Vincent Piazza: beyond the boardwalk
Already shinning in TV’s Boardwalk Empire, the Italian-American actor moves to the big screen in Clint Eastwood’s Four Seasons musical, Jersey Boys. ‘I’ve never felt more at home’
Vincent Piazza (2nd from right): 'I grew up with many really marginalised personalities. You went to school with Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish. The people I grew up with have been an inspiration'
You know how it is for actors. If your agent phones you up with news of an audition for a highwayman drama then, even if you’ve never sat on a horse in your life, you’ll say you can ride like Bob Champion. Of course, you can do an Armenian accent. Sail a yacht? No problem.
So, when Vincent Piazza, hitherto best known as Lucky Luciano in the TV series Boardwalk Empire, was cast as Tommy DeVito, one of the Four Seasons, in Clint Eastwood’s film of the hit musical Jersey Boys, he could have been forgiven for nodding along compliantly. It seems that Vincent has a bit more integrity.
“I had never sang or danced before for money,” he laughs. “I hadn’t really done that outside a Karaoke bar.”
His nervousness was increased when he learnt that the other principals had all appeared in the Broadway production of Jersey Boys. He began to feel that some sort of dreadful mistake had been made.
“I phoned up my agent,” he remembers. “I asked her to let them know I wasn’t really a singer or a dancer. Word came back that I would be in good hands. I felt that was reassuring. I then decided to work on those skills in the 45 or so days I had and make sure they were camera-ready.”
Piazza demonstrated a quite impressive amount of honesty on that occasion. More than a few actors would have taken a deep breath and ploughed forwards without revealing their concerns.
“Ha ha! Well, if it hadn’t involved a relationship with a great director and a film that Warner Brothers were investing millions in then I might have,” he says. “If it was some small thing I’d have said: ‘Oh who’s going to see this, anyway?’”
He needn’t have worried. His turn is the strongest in the film. As Jersey Boys tells it, Tommy DeVito was the rough diamond in the group headed by the immortal Frankie Valli. He consorted with hoodlums. He got the band in debt. He fought constantly with his colleagues. You couldn’t quite say that Piazza makes a lovable rogue of Mr DeVito – the character is too frightful for that – but he does manage to flesh him out in believable fashion. Of course, Piazza has some experience of DeVito’s milieu. As the film’s title suggests, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, all blue-collar Italian-Americans, grew up on the streets of New Jersey. Piazza was raised in a similar community on the other side of Manhattan.
“Across the river in Queens,” he says in a voice still flavoured with the boroughs. “The sweet smell of the subway emanating from the ground. Ha ha! I do recognise that world. I grew up with many really marginalised personalities. You went to school with Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish. The people I grew up with have been an inspiration to me in the work that I have done.”
Fair enough. But Jersey Boys does, once again, offer a slightly uncomfortable depiction of the Italian-American community. DeVito is the sort of guy who lives to recover goods that fall from the back of trucks. The mob is yet again shown to be an immovable part of the society. Having appeared in The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Piazza must be aware of the sensitivities aroused here.
“I do understand it,” he says. “I am from an Italian and German background. I guess if you are doing it in a story like Goodfellas or Boardwalk Empire there is a poetic licence. We understand that. Reality shows such as Jersey Shore are a different thing. That’s not moving things forward. But, you know, it’s nice to see a community embraced that wears its passion on its sleeve.”
As you may have detected from his considered answers, Piazza is no callow youth. Now in his late 30s, he has taken a convoluted route to the movie business. The son of a builder, he excelled at ice hockey as a kid and spent some years playing for Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Few sports are tougher on the body and Piazza eventually suffered a debilitating injury.
“It was both a physical and an emotional thing,” he remembers. “I had a chronic shoulder separation. That dashed my spirits. I suddenly got the reality of it. On the bright side it allowed me to explore other things, such as acting. And that’s gone quite well so far.”
After suffering his injury, Vincent drifted into the financial sector. He travelled the world and earned pretty good money. But some suppressed urge to perform was bursting to get out. After each meeting, he would put on a sketch satirising the events. Eventually, his colleagues persuaded him to face the inevitable.
“I had a mentor, who was grooming me. He was a very funny, very supportive guy,” he remembers. “Eventually, he said: ‘You are wasting your time in this business. You should be an actor. That left an impression in me. Years on, he suddenly passed away in a car accident. I was young enough that it really hit me. I thought: I love doing this and, as homage to Jimmy, I really should try it. I did and I’ve never felt more at home.”
He didn’t exactly leap straight into the spotlight. Piazza spent some time in a theatre group in Manhattan. Like so many Italian-American actors, he secured a small recurring role on The Sopranos. He tagged a lead part in Jeffrey Blitz’s well-received independent film Rocket Science. But it was Boardwalk Empire that really secured Piazza’s place in the firmament. From 2010, he has played Lucky Luciano, the hoodlum who helped found modern organised crime, in HBO’s sprawling examination of pre-war Atlantic City.
“You know, I’d say that, playing Lucky in Boardwalk Empire, I am forced to serve two masters,” he says. “There are a great many historical milestones that we follow. We know the life arcs they went through. We take a licence with how the characters interact with fictional characters to arrive at those milestones. Again, it’s another circumstance where I feel I am in really great hands. It is a very well researched show.”
He was, once again, playing a real person in Jersey Boys. Tommy DeVito is still above ground and, in recent years, has smoked the peace pipe with his old pals from the band. He turned up at the Broadway opening of the musical and was on hand for the Four Seasons’ induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But DeVito was not involved in the preparation of the film.
“I was blessed and cursed with a lack of time,” Vincent explains. “I had about 30 days to prepare for the role. I didn’t get to meet him. And it’s tricky because the musical is now so successful that, when you look up “Tommy DeVito” on the internet, you end up with stories about Jersey Boys. So, again, I mostly explore the character through the relationship in the script.”
If rumours are to be believed Clint must have been of only limited help in disentangling fact from fiction. The story is that Eastwood says almost nothing on set. As long as the camera doesn’t fall over, he is happy with the shot. Everyone gets to go home at five o’clock.
“In some ways that is a compliment to his actors,” he says. “He feels he can hire people who he can get something out of in one take. I will say this: he is an actors’ director. If I wanted to explore something and do it differently he’d happily allow that. You never felt rushed. You never felt like saying: ‘What do you mean we are done?’”
As is often the case with Eastwood’s work, the film ends up being lucid, fluid and uncomplicated. You never much get the sense of an authorial stamp from his work. Mind you, as Piazza confirms, he does seem happy to delegate where possible.
“I had never met him before,” he says. “I met him very briefly the day before we began shooting and then, when the camera was about to roll, before the first shot. But the man exudes a certain type of energy. You feel that. For the directors that have that there’s a fearlessness in their work.”
Just as well VincentPiazza managed to hit his notes after all. I’ve seen Gran Torino. Clint is not a fellow you’d like to see with a temper on him.