Amazon’s Sneaky Pete
Interview with star, Giovanni Ribisi and actor/producer, Bryan Cranston
- The casting of Giovanni Ribisi
- Cranston’s character Vince, vs Walter White
- Cranston’s impressive one-shot monologues
- Ribisi on playing the different sides of Marius
- Cranston’s take on playing a character he created vs one created by someone else
- The evolution of Marius
By Abbie Bernstein
Giovanni Ribis (Marius Josipovic) Bryan Cranston (Vince)
Bryan Cranston won four Emmy Awards for playing high school teacher-turned-narcotics manufacturer Walter White over five seasons of BREAKING BAD. (He also earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in TRUMBO, Emmy nominations as both star and producer of the LBJ biopic ALL THE WAY, Emmys for producing BREAKING BAD, Emmy nominations for his comedy work on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, etc., etc.).
However, when Cranston decided to co-create the series SNEAKY PETE with David Shore, the main character was written to be played by a younger actor. In SNEAKY PETE, now streaming its first season on Amazon and already renewed for a second, Giovanni Ribisi’s character Pete is actually Marius Josipovic, a con artist who deliberately gets himself thrown in jail to avoid the vengeance of big-time criminal Vince (Cranston’s character). While in prison, Marius listens to his cellmate Pete’s (Ethan Embry) tales of an idyllic childhood with his grandparents. Since Pete hasn’t actually seen his grandparents since that childhood, Marius takes on Pete’s identity and presents himself to Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto (Peter Gerety) as their long-lost relative. They take him in, but “Pete” promptly finds himself pressed into the family business: bail bonds. He also has to deal with the fact that Vince is threatening Marius’ younger brother if he doesn’t return to town pronto.
California native Ribisi has been acting since the age of eleven, when he appeared in a double episode of HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN. Some career highlights since then have been as a series regular on MY TWO DADS, a recurring role on THE WONDER YEARS, the “D.P.O.” episode of THE X-FILES, the films LOST HIGHWAY, THE POSTMAN, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, COLD MOUNTAIN, TED and more.
During Amazon’s portion of the Winter 2017 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, Cranston and Ribisi sit down with two reporters in a room at Pasadena’s Langham-Huntington Hotel to talk about their new project.
David Shore (producer/writer), best known for his work on House, Family Law, NYPD Blue, Due South and Battle Creek.
Cranston starts by explaining how he and David Shore came to create SNEAKY PETE.
“It was stimulated by an Emmy speech that I gave, in which I said, I was kind of floundering as a teenager, circumventing responsibility and looking for shortcuts and that sort of thing, and it wasn’t until the accumulation of a few years made me realize at age twenty-two, oh, my God, that I love what I’m doing with acting. I love this. I want to just dive in and be in this for the rest of my life.”
This was a good thing, because, Cranston continues, “Until I found my passion, I was kind of sneaky. And in fact, my family dubbed me Sneaky Pete. I had a very challenging childhood,” he laughs. Cranston wrote about this, and more, in his autobiography A LIFE IN PARTS. “There were some issues. The next day, Zack Van Amberg congratulated me and said, ‘Hey, I think there’s a show there.’ I said, ‘What’s the show?’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. But what if you were a teenager and you didn’t grow out of it, and you’re now thirty-five. What are you then?’ And that got me thinking about, what would I have been? What could I have been?
Before acting took hold, Cranston relates,
“I was on track to become a police officer. And probably to try to counter the kind of draw to nefariousness or something, I’ll go the other way, balance it out. And I thought, I might be a con man if I wasn’t in this [acting], so that got us thinking. It’s like a bad man with a sense of purpose and goodness in his soul that’s undiscovered.”
As to how Cranston and the other producers settled on Ribisi as their leading man, Cranston says,
“It was early on. We knew we had to cast this role first. And we were looking at different prototypes – tall, thin, multicultural, handsome or character or big men. We didn’t really know – what is a con man? What is the face of a con man? And ultimately, it’s this guy, right here.”
“Who, me?” Ribisi pipes up innocently.
Cranston elaborates, “Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, our casting directors, brilliantly had this idea – ‘What about Giovanni Ribisi?’ And all of us had a pause at that moment. It was almost like a ‘Huh, let’s explore that.’ And we all unanimously thought, ‘Why don’t we just send it?’ He didn’t audition for this. ‘Why don’t we send him an offer for this and see if he’s interested?’ So it went out with an offer to have him read it and see if it was something he wanted to entertain, and fortunately, he did.”
