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Interview: Ed Burns and Robert Knepper discuss TNT's 'Mob City'
Famously Irish star discusses playing Jewish
Last week, I sat down with eight of the stars of "Mob City" at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to talk about their new TNT drama, which premieres on Wednesday, December 4.
Unfortunately, technology went a bit haywire and the video portion of the interviews became corrupt and only the audio remains.
That means, tragically, that you don't get to see the look on Ed Burns' face when I began our conversion by explaining that I don't necessarily think of him as being the most Jewish of thespians.
Burns plays Ben "Bugsy" Siegel in the 1947-set drama, which focuses on the LAPD and it's war against organized crime. He is, of course, playing a famous real-life mobster previously played by the likes of Warren Beatty and Harvey Keitel.
For this interview, Burns was paired with Robert Knepper, who plays Siegel's violent sidekick Sid Rothman, a composite character.
Click through for the full discussion of the Frank Darabont-created drama. The other three interviews will go up next week.
HitFix: Ed, I hope you will not take this the wrong way but when I hear the name Ed Burns I do not necessarily think...
Ed Burns: Gangster?
Ed Burns: Oh yeah. As a friend of mine said to me, "Hey, if Liev [Schreiber] can play Donovan you can play a Siegel."
HitFix: So that's the rule here?
Ed Burns: Yeah, but I guess, you know, Warren Beatty...
HitFix: Not so much.
Ed Burns: So fortunately I, you know, Frank [Darabont], myself, no one gave it any consideration.
Robert Knepper: Can I just tell you something? He is Ben Siegel so I don't care what... I mean I felt the same way. All of a sudden I realized in the pilot my name was Sid and then in the series I realized I'm Sid Rothman and the knee jerk first reaction I had was, "Oh my God. How am I gonna do that? I'm not Jewish." It's a horrible curse for a WASP to think "How am I gonna..." but then you go, "You know what? Just say the words. Just say the words and people will believe you or not. It's fine if they don't. Let me tell you, he is Ben Siegel.
HitFix: But the difference is I don't immediately know what you are, Robert, whereas I've been given the impression that you might be Irish possibly.
Ed Burns: Mmmm-hmmm.
Robert Knepper: Where did you get that?
HitFix: This is what I've heard. But you had no hesitation when you saw that. Were you like, "Okay, I can do this. I can be Bugsy Siegel."
Ed Burns: Yeah, for me, I mean, there's nothing in what we're doing in the show, his being Jewish has nothing to do with Bugsy in "Mob City." You know, born and bred New Yorker. From Brooklyn. As Frank said, "Look, he's gotta be larger than life. He's a very charismatic guy. You know, you've gotta be able to pull that off." Yeah, so no, no. No hesitation.
HitFix: Well you know you have done the Irish mobster thing before. Are there any sort of similarities or are all mobsters really different at the end of the day?
Ed Burns: I think they're probably all different and they're all kind of the same. You know, I mean I think there is a disconnect that they must have, a lack of empathy for folks in order to do the things that they do and they have to be some part a sociopath. You know, the more successful ones, let's say like Bugsy probably, had a little bit more intelligence than the street thugs that did some of the dirty work for them. You know, maybe Bugsy with a better home and a better education ends up running a corporation instead of running this running the rackets.
HitFix: Well that is my reaction to sort of watching the first couple of episodes is that Bugsy, Ben, there's the interpretation of him where he's just a businessman, you know. He made Las Vegas. He's got that. Whereas Sid, he's pretty much psycho, right? I mean is there a spin you can give me on Sid where he's a...
Robert Knepper: I don't know. I guess he's psycho because he has to do sort of the dirty business but I never sat there and went "I'm gonna play psycho." I just thought, "I've got to protect my family," and it's great playing a conglomeration or a fictitious character because there's nothing I have to worry about going, "Oh, that's what he did before." We just made it up. And Frank had a field day writing for him because he didn't have that restriction. The temptation is to go, "Oh, I'm killing this guy right now, I'm gonna, you know, look down and see that my pants are soiled because of it." He didn't get off on killing people. He just did it because it had to be done. We have to do this and I'm pretty able at doing it.
