Meg Chambers Steedle was a little intimidated by her first starring TV role, but not because it required her to sing and dance.
The 2008 graduate of Northwestern University's School of Communications stars opposite Steve Buscemi in the Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire," which airs at 8 p.m. CT Sundays on HBO. She plays Broadway hopeful Billie Kent, a freewheeling flapper who has ignited a youthful spark in Buscemi's bootlegging gangster Nucky Thompson.
"Oh my gosh, it was terrifying at first just because I've looked up to him for so long," said Steedle, who lights up the screen with her flirty, magnetic performance. "And then my first scene in the show I was grabbing a drink from Steve Buscemi and throwing it back. I choked a hundred times!
"But he also was just so welcoming and ... made me feel like part of the family."
Stealing Buscemi's drinks, it turns out, hasn't been the most awkward part of the job. With Nucky's marriage to Margaret Schroeder simply a front, he spends a lot of time in Billie's New York apartment--under the sheets. Steedle was a little apprehensive to do nudity in just her second TV role (she was guest-starred on ABC's "Body of Proof" last season). But after careful consideration about whether it was right for her character, whe was ready to shed her inhibitions for Prohibition.
"She's strong and she's in control and she's not being taken advantage of," she during a recent trip to Chicago. "There was still a sense of power about it, which I actually liked. I also trusted HBO."
She trusted Buscemi and the crew as well, who have made her feel safe when filming the scenes.
As for having Buscemi as a romantic interest, the quirky actor sells it a lot better than fans might believe. "He is actually attractive to me," Steedle said, laughing. "He is! .... I guess when you're playing opposite someone it's just natural to find an attraction to them, but yeah, I think he's a handsome guy if you get up close."
The role of good-time gal Billie, who in the Season 3 opener performed a rousing "Old King Tut," seems almost tailor-made for the North Carolina native, who found success in regional theater outside New York after graduating from Northwestern, where she played Sally Bowles in musical "Cabaret."
"It's funny because when I was talking to the writers of this show they were saying, 'We're thinking kind of like a Sally Bowles meets Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's,"' she said. "I was like, 'Yes, yes, yes! Right on board!'"
But landing the role wasn't a snap. "My theater background helped me get that job," she said, adding that "Boardwalk" creator Terence Winter asked her to read several more times after her initial audition. "They called me and said, 'We're going to have you sing an Irving Berlin song-and-dance.' I was like, 'Yes!'"
The on-camera acting classes Steedle took outside of school also helped. While living in Evanston, she took the "L" to downtown Chicago to work with acting coach Oksana Fedunyszyn and study at Act One Studios. Now, she said with a laugh, her studies continue "with Steve Buscemi as my teacher."
"I'm having a great time and I do feel really blessed," she said. "They're just the best in the business I think, it's fair to say. I feel like I'm learning from the best and you can't pay for that kind of education, so I'm grateful."
In the video above, Meg tells us a few of her favorite things (yes, she once played one of the Von Trapp children in a production of "The Sound of Music") and shows us her one-handed clap. Below we discuss more about Billie, Meg's musical theater background and what she hopes to do in the future.
When you were doing theater at Northwestern what kind of things did you do outside of classes? How many years were you there?
I was there four years. I did the whole liberal arts thing. I was thinking about this the other day and I remember having my first sushi at Sushi Samba. It was eel. Love Sushi Samba, but not a fan that time. Some of my fondest memories were when I was writing a paper late at night, pulling an all-nighter, I would just walk out to the shore to the beach and watch the sunrise, kind of get all my sweats on and after working really hard just watching the sun come up. It's such a unique experience to be right on the lake there.
How did you get from Northwestern to Atlantic City?
I went to Northwestern, had a great time there, learned a lot. I did a showcase in New York. They take a few people from the graduating class and throw them up in front of agents and managers and all that. I was lucky enough to get someone to represent me and then from there was auditioning in New York, doing a lot of regional theater outside of New York. Through someone I met at Northwestern ... They have this American Musical Theater project that goes on at Northwestern, which is an amazing thing because it's all actual working directors and writers. I had the chance to do an Andrew Lippa show, who just wrote “The Adams' Family” on Broadway and he came in to do a show with us and one of the writers, Peter Spears, I met through that process.
Flash forward several years, introduced me to a manager in LA, got that manager. That manager got me the job on “Boardwalk Empire.” I like to say that a lot of my theater background helped me get that job too since there is singing and dancing. … I went into the studios and I sang and danced with a chair in front of a bunch of guys who wrote the show.
With a chair?
With a chair.
You did the Clint Eastwood shtick before he did.
Totally, I originated that. [Laughs.] No, but Pat Birch, she choreographed all the “Grease” films and I'm just like a huge fan of hers, she actually is the choreographer for the show. The day before I auditioned for the writers and Tim Van Patton and all those great guys I met up with her and we kind of put together this dance and I sang and I went in the next day.
When they called you back to do the sing and dance thing did you think, “I got this now?”
I was excited for it because I felt like it was—the TV world was a relatively new thing. I mean I had been acting for sure in lots of plays since college and everything, but that was the showmanship that I liked, that I got to bring.
You're a big fan of musicals and doing musicals.
Yeah, I love it. I did it in college.
You've done "Old King Tut," but do you get to sing and dance again?
Yes. I think that's so great that Terence Winter decided to put that aspect into a show about gangsters because it was a big part of the time. Broadway was in its golden times and actually it makes sense that those kind of characters would be mingling because Atlantic City was a place where a lot of Broadway shows went to have their previews and test out their audiences and test out their scripts and workshop it before taking it to New York.
I understand you were cast late, so you didn't even have much time to prepare for the "Old King Tut" scene, which I loved by the way. It was the first scene you did.
Yes, I got cast like last minute. ... I learned this dance like the day before. I had gone into a recording studio to sing it and they found out that I could sing some harmonies and so then I was singing it. I kind of the next day had to shoot it and didn't know the lyrics and didn't know the dance. That was a kind of nerve-wracking night.
But you made it through.
I made it through. It's just a lot different from theater because you have a month of rehearsal versus the TV world, which is either—I mean that's the most rehearsal they'll get really is like a one-time thing.
Did you ever get to actually do it from start to finish?
Actually I think we did, yeah. I think some of the wider shots, which was the most fun because it was actually interacting with all of the extras. That was another big part of me feeling comfortable. It was just like, “Oh, this is, I've done this, a performance. This is great.” Singing and dancing and trying to make people laugh is what I do.
Do you ever find yourself just staring at another actor, watching what they’re doing and then realizing, “Oh wait, I need to be acting here?”
Yeah, I think that happened like the first scene where I was supposed to be coming in really confident and drinking drinks and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, Kelly [MacDonald] is here and Steve [Buscemi] is right there and [I had to think,] 'OK, I’m going to be confident.'”
It's cool Eddie Canter was an actual real Broadway star.
He's actually really funny too. I would think like 1920s outdated, but if you look up some YouTube videos I was legit laughing.
The guy who plays him, Stephen DeRosa, is her fun to work with?
Yeah, one of my first friends on the show. I just latched onto him. He is so wonderful and he is very much that kind of person in life just making jokes and one-liners and making people laugh, so it was great to kind of be on his arm to start.
I'm a little worried for Billie because Nucky seems to have a jealous streak and he got kind of angry when the phone kept ringing. Is that going to get her in trouble? I'm afraid for her.
I’m glad you’re afraid for her. [Laughs.] She’s a free woman. I think this is kind of one of the first, if I dare say, one of the first times we’ve seen on this show a woman who is not in some sort of role that is passive, is in some sort of weaker position because of men. Yeah, we’ll have to see what happens. Yeah, she is a spitfire. She goes for it.
Do you think she realizes that she sort of has him wrapped around her pinky?
That’s interesting. That's an interesting question actually. I don’t know. I think there are moments that we will see in which—yeah, I'm not really sure about that. I know kind of what I think, but we'll have to see how it goes.
What do you think? When you were preparing her what did you think?
I think it changes. I think that that's also like a relationship. Sometimes you're not quite sure what you mean to someone until later or it's something that you discover through their actions, through what they say to you. It's part of the mystery, I think, of any relationship, so to say that she knows right off the bat I think is not necessarily allowing for things to change.
You like where Billie is going in the future.
Yeah, I really like the character that they've written and I feel really honored to be the one playing her.
Who do you want to work with as your budding career continues to bud?
Gosh, it's so funny because I looked you up a little bit, did a little investigating and I saw that your favorite past shows were “I Love Lucy” and “Carol Burnett Show” and those are my favorite shows too actually and I was also a real big of “Will and Grace” and I’ve been a fan of Deborah Messing for a while. I think I really loved her work on that show and yeah, I really I love her stuff. I would love to meet her-slash-work with her.
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