Ribisi says he came in not realizing there was any relationship between his character and Cranston’s real life. “I think it was Episode Seven, Eight or Nine, towards the end, we all dove in to doing the show, and reading each episode, and we were I think sitting around the poker table, and we all learned that most of the characters are various people in Bryan’s life, various family members, and it of course got me thinking,” he laughs, “and I went, ‘Wow, how accurate was that, or is this?’ No, ultimately, the character is his own concoction from [show runner/executive producer] Graham [Yost] and Bryan and David Shore originally.”
Vince (Cranston) catches Marius Josipovic (Ribisi) trying to swindle him in a $100,000 in a card game, which leads to Marius’ hiding scheme.
As for Cranston’s Vince, although the character is a criminal, Cranston says the SNEAKY PETE antagonist is very different than BREAKING BAD’s Walter.
“Walter was like an Everyman, he was a man who, over the course of six years, we got to unveil the type of personality that he eventually became, and under the right set of circumstances, I think anybody could have that same journey. Vince is a different guy. He had a different track. He had more of a Sneaky Pete nature to him from the very beginning. Even while he was a cop, he was not a clean cop. And so he was working an angle from the very beginning, so he’s a very different character than Walter White. But it’s fun to play.”
Cranston as Vince has some powerful monologues, some of which, he reveals, were shot in one take.
“The really long one I think was about four pages or something, in the second episode or the third episode, something like that. It’s so interesting. It’s like, when an actor starts to look at that, you go, ‘Well, that’s a pretty big bite.’”
Ribisi chuckles sympathetically. “I know.”
Cranston continues, “You slowly start to absorb it and connect the dots from one emotional beat to another, and you finally get into a rhythm. And as I’m working on it, the writers thought, ‘This might be a lot to ask, to have an actor do this. So let’s help him out a little bit.’” He turns to Ribisi. “I don’t know if I told you this – they said, ‘Let’s go in and trim it down.’ So as I’m learning and absorbing the whole thing, they’re going, ‘Let’s take out this line, and this paragraph, let’s take out this …’”
Ribisi winces on Cranston’s behalf, understanding that shortening the monologue once the memorizing process has started is the opposite of useful. “You start to lose your islands.”
Cranston elaborates. “I said, ‘Well, that’s the worst thing – that’s not helping me, that’s hurting me.’ And I said, ‘Please, let’s do the whole thing, and then in editing, you have cutaways – we have the ability to cut and paste.’ It’s fun to do. When you first see it, it’s like, ‘Oh, s**t. There’s a lot here,’” he laughs. “But once you get into it, you go, ‘Oh, I can’t wait now to do this.”
Ribisi gives his own take on Cranston’s monologues.
“We were all secretly excited when we we read that draft and saw that he had a four-page monologue, just because we wanted to see it. And I wasn’t supposed to work that day, and I remember I went to work just to watch. And it was just such a privilege.”
Cranston laughs. “You were thinking, ‘He’s going to f**k up.’”
Now both men are laughing, as Ribisi recalls, “I was trying to be right next to the camera, and be like,” he pops up, “‘What?’”
“‘Distraction!” Cranston snaps with pretend petulance. “ ‘That doesn’t count!’”
Cranston says he’s not sure whether Vince is named after BREAKING BAD creator Vince Gilligan.
“Possibly. That was David Shore’s naming. I didn’t name him. I don’t really know.”
Ribisi describes his philosophy for playing Marius when Marius is pretending to be Pete or trying to mislead Vince.
“I think that the foundation of everything is from a con man’s perspective, and I think he’s well aware of what he’s doing, of his actions, so that that to a great or lesser degree, there’s a modicum of responsibility there. But from a con man’s perspective, it’s that the more you believe in it, the more they believe in it. But then, with this specific character, it’s also considering the context of the situations that the writers constructed around the plot. In a way, you could distill it down to a simple thing where a guy wants to save his brother from a situation. And what was so fascinating for me was how complicated that became, because of his own logic and because of his own reasoning, and the various tributaries he would go down in order to cover his tracks, or lie, or build bigger lies. And so it was considering all of those things. Yeah, there are certain situations where there was an accent, or there was a specific vocation or certain things that you’re trying to put forward, but I think at the end of the day, it’s just say the line, look the guy in the eye, and say the line,” he concludes with a laugh.
