NEW YORK, N.Y. – For the first two seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” romance was elusive for Enoch “Nucky” Thompson.
He rules Atlantic City, N.J., as its city father, major-domo mobster and, with this HBO drama set in Prohibition days, its reigning bootlegger.
But never mind all that. Nucky (played by unlikely leading man Steve Buscemi) wants love.
By now his overwrought mistress Lucy Danziger is history. His marriage to social climber Margaret Schroeder is over in every way but keeping up appearances.
How nice for Nucky that as Season 3 begins, he has lost his heart (or a reasonable facsimile) to Broadway chorine Billie Kent. And how nice, too, for viewers, who will surely fall for the actress who plays her, a budding It Girl named Meg Chambers Steedle.
Airing Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, “Boardwalk” picks up the action on Dec. 31, 1922, as Nucky and Margaret host a rousing New Year’s gala. The entertainment: famed Broadway musical star Eddie Cantor teaming up with his slinky song-and-dance sidekick, Billie, who perform a fanciful number, “Old King Tut,” for the ballroom full of revelers.
It’s the viewers’ first brush with Billie, but not the last. In the wee hours after the party, Nucky is seen ditching Margaret at home to rejoin Billie, who, stripped to her drawers, awaits him in bed at his boardwalk suite.
“This is the only place I can truly rest my head,” says Nucky, resting his head in her lap.
She smiles. Then she playfully warns, “You aren’t resting NOW,” before climbing astride him.
This is Nucky as we’ve never seen him: the power broker as a lovestruck swain.
But who can blame him?
“Billie is really a breath of fresh air for him,” says Terence Winter, the creator of “Boardwalk” and one of its executive producers. “She represents the whole idea of the youth culture that took over the 1920s â€” half-bohemian, half-adventurer, and out to have a good time.”
“How the writers described Billie to me was, ‘The second girl from the left,'” Steedle says. “She’s ‘the girl onstage who’s not the lead, but the one you can’t take your eyes off.’ She’s fun. She loves the limelight. And she’s not where she wants to be: She’s moving from the left, trying to get to the centre.”
It was Winter who wrote this season opener and thus gave birth to Billie. But you can thank Meg Chambers Steedle for giving her life.
A 2008 graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Communications, the North Carolina native found quick success in regional theatre.
Meanwhile, “Boardwalk Empire” was on her radar: “I grew up loving the Jersey shore and I love period dramas. I thought, ‘This show’s right up my alley.'”
Then, happily, she was called in to audition. Time passed. She got a call back. More time passed.
“We had her in to read a few times for the role,” says Winter, “but the role was sort of a tall order. We wanted somebody who was beautiful, who could sing and dance, and who brought a young, fresh, different type of energy. Meg was the complete package.”
In discussing her, Winter reels off glowing adjectives: calm and sweet and funny; magnetic and charming; bubbly and disarmingly adorable.
During a recent interview, Steedle bears him out.
Willowy at 5-feet-8, with luminescent brown eyes and a bright smile befitting the daughter of two dentists, she is buoyant and animated, with a hearty laugh and arms flung expressively about her as she speaks.
But despite her inherent appeal, her film experience was limited. She landed her first on-camera role only last year, on ABC’s crime drama “Body of Proof” (playing a student athlete who murdered a fellow member of her lacrosse team).
Winter wasn’t troubled by her absence of film chops.
“Sometimes you see actors fall apart during the audition process when they know they’re getting closer to landing the role. But Meg got better and more comfortable as she went along,” he says. “She was unflappable, you could just tell. And she turned out to be a joy to work with.”
But the process of choosing her had taken awhile. By the time she arrived on the set, the cast had done the season’s first read-through without her, she says. “I was so last-minute that I learned the ‘King Tut’ dance the day before we shot it.”
That 1920s-vintage ditty (not to be confused with the Steve Martin hit a half-century later) makes sport of the Egyptian boy king in lyrics like, “His tomb, instead of tears, was full of souvenirs” with “gold and silverware … from hotels of ev’ry land and clime.”
Performing with Stephen DeRosa, seen before on “Boardwalk” as real-life entertainer Cantor, the number is a comic showstopper.
“Thank God I got to do that scene first!” says Steedle. “I had fun, and got to sing and dance and interact with so many members of the cast. It was a big part of my loosening up.”
As for the bedroom scene, which she shot next, that, too, served as its own initiation.
Her waist-up nudity “was a big thing for me. This is only my second (film) gig and I was really hesitant to show in that way,” she says, choosing her words carefully.
She was also recalling Lucy, Nucky’s voluptuous ex-courtesan played by Paz de la Huerta, who “was naked all the time. I think that was an image I had in my head. But that’s not who my character is.
“Besides, this is part of storytelling: Clothes come off,” she reasons. “But Steve is such a pro. It was a professional setting, even in a room with guys (in the crew). I felt comfortable.”
Before accepting the role, she did place a cautionary telephone call to her parents.
“They knew it would happen,” she says, meaning the on-camera nudity, and smiles. “I just don’t think they expected it so soon.”
Of course, it was Steedle’s parents who steered her into acting.
She describes herself in childhood as “an attention-seeker,” even to a fault, “and they decided, ‘We need to find her the right outlet.’ So they made me audition for a high school production of ‘The Sound of Music.'”
Cast as one of the von Trapp children, there she was, in third grade, “hanging with the high school kids. I loved it!”
Now she hangs with the “Boardwalk” troupe, and she’s poised to make a splash. Like Billie, she’s not in the centre, not just yet. But Steedle is the girl your eyes can’t let go.
EDITOR’S NOTE â€” Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier