Women Take Strong Lead In New HBO Gangster Epic

The breakout HBO hit "Boardwalk Empire," a series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey features all the elements that make a gangster epic: profanity, violence, and vice. But it also has something many crime dramas lack; that's complicated and interesting female characters. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Margaret Nagle, supervising producer and writer for "Boardwalk Empire," about her role in creating its memorable roles for women.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.

"Boardwalk Empire" is the new hot cable series that became an instant critical darling and cult favorite when it premiered on HBO this fall. In the show, set in Prohibition era Atlantic City, there's sex, corruption and extreme violence.

(Soundbite of show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Unidentified Man #1: Who shot you? What did he look like?

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man #2: Good god, man.

Unidentified Man #3: This is Jimmy.

Unidentified Man #4: Fair-haired.

Unidentified Man #3: We lost him, sir.

LYDEN: With Martin Scorsese, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind gangster epics such as "Good Fellas," "Casino" and "The Departed," blood and profanity is perhaps no surprise. But may appeal to new fans is a cast that's complicated, strong and fascinating female characters. There's Margaret, the suffragette who finds herself attracted to the local political and crime boss. There's Gillian, the single mother and high class showgirl. And then there's Angela, whose independent life changes when her common law husband Jimmy returns from war and enters a life of crime.

Our next guest can claim some credit for the vitality of these women on "Boardwalk Empire." Margaret Nagle is a supervising producer and writer for the show and she joins us now not from the seamy streets of Atlantic City, but from our studios at NPR West. Welcome, Margaret Nagle.

Ms. MARGARET NAGLE (Producer and Writer, "Boardwalk Empire"): Hi.

LYDEN: Let's go into the writers room here. I want to ask what drew you to this series in the first place. You're the senior woman on the writing production team and what was that like when you talked about the women in this series? And maybe you could talk about a couple of them.

Ms. NAGLE: Well, sometimes it shocked the guys in the room, the things that I would say. You know, writers room is a sacred place in television and we had a closed door writers room where we met five days a week for, you know, for eight - never really more than 10 hours 'cause we were so burnt out. But we -you use a lot of your own lives and then you use that to inform the characters.

So, like, for example, the character of Angela, Jimmy's wife who is, quote, a "bohemian"...

LYDEN: Because they never actually married. She's a common law wife.

Ms. NAGLE: Yeah. She's common law wife. And that was a character that is going to take a lot of twists and turns in the first season and there was, and I can't tell you 'cause I'm sworn - you know, we, like, cut our fingers with blood.

LYDEN: Sworn to secrecy.

Ms. NAGLE: Sworn to secrecy, but she takes some twists and turns and the guys had an idea of what they wanted and we looked at all these things that would build this story so that what was pulling her away from her marriage was really, truly an intense and powerful discovery about herself and her character that would ultimately change the course of her life.

And with the guys, I was, like, oh, no, no, no, no. That's not what she's going to discover. And they're, like, what? And I said, no, you guys are missing it. It's this she's going to discover. And then - of course, they were willing to go there. So she's going to go down a road that's very unexpected, but also when you go back and you put it together, all the pieces of her character, it's going to make a lot of sense. And the guys were all, like, all right, you made your money today. You can go home. Thank you.

LYDEN: Well, thanks for hooking me on season two. But let's get back to season one. I really want to talk about character of Margaret Schroeder, who's played by the actress Kelly MacDonald. Now, this character is a young Irish widowed immigrant who's dealt with a lot of struggles. You have a reading, Henry James, I love that moment. She's a suffragette. She's an active gal. She's in the Women's Christian Temperance League, and she's fighting, as we said, for suffrage. That's at the heart of this next clip. I believe you wrote this, so let's listen.

(Soundbite of show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Ms. KELLY MACDONALD (Actor): (As Margaret Schroeder) I come from a country where women already have the right to vote. In fact, in most civilized countries, women are afforded that privilege.

Unidentified Man #5: Well, in this country we're simply trying to protect women from the hard truths of life.

Ms. MACDONALD: By denying them the right to take a meaningful part in it.

Unidentified Man #5: It's a shame you see it that way.

Ms. MACDONALD: Oh, it's not just me, sir, it's most women who'd like the right to vote. And as you've learned, if you withhold from a woman something she deeply desires, then she'll surely find a way to withhold something that you desire.

Unidentified Man #5: And what might that be?

Ms. MACDONALD: Alcohol.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Now, I love this because she is standing up to a bunch of cigar smoking politicians at a big political event. So, what's the inspiration for her?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, Terence Winter, the creator of the show, created Margaret Schroeder. But in that moment I think it was so astonishing that women in the United States did not have the right to vote at that time. And even though we were moving towards getting the amendment passed, it was no sure thing at that moment. It was still - it, you know, Susan B. Anthony had started 70 years before trying to do this and had died trying to do this and had not achieved it. So, and women all over the world were given this opportunity. And I often think that, having been a woman, so often people don't expect you to say something smart. And I mean that I - all women have gone through that moment where you, you say something to some - a certain kind of man and they just look at you and they go wow, youre - you really have a lot to say, dont you?

