For 13 years you couldn’t legally buy a glass of beer in the U.S. It’s a sobering fact that most Americans who lived through those dark years didn’t like to talk or even think about afterward, but the fact is that Prohibition occurred.
And the general reluctance to remember those times was based on the very nasty and unanticipated side effects they created. The ban gave Americans organized crime networks (which included the Irish), a huge new national market and the cash power to corrupt all the institutions and individuals that got in their way.
HBO’s critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire tells one crucial chapter in the history of that era, resulting in a staggering 18 Emmy nominations (and seven actual wins) for the show that has already broken records as the most expensive in television history.
Fans of season one were thrilled to learn that critics have already billed season two (which started on Sunday) as even stronger than the first. The lavish period detail, the brilliant characterization that requests and rewards your patience and the consistently strong scripts mean that the show has genuinely found its legs, and fans of great drama can look forward to a thrilling autumn schedule.
As the ongoing story of Nucky Thompson, the undisputed ruler of Atlantic City who was equal parts politician and gangster unfolds this season, we’re introduced to a brand new Irish character played by British newcomer Charlie Cox.
Cast as a young and possibly on-the-run former IRA man from Belfast (we’re not going to say if he is for certain, and neither is Cox because that would be considered spoilers) Cox’s new role is the biggest professional boost of his young career – and it may well be thanks to his pal and sometime mentor Robert De Niro (the pair starred together in the romantic fantasy Stardust a few years back).
But as an uppercrust Englishman in an Irish role, the first question is how did he learn the Belfast accent?
“I have friends from Ireland and I mimicked them a little bit to begin with for my first audition,” Cox, 28, tells the Irish Voice from his parents’ home in France (where’s he gone to recover from Boardwalk’s punishing production schedule) this week.
“I also watched The Commitments over a dozen times, and when I got the invite to audition in New York I discovered that the character came from Belfast, so then the pressure was really on.”
Cox did what any enterprising young actor desperate to find a completely different Irish accent in a pinch did -- he Googled the Internet. Eventually, via the iTunes music store, he found a link to a Christian evangelical website made in Belfast and he created his accent in the show based on what he heard.
“From that podcast I found a perfect Belfast accent and I now know more about Jesus than I ever thought I would,” laughs Cox, who in his personal life is a British public school boy with a Catholic background.
“Of course I also researched the kind of life he might have had and the strife he would have known in the Ireland of that period. Believe it or not I also read Angela’s Ashes -- which is a remarkable book -- and I realized how arriving in Atlantic City where literally anything was possible must have blown my character’s mind after the life he had led up to that point. I keep that inner tension and awareness burning all the way through the new season.”
Cox is under a blanket ban from the shows producers not to reveal too much about his character’s personal arc in season two because they don’t want the Internet to light up with spoilers spread by obsessive fans of the show.
“What I can tell you is that he is very concerned with what’s going on in his homeland and that there’s a reason he stays around Atlantic City, although he could conceivably return to Ireland at any time,” Cox offers.
Fans of the epic series may be surprised to know how close to filming time the scripts for Boardwalk Empire actually arrive. If you thought the entire season was written and in the can before the first cameras rolled you’d be quite wrong -- often actors learn their characters fate just a few weeks before they shoot the scene.
“That kind of schedule keeps you fresh as an actor, and it means that you don’t get complacent about what’s going to happen to the person you’re playing. But the whole of acting is the same. You’re just one step away from your next job or your last one and that awareness should stop you from becoming conceited or complacent,” says Cox.
Right now as the final edits of the second season are still being cut, Cox doesn’t know what will happen to the majority of the other characters in the show. With a production this big it’s impossible to keep tabs on everything that’s happening unless you’re the producers or the writers -- and they’re famous for keeping all that information to themselves.
Meanwhile for Cox, the opportunity to act alongside a legendary director like Martin Scorsese and actors like Steve Buscemi is both exhilarating and nerve wracking.
“All actors at some level want to be acknowledged for what they do and I’m no different,” says Cox. “It’s exciting to think that this may lead to other opportunities but I’m not going to get carried away by it.
“People told me I’d be on easy street back in 2007 with Stardust and that didn’t happen. The fame and fortune thing is nice as far as it goes, but it used to be you got famous because you were talented and that’s not quite the case anymore,” he adds sensibly.
Cox shies away from any further plot scoops into his upcoming season, but he will happily admit that he researched the activities of the IRA unit founded by Michael Collins that was known as The Squad or the Twelve Apostles.
These men, hand picked by Collins himself, acted mainly as assassins and they targeted policemen, collaborators, civil servants, MI5 members and most famously the so-called Cairo Gang (a British intelligence group who had formerly served in the Middle East).
“I was fascinated to learn about the history of that period, and it really brought my character’s own background to life for me,” says Cox.
“Once you start delving into that you get a real sense of the period and the stakes in play. And I have to mention the costumes and sets. They’re so well done and so meticulously researched they do so much of the work for you.”
As a lifelong rugby fan with his own seats at Twickenham, both Cox and his father thought they might have taken the research into Ireland too far when they started cheering the Irish rugby team in its match against Australia recently.
“My dad was suddenly standing up and shouting, ‘Come on Ireland -- I mean England!’ at the television and we both started to laugh at the level of involvement. Maybe this character has taken over our lives.”
Boardwalk Empire broadcasts on HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.