Vincent Piazza was between gigs a few years ago when he thought it would be a good exercise to play a gangster. On his own, he filmed himself playing one.

Little did he know that the resulting monologue - of a gangster telling an old children's story to his son - would help him snag the role of Charles "Lucky" Luciano on "Boardwalk Empire."

As the HBO series premieres, this is not the Luciano of lore, the godfather of organized crime as we know it. No, he's a young gun working for criminal figure Arnold Rothstein, taken under the latter's wing.

To prepare for the role, Piazza pored over books on his subject, researching with Rothstein portrayer Michael Stuhlbarg and visiting New York coffee joints from the era. Piazza, who first came to "Empire" creator Terence Winter's radar during a stint on "The Sopranos," immersed himself in the man and the time.

"You felt a great responsibility," he says. "Whether he's a violent murderer or Gandhi, you feel a great responsibility to get it right."

For Piazza, that meant forgetting what Luciano becomes.

The Luciano of "Boardwalk Empire" is unrefined, a hothead more likely to act first without thinking things through.

This notion of force versus power is a driving theme for the character as the first season develops.

"Vincent brings just the right level of authority and menace to the role," Winter says. "You totally believe he'll grow into the character we already know he becomes."

"He's someone who grew up using force to get what he wants. But what he hasn't figured out is power," Piazza says. "He strikes me as a guy who had to learn not to explode on people."

This is where Stuhlbarg's Rothstein comes in. In early episodes, you see him trying to mold his protege, teach him the ropes. As the duo researched their roles together, Piazza soaked up all he could from Stuhlbarg, who won raves for his role in "A Serious Man."

"(Luciano) is a kid who was from a slum, not only in New York but in Sicily. I joked with Michael early on: 'I see the dynamic. I'm the Julia Roberts to your Richard Gere,'" Piazza says, pulling out a "Pretty Woman" reference. "I'd argue his relationship with Rothstein was the main driving force in making him what he was in organized crime."

As the series develops, we'll see exactly how Luciano grows. But the actor playing him knows how, pardon the pun, lucky he is.

"It was challenging and fun and scary. You start tapping into other parts of yourself and you wonder where they come from," he says of bringing to life the infamous mobster. "I've done television, but I've never done anything this intensive."

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Coming Saturday

Meet Aleksa Palladino, who plays Jimmy Darmody's common-law wife Angela.