academic, I really expressed myself fully at a young age when I acted. The stage at school provided me with a place to express myself which was perhaps for me more necessary than it was for others. It’s almost a difficult question because when I was a teenager everyone around me told me that I was going to be an actor, and when you’re a teenager you just want to do the opposite of what you’re told, so it took me a number of years to come round to it fully. When my mum and dad split up when I was younger I think they were, obviously, concerned for the happiness of their three children but I remember their faces when they watched me act as a kid, they saw that this was something I took to like a fish to water and it was something that made me happy. But on another note, when I was 16, my friend who I did all the school plays with passed away tragically while playing football. It was awful but also an incredible bonding experience for my group of mates and I’ll never forget the first school play I did without him. I played McBeth, and after the scene that says ‘ the Queen my lord is dead’ and ‘McBeth says, ‘she should have died hereafter; there would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, I came off stage and went into the toilets, looked into the mirror and saw that my face was like a papier-mâché mask, it was grey and destroyed with tears, and I realised at that moment that this is what I was going to do. I grieved my friend and expressed that grief through another character, and expressing myself fully through another character made me aware that this is what I should be doing.
YOU TRAINED AT THE BRISTOL OLD VIC THEATRE AND THEN BECAME A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, DID MOVING INTO TELEVISION EVER FEEL LIKE A STEP DOWN FROM THE STAGE, OR WAS IT ALWAYS YOUR PLAN?
I don’t know that I ever really had a plan, or even thought about it too much. We had some TV and film stuff at the Old Vic but I did think that I would be doing great Shakespearean roles and I seemed to have the natural assets for it, at least that’s what people told me. But my first job out of drama school was a film called Last Orders playing a young Bob Hoskins, and that sums up the actor’s life really. You think you’ll do one thing but it always ends up being the opposite. The quality of the work, people and character dictates the work and the medium is always secondary to that.
LAST ORDERS STARRED MICHAEL CAINE, HELEN MIRREN, BOB HOSKINS AND RAY WINSTONE – SOME OF THE BRITISH GREATS OF THE SCREEN – WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM WATCHING THEM?
I learnt a lot. A lot. I was playing the young Bob Hoskins character, and I remember doing the read through a couple of weeks after I’d finished drama school and I had one on one time with Bob who was so good to me, he really took me under his wing. He did a very brilliant thing, I’ll never forget this, someone with a bigger ego would never have done it, but he let me create the character so I had the creative input. For whatever reason he liked the cut of my jib and allowed me to initially create the character before taking it on and smoothing out the edges. I sat in a rehearsal room with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren and just watched and learnt. The only downside was that I assumed that that was how it would always be, which of course it wasn’t, so it was a very high bar to set at an early age. But I’m still driven by a need to learn as most actors are, as wanky as that may sound!
AND YOU MOVED TO NEW YORK FROM LONDON IN 2008 AND HAVE BEEN THERE EVER SINCE- WHY WAS THE TIME RIGHT TO LEAVE THE UK?
I didn’t feel the time was right to leave, I felt the time was right to explore. To be honest I came to New York on a complete whim, I had no plans. There was a stagnancy in my professional life and in my personal life I needed to get away from the UK for a while, so New York seemed like a good option. I took classes in a number of different things including acting and poetry, I suppose I had somewhat of a sabbatical, and then things happened for me. I stayed and played Richard III off Broadway, eventually got my visa and green card and then a few years later got the part in Boardwalk Empire. Suddenly I was a New Yorker and it started to feel like home.
YOU’RE BEST KNOWN FOR THE ROLE OF MEYER LANSKY IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE – WHAT WAS THE AUDITION PROCESS LIKE?
I read the pilot and said to my manager if there’s ever an opportunity to audition for this show I want to do it, reading the script got me so excited. And then I got a call to audition for an 18-year-old tough Jewish kid who would later become a criminal mastermind. At the time I was 29 so I had a shave, I’m pretty balding so I put on a hat and went and did the audition. I did a good job but they told me to go away and come back when I’d had a shave, which I’d done already so I went and had an even closer one, came back, auditioned again and got the job which I was obviously delighted about.
DID YOU KNOW HOW INVOLVED YOUR CHARACTER WOULD BE IN THE SHOW WHEN YOU STARTED?
No, we don’t know much. That’s what’s difficult with historical characters, you know about their life and what happens to them when you take on a project but I think what works well with the show is the fact that it focuses on some of the aspects of their life that you don’t hear about – rooted in fact but obviously with creative license. I know that Meyer Lansky lives until 1983, I know he’s not going to die and so do the audience but perhaps the more interesting stuff is figuring out when the times were that he feared for his life for example. I’ve had people come up to me saying things like ‘My grandfather worked with him, I’ve got this story, I’ve got that story’, and perhaps the best compliment I’ve been paid is from the writer Eric Dezenhall who was in touch with Lansky’s family who said that they enjoyed my portrayal of him, which is high enough praise for me.
HOW ATTACHED ARE YOU TO THE CHARACTER?
I don’t think you actually realise how much a character like this becomes a part of you, I don’t notice it until a season ends. It’s very different to say, finishing a play, where the story ends every night and you complete a cycle. That can sometimes be more manageable, because with TV you don’t complete a cycle and there’s always more to go which means that a character sits with you. I’ve just shot a mini series called Southcliffe which was very intense and some of the hardest times were when I wasn’t working on it but waiting to finish the story, the intensity of a character can stay with you. I don’t think you can choose the characters that stay with you, but certain ones tend to live with you. It’s the side of the job that I find most fascinating and most maddening at the same time, and real craft is being able to navigate that.
DO YOU HAVE AN ACTING PROCESS OR A WAY OF APPROACHING NEW JOBS?
I do have a process of course, I’m just not aware of what it is anymore. Some characters require me to be more aware of my process, others don’t. It at least ‘feels’ like I just do it….what I do, second nature. And I’ve always been like that. All acting is a kind of ‘method acting’, we all have different ‘methods’. They are all, hopefully, unified by the desire for the most authenticity possible. But I do find it difficult to talk about acting. I never enjoy it, even though I can talk about it til the sun comes up. The reason is that it’s almost impossible to define. And when you do, as an actor, you’re in danger of compartmentalising something that is ever changing, growing, shifting. That’s its very nature. Its an intimate, experiential study of the human condition. That thing of going ‘this is what it is’ or ‘I know’, is counter-creative to me. And almost dangerous. It intellectualises what is, at its core, an un-intellectual pursuit.
WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
Total honesty. That’s it.