jason stives interviews one of the writers and actors on the popular HBO drama …
In the folklore of the Garden State, Atlantic City, the humdrum tourist destination located along the Jersey Shore, is not one without criticisms. In the 21st century, A.C. is a great weekend hot spot for gamblers and weekenders, but the allure of the area lies in the glitz and subtle glamor of the boardwalk and not in the rough neighborhoods that surround it. In the 1920s, it was one of the most unique places in America to be, one that allowed people to start a working life as well as a place for pure escapism.
Ed McGinty Jr. loves to romanticize what doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. Born in the Frank Sinatra wing of Atlantic City Regional Hospital, all he has ever known about Atlantic City lies in his youth and in the stories of his father and grandfather all of whom worked during the city’s golden age of productivity. His extensive knowledge led the actor and screenwriter to a research job and eventually an acting part as minor character Ward Boss Boyd on the acclaimed hit HBO show Boardwalk Empire.
Pop-Break’s Jason Stives spoke with McGinty over the phone, detailing his family’s past, his work on the show, and how it feels to work with the likes of Steve Buscemi and Martin Scorsese on one of the most popular shows on cable television.
Pop-Break: Atlantic City is really part of the pop culture of New Jersey, and living here all my life, I have never been able to see the A.C. that the show elicits as much. Growing up, it was always a dive kind of town, but for you and your background, that’s never been the case. Growing up the way you did and with the stories you have, what do you think is still the romanticism that comes with Atlantic City both of old and new?
Ed McGinty Jr.: I think for me, it’s because it’s a lost world. For instance, one of my favorite movies is King Of Marvin Gardens, and it shows the remnants of what was at this time and, I mean, during Nucky’s time in the 20s. Atlantic City was at such great heights at that time, and just hearing all the stories from my father and grandfather, and looking into it you see what kind of a great place it was. With working on the show and everything I kind of live, in my mind at least, in that Atlantic City and not in the modern one. I mean, I like to go there and search out places that were back then. It was such a fantasy world and a fantastic place. For me personally, I see that place through my father’s eyes more than anything, and I feel like that’s why I am so connected to that time. It has changed so drastically in the past 10 years with the bars on the beach, and it feels like nothing is left outside of four or five buildings from that time.
PB: For me, going down there now, I can kind of see what my parents have described from when they were kids growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. Watching the show and being a history buff, to see that come to life, it gives me a sense of importance of what it has and probably will always mean to this state outside of the gambling and its current state.
EM: My father always use to say you always knew who to call on the boardwalk. Even though the system is still corrupt there, the overall corruption and wrong-doings going on actually lead to a greater good. The money that was corrupted and extorted somehow went back into the city because it always looked nice. You called your ward leader if you needed a job or something on your street fixed and that’s what you got. I think that answers your question. [laughs]
PB: Absolutely. I was going to ask you more about your father’s connections with Enoch Johnson because I know he has a direct connection with him.
EM: Yeah, my grandfather came to town from Philly in the early 20s when he was very young. He started out as the head bellman at the Ritz Carlton and then made his way up to facility manager because there is the hotel manager, and then the facility manager who basically manages the building. So when my father was like 7 or 8, he hired him as a page boy, who is someone who would take a note to a hotel room or to the lobby where people would congregate. Nucky spent his time in the lobby area because he would conduct most of his business in the afternoon. He would just run the message up to him, and Nucky would throw him a dollar.
He was able to describe the personality of Nucky and just the overall broad strokes of the town and just the way that the town was a city like no other. It’s really a tourist like city that thrives three months out of the year, and it’s a city that centers on the ocean so it’s a different texture in the looks the sounds and it’s unique. Don’t get me wrong: I left that town for a reason. It’s dead nine months out of the year, but I have a renewed appreciation thanks to Nelson Johnson’s book which the show is based off of, and I have become good friends with Nelson, and that brought me back to the romanticism of the city.
PB: With such a unique and historical background, how did the job you have now as the show’s researcher come about?
EM: It’s an interesting story. I mean, my whole path is interesting. I was a road manager for Lollapalooza for many years, and I toured with various bands. I’ve done music videos, and it all kind of lead to me getting involved with film. I started applying to film schools, and before that, I went to acting school in San Francisco, and the reason I did that was to learn the language and be a better director. I got into Columbia for film school and the second year I was there, Terrance Winter, Edie Falco and I believe two other writers from The Sopranos came in to do an episode screening. The guy who put it together, Ben, was one of my classmates and helped me produce my short film, and we stay in touch on a weekly to monthly basis. He grew up in Philly, and he would come down during the summers and work as a bar back, so there are those connections. He told me that I needed to find myself and that I had a unique background with Atlantic City, so that should be my voice.
After hearing that a bunch of times, I took the advice and started writing screenplays about Atlantic City. In the meantime, I did a short film that did really well on the festival circuit and I eventually ended up in Los Angeles just as the writers’ strike started. So I couldn’t get a job anywhere. In the meantime, Ben kept in touch with me every six months, and he was friends with Terry Winter. Ben asked him what he was working on and he mentioned he was developing a show set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition. He was like, ‘Oh, you have to meet my friend Ed — he knows everything about Atlantic City.’ So he set up a breakfast meeting with Terry, and we really hit it off. I had done my research leading up to it talking to my family and learning as much about the town. I brought in photos and stories, so he looked over all this stuff and hired me on the spot, even though he didn’t know initially what he was going to do with me.
PB: When I look at the first season now, I don’t see what I expected. I initially thought with all the Sopranos ties and even Martin Scorcese’s involvement, I envisioned a 1920s Tony Soprano, but that wasn’t the case. Instead of someone who at nature is a bit cold in his approach, he hasn’t an innocent texture but with some deep-seeded issues nonetheless.
