A little over a decade ago, Jeremy Luke was a college student promoting night clubs. Now Luke is playing legendary gangster Mickey Cohen in the new TNT series Mob City (Wednesdays at 9 p.m.). The Staten Island native is having a breakout year. In addition to the Frank Darabont-produced series, Luke had a pivotal role in the movie Don Jon and was cast in Clint Eastwood’s upcoming Jersey Boys. And he has his own popular web series, Turbo & Joey.
Paste recently caught up with Luke to talk about his career, his latest role and how he feels about the year he’s having.
: You’re not the first actor to play the infamous Mickey Cohen. Sean Penn played him in Gangster Squad this year and Harvey Keitel played him in the 1991 movie Bugsy. Did you see their performances before you began filming?
Jeremy Luke: I didn’t see Keitel’s or Sean’s version until about halfway through because I didn’t want them to influence me at all. By [the time I watched] I had my own decisions on how I wanted to play it. I highly respect both those guys. They’re both a couple of my heroes. Watching them and watching their approach to it, those guys are great. They made a choice. They went with it. I feel like I made a choice too and I went with it.
: How would you describe Mickey Cohen?
Luke: I kind of approached him like a likable guy. He really enjoyed people’s company. In a certain weird kind of way he did look for people’s approval. He did try to better himself, and that’s kind of a commendable thing if you ask me. Somebody’s born into a first-grade education learns to read, learns to write, tries to learn new words, and tries to educate themselves. My standpoint was that he really enjoyed being a celebrity gangster. He liked being around people and hosting his club. He would shake everybody’s hand that came into his club. But the flip side is he had OCD and washed his hands several times a day. They didn’t know what it was back then to ease his suffering.
: He was an extremely violent man. What was it like to play that?
Luke: Mickey didn’t go after those who were innocent. He went after people who crossed his path. He wasn’t the type of guy who went out looking for a fight. When somebody crossed your path, you’re justified to do something about it. That’s where I came at it—looking for the justification of what I was doing.
: Was it difficult to get into the post-World War II, noir mindset of this project?
Luke: There’s something that happens when you put on these clothes. When I put on these suits from the 1940s and you get in a room and there’s a 10-piece band playing in front of you and 120 extras walking around in great ‘40s wear, and you look to your left and there’s [co-star] Robert Knepper dressed like a psychopath from the 1940s and you look to your right and [co-star] Ed Burns is all donned out, and there’s just something that happens that makes it kind of easy.
: What did you learn from working with the series’ writer, director and executive producer Frank Darabont?
Luke: So much. His enthusiasm about what he does is so apparent, and that’s why it’s great, because he loves what he does. He doesn’t sell out. He doesn’t do shit that he’s not 100 percent on. He loves what he does, and there’s something to be said about that.
: If Mob City gets a second season, what can we expect to see from Mickey?
Luke: I got some great advice from [co-star] Jon Bernthal. He said, “Let the character evolve.” I think in season two you’ll see Mickey comes out with a vengeance.
: You’re having quite a year. In addition to Mob City, you were in the critically acclaimed film Don Jon, and you recently wrapped up your role in the Clint Eastwood-directed film Jersey Boys. You’re having, as the saying goes, “a moment.” Are you enjoying it?
Luke: I’m enjoying the moment, but I’m also a realist. I’ve seen people come and go in this town. I had a great year in 2006. It wasn’t as great as this, obviously. You never know where you could be. For me, personally, you’ve got to keep that fear of keeping you on your toes. I’ve never arrived. I don’t think I’ve ever arrived. I’m enjoying it for everything’s that it’s worth, but I’m also being very realistic about it. You’ve just got to keep a level head. I’ve seen people whose heads explode when this kind of thing happens. I just try to keep a level head.
: Before you launched your acting career you were a student at the College of Staten Island and had a business promoting nightclubs. How did you begin acting?
Luke: In college, I would just drop out of all my classes and I would just be left with my acting classes. At the time, I was promoting nightclubs and I was out until four or five in the morning. I was 22 years old. I thought, “I could do this. I could go and learn and study acting.” I just came out to Los Angeles and it was off to the races.
: Why did you move to L.A. instead of New York City?
Luke: I had a friend who previously moved out to Los Angeles. I knew if I had to struggle I couldn’t struggle in New York. My ego was too big for it. I couldn’t be a guy who is starving when I had a very successful business when I was young. My ego wouldn’t let me be the starving artist from Staten Island. We don’t do that.
: What’s next for you?
Luke: I’m working on turning my web series Turbo & Joey [with friend Joey Russo] into a feature film. Working on it. Slowly but surely. This is the first time I’ve said anything about it publicly.