It took a while for Michael Zegen to find his place on Boardwalk Empire. The New Jersey-reared, New York-based actor first auditioned for the show’s pilot. Back then, he had eyes on the roles of Jimmy Darmody or Lucky Luciano. Those roles went to Michael Pitt and Vincent Piazza, respectively. “At the time, the casting director said to me, she didn’t know who I was going to play, but she felt like I was definitely a part of this world,” Zegen recalls. “That was fairly comforting.”
And so Zegen went out for the part of Meyer Lansky. He got pretty far in the audition process, but, ultimately, Anatol Yusef landed the part. Zegen admits to being “kind of upset” when he watched the show, wondering if there would ever be a part for him. Sometimes, though, that “third time is the charm” line is hooey. You have to try again. Zegen did, and he was cast as Benny Siegel.
“I had heard of Bugsy Siegel,” says Zegen. “I wasn’t sure if it was him, or just a guy with the same name.” At the first read-through for the show, though, Zegen received books and DVDs about the famed gangster’s life, and the identity of his character was confirmed.
The inspiration for a number of characters in TV and film, Siegel eventually headed out west, settling in Los Angeles, and then Las Vegas. During the course of Boardwalk Empire, though, Siegel is a youngster. “He was a psychopath,” says Zegen, and that’s part of what attracted the actor to the role. He likens it to being a child playing a game like “cops and robbers.” It’s also a stretch from his other recent roles.
“Last year, I was on Girls, and I played a very nice guy who worked with Hannah in the GQ office,” says Zegen. “Before that, I was in Frances Ha, and I played a very nice guy—and this [Siegel] is not a nice guy.”
It’s been an interesting career for Zegen. His acting ambitions go back to childhood, when one of his schoolmates started appearing in commercials. Young Zegen began taking classes on the weekend and kept up with his studies throughout high school and college. Soon after moving to New York, he scored a gig playing Dwight the Troubled Teen on Late Show with David Letterman. “It was pretty incredible because it afforded me the ability to live in the city,” he says. “Without that, I don’t know how I would have survived.”
Twelve years later, Zegen has racked up credits that include The Walking Dead (“I had the best time ever,” he says), Rescue Me, Girls, and the critically-acclaimed film Frances Ha. He also appeared in 200 performances of the play Bad Jews. “It kind of screws with your head a little bit,” he says, of working in theater. “It’s almost like when you’re saying a word over and over again, and it starts to not make any sense because you think about it too much.”
Up next is the film Brooklyn, based on the book by Colm Tóibín, and with a screenplay by Nick Hornby. For now, though, you can catch Zegen as Benny Siegel on Boardwalk Empire.
Liz Ohanesian writes about pop culture from her base in Los Angeles. For updates, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.