EM: Yeah, and that’s Terry and of course Steve [Buscemi], because he has so much going on behind his eyes. That’s the great thing about starting a show — is that you can develop it around the cast in the way you write the script. You can write the character one way, but when you see an actor really embrace it, then you can work the show around their capability. It’s really interesting in that regard. Going back to the research, I work with the writers predominantly, but when questions come up from each department, I help, but every department also has their own go to person for research as well. Like the art department has a wonderful woman name Miriam who knows what the colors were at the time, what everything looked like.
Even though I give them pictures and stuff, they really can go in and bring out the colors and textures based on what was popular at the time. It helps that Atlantic City in that time was just so vibrant and fun because we were just coming out of World War I, so they wanted to be vibrant and just go all out, and Atlantic City definitely was the arena to do that to be ambitious and open. And Nucky just said, ‘Come here and we’ll give you work.’ I think we need more of that today. [laughs]
PB: I think that would be a great booster to people today but that’s wishful thinking (laugh). You said you worked with some of the writers but did you have any interaction with any of the actors in regards to their characters structure or was that more the writers jobs?
EM: It’s a little of both depending on whether the character was real or not. If it was based in reality I didn’t necessarily give too much but just enough. Other times some actors would just come prepared and research their stuff a lot. Some of the actors, particularly the gangsters, sometimes know more than I do (laugh). The way an actor reads a person’s biography is much different than an everyday person. They are looking for every specific detail to help them develop the role. Like what did their parents do or what was the neighborhood like they grew up in. Its case by case, but I basically would just answer whatever questions were asked of me.
PB: I feel like all that research has paid off. But it’s funny, because for a state like New Jersey who hates the stigma of stereotype thrown on it thanks to things like Jersey Shore or different mob movies, they seem to embrace the gangster-and-booze-filled world of the show. Why do we as a state love the Italian gangster appeal but despise fist-pumping and fake tans?
EM: Well, in fairness, it’s not just Italians, it’s the Irish, the Jewish, anyone who was trying to get ahead. This wave of entertainment happened in the 30s with gangster films, and the audience would look at it as a way of getting back into the system at the time. There is obviously so much more content today, and some people just want that to just get away from their hardships. Heroes are way more important today, and it’s a way of kicking back at the system just like gangsters. They benefited thanks to prohibition and suddenly became like Robin Hood. It’s a bad mentality, don’t get me wrong, because it makes heroes out of bad guys, but I think it starts with a part of human nature.
PB: I feel like you go to a gangster film and the protagonist is the antagonist, like Bill the Butcher in Gangs Of New York. You somehow relate to them in your own escapism, regardless of how vindictive and evil they are.
EM: And on that level and no matter how powerful the gangster is, the system is always more corrupt. As you see on the show or read in the book, no matter how corrupt Nucky was, the corporation was always much more corrupt and always makes it more difficult for the guy below it.
PB: The first season was a huge success, and now you guys are putting the finishing touches on the second prior to its premiere at the end of September. The first time, you had to really create all these characters and places. What has been your contribution this time around now that we have established the world of the show?
EM: The thing about the first season was it was building the world in broad strokes because we had to create that world and those characters. The second season was more about specifics, like digging into the history in regards to what was happening in these peoples’ lives at the time. The particulars and digging deeper, it wasn’t just short stories about Chicago or New York, which is what the first season kind of was. It’s more about what did these houses look like on this intersection or what was the hotel staff like here. Everything from uniforms to the day to day lives of these people. I think that is any TV show, the first season is the building of the world, and the second season is greatly about these lives and how they interact with each other. That’s kind of how it works with what I’m doing. It becomes more specific with the people and how they are getting through in life.
PB: How did your father feel when the show came on? Did he watch the show or come visit the set with you?
EM: Yeah, he did. The great thing about this whole thing is it brought my father and me closer together. After the art department completed building the boardwalk and they really nailed it, I finally got a chance to bring my father out to see it, and when he saw it, he was speechless. So I took him up the boardwalk and he leaned up against the boardwalk rail because he had just been there that morning, and he wanted to see if the rail was the perfect height, and he said they nailed it. That has been so rewarding. In the long run, it’s historical fiction and the narrative is important for what it is, but for me in the back of my mind I want to make sure people in A.C. or people like you who have been down there will have a connection and that they are on board saying, “Wow, you did your research!”
PB: And how did he feel about Buscemi’s portrayal of Nucky? Did it match many of the memories he remembered as a kid?
EM: Well, he loves Steve because when I took him up to the boardwalk, I introduced him to Steve, and he wanted to nail the accent down. So my father sat down with him and listened to his accent, which is a strange accent in a way because the Atlantic City accent is more Baltimore than it is Philly or New York. It’s kind of a hybrid of Philadelphia and Baltimore, so he wanted to hear him talk. Steve really did nail it down because he has these subtleties about he says things. My dad really is ecstatic about the show. He loves where it is going and he enjoys seeing me pop up on screen ever so often with my crazy mustache. [laughs]
PB: I love that mustache! It’s weird I had to go back and re-watch some of the episodes because I was just oblivious to the character you portray of Boss Boyd. It’s not just one episode, you have done multiple appearances.
EM: It was just supposed to be one shot in the pilot, and that was great for me because here I was working with Martin Scorsese, which was amazing, and then it just kept reoccurring. So I had to shake off the rust and go over my acting books and start working with an acting coach. It’s been a blast because it helps me do my job better living in that world every few weeks, and it’s gotten me to know different people on the set. I can’t tell you how grand it has been, and it’s just a dream come true.