Clint Eastwood had never seen an episode of Boardwalk Empire when he cast Vincent Piazza in the role of hustler guitarist Tommy DeVito in Warner Bros’ adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys, based on the dramatic rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. This may seem odd, as Piazza is not only best known for his role as Lucky Luciano on the long running HBO series, but in the show he plays a flawless Italian-American struggling to make it in the U.S. – which could also accurately describe the character of DeVito. He won the role with an audition, after which Eastwood recalls saying, “I think we got our guy.”
The next time they saw each other was in a New York rehearsal room where Vincent was practicing the numbers with his castmates John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, and Michael Lomenda. Having just been through a multi-week boot camp on singing, dancing and playing guitar, it all became real when Vincent says, “We noticed [Clint] walk in back of the room through the reflection in the mirror. No words were said. We just kept dancing.”
We talked to the New York-based actor as he sat crosslegged in a Brooks Brothers suit in a room at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel, still smiling at memories on set with “Mr. Eastwood.”
I noticed that Tommy DeVito shares some attributes with Lucky Luciano. Is that something that you took into consideration?
The interesting thing about this show is that Boardwalk was the first time that I had played an Italian-American role that I had played. I had intentionally worked against half of my heritage. Trying to explore every culture that I could, especially in the theater. I was very conscious that in this I would be playing that again. There’s a stereotype and stigma that is attached to Italian-Americans, for better or for worse, I was keeping that in mind. Every once in awhile a role comes along that’s so great it makes you break your own rules.
How did your parents react to you getting this role?
What’s funny is my father immigrated to this country in 1963 so he would regale us with stories like how he met my mother, the first car he drove, the music that he would listen to. He talked about the spirit that existed at that time. I remembered those stories when I heard that I was getting the show, I took my girlfriend and my parents. Sure enough my parents knew all of the songs and they were singing along. I looked out into the crowd and people of all ages were standing up and taking it in. There was an usher that had to escort a woman back to her seat because she had run up to the stage in excitement, like Frankie Valli was actually up there. It was a powerful moment. They were so proud that I get to work on something so relatable to them, getting old in this era. There’s a lot of nostalgia for them.
How has your role on Boardwalk played into your relationship with your father?
I’ve had a great relationship with my dad, but doing Boardwalk Empire has bonded us even more, because my character Lucky is from Sicily and he is also from a small town around there in Italy. Granted it was many years later but he understood migrating and acclimating.
Do you use him as a resource into your character?
I have to speak Sicilian on the show and I’ve been able to use him as a resource. I get to ask him about certain translations and accents. It’s been a really beautiful experience for us. My mother is German-American so it wasn’t a purely Sicilian household but when we had family gatherings the sound of the language was in my ears. It was very musical I always thought.
You’re the only cast member that hasn’t been a part of the touring cast for the Broadway show. How did you decide to work with that?
I had to embrace the fact that I am doing something different then the rest of the cast. I’m supposed to be coming out of left field. I felt like I was part of some grand experiment. I had three dance coaches, a voice coach, and a guitar coach. I would spend two hours a day with each of them every day.
What would describe working with Clint?
So much of the experience of working with Mr. Eastwood was not about what he said but more about how he conducts himself. He shoots quickly but he’s always present. He doesn’t waste time. The one great note he made to me was, “It’s always important to take the work seriously, but you don’t have to take yourself too seriously.” That was a great message that I took with me.
People assume he’s a very serious guy.
He’s got a wicked sense of humor. This show was so fun to make. He could certainly pop a balloon if he had to. He always has the perfect one liner waiting at the ready.
I have to ask. What’s it like walking into a bar with Clint?
I was lucky enough to grab a drink and a bite with him and talk. It’s one of those legendary experiences that you’ll never forget. I felt like I was walking in with the sheriff.