So how did a procedural drama set in the world of bail bonds created for network television get turned into "Sneaky Pete," a deeper, darker and decidedly serialized streaming series exploration of a career con artist who might finally see an opportunity to come clean? Blame the original Sneaky Pete himself: Bryan Cranston.
As Amazon's latest series featuring Giovanni Ribisi as a newly un-incarcerated con man who assumes his cellmate's identity and "rejoins" his cellie's long-estranged family (so long, in fact, that they can't tell the difference) launched to much critical acclaim. Cranston, the former "Breaking Bad" star who co-created, produces, and co-stars in the show, sat down with Moviefone and his collaborators -- including stars Ribisi, Margo Martindale, Marin Ireland, and showrunner Graham Yost ("The Americans") -- to reveal how they came together to tell the story of a lead character who may be a reverse take on Walter White. "In essence, there is a bad man possibly looking for ways to become good," says Cranston.
Bryan Cranston: The genesis of this was really very interesting. I gave a speech one year at an Emmys ... I was very fortunate I was able to get on that stage a few times, so I wanted to say something that was more universal in my appreciation. So I said that when I was a kid, I was a sneaky kid.
My parents were split, and it was kind of a rough childhood. I was circumventing responsibility and looking for shortcuts. My own family dubbed me "Sneaky Pete." And I said, "Until I found the love, the passion, my love of acting -- and that was at 22 years old that it finally culminated to that point. So for all of you, if you have lost that passion, you can still get back in touch with what brings you joy. All you Sneaky Petes out there."
And the next day, Zack Van Amburg, co-president at Sony, calls me and says, "On the way home, my wife and I were talking about Sneaky Petes, and a Sneaky Pete moment of me -- and she had one! 'What about our kids? Which one is going to be?'" And he called me and he said, "Congratulations -- but also I think there's a series here." I go, "What's the series?" He goes "I don't know."
But he did leave me with this little nugget, and that was the germ of the idea: He said, "You were a teenager, so it's forgivable. But what if you didn't grow out of it? What if you were 35 and you're still that way, what would you be?" And I went, "Let me think on that."
And that's where we crafted Giovanni's character, that it was this guy who really didn't have a choice in his life. He was split. He had to figure things out on the run: started off with petty theft, and then he got more sophisticated in his stealing. He became the only thing he could become. And yet, hopefully, the audience will sense that in the core of this man's being is goodness, but it's so covered over. He doesn't know how to reach it.
He just doesn't know. He has no experience in that. And we actually don't know by the end of the series if that will erupt, or if he covers it back up because it's too frightening to go into that.
Giovanni Ribisi: All of the characters within the show has that, to a greater or lesser degree, everybody has that part of them, and it manifests itself in all the various relationships that we have. As far as the sense of bad or good, I think that ultimately, for all of us, it's a survival thing. I think this is the way he was brought up, and this is the way he knows how to survive.
There is that arrested development, and he was incarcerated in prison for three years. At the end of the day, there is some nobility in the fact that he's doing what he's doing for his brother. It comes down to that.
Cranston: The fact that we know he can do something altruistic and out of love gives us hope in the character, and that's all we really want to be. The pilot light of hope.
Ribisi: My heart goes out to him. He does that because he also knows that really is that one vestige, that only thing that he has in his life. That only real, tangible thing within all the deceit, and the lies, and all that, that's the one thing, relationship, that he can be himself. There's that tacit, unspeakable relationship, that fraternity.
There is that dynamic: good versus evil. Ultimately, I think with any good plot or story, there is, to a greater or lesser degree, a morality tale there. But it's more human than anything. There's that complexity where you say one thing but you're meaning something else. And we all have that. I have that right now!
Cranston: At first, David Shore and myself, we co-created the concept of it. The idea of bail bonds has been culminating in my mind, wanting to create a show dealing with that world, which is a thin layer away from criminality, is so interconnected. I thought, "There's some dirtiness to it," and I always wanted to figure out how to do that.
It was originally produced for CBS, and CBS, of course, has their model. It would have been more procedural at CBS, and that's what they want. A "skip of the week" kind of thing, and the relationship between the two cousins, so to speak, and what would happen there and how long. So the series-long secret would be his identity, but each week would be a different thing. So the construct seemed to work, and CBS loved it. It was very high in the testing. We were told that it rated second of all their dramas that year. So we were thinking, "Oh, this is good." And it didn't get picked up.