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NAGLE: And it was those moments that I've certainly have experienced as a writer, as a women in the entertainment industry that it's always sort of, it really - it's never a victory. It kind of hurts to have someone because you realize, oh God, we still have a really - this is so entrenched, it's a long way to go here.

LYDEN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about the critically acclaimed HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" with Margaret Nagle. She's a senior producer and writer for the program.

Now, Margaret, I don't want you, you said you had very supportive male writers around you here. I don't want to imply that you're only writing female characters because that scene that we hear at the top of our chat is a torturous interrogation scene undertaken by the FBI. Let's talk about that. What's going on here?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, Nelson Van Alden, played by the amazing Michael Shannon, has kidnapped this witness to the murder in the woods, and the witness, his belly is full of gunshot and he's dying. And so he drags him into a dentist office and shoots him up with cocaine to try and get one last shot at his identifying someone in the shooting scene. He really wants to get Jimmy ID'd. He senses that Jimmy's there at the scene.

LYDEN: Jimmy's another character.

Ms. NAGLE: Jimmy, played by Michael Pitt. And so he shoots him up with epinephrine and the guy starts to speak to him in dirty Yiddish and he says something very, very insulting in Yiddish, and Michael Shannon blows a gasket and sticks his fist in the wound and twists it.

LYDEN: Woo.

Ms. NAGLE: And - several times.

LYDEN: (Unintellgible).

Ms. NAGLE: And what was weird is I didnt think that was gross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: You didnt?

Ms. NAGLE: I didnt. And then people were just, the men were just - when it was shot and all, people were just grossed out by it and grossed out by the sound we added. And I was like I don't know, it didn't, that kind - somehow that scene, the violence didn't freak me out at all. It freaks me out more to see a child in danger. It freaks me out more to see a woman hit across the face. Somehow this didn't bother me, I don't know why.

But anyway, it was a really fun scene to write and it was - it's a funny scene because then Michael Shannon starts praying - he dies and Michael Shannon starts praying over him and his assistant is like, isn't he Jewish, you know, and its a very fun - there's a mom who's translating the dirty Yiddish and she's appalled and it's just, it's a really fun, funny, sick, twisted scene that I loved writing.

LYDEN: Well, you really make the Feds perhaps even more sadistic than any of the bootleggers, although we haven't seen all of Al Capone's scenes yet. So I guess it could be an easy tie.

Ms. NAGLE: Well, you know, when youre fighting criminals and youre learning about the criminal mind, it rubs off. It does.

LYDEN: Let's talk a little bit about some of your earlier work. You wrote the 2005 HBO drama "Warm Springs," which won best film that year with an Emmy, and that depicted the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he struggled with polio in the years before he won the presidency. Heres a short clip with Kenneth Branagh as Roosevelt and Kathy Bates as his therapist.

(Soundbite of movie, "Warm Springs")

Mr. KENNETH BRANAGH (Actor): (as Franklin Delano Roosevelt) I wanted to walk again.

Ms. KATHY BATES (Actor): (as Helena Mahoney) And you still might. This report legitimizes all weve worked so hard for. We can raise funds now. It could change everything.

Mr. BRANAGH: (as Franklin Delano Roosevelt) I won't change anything for me.

Ms. BATES: (as Helena Mahoney) Franklin...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BATES: (as Helena Mahoney) ...I can't help you out of a hole. If I climb in with you, then we're both stuck.

LYDEN: So you went following amongst veterans for this movie. What did they respond to here?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, that your body isn't you. Your soul is you. And then when part of your body changes, you're still the same person inside once you get through the incredible loss and depression and fear and just the trauma, the sheer emotional and physical trauma of having some element of your body change that dramatically that isn't defining. What defines you is what's inside.

FDR created a polio - the first polio rehabilitation center in the world in Warm Springs, Georgia. And people went down there and their bodies didn't necessarily heal but their minds did and they got to be around other people going through this same trauma and they felt less alone. And that was huge because it allowed them to go back into the world and understand that people were always put off by the way they looked physically, saw them differently, and that you had to put them at ease, but then they got past it. They got to you.

And so it's been really interesting. The movie has been in rehab centers and it's sort of passed around and it's sort of like, I put a message in a bottle and threw it out there and it got to where it needed to go.

