Awards show acceptance speeches can sometimes be dull or uninspired; they can be emotional and impassioned; they can even provoke a tweet from the president-elect. But very few — in fact, just one — become the launching pad for a TV series on Amazon Prime.
That’s where Bryan Cranston comes in.
During his 2014 Emmys speech for lead actor in a drama, the former “Breaking Bad” star reflected on his early years as a wayward kid before finding his passion in acting.
“I was a kid who always looked for a shortcut,” Cranston said then. “A schemer. My own family nicknamed me Sneaky Pete. My own family.”
A day later, Cranston got a call from Zack Van Amburg, the president of Sony Pictures Television, which produced “Breaking Bad.”
“He said, ‘Congratulations, and by the way, I think Sneaky Pete would make a good show,’” Cranston recalled during an early-January sit-down in Pasadena. “He said, ‘What if you hadn’t found your passion at 22? And you went off and now you're 37 — what would you be?’ And I thought, that's an interesting premise.”
From the age of 11, Cranston said, he didn’t have a father in his life and his mother was an alcoholic.
“There was this big opening,” he recalled. “I was kind of on my own, with the exception of a year under my grandparents’ auspices. But I really made up my own rules. I did just enough to get by.”
Now suddenly those wily years of his youth — of asking teachers what he needed to do to just get a C, or discarding most of the newspapers on his paper route to avoid dealing with ornery customers — found a way to intersect with his passion by way of “Sneaky Pete.”
The drama, which is available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius, a con man who gets out of prison only to learn that a gangster (Cranston) he once robbed is on the hunt for him (and his fingers). To evade his past, Marius assumes the identity of his former cellmate, Pete, and reunites with Pete’s colorful family, which is in the bail bonds business and hasn’t seen him in about 20 years. From there it’s a constant race to keep up the act. The cast also includes Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland and Shane McRae.
“I had been trying to figure out how to make a series out of the world of bail bonds, because I was attracted to that milieu,” said Cranston, who also directed and wrote for the series. “It's a breath away from criminality, and yet you deal with the judicial system and law enforcement and it felt really ripe for something to be living in there — this guy who hasn’t changed his ways and gets involved in a world that could be a real talent that he has. Yet he's not even who he says he is. Everything's a con.”
Cranston originally developed the show with David Shore (“House”) as a CBS procedural. When the network passed, Shore exited and was replaced by “Justified” creator and executive producer Graham Yost. As such, the identity of the series underwent its own transformation, going from a crime-of-the-week procedural to a more streaming-friendly, serialized drama.
“I think we did a pretty good job of letting that clock roll,” Yost said of crafting episodes that he hopes will seduce viewers into watching the next one.
Yost was seated next to Ribisi and a scruffy-faced Cranston in an empty Pasadena hotel room, where the threesome were in the throes of a day of press to promote the show. When one had a moment of thoughtful reflection on the show, it often provoked playful wise-cracking from the other — such as when Cranston used a clay metaphor to describe Yost’s crafting of the series and Yost made a quip about the iconic “Ghost” pottery scene.
But when it comes to conning, they all agree it’s a fun space to play in — and a relatable one to some degree.
“Elmore Leonard always said, ‘Why be a criminal unless you're having fun?’” Yost said, referencing the late author whose short story, “Fire in the Hole,” served as the basis for “Justified.”
“Yeah,” Ribisi said, “I grew up being an actor, so being devious and manipulative and lying all the time just goes without saying.”
Cranston added: “When you first start out as an actor, especially as a child as you [Giovanni] were, you do look for the hook — ‘How can I hold on to this? How can I fake my way through and pretend I'm something else.’ When you mature as an actor, you don't look for the way to fake your way through, you actually look for ‘How can I build a foundation of truth so I can actually build something that even I believe?" And then from there you look for honest moments, and it's a transition. Some actors can make it, some don't.’
Yost said he wanted to capture the element of the thrill that results from such risk-taking, but also show the cost that inevitably comes with it. He also wanted to simultaneously let viewers in on the con and keep them in the dark. For research, Yost and the show’s team watched con artist movies.
“I watched about three or four just in one weekend,” Yost said. “’The Sting,’ was one. One of the things with that story is, you have to be in on the con, a lot of it. But there is also an agreement that the audience makes, which is, ‘You're going to con us, and we're OK with that, we buy into that —”
“And we can't wait to find out what it is,” Ribisi added. “But we won’t make it too easy.”
Spoken like a true Sneaky Pete.
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