David got to the point where he didn't feel that he was the right guy to continue on a serialized version. He's more broadcast. So he stepped away. We were friends, and it's like, "OK, thank you. It's what's best." I went after Graham Yost and seduced him, and got him to come on and be the captain of the ship.
Graham Yost: I turned on my Amazon Echo, and I said, "Alexa, should I do this show?" And Alexa said, "If you know what's good for you." Bryan and I have known each other for almost 20 years, worked together on "From the Earth to the Moon," and we've stayed friends ever since. The idea of working with him again was great. I loved the idea of a con show. I watched the pilot and went, "Oh, this is good. This is really good."
I love the characters ... It was just that core cast to begin with, you don't usually get handed that. It's hard enough to construct that. It's hard enough to write characters that are going to get people like that. But to be just given that, was like, "Wow -- sh*t, half the work is done right there!"
I'm just so grateful that they were able to talk this incredible cast into doing something that is a remunerative life, but is a very burdensome life to do a show, trying to do 22 episodes. That becomes your whole life. As fate would have it, now it's this streaming show, a much more manageable 10.
Ribisi: I think Bryan Cranston is one of our great American actors, and it's just a privilege to have a conversation, even ... I wasn't familiar with Marin Ireland's work before, but having worked with her, she just reminds me of one of those classic, sharp-witted Bette Davis-style actors. Margo Martindale -- goes without saying. I actually worked with Peter Gerety years ago, and just remember how his talent stood out to me. It's just one of those things. Especially with the captain [Bryan] here, everybody's head is really about wanting to do the best job that they can, to do something that's effective.
Cranston: Amazon's model is to point out what is working for them and what is not working for them, and allowing the creative team to solve it. As opposed to how broadcast networks have a tendency to be more hands on, more noting: "Can he be a podiatrist instead of a dentist?" Everyone get notes -- we all get notes all the time. But theirs was, "We're bumping on this thing," or "We don't quite think that this is clear enough." "Got it -- we'll make that clear." They don't impose beyond the note, the initial note, which is a great partner to have.
Yost: It's incredibly difficult [to write a show about cons], but it's fun when it works out. Some of my fondest memories on this show in terms of the writing of it are being on the set in New York when we were shooting the first episode after the pilot, and getting a call from the writers' room, and they said, we've got this idea we want to run by you. And they got to this point, and I went, "Sh*t, that's it -- that's fantastic!" It's so exciting. I just love the big twists that the writers room was able to come up with.
It's also very difficult because television, unlike a feature where you're just doing this one thing, you can rewrite the script 20 times, figure it all out, figure out the plan for the shooting. It's like we didn't have everything worked out. It's usually laying the track and the train starts rolling -- we're building an airplane in flight. And then there were times we went through a lot of turbulence. So it's like, "Oh sh*t -- what are we going to do now?" And we make big adjustments.
But we got through it. I think we landed the plane pretty well, when you see the whole season. But it's doing a con show, and all those twists and turns, and who's doing what, it's not easy, but it is really fun.
Margot Martindale: The best new part is that I haven't quite figured it all out yet. I guess that's maybe not so good sometimes, but I think for this, I think it's good for me. Because it's brand-new, and because it can be what I want it to be; it's fun. It's like getting a paint-by-numbers, and putting a little bit of color here, then a little color here, and then, "Ooh, there's the face. Here's the arm." And I like to see that all filled in. And I think I got close to that in this first season.
Marin Ireland: When you get deep in the season, there was definitely a day where there was a scene that a bunch of us were in, and at one point finally we were going, "Do any of you guys get what is happening right now?" And Margo would be like, "I think I do." You're like, "I think I do -- what do you think is happening? And it's like our characters didn't know any of it, so it didn't matter. But it was us as the actors: "Am I a dummy? Is this complicated?"
Martindale: Trying to read the truth is fun. Really fun. And complicated. And also, trying to keep all the balls in the air right now is really complicated for me. It's also fun to have secrets and to layer the story in. As the writers layer the story in, to find your way into what my input is into those layers. It's a wonderful group, and it's wildly fun.
I'd said to these guys as we were out in the middle of the woods, about four in the morning -- I can't remember where we were, I said, "I love you guys!" This is such a great group of people. It's a very wonderful group of actors to work with. It's kind of egoless, and everybody, we're all there to do the best story possible. So that makes fun to go to work.
"Sneaky Pete" is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.