Veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio has played a wide range of character roles, from hard-nosed, good-guy detective Robert Goren on NBC’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent to supervillain Wilson Fisk in Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix. But the 60-year old actor said his upcoming role as mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante in Epix’s original series Godfather of Harlem was one of his most difficult roles yet.
As a leader in the Genovese crime family, D’Onofrio’s Gigante character looks to help secure control of the Harlem underworld in the 1960s from legendary African-American gangster Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker). Johnson, who has just returned from a 10-year prison stint, seeks to retake the neighborhood he once ruled from Gigante.
D’Onofrio told The Wire that he initially didn’t want to take the role of Gigante when it was offered to him by showrunner Chris Brancato, given the racial overtones surrounding the character.
“He explained the character to me, and my first reaction to it was I can’t — not in this climate,” he said. “I come from a very liberal family ... and I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. But I remember the one thing Chris said to me was if the part is not done correctly, if there’s one caricature of a racist that’s played soft in any way, then we fail. I know if you come in you’ll play it truthfully, honest and hardcore.”
Once he decided to play the role, D’Onofrio said it was “hard” portraying the character. “It’s my job, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a little sick to my stomach at the end of the day,” he said.
D’Onofrio said the tense relations between races in Godfather of Harlem has correlations to today’s political and social environment. “The biggest fear for my character in this show is blackness rising; my biggest fear as a person is white supremacy rising. I understand that fear, and that’s how I played it.”
Godfather of Harlem premieres Sept. 29 on Epix.