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Dennis Farina on Playing the Hustler in The Last Rites of Joe May and HBO’s Upcoming Racetrack Drama, Luck

Dennis Farina.

In his movies, onetime real-life cop Dennis Farina has been a convincing tough guy on either side of the law. But in The Last Rites of Joe May, he plays a small-time hood who learns he’s not quite tough enough. After a long hospital stay with pneumonia, Joe returns home to discover that all of his belongings have been tossed and his apartment has been rented to another tenant; everyone thought he had died. Recovering what little is left of his life turns out to be hard, and Farina, navigating the possibilities of one last shot at redemption, gives one of his finest performances. Vulture chatted with the actor about playing the hustler in Last Rites and the upcoming HBO show Luck, and about swearing, gambling, and other tough-guy stuff.

This film was originally set in New York, but you stole it away from us!
Yes! [Laughs.] I live in Chicago, I hadn’t worked there in a long time, and so I asked if it would be reasonable to shoot it there. Plus, there’s a pretty nice tax break there. So [director] Joe Maggio came to Chicago. And we put more of a Chicago accent on things, like when he says, “Who the fuck wants to live on the South Side?”

The way your character says that belongs to your collection of great movie swears. Have you seen the viral video that compiles what they call your “Fuck Fest”?
Somebody told me about that! It’s so funny. You know, if swearing works, I think it’s fine. I hope I don’t do it too much, where it becomes meaningless, or the effect is gone, because you’d want to use it judiciously. But if it works for the character, I don’t mind. [Laughs.]

Have you ever known small-time hustlers like Joe May, either from back when you were a detective or later on as an actor?
I’ve known Joe Mays my whole life. I still do. They’re around. Not like they used to be, but they’re certainly around. Joe is always trying to hustle, always chasing a buck, and he can’t get out of that. Had he been more successful, he probably would have been one of the characters I played in other movies, like Get Shorty or Midnight Run. But Joe never gets out of that slump.

You get to play another hustler on the upcoming HBO show Luck, where you reteam with Michael Mann …
He was doing Thief back in 1980, and I was supposed to just be a consultant on the movie, and he asked me one day to do a part. I said, “No, I don’t want to.” And he said, “Go ahead, it’ll be fine.” I don’t know why, but he was so insistent. That’s how Michael is. He asks you to do something, and you just have to do it. He called me one day, I had no idea what Luck was, and when I went to meet him, I said, “What’s this all about?” And he said, “Racetracks. Here’s the script, here’s our research, here’s what I want you to find out.”

Who’s your character? How does he fit in?
My character, Gus, is Dustin Hoffman’s right-hand man. Most of my stuff is with Dustin, who’s just a wonderful guy, a great guy to be around. So the whole show revolves around the inner workings of a racetrack, the mechanics of everything: the trainers, the managers, the agents, the jockeys. Like how the jockeys stay on weight, how they get a mount — if you don’t ride, you don’t get paid. And there’s a lot of competition. One of the issues is, racetracks are having a hard time because people are going to off-track betting, attendance is down, casinos are taking over, and so the interesting part becomes: Who is going to be in control?

Michael Mann had some control issues with David Milch. How open was Milch to rewrites?
You know, David writes in such a way, it’s almost Mamet-like. His phrasing is a little different and his speech pattern is a little different. When you see it written, you go, “Nobody talks like this.” But these guys do. It’s the combination of the jargon, the arena that they’re in, the way they talk about bets, and all of the gambling talk, quick sixes; and not only that, they say it in a way that’s not normally said. We call it Milchian. And it becomes very natural. And a few times, I called David — and this wasn’t just me, everybody did this — and I said, “This doesn’t really sound Milchian.” You can call him and say that. You can say, “Maybe I should say it this way.” And he’s very open to that, changing things.

Most people who bet at the track seem to have a system …
If you meet a gambler, you’ll meet a system. They all have a system. Most systems don’t work, in any gambling endeavor. The gamblers you meet, they only tell you about their winnings. They don’t tell you how much they lost, and they’re all playing catch-up.

Dennis Farina on Playing the Hustler in The Last Rites of Joe May and HBO’s Upcoming Racetrack Drama, Luck