LYDEN: Now your next project is going to take a closer look at Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok. Can you give us a little bit of the history between these two women and explain why it intrigued you?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, it's an extraordinary relationship. And just as Warm Springs was a defining experience in Franklin's life in the 1920's before he came president, I think Eleanor's relationship with Lorena Hickok made her the first lady that she was able to become, because in those days, a first lady, she never went out of the White House. She poured tea for various women's groups that came through, but the first lady had no public voice, she had no position. It was a pretty brutal job and first ladies didn't fare well at all. They fell apart one by one by one.

So Eleanor was devastated to become first lady. She didn't want to be lady and the year Franklin was running for president she met this incredible journalist from New York, Lorena Hickok. She was a political journalist. She was covering Franklin and she had to do an interview with Eleanor. Her editor wanted her to do a, you know, find out about Eleanor Roosevelt since she was the niece of a former president, Teddy Roosevelt, and they hit it off in a big way.

It was a life-changing relationship. And I maintain they truly fell in love and it was Lorena that convinced Eleanor that she could be a different kind of first lady, that she should create a life for herself as - as long as she was going to be first lady she needed to take those cameras out of the White House and make them follow her to places that no one wanted to go.

And Eleanor was stunned by the poverty of African-Americans, stunned that in the Depression the first schools, public schools to close were those for African-Americans, and that there's a whole generation of children that were simply not going to go to school. And the Lorena gave Eleanor through that friendship love, this strength and clarity of vision to come into herself. It was a big life-changing relationship and there are 16,000 pages of letters between them at the Roosevelt Presidential Library.

LYDEN: Youve had a chance to look at some of those 16,000 pages of their correspondence and could you tell us a little bit about that, what you found?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, when their relationship was at its most heated, the first two years Eleanor was in the White House. In fact, at the inauguration, Eleanor was wearing Lorena's sapphire ring. She had sort of - she'd pinned her at that moment. And so, the letters from the first weeks Eleanor is in the White House and she's separated from Lorena because they spent all this time together in the year gearing up before she moved into the White House.

And, by the way, Eleanor and Franklin had separate residences before his last years as governor of New York. She was living in Greenwich Village with a lot of women. They were all gay - openly gay. She rented a room there. She was already moving out into the fringes trying to figure out her own life, and so these letters that she wrote to Lorena in the first weeks out of the White House are just: I love you. I miss you. My love enfolds thee. I kiss your picture before I sleep. I miss having my arms around you. I mean they are really...

LYDEN: Steamy.

Ms. NAGLE: Steamy and heartbreaking.

LYDEN: Do you want to relay a story of what happened to you when you went to the New York Public Library to do some research on Lorena Hickok?

Ms. NAGLE: Yeah, this was - I was going - I was filling out a form for special collections and I went up to this lovely elderly librarian, a man well into his 70s and he read the slip of paper and he gasped and he kind of shook his head and he - and I said, are you all right? And he said well, I just, no one ever wants to look up these things about Lorena Hickok. I - I -what are you doing? And I said well, I'm starting to write a movie about Eleanor and Lorena. And he just, his whole face changed and he leaned forward and he said you know, Ms. Hickok, no one ever collected her remains. And I went, what?

He said she went to Hyde Park to wait for Eleanor and she lived there in a little apartment for the rest of her life. And when she died no one collected her remains. And about 10 years after she died, a group of us in New York found out and we went up and we paid to have her buried and gave her a proper funeral. And it's just - it's sad.

It's a rough life, I think and she was so brilliant, Lorena Hickok, and so out of the box and dangerous. She was dangerous ultimately in term - because she was emotionally forthright and very passionate and everything about Lorena Hickok that Eleanor was so attracted to was every reason why she couldn't be in an open relationship with her or have her around as much as she wanted, because it was too hard on both of them. So it was a tragic love story ultimately.

LYDEN: I look forward to seeing that. Margaret, let me return to "Boardwalk Empire." I understand you are not planning to return for the second season. Can you tell us why?

Ms. NAGLE: Well, actually, I was contract - there was an L.A. writer's room and now there's a New York - the writer's room is in New York and I live in L.A. and I have a husband and family here, so - and I also, I went on "Boardwalk Empire," I had another job at the same time. And so the other job, I had to leave actually, to go produce my pilot for CBS. So, c'est la vie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: So it goes. But are you concerned that some of your strong women will be less strong or less front and center or lose some of their vitality after you leave?

Ms. NAGLE: Oh, well no, the guys are great. They're great in that room and they have a wonderful writer, a female writer in New York now. And Gillian, Angela, Margaret, those characters are up and running and the guys, they write them great. They're doing an amazing job, and we were very lucky with the show. It was done right.

LYDEN: Margret Nagle is an award-winning television writer. She's just finished working on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" and she joins us from the studios of NPR West.

It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Ms. NAGLE: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And that's our program for today. Im Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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