Vincent D’Onofrio and Nigel Thatch play Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Malcolm X respectively in the upcoming Epix series, The Godfather of Harlem. Based on a true story about Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) and his return home after ten years in prison, Malcolm X and Bumpy join forces in the midst of the crime underworld of Harlem.
We sat down for an exclusive with Vincent D’Onofrio and Nigel Thatch about their roles on screen and the ways they each connected with their characters.
How did you know that this role was the perfect fit for each of you?
Nigel Thatch: “The perfect fit? I’m still trying to figure that out! It’s always a working progress. You know what I mean? So to say that it’s a perfect fit, I can’t really commit to that. But I say that it’s an honor to be given this opportunity to do the best I can with the role. I play Malcolm X and it’s a lot of work that goes into it—a lot of research and spending a lot of time trying to find out as much information as I can to embody Malcolm X as much as I can. And we have a consultant on the show by the name of professor James Small who has been very key in helping me along the way.”
Because you played Malcolm X before in Selma, did the research from that role help prepare you for this one? How did one inform the other?
Nigel Thatch: “Of course. That’s kind of where the research began with Selma. And then I started by going to a lot of old video stores that only carry VHS tapes from back in the day. Took that research and went to YouTube, did as much as I could on YouTube, so much so that I’m listening to Malcolm X speeches in my dressing room down up until the time we say action just so that I can get the cadence and the tone of his voice and the nuances of his voice embedded into my mind as much as I can right up until it’s time to shoot. So it’s a pretty involved process, and like I said, it’s still a working progress. Hopefully, the people’s response will be positive and again hopefully if we get a chance to move forward with this performance will be even better.”
Vincent, for you, how did you connect with your character?
Vincent D’Onofrio: “Well, I don’t often play an Italian American. I am an Italian American. It’s not the kind of part that would be the first thing on my mind to play because of all the racism involved in it. I remember when I was younger and John Singleton started making films, he asked me to do something once and the part was…the character was so racist, I just asked him to please move on from me and find somebody else to do it. I like John so much as a filmmaker, but it was just a bit too heavy for me for the way I grew up. But this is a particular thing, what we’re doing in Godfather of Harlem is very particular. It’s a story that I think can help right now [with all that’s] going on. The rise of the black community back then. I think to have that in a show now is super important. So I think my character represents the threat of that black community rising up and I think that’s important and so I had to commit to playing it full out and not pull any punches and not soften the character at all and stuff. That’s why I’m here doing it. Those are the reasons. So it’s more than just a gangster that I’m playing. The role represents, in this show, a lot more to me than that.
Can you talk about bringing this father-daughter dynamic to the screen?
Vincent D’Onofrio: “It’s not difficult, I have a daughter. I’ll tell you a little bit, I won’t tell you everything. It’s tough, you know? It’s tough being a dad and watching your girl grow up and get into relationships. Thank God for the women in my life telling me to stay out of her business. It’s tough. It’s tough. So I can totally relate to that. There are some scenes in this particular show that has to do with my white daughter seeing a black man. So I can just substitute that for my life easily. I may not have any trouble with that in my life, but there’s other things that I worry about for my kids. So it’s not hard to substitute the things that I do worry about with that. So it’s very easy playing a father, being a father. I have two sons and a daughter. And also the actress…You know what the coolest thing about what I do for a living is? I still get enlightened when I’m doing scenes. Things happen and I’m like, oh shit. For the first time I think, oh wow. So for that to still be happening because of what we do, at my age and as long as I’ve been doing this…playing these scenes with a daughter was like that for me. I still get enlightened.”
If there’s one thing you would say, you hope the viewers take away from watching this show, what would that be?
Nigel Thatch: “I would say that I hope they take away that it’s a quality television show. Because I don’t want to get away from the fact that this is a TV show. This is entertainment. I want people to be entertained. I want people to tune into Epix, watch this show, see great performances, great stories being told and hopefully along the way they can come out with a little bit of history.”
The Godfather of Harlem premieres on September 29 on Epix.