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Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino Reveals the Backstory of Her ‘Experimenting’ Artist

While Boardwalk Empire’s Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) rallies the women’s vote, housewife Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) seeks a quieter revolution: one that will allow her to have a painting career and a female lover. Despite her Gibson Girl features, Manhattan-born Palladino had never done a period piece before Boardwalk Empire. The actress got her start as a teenager in a series of well-received indies (Manny & Lo, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) before getting a major career boost in her twenties from director Sidney Lumet (Find Me Guilty, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Now that she’s back in her hometown, Palladino filled us in on Angela’s secret backstory (her parents were vaudeville stars!) and contemplated the direction of Boardwalk Empire’s maligned female characters.

Unlike some of the other women on the show, mainly Margaret Schroeder, Angela Darmody seems to be in her own little world, far from the suffragette movement. What signs of the New Woman do you think we’re starting to see in her?
The thing with Margaret is that she does come from a country where women already have the right to vote, so she’s already been brought up in a time that’s a little more advanced than America politically at that point. Then you have Angela, who did grow up in Atlantic City, and represents more social change. That’s where you see her beginning to want to experience that equality. She’s not a suffragette, she’s not politically involved, but she’s starting to want more out of a society, more options for how to make a living instead of the preordained things that were acceptable for women at that point. And then too, with her sexuality. In her, I think you see that struggle towards: What do I want, and how do I make that world for myself that I want to live in?

And it’s complicated by the fact that she has a little boy. She seems to have less help raising her child than the other mothers on the show do. Do you get the impression that she’s really on her own as a mother?
I do get the impression in general that Angela is quite used to being alone. When we were doing this work with [Martin Scorsese] on all the backstory, he told me that she grew up with two parents who were a vaudeville act. And of course, none of this has made it into the first season, but still, that’s where she’s coming from, so I think it’s interesting to share. As Marty says, she grew up out of the trunk, which means that she was always on the road with her parents, just going from city to city with the act. And what I took from that is that it’s kind of a lonely upbringing for a child, because your parents are the center of attention, they’ve got this thing they do together, and you’re probably one of the only kids being pulled around from city to city.

Did you know about the lesbian subplot from the beginning?
It was definitely something that they had planned from the onset. I hope they continue to explore it, because I always love stories of people struggling for what their heart wants, as opposed to just money or power.

I was re-watching some scenes, and I noticed that the first time we hear someone telling Angela about Paris, it’s Jimmy trying to get her to perform oral sex on him. And then the next time she hears about Paris, it’s Mary trying to get her to run away with her and live as an artist. Do you think Angela has any firsthand knowledge of the Bohemian lifestyle in Europe, or is it really just a fantasy for her?
I think that’s still a fairly new world, and it’s a new sort of dream for anybody who’s an artist — at that point, it wasn’t what it is today, being an artist was basically being worthless [laughs]. So the whole ideal that Paris represents for artists, and on top of that, for bisexuals or lesbians or whatever, it’s like Oz. It’s that magical place where we can just do our thing and no one’s gonna judge us — or worse.

Where do you think season two is headed in terms of its female characters?
The whole style of dress, the whole Bohemian thing, they all start to merge on one road. They all start as these fragments: women getting the right to vote, the skirt starting to come up a little bit &#*212; two inches above the ankle now, it’s like "wooo!" — there are all these separate roads, but they all really merge into one, which is the real beginning of women rejecting the male ideal of what a woman should be. And then coming into themselves. So I’m just excited to see where they go with it.

Having worked with both Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, how would you compare the two, from an actor’s perspective?
With Marty we did a lot more character development — he would send me all these things, things for my character specifically to become familiar with, and things for all the characters to learn about the time, files after files that he marked for us. It was amazing. I didn’t do that with Sidney, but with Sidney you have weeks of rehearsal, just prepping the actual material. So they’re both very thorough, but in different ways. I don’t know if Boardwalk Empire was a film, if Marty would rehearse intensively. But that’s kind of Sidney’s thing, is that he runs the whole thing almost as if it were a play. So you run the film from start to finish for two weeks before you show up and shoot it. So they’re both probably the most thorough directors I’ve worked with, but they have different approaches.

Random final question: One of the top Google searches for you is “Aleksa Palladino feet.” Care to explain that?
No! Jeez, I’m flattered. No, I don’t know. [Laughs.] Really, I don’t know. “Feet?” Why?

No idea. I didn’t find any pictures of your feet, if that makes you feel better.
I guess something about my name feels like “feet” should follow. If you figure out why, please tell me!

Photo: Patrick McMullan