Based on the true story about Bumpy Johnson regaining control of a 1960 Harlem, Epix presents a new series, The Godfather of Harlem.
We sat down with a few cast members: Ilfenesh Hadera (Mayme Johnson), Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Elise Johnson), Lucy Fry (Stella), and Rafi Gavron (Ernie Nunzi) who star in the upcoming TV series set to premiere on September 29.
The Knockturnal: How are you feeling about this show so far?
Ilfenesh Hadera: “I feel like after the Apollo and seeing the reception we got there, usually you’re a little bit anxious about the world seeing it. I just want to get it out there. It’s such a positive, wonderful reaction to it, in a real genuine way. Usually at those things, you gotta take what people say with a grain of salt. Right, because everybody’s congratulatory because they have to be. But everybody seemed really proud of what we had created and happy to have the story told.”
The Knockturnal: I would love to hear about how each of you came on board with this project. What was the determining factor for signing for each of you?
Ilfenesh Hadera: “I think getting hands-on material that was so above and beyond…you know, you get scripts all the time and you connect with some things and some things you like, or some things you’re kind of lukewarm about, but this was immediately like, oh this is different and special. I was a huge fan of Narcos. That reason I subscribed to Netflix back in the day was for Narcos. So you read the pilot and see that Chris and Paul, the creators of Narcos are attached to it and then you start seeing Forest Whitaker and that they’re talking to Giancarlo Esposito about this. So the whole package was so, so exciting.”
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy: “Same, I read the first couple of scripts and I read the bible for the show which was so good. I enjoyed reading it so much and then I also got to read Mayme Johnson’s book which put me over the edge. I was already on board but then her book and getting to read the history through her words was so amazing. So I think that all of the content we got before it even started was amazing so I couldn’t wait to get started.”
The Knockturnal: What about playing Elise and Mayme challenged you the most?
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy: “She was an addict. And I think I did a lot of research and really tried to get into the mind of that. It’s painful, it’s a really painful place to live, being an addict and then going through everything you’re going through when you have withdrawals and you’re trying to get another fix when you’re going through. [It was] a lot of sort of living in a very low place to try to understand her mindset.”
Ilfenesh Hadera: “With Mayme, she’s such an incredibly strong woman. I’ve said this before but she’s not a tough woman. And I think there’s a real difference between being strong and being hard and she’s not at all been hardened by her experience. And I think it was very important to, definitely to me, but also to Chris and Paul, to find that sweet spot where she is strong, commands respect, but is still likable, and maternal, and sweet and soft in the ways that she is and was. So that was challenging.”
The Knockturnal: What was it like for each of you working with Forest and building that chemistry?
Ilfenesh Hadera: “For me, it happened in a really organic way I think. And I think our storyline lent itself to that building the building of chemistry because when we meet him, he’s been away for 11 years so they get to really re-learn each other. In episode one, they start in one place and by ten, they’ve really, really grown. And just, he’s so easy to work with and lovely to work with, not hard.”
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy: “I think he was in my second audition for the show which was crazy. It was like, oh, hello. But from, literally in that first audition, getting to go back and forth, he’s like the best scene partner, aside from Ilfenesh. It was just really easy, he’s so easy to work with. And that just made me feel very comfortable. And he’s just so good at his job. Just getting to watch him was really nice in the beginning. I would just sit on the side watching.”
The Knockturnal: What do you think is the most rewarding thing about telling this story in 2019?
Ilfenesh Hadera: “I think, maybe for the capacity for it to be a teachable moment. We’re seeing a lot of what we explored in the series kind of going on now with our politics and socially with this horrible opioid epidemic we’ve got going on and so, maybe the ability to learn from experience. You see what has happened, what’s happening again and kind of where we move away from that and learn from what’s happening in the 60s, what’s happening now to build a better future for whoever comes next.”
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me how you’re feeling at this moment?
Lucy Fry: [Laughter] “I’m so excited about the show coming out and as we’re talking about the characters, it’s a little of the emotions from the relationship that my character in the show—which is very tumultuous in talking about being in love and young and up against great obstacles. Talking about it kind of brings it up again because I’m really invested in the character.”
Ravi Gavron: “I’m hopeful that people will take some hope from it because I think it’s an important time period to talk about in terms of that kind of revolution that went on and speaks to the times today. So I hope that it comes across for viewers and they’re watching and they like that and feel it.”
The Knockturnal: From your perspective, what do you think is the goal of the show?
Ravi Gavron: “I think it goes back to exactly what I said. The goal of the show which is to speak to these times now with the epidemics we’ve got going on, with the racism we’ve got going on, with this absurd level of bigotry with people learning to come together whilst [separated] and the hope that we get from watching the evolution on screen might bring us a bit closer to trying to do that again.”
Lucy Fry: “Right, like the polarizing times that were then and now, the level of fight that is required to overcome them, which 1963 definitely had that and the show really captures that so hopefully people really connect to that now!”
The Knockturnal: To you, what do you think makes good television?
Lucy Fry: “Really good characters, getting behind the characters and wanting to see them overcome these challenges. Yeah, I really feel like, especially following Bumpy’s journey throughout this series, every frame I want to know what he’s doing next and then all of the supporting roles like Rafi’s character, the volatility in his character, I was just like oh my gosh. It’s kind of like watching a car crash. You don’t want to look away but it’s terrifying and brings so much empathy for someone that’s just brought up in this culture that that’s the way that he would operate from there. And I feel like every character, you can see where they’ve come from and what they’re fighting for and you want to know how they can get through it.”
The Knockturnal: Was there anything that you learned about yourselves that you were surprised to learn during this process of filming?
Rafi Gavron: “Yeah, that we have a lot to work on still. Eyes have to be open and ears have got to be open. Humility has to be had and we’ve got to start listening properly and I feel like I do enough of that, but I realize that I don’t do enough and in this time now, so much more of that needs to happen for all of us. It was an encouragement to me.”
Lucy Fry: “Yeah, I had a similar experience, too.”
The Knockturnal: Can you talk about some of the research that you had to do to prepare for this role?
Lucy Fry: “I had to do a lot of research into American history and history of gangs in New York because I didn’t really know that much about it starting off. I was watching a lot of documentaries and learning about Harlem and the Civil Rights Movement and the prohibition and how the oppression was leading to the violence then and people just getting by, I guess. And Stella being the daughter of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and looking at that family and how kind of eccentric and strange they were…trying to get away from the police by him pretending to be crazy and shuffling around the village in a bathrobe. It was such wild times.”
Rafi Gavron: “For me, I just tried to talk to some people who were around during that time and had that experience. The Italian American community and in the black community and try to learn a bit so that I could bring myself to that.”
The Godfather of Harlem premieres on September 29 on Epix.