To play Angela Darmody, the dreamer wife of conflicted gangster Jimmy Darmody [Michael Pitt] on Martin Scorsese project Boardwalk Empire, actress Aleksa Palladino had to live the interior, cloistered life of a deeply frustrated artist. To prepare, Palladino read about women artists. She did historical research. She even took up painting in order to be closer to her character. So when the news came that Angela would be killed in the episode that aired November 27, Palladino was devastated. “I imagined so much more for her,” the actress says. “I really wanted to see her find her strength and fulfill her promise.”
For the diehard Boardwalk viewer, Darmody’s passing—as a casualty of her husband’s shady dealings—leaves her narrative tragically unrealized, but for the actress who played her it’s like an amputation. “I lost an avenue into myself that was important to me,” says Palladino. Literally born into an artistic life, Palladino has built a career as an actress and a musician—she currently performs, with husband Devon Church, as half of the band Exitmusic. We caught up with her on bringing to life and saying goodbye to a beloved character, and performance as a way of life.
FAST COMPANY: You finished filming in August; talk a little bit about where you were in your head with Angela when you began shooting this season.
ALEKSA PALLADINO: One of the benefits to television is that you’re with these characters for years, you know them so well. It’s interesting, it was very different from gearing up to start the series in season one where you don’t have any information, the writers don’t even really know where to take her, so you wind up doing a lot of practical research: the time, the period, I researched a lot of female artists. Preparing for season two was totally different. I didn’t do as much historical prep. I just tried to bring her to the surface of me again.
She is such an emotionally rich character … In one sense, she has a fully realized life, but also the opposite of a fully realized life.
Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly how I feel about her. She’s just constantly in conflict because I think she has this rich inner life but she doesn’t even know how to talk about it. And I think that’s how it is for anybody who’s sort of at the forefront of a movement, especially a social movement. Margaret [Kelly MacDonald], for example, in season one is a member of the suffragette movement, and Angela is not very politically motivated, but her sort of movement would just be, sort of, making space in society for actual freedom, for more personal freedoms.
Yeah, you wouldn’t necessarily say, "Oh, Angela’s such a feminist."
Well, not like a political feminist, but a real feminist, in the sense that I want the freedom to at least experience myself. Wherever that takes me, and I don’t know where that’s going to take me, but I want the freedom to experience my life.
Would you say she and Jimmy are in love?
There was definitely love there. I think Jimmy is just a really, really, really complicated person to be close to, and I think her desires to be close to someone are on such an innocent and pure level. That’s what I always come back to with Angela—this is a person who feels alone and is just looking to connect to someone. Jimmy is kind of a partner that can’t ever really fulfill that because he doesn’t have that. Everybody will come to see they’re very just mismatched in that way. There was definitely love, and I think that there still is. I just feel Angela doesn’t know how to be the person that she wants to be while still living in the ruins of an old-fashioned life.
What do you think she gets out of her relationship with Mary that she can’t get from her relationship with Jimmy?
To me, intimacy is the biggest part of her drive. We see the beginning of a sort of relationship with Richard [Jack Huston] because there’s an actual communication happening. You never see Angela and Jimmy just talking, sharing anything that’s going on in their actual lives. And I think that’s an incredibly lonely place to be. With Mary there was a real relationship, two people going through life together. With Jimmy, I feel like the new house is the perfect metaphor, it’s just big and empty. That’s their life. On the outside, everything looks like it’s improved, but it’s not a warm house. They’re obviously not even physically intimate this year.
What was your reaction when you realized Angela was going to die?
It was pretty upsetting for awhile. You put so much life into a character, and I think because we never know where the characters are going, there’s so much more room to imagine where they’re going. It was upsetting for so many reasons but ultimately because the character, I don’t think, ever really had a chance to grow. I feel that there was just so much potential of things that could happen.
In your own fantasy choose-your-own-adventure for her, what are some of the ways this could have gone?
There are just so many different ways it could have gone that would have been more satisfying. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but there was originally an idea that she would wind up going to Greenwich Village with Jimmy and become friendly with another woman who was an anarchist. Angela would have been brought into that whole world, which would have been amazing. I think what’s interesting about her, as opposed to other women in the show is that she’s the only woman that isn’t looking to gain power through the man she’s with, she’s looking for her version of power just through herself. It would’ve been nice to see what that would’ve been. She was the one that had the potential of being a really modern woman.
It must be hard for you to invest so completely in a character whose fate is beyond your control.
There’s a mourning period after something like this. Mine was like three months. [Laughs] It was intense, because you just start to love this person. And she’s an interesting character because she’s easily misunderstood. People love her, people hate her, people don’t get her. She’s one of the emotional centers of that show. It’s like a death.
Were you able to enjoy the experience of playing her in those last days while shooting the final scene?
Enjoying isn’t really the right word. No, it was devastating. I think I was in tears the whole time. It was brutal. From a storyteller’s perspective, I appreciate how brutal it is. It was intense, it was scary, it was all those things.
Switching gears for a moment—you are currently on tour with your band Exitmusic. Do you think of acting and music as separate creative forms in your mind?
No. And it doesn’t even feel creative to me. It just feels like what you do. Everyone in my family is an artist. Both my parents are painters and my mom’s an opera singer. I was never shown any other way to process life. I started playing music when I was really young. For me, it was really just to have some place to talk, even, because I was always sort of intimidated by my own feelings. I still am most of the time.
So what was acting for you? You started acting pretty young; music came first, right?
Acting brought me into the world. It gave me a way to interact with it. I think it’s sort of one of the things that reflects me and Angela very much is that I grew up feeling very alone and out of sync with the world around me, which is intense when you’re little. When you feel that way when you’re 5 it sort of sets your course. [Laughs] It’s hard to find another stream after that. I wasn’t ever playing with people when I was young. So acting was like a way of slowly helping me show what I was feeling. I think children in general have a very hard time—at least I did—expressing any pain because I didn’t want to hurt the people that I loved. I didn’t want them to feel like something was wrong with them. You wind up not really wanting to show them any of that, and you don’t want to see it yourself.
I feel like you’ve experienced a personal loss, in Angela’s death. Hang in there!
[Laughs] Playing her magnified parts of me that really needed expressing, that vulnerable, sort of a little out of sync with society around her part. There are a lot of things I relate to and it was nice to have a place to put that. I felt so close to her, and as an actor, when you feel—you can’t help but feel like I did my job. That I was really able to have my heart beat with her heart. So it’s good.