She first made a splash as a Cleopatra-wigged New Year’s guest, shimmying her way through a rendition of “Old King Tut” – and eventually out of her dress and into Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) bed in the season premiere of Boardwalk Empire. But Lillian “Billie” Kent isn’t your dime-a-dozen aspiring actress, and neither is Meg Chambers Steedle.
The North Carolina native, still a relative ingènue to the world of film and television (she graduated from Northwestern University in 2008), has taken the old Jersey Shore by storm with her scene-stealing performance as Nucky’s new flapper mistress. Billie, whom Steedle describes as “a mishmash of Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly,” epitomizes the burgeoning independence of young women in the Roaring Twenties, which makes her the perfect match for Nucky’s overwrought, philandering gangster. We caught up with the endearingly effervescent Steedle shortly after she wrapped on Boardwalk (she remained tight-lipped as to whether Billie will return for the recently renewed fourth season) to learn more about why Nucky has fallen hook, line and sinker for her fun-loving party girl.
Nucky’s New York interactions with Billie always seem like an escape from the stress of bootlegging, murder and corruption. How much do you think she knows about what really goes on when he’s back home in Atlantic City?
I think it’s by choice that she doesn’t ask him about his business. She knows that it’s not something he’d tell her. He wouldn’t be completely open with exactly what goes on in his life, and so a lot of that has to do with her keeping him at an arm’s length as well because they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I think that’s for protection, but also because she knows that he won’t tell her everything, so why should it be any different?
He’s certainly shown Billie more affection than he’s ever demonstrated with his wife, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald). Do you think he‘s in love with her? And is she in love with him?
Well, I think there’s definitely a reason for their relationship in that the attraction they have to each other is significant. We’ll see more of it as the show goes on, but again, even with that, Billie’s a young girl in 1923, she’s in the theater scene, and it’s an exciting life. And then we’ve also got the flapper lifestyle starting to come into play. While researching this role, I watched interviews with women who were in their 20s [in the Twenties], and everything that these ladies kept coming back to was the idea of freedom. Because there were so many restrictions on women during that time, there’s this rebelliousness going on in the youth culture. So while Billie’s connection with Nucky is very important, I think the other significant thing to her is freedom and living life to the fullest and that every turn around the bend can be something new, so commitment isn’t exactly on her mind [laughs].
Billie’s introduction into the cast of Boardwalk Empire does officially signal the arrival of the flapper.
Yeah, and I think it’s a certain energy and confidence that we see in the female sex that was probably not as rampant prior to that time. Boardwalk Empire was already on my radar, but then to read this character they had written that just brought this idea of this new movement was really exciting to me.
Since you were a member of Boardwalk’s audience prior to joining the cast, what do you think it is about the show that keeps the viewers coming back season after season?
My favorite type of show is the period drama. It’s fascinating because the attention to detail on Boardwalk is immaculate. Walking on set feels like you’re walking back into the era. What also drew me to the show when I was watching it was to see that the people involved have obviously done their research to represent that time so realistically. You have movies that do that as well, but it’s so cool to have Boardwalk basically be a 12-hour film. Also, on a personal level, I grew up going to the Jersey Shore every summer. Boardwalk is set in a place that is so close to my childhood, so I was on it from the beginning.
I can’t think of a better way to bring up Steve Buscemi: You tweeted a couple of months ago that you saw The Big Lebowski for the first time – complete with a #crushondonny hashtag.
[Laughs] The Big Lebowski! I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, first of all. My impression was always that it was a guy movie, so I never watched it, because I was like, “I’m not gonna like it!” I watched it in Central Park, and having worked with Steve it was thrilling for me to actually see him on the screen, in that sense. But I loved it! What a weird movie!
Most of your scenes in Boardwalk are with Steve, so for someone who has had very little on-screen experience, what has it been like having a crash course in television acting with somebody of Steve Buscemi’s calibre?
Well, at first I was terrified. The Sopranos was my favorite show when I was in college, and I’ve watched him in his various roles and also on Boardwalk. Just knowing that I looked up to him so much, and would be playing such intimate scenes – in which a lot of the time, I have the upper hand – is very intimidating. The first scene that I did, where I had to be completely confident walking through the New Year’s party and throwing back two drinks in quick succession, I choked. It was embarrassing. But – I tell this to everyone who asks because it’s completely true – he’s like a family man on set. Everyone knows that he’s the daddy of the ship. He was looking out for me from Day One, knowing that I probably wouldn’t speak up about, say, being cold. He would be like, “Can we get her a heater? I think she’s a little cold.” And he made me feel a lot more comfortable that first day because he specifically brought his wife up to meet me. It just made me feel a part of the family that is Boardwalk, because he was literally introducing me to his actual family. But I think the best education I’ve had is just from watching him so closely. It’s incredible how he knows how to communicate with the camera. You can’t pay for that type of education. Also, just knowing that he is such a master and I was such a newbie, and yet he treated me with complete respect and acted as though I’d been doing this for years.
Did he give you any straight-up advice, or was the best education just from observing him?
Mostly from observation. From my theater background, I’m used to going all-out every single time, because you always want to give your best performance, so a lot of it is about stamina and keeping it real every time. So part of the exercise for me, when you do multiple takes on something, was giving the same or similar performance. And one of the things Steve told me once – which I remember being very “Wow, I didn’t even think about that!” – is to save the longest of the emotion, or a certain touch, until the camera is actually on you. To me, as an actor, that was interesting, because so much of [being on] camera is capturing the reality of the moment. It was like, “All right! Acting for Camera 101!” [Laughs]
When you‘re not singing Twenties ditties like “Old King Tut” or “You’d Be Surprised,” what type of music do you enjoy?
I’m a big singer-songwriter fanatic, so I love any of those artists that write with piano, like Sara Bareilles or Natasha Bedingfield or Charlotte Martin and Ben Folds. And then I’m really just a product of the times. I love Top 40. I’m such a TRL chick – I used to watch it after school every day [laughs]. I was into Britney Spears growing up. Guilty guilty!
Now that Boardwalk has finished shooting for the season, do you have any other projects in the works?
Lots of auditions going on, and hopefully one of those will come through. So we’ll see. But right now I’m just enjoying. It’s been wonderful how many new people I get to meet because of the show. I’m very grateful to [series creator] Terence [Winter] and [executive producer] Tim Van Patten and all of those guys for really giving me a beginning, in a sense. So it’s a fun new life.