Jeffrey Dean Morgan on playing a Jewish hotelier

“It’s Jeffrey Dean,” a voice says on the line, and it’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays Jewish hotel mogul Ike Evans in the 1950s Miami noir series “Magic City” on STARZ.  Dean says he’s driving his 2-year-old son, Gus, to a cabin in the Catskills, a nice vacation from the long shooting days on the vast, marble and terrazzo set of Ike’s fictional Miramar Playa hotel.

The swanky joint is Rat Pack glamorous, and Ike—like Morgan himself – is charming, suave and handsome (who can forget Morgan as the lovable Denny Duquette, who wooed Izzie on “Grey’s Anatomy?)  But Ike is a man in trouble.  We learn he’s made a deal with the devil – actually the Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston) – to keep his hotel afloat, a deed he’s determined to keep from his family.  Then there’s his daughter’s bat mitzvah (pronounced bas mitzvah on the show) to negotiate:  Ike’s dad, Arthur, a Russian Jewish unionist and atheist, believes religion is b.s.; he won’t set foot inside a temple even for the bas mitzvah.  Meanwhile, Ike’s much-younger second wife, Vera, (the gorgeous former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), a Romany Gypsy who survived the Holocaust and now wants to convert to Judaism, thinks the culturally Jewish Ike is “the worst Jew in the world”  (she also reads “Exodus” in bed).  And Ike’s daughter, Lauren, wants pink dry ice as well as grandpa at her bas mitzvah.  In the course of our conversation, Morgan (“Weeds,” “Supernatural,” “Watch Men”) spoke about “Magic City,” playing Jewish and why he likes Ike.

NPM:  What drew you to “Magic City?”

JDM:  I was lucky enough to read the first three hours of the show before I even met with [series creator] Mitch Glazer, which is a really rare opportunity, and I realized I had an opportunity to play a guy and really flesh him out.  On a television series you have so much more time to do that than in a movie, and if it’s done right it’s a slow burn in you getting to know the character.  With Ike, you’re meeting a charming, loving family man who is thrown into these extreme circumstances and you see these cracks emerging in his exterior.  You find out he’s dealing with some really serious problems, and how he deals with them – right or wrong – you get to see play out.  I like the moments behind closed doors where you get to see how hard it is for him; those are the moments I love to play.

NPM:  What’s your sense of Ike’s Jewish identity?

JDM:  He wasn’t raised religious; that’s pretty well established with his relationship with his father.  But he certainly respects it, and being Jewish then wasn’t the easiest time, especially in the hotel world he’s infiltrating in 1959.  We touch on the fact that when he goes to see his [non-Jewish] former sister-in-law, she sets the meeting at the Bathhouse, which was a real club in Miami where Jews weren’t allowed.  So there was a certain amount of segregation and anti-Semitism, though Jews were a significant part of that community.  The undercurrent in that scene is that the waiter won’t even acknowledge me; the Bathhouse was very white and upper class and that’s a place that Mitch remembers from his youth.  So she takes me there and I say to her in that scene, “I would be out on the curb if it weren’t for you.”

NPM:  There’s also a scene where a state senator is ogling Miss Iceland in a pageant at the hotel and saying she’d improve the gene pool.

JDM:  Yes, and then he starts on this “You people’ s—-” [referring to Jewish prowess in business].  My instinct when he says that was to jump across the table and put his head through it.  But I have to be smarter than that as Ike Evans, and probably as myself as Jeff Morgan.  Because this is the world for Ike; he’s grown up in this time where at every corner there are people who are making cracks like this.  I remember that scene in particular because it bothered me.  I wanted to get [the senator] but Mitch pulled me back.  It’s a sh—-y crack, but he’s used to dealing with that, and it’ll happen more as the series goes on.  Anti-Semitism and racism are a big topic on the show.  You could have Sammy Davis, Jr., playing at the Fountainebleau [one of the grand hotels] but he couldn’t sleep there.

NPM:  Did your performance in the Jewish-themed film, “Dibbuk Box,” help prepare you in any way to play Ike?

JDM:  I finished “Dibbuk Box” right before I went down to Miami for “Magic City,” but that didn’t dawn on me too much.  I do remember telling Mitch, “You do know I’m not Jewish,” but he said, “Yes, but you can play it.”

NPM:  We learn that The Butcher, played by Danny Huston, was raised in a Dickensian Orthodox Jewish orphanage.

JDM:  Being Jewish is something he and Ike share, and maybe that’s part of the reason they became partners in the first place. That being said, this is going to be the worst partnership in the history of television.

NPM:  Why is Ike so hungry for success?

JDM:  There are hints that I get to work off of as an actor.  We find out he’s grown up poor and he used to work as a cabana boy at one of the hotels.  With Ike it’s always family and provide for his family.  He’s also a man whose late wife’s family – you don’t get more WASPy than that.  So he was trying to assimilate into this other world, but he really was never able to.  And that fuels a certain amount of hunger.  He wants to show the world that he’s as good as or better than anyone else.  Actually you’re seeing him fit in to a point, but he wants to take it over.

NPM:  How does Ike feel about his wife’s desire to convert to Judaism?

JDM:  While my character is trying to prove himself to Miami, she’s trying to prove herself to me, unnecessarily.  She came from this rough background and she’s been thrust into this world that’s foreign to her, and she desperately wants to fit into the family and to become a mother figure to Ike’s children.  So she pursues the conversion and you’ll see as smooth and charming as Ike is, it makes him a little uncomfortable.  Because of the way his father raised him, he’s a little nervous around religion.  He wants to assimilate, and to be an American mogul.

NPM:  Mitch Glazer based the series, in part, on memories of his own childhood in Miami and stories his friends and relatives told him about the 1950s.  Has that helped in developing your character?

JDM: I have Mitch at my disposal on the set and he’s available to me 24 hours a day.  Working on a show like this, I’d work a 16-hour day and I could pick up a phone at any given moment and he’d tell me stories, or something to help me ground every scene in reality. I have a crush on Mitch; there’s definitely a romance between the two of us—his wife is incredibly jealous.

“Magic City” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on STARZ.