Dunn Purnsley is the kind of dude you want no parts of. As Chalky White’s right-hand man, his role in HBOs Boardwalk Empire stands out because of his menacing energy and those shady eyes. Played with deft complexity by actor Erik LaRay Harvey, Dunn has intertwined himself into all of the show’s main storylines, and Boardwalk is better for it.
Harvey, a trained thespian with degrees from the University of Virginia and NYU, is thankfully nothing like his thugged-out alter ego. TSL spoke recently with Harvey about his character and what we can expect as the new season proceeds.
TSL: Who, in your estimation, is Dunn Purnsley?
Harvey: Dunn is a career criminal from Baltimore, and he’s in Atlantic City for the opportunities. Lo and behold he gets in contact with Chalky White and it goes from there.
TSL: How does the new season unfold?
Harvey: This season is ridiculous. Dunn and the guys are working for Chalky in a club in AC called the Onyx Club, and that’s how the story begins. This season is going to be a tour de force, with Dunn and Chalky and now we have Jeffrey Wright coming in. It’s going to be great theater.
TSL: Dunn is a very physical character, where does the style, that kind of body language come from? Did they give you a lot of leeway with this character?
Harvey: Yeah, they did give me a lot of leeway. I was only supposed to be on just one episode, but it’s been three years now. I didn’t change much from my initial audition, and they felt comfortable with what I was doing with the character. I remember my first reading, looking at the lines and thinking, “Who says words like these.” The words for Dunn were so unusual, you know, so old school. There was a lot there to have fun with. And so I did. Since then, they let me loose with how I’m playing it, and what I found interesting about Dunn is that he’s fearless. I knew that from the initial words that how he speaks is very bold.
TSL: I have to ask you, about that "scene" in this season’s premiere. That was an intense moment to watch, was it uncomfortable to create?
Harvey: I was operating from Dunn's perspective. But as an actor it was new territory as I had never done a nude scene before. But, both actors were in the same situation, so we all just supported one another and were very sensitive to the situation. We worked really well and I think it came together well.
TSL: There are three distinct black characters in this show, which is rare on television. Who, in the community, do those character represent to you?
Harvey: They all represent gangsters, they all represent criminality (laughs)! But the way they approach it and live their lives is different. Jeffrey’s character is coming from that, W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, sort of aspect. Where I’m coming from is, I guess you could say, the thug, the strictly hood guy, the tough guy. And Michael’s character, Chalky, he is the businessman, the one trying to establish some type of legal operation on the boardwalk. So you have the religious man, the enterprising man and the street guy; and it’s very interesting how they deal with each other.
TSL: What is it like for you, as a modern actor, to play a role from an older era?
Harvey: Well for me, playing Dunn as a black man in ‘20s, it’s not a character or an era that we know a lot about. There aren’t many stories about black life in the ‘20s, which is interesting because it allowed me to approach this character differently. I definitely believe in not pigeonholing us, and I want to believe that every type exists now as they did back then, so it allows you to use your imagination more. Just go with it, because my character is not based on a historical person like Capone or Lucky Luciano. So, it really opens the door to what your imagination allows and that’s a great experience for me. Nowadays, if I play a modern character in 2013, you know what it is, because we’re living it; but nobody really had any idea of what it was like back then for blacks in New Jersey.
TSL: What is it like working with Terence Winter?
Harvey: Terence is not always directly involved with episodes, he’s the creator of the show. My communication with Terence is mostly via the word. I’m a history buff, studied theater and so my first love is the word. Terence’s writing is beautiful and I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate the words created on this show. It’s the best experience I’ve had as an actor and I wouldn’t have that without him.
TSL: Compare last season to this season.
Harvey: It’s interesting because last season, I didn’t feel that the story line was big enough for Chalky and Dunn, but Terence was building it. He knew where he wanted to go, he just needed time to get there. Last season was a set up, a prelude to this season. Last year was about Chalky wanting to have the first black club on the Boardwalk, and it took all of last season for that to happen. We had to deal with that, and with Nuchy almost losing his life.
TSL: What’s coming up next for you?
Harvey: I’m in LA right now. I’m just hopeful. I want to keep fighting for roles, going to do what the universe says to me. I expect it to be wonderful. Gotta say, I’m glad you didn’t ask me what I’m going to be doing in five years.
TSL: I never ask that, because, really who the (expletive) knows?
Harvey: Exactly (laughs), who the (expletive) knows?!!