HitFix: Well are there some of the characters who you've played when you look back at them and you go "That person actually just really was a psycho?" or can you come up with sort of the...
Robert Knepper: Sure, sure. I mean T-Bag definitely sometimes loved the violence. I remember years ago I did a Caryl Churchill play in New York and I went over to London to really soak up the English accent. And Joan Washington was the lady I was working with over there, a dialect coach, and she talked about this character, a guy in a pub that every time he was about to get into a fight -- and he loved getting a fight -- he would giggle. And anybody who got into a fight with him knew like, "Oh don't get him giggling because you know this..." and he would literally take a chair, break it over the table and shove the leg of the chair down a guy's throat and kill him that way. It wasn't just a fistfight. He'd be getting excited about the fact that he was gonna... That's psycho!
HitFix: Okay. But that's a line that you draw where sort of T-Bag is on one side of that line and most of the characters are on...
Robert Knepper: I think Sid, Sid Rothman is one of the most, if not the most, interesting bad guy I've ever played. Interesting character because I tended to treat it like business. This isn't something that I live for every night to take care of his dirty business. It was just to just get rid of so I can go back and continue being the wallpaper, continue being the blank wall behind him and let him and Mickey Cohen have all the color. We tried to do that with my suits and the look of just... It's always been my quest in life: How can I do nothing? Absolutely I still can't quite get away with it. I can always do something but I want to do nothing. Let you do something.
HitFix: Ed, is it fun being the guy who does something?
Ed Burns: I mean this is the most fun I've had acting since "Private Ryan," hands down. It was such a fun rewarding experience. You know, I don't get to play the psycho. And I have been antsy to for a while. Any actor, you want to try new things. You also just want an opportunity to sort of go off a little bit. And, you know, Frank gave me ample opportunities to do that and I fully embraced it. It was fun showing up to work.
HitFix: Well are there sort of limitations that you had to put on yourself because of real things about this guy that you found out in research?
Ed Burns: Not really. Again, you know, I mean Frank is very clear to what he wants from you. You know, we had the five scripts and knew where we were going with the character. And, you know, it wasn't the type of environment where I could or where I was even interested in coming to Frank with something that didn't exist in his script that I had found about Bugsy that I wanted to bring to the table. You know, being a writer/director myself, I know my job here as an actor is to help Frank see his vision through. I'm here to serve his vision. And that's, you know, that's the role that we have as actors.
HitFix: Now talk a bit about sort of the aesthetic of the show and how much freedom that gave you to act within scenes when the lighting had to be exactly perfect and the costumes had to be exactly perfect. How much freedom did you feel to work within that world of carefully positioned and lit everything?
Ed Burns: I never felt like I was constrained by sort of lighting. But if anything the production design of the costumes and the lighting helped us sort of transition back in time. You show up at the Clover Club or... You know, I keep talking about this scene we did on some street downtown LA. You know you show up on set, you're in the clothes, you're in the fedora, the street is lined with cars from the forties, there's the period streetlamps, it's the old craftsman houses. We stepped into a film noir. So, you know and then you look at your lines and you're like okay, we know how to do this.
Robert Knepper: We're used to walking around, especially in LA in t-shirts and shorts. Tven in New York, you were saying, if you're dropping your kids off you look just like your kids. Men don't dress like that anymore. Back in the forties, and I realized it for a long period of time having done a first season, there's something very beautiful about "If I take my hat off that really means something. If I, God forbid if I take my jacket off, something's really gonna happen. If I roll up my sleeves. If I open my tie." Because everything was always so buttoned up in the pictures and to be able to have that freedom once you've got the constrictions of the costume, to say "This now really means something that I'm talking business here. I really want to talk to you. I'm standing here and put down my hat" and it's almost like undressing or opening up in a way and getting really vulnerable that we wouldn't normally do in modern days, because whatever, we don't wear anything anyway.
HitFix: Now did you have any sort of modern mannerisms that you had to phase out where they just didn't fit with what you were, with the world?
Robert Knepper: You can't say "like," right. You can't go "um" very much.
HitFix: Do you guys have favorite movie mobsters? Not necessarily once that inspired you in these performances but people who you look at and go, "That's a movie tough guy."
