Spoiler Alert: In tonight’s episode, “The Old Ship of Zion,” blues singer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) saved her lover, Chalky, by stabbing Dunn to death before he could choke the life out of his former boss.
He started as a smart-mouthed, jail-cell antagonist in Season Two. Then, after being beaten into submission by Chalky White’s “associates,” the gold-toothed Dunn Purnsley had worked his way up to become Chalky’s right-hand man by the start of Season Four. But as Boardwalk Empire has proved over and over again, no one – be they gangster, wife, undercover (or former) Prohibition agent or incestuous mother – is ever satisfied with his or her lot in life.
Throughout this season, Dunn was constantly searching for more respect, more responsibility and, naturally, more money. Instead of Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), Dunn’s benefactor wound up being the conniving Harlem mobster Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), who introduced Dunn to the lucrative business of heroin peddling. But under the ruse of educating Dunn about the second-class treatment of African-Americans, Narcisse was actually using him as a pawn in his grab for Atlantic City’s Northside.
This, as well as Dunn’s firecracker nature – he was involved in some of the grisliest scenes this season: having his lower lip sliced through with a wooden shard, brutally killing church leader Deacon Lemuel Cuffy and his participation in a degrading sex game with a racist white couple that resulted in Dunn’s murdering the husband, Dickey Pastor –would ultimately be his undoing.Rolling Stone checked in with New York-based actor Erik LaRay Harvey to chat about saying goodbye to his breakout role.
Back in Season Two, I erroneously said in a recap that Chalky’s men had beaten Dunn to death. But now, given the events of Episode Eight, is it safe to say that Daughter Maitland finally did him in this time around?
I think it’s safe to say that Chalky White has angels on his side! He got out of both those situations pretty remarkably, from the jail scene in Season Two, you know, if it weren’t for his boys – unbeknownst to Dunn, they all knew each other – he would have been on the opposite end of that beatdown. And here, three years later, if it hadn’t been for his paramour, Episode Eight would’ve been [Chalky’s] last episode. But the universe and the angels are on his side, so I think that’s the overriding feeling about both those situations in my mind.
When did you find out that this was going to be Dunn’s last episode? Did you get a phone call, or did you have to read it in the script?
I got a phone call. We had just wrapped on Episode Seven, and I was on my way home to a family reunion in North Carolina, and I was in a rent-a-car and I got a phone call from Terry [Winter, series creator], and he’s like, “Yeah, Episode Eight is gonna be your last.” So it was shocking to me, but thank God I was going to a place where I was surrounded by family and friends.
What was more fun for you to film – the twisted sex scene with the Pastors or your brawl with Chalky?
They’re both equal in their own way. I’m not privy to any of the script beforehand, so when they first gave me my pages, because I’m only allowed to read my information, I was like, “Oh, wow! A nude scene!” I had never done one before, so that was pretty shocking to me. And the way it turned out, where there’s not only nudity but also violence, and it’s degrading at the same time, and then the special effects – they were, like, shooting blood in my eyes that was supposed to be coming out of [Dickey’s] neck. It was a very darkened path; it took us maybe three or four days to get that scene down. And the three of us were professionals, despite what the situation was. We just tried to step out of the characters and let our professionalism rule the day. So even though it was bold and shocking, it was still a lot of fun.
And this last episode, trying to choke Chalky out, it was really difficult for me, because I didn’t want to actually do it. After three years, you develop a relationship with the other actor and the other character whom he’s betraying. I was choking [Michael Kenneth Williams] and my hands were shaking, and they were like, “Tighter! Tighter!” and I’m like, “No! I don’t want to hurt him!” [Laughs] Michael’s like, “Hit me! Hit me!” and I’m like “Nooo! I’m not going to hit you!” And it was just an emotional last episode to film. But once we got it done, I was very pleased to have been on the journey and to have had the experience on the show.
Dunn really seems to get the shit kicked out of him a lot.
Right? I was joking with someone during filming, I was like, “You know, if they rewrite this and I survive, I’m gonna have, like, a fucked-up eye, ears, teeth. I’m gonna be all messed up!” [Laughs]
Did you get to keep Dunn’s gold tooth?
[Laughs] I got to keep the gold teeth, I definitely did. A little bling that I might wear for Halloween, who knows?
Dunn seemed to be drinking Dr. Narcisse’s Kool-Aid by the end of his run on the show. Did you do any research on what was happening among the African-American communities during the 1920s?
Yes, definitely, of course. Jeffrey’s character, that’s loosely based on some factual people [Casper Holstein]. But Dunn, his spirit is historical, but of course the name is fictional. In working with the Doctor this year, it’s a way for Dunn to establish some sort of autonomy. He wants to direct his own life at this point, especially after killing Dickey Pastor and that mess. And then the contempt he felt from Chalky – now his name is not Dunn, it’s “Sweetback.” So, he’s at a point where he was ready to move out of the shadow of Chalky and establish his own. And Dr. Narcisse arrived at the right time for that. So just the connection that the writers have done, bringing that whole Season Two full circle this year, has just been great, and I’ve definitely enjoyed this season. It’s been so . . . much . . . fun, despite the outcome. I think Episode Eight is actually one of my best episodes. I can’t wait to see it. I was so proud to film it and so honored that they felt that I was deserving of an episode like this.
I’m thrilled to hear that you, like another recently departed cast member, Anthony Laciura, have such a positive outlook on your character’s demise.
[Laughs] When we first heard around the table read that his character was dying, we were all, like, “WHAT? No way!” And I was like, “I’m gonna boycott this episode!” because we were so sad to see him go. The thing about Anthony and I that I can speak to is, we both really love this show, and we both want to see the best for the show. And if we have to be sacrificed for the show to move on, so be it. It’s not about Anthony or me, it’s about the show. And whatever the show needs, and whatever Terry needs, we’re more than pleased to do our part. And I think that just to have a purpose on that show, which Anthony and I experienced, it’s much more meaningful than our individual careers.
Do you think Dunn got a raw deal, or do you think he brought this upon himself? He is a very violent man, after all.
I do [think he brought this upon himself]. If he didn’t open his mouth in the jail, he didn’t know where he was – open mouth, insert foot, which brought the whole thing down in the first place. So he does have some responsibility for his actions, but that’s what makes Dunn. He’s so bold and fearless that he’ll just say or do anything despite the consequences, and sometimes without even thinking of the consequences. It’s like this whole heroin thing – he’s not really thinking of the consequences for the community, he’s more or less trying to direct his own life and break free of Chalky. And whatever he has to do to be successful in a time where there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for African-Americans, I think he just takes it, goes with it and runs with it. But, he thought the Daughter was on his side! And after we finished [filming that scene], I was like, “Girl, you dead. The Doctor’s gonna kill you!” [Laughs]
Since Dunn killed Deacon Cuffy, do you think that Nelson Van Alden can now return to Atlantic City? Cuffy was the key witness in Van Alden’s murder case, after all.
Yeah! I never thought about that, and I can definitely see that. It’s the beauty of the show. You just never know what’s gonna go, and everything happens for a reason. And all the little things that you think are insignificant really are huge. So, why not?
Who do you want to win? Chalky or Dr. Narcisse?
Each man is on his own. At this point, I just hope they come to my funeral and say nice things [laughs]. But after that, they can hash it out on their own. But I think it’s definitely going to be a great battle between the two of them. [The actors are] both so loved and well-respected in the business, as well as the characters, so it’s gonna be really interesting. I can’t wait to see the ultimate end.