Since first exploding onto our screens in 2010, the impressive gangster TV drama Boardwalk Empire (produced by Casino’s Martin Scorsese, and The Departed star Mark Wahlberg); focussing on the infamous boardwalk in Atlantic City New Jersey, and the mobsters who made a killing from it during prohibition; has gone from strength to strength, and in order to celebrate the release of Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fourth Season, we talked to 25-year-old Margot Bingham, who played the most interesting new character in season four: jazz singer Daughter Maitland.
Did you expect the role to get the attention it did (Rolling Stone called it the breakout performance of the US TV season?
Margot: Not at all. When I first got the call it was just to come in for a jazz singer and I was told it was going to be one or two episodes at most. I’m kind of happy that it happened like that because I think if I’d gone into the series knowing she was going to be this major character I would have been scared and probably screwed it up.
It’s a pretty difficult role involving a lot of singing and dancing as well as acting…
[laughs] I know. In every single episode it was like they gave me a new challenge. In the first episode I had the singing challenge, then the second challenge was the dancing in front of everybody and then the third challenge was stunt work…it was one thing after another. If they wanted to work me hard and stretch my limits then they sure did but it was also very exciting.
How would you describe Daughter?
Margot: She’s a survivor and she’s been through way too much at such a young age. She’s smart and wise beyond her years but she still acts out and is spunky and a bit daring. When the club owner tells her what to sing she ignores him and chooses her own tune. She’s ballsy and has a lot of chutzpah.
This season the focus really moves on to the black characters…
Margot: Yes it’s definitely the year of the black [laughs] – it was nice that they stayed true to the time and focused on the jazz age and the Harlem Renaissance and Marcus Garvey and the black uprising and black empowerment.
Most of your scenes involve Michael K Williams and Jeffrey Wright – what was it like acting opposite them?
Margot: I’m a huge fan of Michael’s so I was really excited to work with him but I don’t think anyone realised how strong we’d be together. We became really close friends and that really shows on screen. It just worked. As for Jeffrey, he’s incredible, really very kind and so smart and I learnt so much from being around him. He also has a really dry, quirky sense of humour – he’d tell me these things with a straight face and just as I’d believe him, he’d say ‘got ya’.
Which singers did you look to for inspiration?
Margot: Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker – they were my three top gals. I was lucky enough not to have to portray a specific person because I think that really puts a lot of restraint on a character. Terence Winter and Howard Korder gave me a lot of creative control with Daughter – I don’t know why but they just trusted me.
As a singer yourself [Bingham has an established musical career as Margot B] was it difficult to chance your vocal style for the show?
Margot: A lot of the artists in the 1920s were sold on pure tonality or their connection to music and lyrics alone and it was so raw and exposing. It really was a challenge to kind of strip down what I knew from jazz and oversimplify and keep it so bare. As a singer you always want to do more but more isn’t always the answer.
What about your hair and clothes for the show?
Margot: The hair was funny because my ‘fro is massive but I just went in every morning with it all shellacked down like a wet dog and then they’d put a toupee round the front and the finger curls would go in the toupee. I’d be sitting in my trailer thinking of all the real women who did this by themselves without people to twist and turn it for them and going ‘Oh God bless these women that did this and did it every day and looked stunning.’
“[Daughter] really is the role of a lifetime.”
– Margot Bingham
And the clothes?
Margot: I definitely lucked out for clothes and makeup. They dressed me to perfection and it was always exciting going in for a fitting. I was like ‘What next? What next?
The music is also going well [Bingham has released three albums as Margot B] so is the plan to continue juggling both careers?
Margot: Yes, I’m going to try and push both careers forward as much as I can until people get really confused [laughs]. So far it’s been ok trying to differentiate between Margot Bingham and Margo B – a lot of people told me that keeping the two names was a really stupid mistake but you know if it is then let me make it. So long as I’m singing on my own then it’s Margot B, if I’m in character and singing then that’s Margot Bingham. I always want them to be different.
Your father Craig Binham, was an NFL player with the Pittsburgh Steelers – did he have any advice for handling fame?
Margot: My family’s always been really supportive and we’re very close but I was also very aware of coming from that world which is one of the reasons I was Margot B and not Margot Bingham when I started as a singer. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of my dad I just wanted to make my own way. That said he’s a total class act and I’ve learnt completely from him.
Does getting the role of Daughter feel like your big chance?
Margot: Yes, absolutely because firstly I was given the chance to be able to act and sing without being on a Broadway show and then to be equally acclaimed for the acting part and have some episodes be without music. It really is the role of a lifetime.
An original programme by groundbreaking network HBO, Boardwalk Empire was created by The Sopranos‘ writer Terence Winter, based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson, and stars Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs) as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson; a ruthless political figure and gangster who attempts to maintain control of his underground empire during the fourth season of the show, despite rising pressures, and a host of new challenges.
Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fourth Season, and Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Season 1-4 Boxset, is released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 18th from HBO UK.