Ed Burns: For me Cagney was always my favorite. You know, the modern era, I'd go De Niro. You know, those are my two gangster icons.
Robert Knepper: I would add Bogey to that. Definitely De Niro. "Godfather II" is my favorite movie so. I like the little guy. I liked Pacino in that. I like the explosiveness. I did a play with him years ago and what I realized is one of the beautiful things about his style is everything is a question. He never made a statement in rehearsals. He would always say, "What is this? What do you mean?" I thought that's a great way to work. That's a great way to develop a character. Instead of making statements and knowing everything, ask questions about it.
HitFix: And have you sort of attempted to take that on yourself at all?
Robert Knepper: Oh, I always always... I remember seeing his script and it was Oscar Wilde's play "Salome." He would write in teeny tiny little letters over in the right. I think it was because he didn't want people to see him writing something stupid. Or maybe it was because he didn't want to be distracted by it when he looked at the script again. I'm not sure. I never asked him. But yeah, I do the same thing and I think like the cool thing about asking a question as opposed to making a statement, one of the beautiful things I love about film is when you look at the eyes of somebody in film, whether it's a male or a female and the vulnerability that you see in eyes, I think, is magic to a film. And even if you're playing a tough guy who's like, "I'm going for this," If there's something in the eyes, it's like "I'm not quite sure of the outcome of this." Like Bogey. I love watching Bogey because he would be so like hell-bent on something but there was something in the back of his mind going, "Am I gonna get away with this." Even Cagney to a certain extent. There's a little bit of fear. There's a little bit of "I'm almost scared of this," because this isn't exactly normal behavior.
HitFix: Now, Ed, is that something sort of process-wise that you were able to develop yourself given that the only person you could have asked questions on most of your early things would have been you?
Ed Burns: You know it's different. When you're the writer, you start with a question, you know. What I tend to do when I'm writing, and it usually happens later in the process, not before, the joy of the process is sometimes to let the unconscious mind sort of take you on the journey. Although then afterwards, I love to do character bios. I guess that's a version of those questions. You know: Who is this guy" Where did he go to school? What's his relationship with his mother and father? Even if that stuff was never gonna show up in the screenplay, that's just part of the process.
HitFix: How important is it to have Frank there as writer/director/producer – the guy with all the answers? And how rare do you feel like that is. I mean, you particularly on the TV show, Robert. How rare does that seem?
Robert Knepper: You're used to directing yourself a lot and in a series you tend to, unfortunately unless the director right away makes you feel comfortable, you feel like, You know what? I've been doing this character now for one year, two years, three years, four years. I kind of know a little bit more about it than you do." You can think that way. You can start to think that way. I think it's a horrible trap we fall into and I try very hard not to do that. But when you have somebody like Frank, right? I mean it's just from the get-go, you know you're in good hands. You know you're in the hands of somebody you can trust. And somebody who had the vision and no matter what you do, he's gonna definitely have that vision of you and gives us a tremendous amount of freedom to play, but is always there like a good dad to say, "No, go ahead and play. You can fall off if you want to."
Ed Burns: It's also that he has the ability to articulate what he wants. A lot of times you work with folks who either don't know what they want or they don't know how to articulate it to you. Frank can do both and he also recognizes when he has it and, you know, when he says, "Hey, we got it. Let's move on." And it comes from Frank, you feel like "Okay, all right, good. We must have done a good job there. Time to move on." Other times that you don't always walk away from a scene with that same level of confidence.
HitFix: I hear he's loud and a cheerleader off camera.
Ed Burns:There's nothing better than hearing, you know, that cheer from behind the monitors when you're working.
Robert Knepper: You can tell, too. I don't know. When you're working, when you're directing and you guys are setting up, you rehearse, let's say, okay. And then you give it over to the crew, right? To light. Is it a noisy set or is it quiet?
Ed Burns: I wouldn't say noisy but it's not quiet.
Robert Knepper: Frank's set is like. [He mimics total silence.] Did you notice that? I mean once in a while people would pipe up but it was like Frank was always thinking in a way, so out of respect for Frank we would just [mimics silence again]. Not a peep. Uless he initiated it but it was usually, it just felt like an old-fashioned kind of feel to it, like a great older, old director from another era, you know?
