Boardwalk Empire

Three faces of Boardwalk Empire grace a photo studio in Manhattan's meatpacking district on a sunny Saturday: Gretchen Mol is glowing, not only because she's expecting her second child, but because her makeup's done and she now sits rosy-hued as her stylist affixes fiery-red extensions to her blonde locks. Michael Pitt, the very image of laconic Hollywood cool in his gelled locks and pinstripes, lounges on a sofa languidly strumming his acoustic guitar. Finally, a haggard Steve Buscemi shuffles in. He's here on two hours sleep, having worked till 4am directing an episode of Nurse Jackie. He plops down, takes one look at the tape recorder in front of him and grouses, "I got nothing."

Still, he rises to the occasion when discussing his new gig, and why not? After only a few weeks, HBO's surfside drama Boardwalk Empire is a smash. The gorgeous, painstakingly re-created story of Atlantic City circa 1920 and the attendant sin and intrigue unleashed by the enactment of Prohibition has received near-unanimous kudos from the critics. More important, it has killed in the ratings, with its September 19 premiere notching the highest debut number of any HBO series since 2004.

Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, who serves as Atlantic City's treasurer but essentially runs the town, overseeing above-board business while ruling its underworld, which now includes the very lucrative distribution of contraband booze. "I love the period, and I love this part," Buscemi gushes, the coffee starting to kick in. "Nucky is painted with a lot of different colors." Adds creator Terence Winter, "He's essentially a politician, but with an asterisk. To do that job effectively, you are a gangster in a sense."

He's not the only one who's doing his job effectively. "The show's getting this kind of attention because it's being done right," says Pitt. "Everyone involved has been really, really professional." Of course, professional doesn't begin to describe the show's brain trust, led by Oscar winner Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer and directed the pilot, and Winter, who came to the gig fresh off a seven-year stint as a writer on The Sopranos. Between Boardwalk and Mad Men, the creation of Winter's former Sopranos colleague Matthew Weiner, it's already shaping up to be an interesting night at the Emmys next summer.

HBO's certainly hoping its investment pays off — the pilot reportedly cost upward of $15 million, much of which went toward constructing an eerily accurate 300-foot boardwalk on NYC's East River waterfront. The first season features more than 100 different locations and extravagant crowd scenes with hundreds of extras.

"I wasn't looking to do a series," admits Buscemi, who did a limited arc on The Sopranos and has a film career most actors would die for. "You always get asked about doing TV and the grind of playing the same character for many years... I hope it's for many years! I'm just so relieved to get something of this quality."

If Boardwalk's whole seems to exceed even the sum of these top-shelf parts, it's because the players immersed themselves in the show's time and place. "Every single person really did their homework on this," says Pitt, who plays Nucky's protégé, Jimmy Darmody, a traumatized WWI vet—turned—hood. He not only got a hold of every book referenced in the script, but acquired a shelf's worth of history texts and hired a tutor. Reflecting on his character, Pitt says, "What makes Jimmy complicated is that he's always tried to do the honorable thing, and he's constantly conflicted by when is it OK to commit murder, for your country or in business." A personal tragedy will show just how gangster Jimmy can be — and instigate his return from Chicago (where he's been hanging with Al Capone).

For more with the Boardwalk Empire cast, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, October 14!

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