Cranston observes, “It’s actually, when you think about it, that’s what we do in our careers. We slip into the shoes of someone else. So it’s kind of like the description of a good con man, to be believable when you slip into those shoes.”
Ribisi agrees. “But it’s so fast.” He snaps his fingers for emphasis. “It’s dealing with the situation with no preconceived prep or anything, it’s just go.”
Walter White was Gilligan’s creation, whereas Vince is partly Cranston’s from the outset. Is there any difference in playing a character that one has actually scripted and a character that has been written by someone else?
Cranston replies, “Well, I was there for the genesis of character development outside of the original script, but with Vince Gilligan, it was like he had an image of what he wanted. And I think any good actor is, at some point, you either have to ask for the reins to the character, like, ‘I’m asking you to give him over to me,’ and if he won’t give him over – and there have been circumstances when a writer or director is, ‘No, he should be this way,’ and, ‘I just feel like it should be this way. And since I’m going to play it, I need you to trust me. So we can wrestle, and I’ll take it from you, or you can hand it over to me.’
“It’s something similar to being a parent, where you’re, ‘You know, honey, you need to do this, and you need to do your homework, you need to eat that, you need to go to bed, you need to wear this,’ and then at nineteen, you’ve got to let go of that child and go, ‘It’s up to you now.’ And that’s what a writer has to do ultimately for an actor, is to create this, be emotional in their writing so that the actor feels it, and then let it go. And for me, now, it was about the same thing, trying to support Vince Gilligan, or [director] Linwood Boomer or whoever I’m working with in that position, in [SNEAKY PETE’s] case, Graham Yost, trying to support him, but also challenge him. We have a saying at Moonshot, my company – ‘We are going to try to poke holes in the boat, and see if we can sink it.’ Because if we can, critics will be able to easily, and so will audiences. They may not be able to articulate why they don’t like something, but they’ll just try to challenge it. Critics know, because you can spot when certain things go awry, or the plausibility of something just goes way out of whack [or] you don’t care about it. All those things you’ve got to cover.”
How much does Marius change in the first season?
Ribisi responds, “I don’t know. I think that we were holding out, in anticipation, or hopes, or at least I was, that there would be two, three, four, five seasons,” he laughs. “So there’s an overall arc and an intention, but with this specific situation, there’s definitely change, and I think Bryan was talking about that earlier, as far as with the characters and the theme of it, and how everybody has, to a greater or lesser degree, duplicity. But that’s one of the jobs and the challenges of writing or constructing a plot is, what is that change going to be? What are those revelations, what are they going to be, and how is your character or the hero and other characters going to be defined through dealing with those revelations? So it does have all of that.
“For this, for me personally, more than most things that I’ve worked on, this is at the top of the heap. This is just incredible writing, and like I said, every week, there was something that when the episodes came out and we would read them, we were all just getting more and more excited about the group of people that we were working with. It’s a different thing from doing a feature film where you know, this is the script, this is the story, this is it. Feature films are in that way more predicated on the script. You get involved in a project to do that. With this, in television, and the sort of Golden Age of Television that we have, it’s about the people, the company that you’re working with, really, and trusting them, and having those conversations with the writers, and then ultimately having the writer hand it over and go, ‘The actor has to write now.’”
Cranston adds, “And in many cases, we’ve seen throughout the course of even one season that once we’ve seen all the dailies and seen each episode being put together and giving notes from a post-production standpoint, we see things that G [Giovanni Ribisi] is doing and it’s like, “Wow, that’s a good moment.” And the writers catch it, and they go, “Let’s see if we can then start to write in opportunities for that kind of expression to be germane to the story, because it’s very interesting.” So it’s a very symbiotic relationship where the actor takes from the writing and absorbs it. And conversely, so does the writer. The writer sees the result and starts to take from that to infuse in their writing. So it becomes this relationship that’s very creative.
What would both men most like potential viewers to know about SNEAKY PETE?
“I don’t want anybody to know anything. I just want them to watch and hopefully be engaged and have an experience going into it. Hopefully, to that degree, it really is engaging. This was absolutely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but it’s worth it. We’re in a moment right now that I think is really important for television and film-making, and it’s evolving, organic, and it’s the Wild West. And I think all the efforts are worth it. So that’s all I can say about it.”
Cranston nods approval of his colleague’s statement. “That’s good. I think go in fresh with an open mind and enjoy the ride.”