HBO’s Boardwalk Empire Insights – Jeffrey Wright (Valentin Narcisse)

Q: As he is new to the show, can you give us a brief synopsis of your character, and how he fits into the Boardwalk Empire universe?

JEFFREY WRIGHT: My character is Dr Valentin Narcisse, who is the alpha crime figure in Harlem in 1924, but he is so much more than that. He is also a political figure, something of a civil rights advocate, he is a philanthropist and benefactor, a doctor of divinity – and of mayhem.

Q: That’s a lot of conflicting characteristics – that must make him incredibly juicy to play…

JW: Yes, what I have realized with the help of Howards Korder – who is one of the lead writers here, and who offered me a really lovely nugget of insight, when he described two seemingly contradictory actions for the character as completely un-contradictory – I realised, he is absolutely right.
I think this is something that is too often recognisable in people in the public space, that anything that serves his empowerment is okay with him; anything that serves his empowerment, he feels is justified. So he can be entirely selfish and seemingly contradictory because it all serves his interests.
But it also occurred to me that he seems to view himself as the archetype – to use the parlance of the time – for the ‘new negro‘ in America.
So, in his mind, what advances his cause advances the cause of the race.
And his disdain for those whom he doesn’t feel reach the standard that he has set for his people, is justified. He can justify all his actions for a higher purpose…and the higher purpose is himself.
But from Narcisse’s perspective, Harlem really does represent the great possibility for black America, in that it was largely defined and controlled, run by African-Americans.

Q: I believe Dr Narcisse is based on Casper Holstein in some ways. Who was he and what were the elements of Casper that have been taken onboard for Valentin?

JW: Casper Holstein was the first big numbers runner in Harlem; the daily number was like the lottery – various state and municipal governments owe a lot to Casper’s development of a reliable numbers game. But he was more than that as well. He was an immigrant from the Virgin Islands – my character came to the US from Trinidad. Casper Holstein was very highly active politically, and very connected politically, and was one of the biggest philanthropists of his day, apparently on the level of the Carnegies.
He advocated on behalf of the Virgin Islands, he was one of the chief patrons of the Harlem renaissance, supporting a lot of the artists who were responsible for it. He was also one of the chief financial backers of Marcus Harvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Programme, so he had his benevolent fingers in many pies. My character is a horrible fun-house mirror distortion of Casper Holstein, disemboweled of much of his benevolence and replacing it with sulphur.

Q: Did you know much about the era in which Dr Narcisse operates beforehand?

JW: I knew a bit about the era, and the Harlem renaissance and what its place was in the history of American culture, but I wasn’t as familiar with Casper Holstein.

What I did know was that there were always these historical figures, in any era of American history, who debunk the simplistic understanding of racial and cultural dynamics and politics through which we are too often taught to view these things. So what is exciting for me - and I hope we achieve these things - is that Narcisse is a character that has not been overexposed, and, I think to avoid the cliché in drawing him, that really is best done when you tap into the historical sources. Truth is stranger than fiction.

What I did know was that there were always these historical figures, in any era of American history, who debunk the simplistic understanding of racial and cultural dynamics and politics through which we are too often taught to view these things. So what is exciting for me – and I hope we achieve these things – is that Narcisse is a character that has not been overexposed, and, I think to avoid the cliché in drawing him, that really is best done when you tap into the historical sources. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Q: He has an interesting dynamic with Chalky – what can you tell us about that?

JW: At this time, and again because there is so much attention paid to historical detail within the show, there was a great debate happening between these early 20th century civil rights leaders: Booker T Washington on one side, coming from a more modest rural vocational perspective, and WEB du Bois, who more aspirational and more bourgeois his aspirations. Marcus Garvey was pan-Africanist and black nationalist, and in between them was this hot debate over what was the way forward for African-Americans at the time.
Many regard them as the founding fathers of the Negro Estate, but there were very bitter personal attacks between them, particularly between du Bois and Garvey; du Bois saw Garvey as somewhat backward and irrational and aesthetically unpleasant, and Garvey saw be Bois as elitist and arrogant and Eurocentric.
A lot of it was complexion politics that came into play, because du Bois was light-skinned, Garvey was dark-skinned.
And there was also the tension between the immigrant understanding of America and du Bois claiming a sense of entitlement, as an American who was born here.
A lot of this stuff is played out within the relationship between Narcisse and Chalky, and draws on those tensions to build on their relationship.
There is the tension between the urbane, educated, light-skinned, bourgeois Narcisse, and Chalky’s less educated, rural, dark-skinned African-American
All of that stuff, borne of real historical background, is really interesting fodder for storytelling.

Q: Have you spent much time up in Harlem, around those areas Narcisse would have lived and operated?

JW: That Harlem is long gone, but we have shot up there. We shot a wonderful scene up on 144th street and Lennox, in one of the old tonier neighbourhoods around there, and brought in the vintage cars and the costumes, and it really did transport us, for a moment, back to that time.

And that all works to bolster the legitimacy of the characters. It provides you with that many more crutches to reply upon as you try to convince an audience of who you are. The detail is really top-shelf. And it also inspires the actor to try to match that detail in the performance.

And that all works to bolster the legitimacy of the characters. It provides you with that many more crutches to reply upon as you try to convince an audience of who you are. The detail is really top-shelf. And it also inspires the actor to try to match that detail in the performance.

Q: What are the things you like or respect or associate with about Valentin?

JW: I don’t know that there is really anything I admire or respect about him, really. But what I like about him is that although he is operating in a dangerous, violent, physical world of gangsterism, his primary weapons are his mind and his language. He is very much a strategist, and as Terry Winter has described him, a chess player. So, he recognizes and is able to see the board from afar.
And so, as a character operating within this huge ensemble, it gives him licence to roam, to cast a wide net.

Although people have a fascination with gangsters in popular culture, and obviously our show relies on that, I do hope that audiences are compelled by the character and fascinated by him, but also repulsed by him.

Although people have a fascination with gangsters in popular culture, and obviously our show relies on that, I do hope that audiences are compelled by the character and fascinated by him, but also repulsed by him.

We are telling a story about a specific group of people at a specific time, and with an appreciation for what is virtuous and what is villainous. I don’t think there is going to be any confusion, when the dust settles, about which side Narcisse falls on.

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