Shea Whigham was at an Emmy party last month with "Boardwalk Empire" creator Terence Winter. Filming on the first season of the HBO series, which debuts amidst much fanfare Sunday, had been complete for a while.

So, they were talking, and one thing occurred to each of them: When can we get back at it?

"You know it's a great project when you're longing to get back into it already," Whigham, 41, said. "For me to be able to tell a story over a period of time, and maybe over a period of years, I've never done that."

Maybe you know Whigham from movies such as "Tigerland" and "Machete." Maybe not. Before long, though, you'll know him as Sheriff Elias "Eli" Thompson, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) brother.

It's an interesting push-pull that exists between the two actors, Whigham said by phone from California. Eli, he said, knows his place in the organization. Nucky comes first, Eli comes second. But he's a capable second. And maybe, we'll find out, hungry for more.

"You know, there is a razor-thin line that Eli and Nucky walk, because I'm his brother but I also work with him," the actor said. "You can only imagine how intricate that relationship is."

Winter had known of Whigham, and recognized him from his movie work. But when he auditioned, Winter said in an e-mail, "it was obvious that he would bring an air of authority to the role.

"What he also brought," the writer said, "was a complexity that included pathos and humor."

Despite his work on a variety of projects, Whigham echoes a sentiment often shared about taking part in "Boardwalk Empire": Nothing before in his career compares to this.

There was one point in particular while filming the pilot more than a year ago that it hit him. He's sitting in Babette's Supper Club at 4:30 a.m. There are 500 extras in the room. No expense is spared; if the characters are to be eating lobster, that's what is there.

"I had one of those moments where I thought, 'I'm in a BIG production,'" he said.

The production values, he said, are awesome. But while much about "Boardwalk Empire" is historically accurate, that does not necessarily extend to the characters. "Nucky" Johnson, on whom "Nucky" Thompson is based, did have a brother who worked in law enforcement. But that's about where the similarities end.

For one thing, Alfred Johnson had no family. Whigham's Eli is a family man. The actor is hesitant to give anything away. But he will say this: Watch out as the season progresses, because the relationship between Eli and Nucky only grows more interesting.

"We find a lot of humor with Eli, and at the same time the one thing I have on Nucky is the family, the unit," he said, "and that starts to rear itself as the season progresses."

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Coming Friday

Meet Vincent Piazza, who plays fabled gangster Lucky Luciano.