She sauntered into Chalky White's Onyx Club in the third episode of Boardwalk Empire's fourth season wearing a long, fur-lined coat and a magnetic stare – and we haven't been able to take our eyes off of her since. Her name is Margot Bingham, and she has transformed what could have been a one-note performance into the breakout role of the season. Bingham's character, Harlem jazz-and-blues chanteuse Daughter Maitland, clocked in at a total of two minutes of screen time during her first appearance on the 1920s HBO drama, but that didn't stop me from declaring, "We need more Margot Bingham in this series, please," in that week's recap. As the season heads into its final two episodes, we've watched Daughter Maitland go from eye and ear candy to a key player in the ongoing battle for Atlantic City's African-American-populated Northside between her paramour Chalky (Michael Kenneth Williams) and her wickedly enigmatic father figure Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright). Pittsburgh native Bingham, an accomplished singer-songwriter – as Margot B. – with three albums to her name (she describes herself as "If Joss Stone and Lauryn Hill had a baby, and they gave birth in Amy Winehouse's estate") recently sat down with Rolling Stone to chat about what the future holds for star-crossed lovers Chalky and Daughter.
Tell me about the research you did going into this role.
I was used to Forties and Fifties jazz, but it was definitely a change from the Twenties, because I had to learn how to oversimplify my voice. In the Forties, they were already starting stylizations of the voice – different dips and cadences and definitions within their vocal tones. In the Twenties, they sold their records on their passion and their connection to the words. So that was one of the hardest things for me to master. Because once I got there vocally, then mentally I was there already. So I just surrounded myself with Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Twenties on Pandora all day long.
Who is Daughter Maitland to you?
The best thing about her is that she's not based off of a specific character from the Twenties. It's so much easier to create a character and add in little bits of prominent women entertainers from that time. She is a bit of Bessie, she is a bit of Ethel, she is a bit of Josephine [Baker], and then she's her own, too. I didn't have the anxiety of trying to live up to this amazing woman, because women at that time were quite something else. Especially being a black performer, in a predominantly white audience, but still not even being able to be a patron in a place where she performs and she sells out. She had a rough upbringing and a rough childhood and a rough road up to this point, and she still has a rough road ahead, but she's a survivor and I wanted to make her a character that you would love. She might not have learned her lesson quite yet, but you don't know what the lesson is. Which I think is really enticing as an audience member, because you root for her.
Totally. She's fallen for a married man, and you're rooting for them, even though you shouldn't.
Right, you check your own morals because you're like, wait a second, I'm rooting for adultery? But when you see them together, Chalky and Daughter are unstoppable. Michael has been one of the best scene partners that I've had. We've had a connection from Day One, and I'm just so happy that they saw it and spun off with it, because that wasn't supposed to be.
So you were just going to be doing a couple of episodes as a singer?
Pretty much. I came in and they asked me to sing a song – it was "St. Louis Blues." That's why I'm so excited that that particular song has gotten the most hits on YouTube – because it meant the most to me. I'm going to be completely honest with you: we don't get the [scripts] until a couple days prior to shooting, so I'm happy that I didn't know what was going on, because they didn't even know what was going on until it was written. So when they sent me the scripts, it was a couple days before [the episodes were] shot, and I didn't have time to think, "OK, well, this is really happening. I'm becoming a major part of the season." None of that sunk in, and it's still just starting to.
What are your memories from day one on set?
I was scared out of my mind. The first thing that we shot was my entrance, with the fur jacket and me walking through the Onyx Club. I was shaking, but the jacket was so heavy that it was holding me down. So I was like, "Thank you so much, jacket, you are holding me together."
In the most recent episode, your gorgeous a cappella version of "River of Jordan" played over the closing credits. How did you get such a spare, baleful sound?
We recorded it live on set. I sat in the car where the bloodbath [with the police] began and they closed down the whole set and everyone was superquiet and we just had the microphone and boom come in and we recorded it there. We didn't even go to the studio. That's something I fought them on. The music department was like, "Go with what she says," and the sound department was like, "We're going to pick up feed." I totally understood that, but at the same time, I was like, "Well, if I'm going to be singing it in a car then I should stay consistent to the song, so I want to record it in a car instead of a studio."
Daughter is a damaged soul. What is it about Chalky that has driven her to break her allegiances to Dr. Narcisse?
The only love she's ever known is from someone that killed her mother and has been her puppeteer since the beginning. Chalky's love and his attention, she didn't have to fight for it – she didn't have to pray for it and he didn't have to kill anything close to her. And he's willing to die for her, so it's a certain kind of love that she's never known.
But she still has this disturbing fealty toward Narcisse, even though he's beaten her to a pulp.
Right, and that's definitely not the first time. Even when Chalky comes in and she says, "It's the right hand of the Lord." You see how sick their whole relationship is and how deep [Narcisse] has her under his iron fist. And you worry for her and for [Chalky], because now he's deep into this whole relationship where now he can be screwed and you want to make sure that she doesn't end up with Narcisse, but she can't break from his hold on her. It's really sad and that's why you fight for them so much.
What was your reaction when you first saw your post-beating face?
It took four hours to do the makeup – I had to have a walker with me because I couldn't see. I also couldn't eat that day because my mouth was swollen shut. And also, because I had created such relations with all of the people on set, it obviously affected them so much that no one looked at me. Even Ed [Bianchi] and Tim [Van Patten] had a hard time directing the scenes I was in, because they couldn't look at me. Also, Gretchen [Mol, (Gillian Darmody)] came in the makeup room and she just looked at me and gave me a huge hug. She's like, "I'm so sorry." I was like, "Girl, it's fine, you've had a season too."
Louis Gossett Jr. appears in this Sunday's episode. What was it like working with a legend?
It was hypnotizing. As soon as he opens his mouth, you don't want to think about anything else. You don't want to speak. You just want to be there in his presence and soak him in. He was the most gracious man and you would think that he just started acting yesterday. Just by the way that he would present himself; he was so nonchalant and very friendly. That's exactly the type of actor that I want to be. Someone that can be so respected and so respectful and so humble. As soon as the camera turned on, he pulled you in and it was just the easiest thing to act with him because he just steps your game up so much more. He makes other people look amazing. To be an actor that can really highlight and elevate everyone else's performance just because of their own? What an incredible talent.
What can you tell us about the next two episodes?
The crazy thing in an affair is that the hottest parts are the sneaking around, but at this point it's beyond that. Everybody knows [about Chalky and Daughter] now, everything is up for sacrifice and they've put not only their lives on the line, but their families and everything they've fought their whole lives for. They have everything to lose and you don't know what they have to gain. So until the end of the season, you see them in their rawest form. You start seeing what's most important: Is it their love for each other or is it what they know is best for each other? Sometimes that's the hardest thing, to let go of what you love.
So are you recognized on the street now?
The first guy that recognized me tapped me on the shoulder – I was rushing to a gig. He was like, "You're. . . you're, Boardwalk." And I was like, "Yes." I think it startled him more than it startled me. I was like, "What's your name, where are you from? Hey, you want a hug?" He was like, "OK, lady, I've got to go." After that, I was like, OK, now I've got it off my chest. I'm totally happy not being recognized, but that first one was supercool. His name was Steve and he was on 42nd treet and it was awesome.