Looking back, Aleksa Palladino can see it all so clearly now. Raised as an introspective only child by an opera-singing mother and fine-artist grandparents, in a household that spoke only Italian — which she refused to learn — she spent most of her free time playing guitar to her pet cat and pondering decidedly adult enigmas like mortality itself.
"I was definitely an intense kid," recalls the Boardwalk Empire actress and Exitmusic frontwoman. "And I think it's unfair, that no matter how well you do this thing called life, in the end you lose. So how do you come to terms with that? I don't know. All I know is that I've been like this forever, and I don't know if you'd call it 'creepy' — more 'worried,' I think."
Naturally, the precocious youngster wound up in therapy. And through that, she says, "I learned that I was more willing to be uncomfortable asking questions my whole life than trying to find a way to deny myself those questions, even if that was more comfortable. So I was pretty sure I was gonna be, you know, searching for myself my whole life. Searching for things that make the experience feel genuine and worth it."
Now, at 31, Palladino is definitely finding cathartic outlets for all that intensity. She just finished her two-season run on HBO's award-winning Boardwalk Empire, playing repressed 1920s painter Angela Darmody, whose soulful self-exploration only ends in bullet-riddled tragedy. She's also formed Exitmusic, a 4AD-ish art-rock duo with her musician hubby Devon Church; they have a great Goth-shadowy debut disc called Passage coming in May, with reflective processionals like "Stars," "Storms," "The Night" and "The Cold."
And don't be surprised if Passage sounds a tad Wagnerian, says the New York City-born Renaissance woman. "Growing up hearing opera, it really influenced my storytelling through music," she says. "Now, I really like songs to have acts — real beginnings, middles and ends, and usually an outro, too."
Palladino was just 18 when she met her future husband and musical partner on a cross-Canada train trip, and something clicked. "But I was too scared to do anything," she says with a sigh. "He wrote me, but I didn't write back for three years. Then finally I did write back, he came to New York, and the rest is history. Our whole entire courtship was done through the post."
Meanwhile, her television and film career was blossoming. She landed tons of indie roles, but got her first big break when Sidney Lumet cast her in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which indirectly led to Boardwalk Empire. To prepare for her role in the series, Palladino thoroughly researched her character as well as the bootlegging era in which the show takes place.
"There were a lot of women in that time who weren't going to paint under male pseudonyms anymore," she says. "Because people were baffled if women painted at all, and if you were a good painter, they'd say you painted like a man."
In the process, Palladino found herself continuing to deal with issues that have resonated throughout her own life. "Angela had the spark of something new — she was a really modern woman," she says. "So again, for me, how I related to her was asking questions, like 'How do I live a genuine life?'"