Written and directed by Eytan Rockaway (“The Abandoned”), the biopic follows the notorious gangster Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel), who is living in anonymity in Miami Beach after being investigated and pursued by the FBI for decades. When he enlists a young journalist named David Stone (Sam Worthington) to tell his story, the Feds use him as a pawn to track down the hundreds of millions of dollars that the mobster has been suspected of stashing. Stone finds himself caught in the middle of a game of cat and mouse, uncovering the hidden truth about the infamous boss of Murder Inc. and the National Crime Syndicate.
How does it feel now that Lansky is complete and available for audiences to see?
David: It’s always surreal when a movie that you made finally gets out. I think that seeing where it started versus where it is and then now seeing the reception for it is great. It’s beautiful seeing these things being born and given off into the world.
Did COVID affect filming?
David: We wrapped right before COVID hit. I actually went from Lansky to another film and that film was cut short in production because of COVID. Lansky got out just in time, we got really lucky. I know the release date probably got shifted a bit because of the pandemic, but we got through production just fine.
Meyer Lansky is an absolutely huge name and a lot of media has been made about him. What do you think sets this film apart from the rest?
David: I think the personal relationship of the director and his insight from his father’s relationship with Meyer Lansky. I think that’s an important element to the story. It’s not simply a biopic, it’s also this engaging drama that’s relating to what the filmmaker’s father was dealing with as well. And there’s a couple different elements that Lansky encapsulates. There’s the history of Meyer’s life, and I think we’re getting a much more intimate look at that, there’s David Stone’s dynamic as he’s going through the film, and then there’s also a caper element of trying to find Meyer Lansky’s fortune. It’s a fun combination of a lot of different things.
Oh wow, I didn’t make that connection, that is so cool!
David: David Stone, who is portrayed by Sam Worthington, is actually Eytan Rockaway’s father. This is based off of what Eytan Rockaway’s father did back in the 80s when he met with Meyer Lansky. I think he was a professor, and one of his studies was in Jewish history, Jewish crime history specifically. And as a result, Meyer contacted him about the book and basically said ‘you can take all this down but you can’t publish it until after I’m dead.’ And so that’s the premise. I believe there is a book that Eytan’s father did write. And that’s what the film is about, essentially, Eytan’s father and when he met Meyer Lansky and wrote the novel… I don’t know if it’s been widely publicized that this is the background behind it.
You play Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Who exactly is he to Meyer Lansky?
David: So Ben Siegel is a famous mobster in history. He and Meyer are fundamentally responsible for the beginning of Las Vegas. There’s a couple different ways that Ben has been portrayed throughout the years; he’s certainly a stereotype in many ways. I like to think of Ben as an incredibly gifted businessman, who was also a very physical guy and willing to do whatever he needed to do to make it happen. I think he’s only ever really thought of in the physical sense, you know, as maybe being an enforcer for Meyer, where he probably was. But he had very good business savvy, and he had a lot of different business operations throughout the years, culminating into his opening of the Flamingo in Las Vegas.
Why does he not like the nickname Bugsy?
David: There’s some different myths around why he didn’t like Bugsy. The one that I have stuck to, that meant the most to me, was as a kid, his eyes sort of jetted out like a bug and kids called him Bugsy. I haven’t identified any one specific thing about why he got that name, I just know that he was not fond of it. It’s like you’re trying to find that deep thing for a character when they’re young, you know, what’s that childhood trauma that can make you lash out? I suppose getting picked on on the school yard as a kid over your eyes could be one of them.
You mentioned that he is stereotyped a lot, but your portrayal doesn’t lean into that stereotype as heavily as some of the other portrayals. What did you do to prepare to play him?
David: Well, I did a lot of things. I think I went through a lot of manifestations of what I thought Bugsy was gonna be. And I researched his history and tried to bring that into the mix, and I also watched all the other portrayals of him and tried to find where I thought the holes were. I thought there were some holes, and I, my hope with the character was that I was able to bring, sort of a nuanced perspective to Ben. If you read about him, you read about how he loved his daughter so much, and how he was a good Jewish son to his mother and I just noticed this recurring theme about generally his politeness to women. And he was actually a relatively popular figure in Hollywood in the golden age, he was in tabloids from time to time and he dated starlets. He was constantly waking up and going to the YMCA to get his workout and then get his tan and then go to work. I just thought he was a much more well rounded human character, but he was also definitely capable of pretty brutal violence. I wanted to humanize him in that way and show that there were multiple aspects of him . I think, in particular to the film, he’s a tragic figure, and I tried to find something that really drove that.
Do you prefer to play characters that are real people or do you prefer fictional characters?
David: I like all types. For me, this is the first time I’m playing a historically accurate character. So, there was a different pressure. But I liked it because I had so many historical things to pull from to help build that character. It wasn’t just my instinct or my gut that I was going with to form something entirely new. I had some source material and that’s just a different process. What I liked about it was, when you do that kind of research, that shows up in the work in surprising ways. It doesn’t always show up when you expect it. You know, the little things. And actually, the one thing I always talk about is the scene, my final scene, when I say goodbye to Meyer. That whole scene is improv, that last bit. And that was only able to happen because of the research that I was able to do that could give me an instinct about who Ben really was. Otherwise, the improv would have never made the cut. We had done the scene a couple different ways, we did the scene the original written away, and then I went to Eytan and said, ‘I’ve been doing some work here on this, let me just throw something out there and see if it sticks.’And that whole scene about, you know, ‘what was I going to do Meyer, be a tailor’s son for eight bucks a week? You could have done anything and I followed you and I loved you for that. And I lost my soul for it. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get that back.’ That whole bit. That was character improvisation rooting itself in the history that I saw in Meyer’s past. So, I guess that’s the benefit of working with the real characters, you have that history to pull from.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned from playing these real characters?
David: I think the most surprising thing is just their relationships with other people and their motivations. These are really extreme guys and to most people the idea of, you know, committing murder or being a crime boss, that seems very far away from everybody. Their motivations are just the same as everybody else’s and their desire for success isn’t so different from your desire for success, or my desire for success. It’s just that the tools that they had at their disposal to implement them and how they had to get them seems so extreme. But really, they were people that want the same things that you or I or anybody else wants and that’s what motivated them, you know, and so we were not so different in many ways.