Bryan Cranston's Sneaky Pete: An Inside Look

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If Breaking Bad and Justified had a baby, it would be Sneaky Pete.

Ignoring whether or not that even makes sense, Sneaky Pete is the new Amazon series starring Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston, with Justified and The Americans' Graham Yost serving as showrunner. This would normally be the portion of the intro where we'd detail the premise of the show, but Yost has that well in hand.

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How would you describe Sneaky Pete?

It’s about a con artist played by Giovanni Ribisi. His actual name is Marius. Gets out of prison after five years. Finds out that he's still in a jam that he thought he'd gotten out of. He's not out of it. He has to hide. He decides to take on the identity of his cellmate for the past three years, who's played by Ethan Embry. That character, Pete, is estranged from the family, hasn't seen them in twenty years and Marius notices that there's enough of a resemblance between the two of them. He shows up at the farm and says, "Hey. It's me, Pete," and they believe him.

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The interesting thing about the show is that Marius is in a bad jam. The bad guy is Bryan Cranston, playing the character of Vince. He owes him $100,000 or Vince is going to start chopping off his brother's fingers. It’s great, because it's Bryan Cranston, and he's playing a bad guy, and he's having so much fun. It was a delight to watch. What Marius finds out at the farm is this sort of Norman Rockwell looking family, but there's something else going on. They've all got secrets of their own and he gets involved in all of that.

We've sort of got two stories running. One, the farm and that family, and by the way they run a bail bonds business, so there's always bad guys coming in and out, and that can be used in the story, used in the con that Marius is going to run. Then there's the story with Vince and how he's going to get that $100,000. That's the basic story. That's season one. There, now you don't have to watch it.

What's it like working in the Amazon structure?

I'm not the creator of the show. The show is created by Bryan Cranston and David Shore, who did a little show called House; I don't know if anyone watched that. It stemmed from Cranston at one of his Emmy Award acceptance speeches talking about how he grew up as a “Sneaky Pete,” meaning that he kind of cut corners, found the angle on things. Wasn't probably a full-fledged con man, even as a kid, but was a little shady. Someone said, "Why don't we do a series? That's a great title." He developed that with David. They got a pilot commitment from CBS and they shot it, but CBS said, "No, we'll do another NCIS." So they took it to Amazon and the big adjustment was in the CBS show, Bryan wasn't in it. For Amazon, they said, “Bryan can play Vince.” That was the big adjustment. Then there was just a difficulty generating stories and whatever, and they asked me to consider coming in.

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I brought Michael Dinner, who's our directing producer on Justified; and Fred Golan and Ben Cavell, who I worked with as writers on Justified. We really liked the idea of doing a con artist show. It's fun. It can be dark. It can be funny. It can be exciting. It can have a lot of strange humanity to it, but the big thing was the cast. We'd all worked with Margo Martindale before. That had gone very well for us on Justified. She's just an amazing performer. Then there was working with Cranston, and Giovanni was a big reason for us all wanting to do the show.

How did he get involved?

They just went to him back when they were doing the CBS version. When Bryan Cranston calls and says, "I'd like you to be in my show that I'm co-creating," you listen to him. I think they got the rest of the cast based on that. It feels better as a streaming show than it might have been as a more of a standalone episodic CBS show. That's been my world, especially Justified and stuff like that. I've liked that idea of the big serialized story for a season.

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Would you say this is a binge-worthy show?

Hopefully binge-worthy. If you've watched any binge-worthy shows, they always end up on something so that when it says the next episode starts in eight seconds, you let it roll. Then people stay up all night and lose their jobs and the economy collapses, but other than that... That was one thing that we had to keep in mind, to always have a big hook at the end of every episode. It was freeing not to have to write commercial outs, act breaks. Those can sometimes be fun, because it helps you kind of structure the thing, but we could play with that. Sometimes on Justified we'd find, “Oh this act is only four minutes long. It can't be that short, so what do we do?” We'd have to fudge around.

What part of the country does this show take place in?

The farm and everything is in Connecticut. We shot it in New York and Vince the bad guy runs an illegal card room in Chinatown, so there's a fair amount of play with New York and the burrows and Connecticut, present day. It's very urban with some countryside, but the interesting thing in terms of Breaking Bad, one of the things that Cranston has said about this show is that if we get to do the full run, that it's really a show about “breaking good.” That this is a bad guy. He's a con artist, but he needs to, and he has a yearning to, find his humanity. He grew up in that world and he's very cynical, very jaded. No one is trustworthy and he has a yearning in that direction, but we don't take him that far that fast.

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Is it a struggle to make this sort of character relatable and likable?

We struggled with it conceptually, but when you watch the show and you see Giovanni... I remember it was my daughter who watched it and she said, "You know, I was nervous whether or not I'd like this guy," and then she said, "but he's just so engaging." You understand that a lot of what he's doing, he's doing to try and save his brother. Then there's another story going on beyond that that becomes clear as the season goes along. You've got rooting interest for that. You're worried. Is he going to screw over this family? They're great people, you know? We try to balance that tension.

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Assuming the series is successful, how much of a story do you think you have going forward?

You know, we haven't really discussed that. I think in this new universe you think five, six, maybe seven years, something like that, ten episode order for each year. I think we could probably do something like that. Yeah, dream big.