HitFix: Had you had that sort of set atmosphere?
Robert Knepper: I had that with George Clooney on "Good Night and Good Luck." It was a hush. But I think that was also because that was a period piece as well. There's a lot of elements going on, it's not modern realism so it's tricky. You want everybody focused because you don't want to go back and say, Oh, why didn't I... Oh, because I as telling too many jokes over in craft service. I wished I had been right there."
HitFix: See now you have the quiet set thing to aspire to next time you're directing, Ed. If you can't hear a pin drop that probably means something is…
Ed Burns: Yeah. Yeah. I didn't notice that. I was too busy talking. I was too busy telling jokes at craft services.
Robert Knepper: I studied acting with Bill Esper in New York at Northwestern and then I came out here and met a great guy named Roy London who is a great acting teacher. And I studied with him privately...
Ed Burns: This is a long one. [He slides back in his seat.]
Robert Knepper: Wait, I'm almost done! So I checked out his acting class once, right? [Looking at Ed.] He's supposed to nod off.
Ed Burns: This is going to be a long story.
Robert Knepper: It'll be a quick story. Anyway, so I'm sitting in his class and while the other scene is setting up he finishes one scene and these other two people are going on their little stage and everybody's talking in the classroom. And like blah, blah, blah, blah. And I went up to him afterwards and said, "Why do you let people talk in your classroom?" He said, "Because that's what happens when you're on a set. People are gonna be buzzing all the time, especially in television." And he said, "I want them ready for like what they're gonna have to deal with." That's the end of the story.
Ed Burns: Oh, good. That was pretty quick. Not too bad.
HitFix: Okay, so for, Ed. In that case you can tell a long story now if you want. Did this experience sort of inspire you in the long-form storytelling department yourself? Do you have a six episode, eight episode, thirteen episode cable series in you.
Ed Burns: Yeah, I mean an interesting thing. A couple of things have kind of happened at once this summer. One... [Knepper feigns nodding off.]
HitFix: Competitive snoring.
Ed Burns: The first was I'm watching Frank while we're shooting and he's behind the monitors and there's nobody else there. There's nobody else offering notes. Nobody telling him he's got to get another tape or they don't like what the actor's doing or giving a new line of dialogue. I'm like, "Wow, this is incredible how much creative freedom he has." And then when Michael Wright, the of the network shows up, it's, you know, more of the same. And Michael is really just there to sort of cheer Frank on. I'm like this is a kind of like amazing environment for a filmmaker, you know. Any studio film I've acted in that's not the case, you know, with the exception of working with Spielberg. And on indie films as well, even on some of my movies. When you've got a million coming from this guy and two million coming from that one and another million here, they want to be on set. And, you know, they have things to say. It tends to be how films are made. So I was sort of in awe of the experience that he was having.
The other thing is I am a big fan of all of these programs, you know, starting with "The Sopranos" going through "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "House of Cards" and looking at this more sort of like a novelistic approach to telling these stories where you actually get to do real character work and go off on tangents that you don't necessarily need to tie up neatly. So with all of that, I got very lucky. When we wrapped I was having a conversation with Michael Wright and I was saying all this. And he said, "Well have you ever thought about doing your own television show?" And I said, "Yeah, but I'm actually kind of, I'm thinking about it. I have a script that I wrote about 17 years ago. A period film set in New York about a bunch of cops in the sixties." My dad was a cop in New York in the sixties and I said, You know, we almost got it made 17 years ago but I couldn't get it made. Every five years I'd rewrite it." And I said, "And I think there's a show in that." He said, "Well I'd love to hear your pitch." I said, "Well let me go home and I'll take the month of August and I'll see what I've got." Long story short: I'm shooting the pilot for that show for TNT in February.
HitFix: And is there a role for this gentleman here?
Ed Burns:I mean I love this guy. Yeah. I doubt TNT is gonna let me start poaching my buddies from "Mob City."
Robert Knepper: I would love to work with him on especially comedy because…
Ed Burns: He needs to do something light
Robert Knepper: I need to do something light?
Ed Burns: You don't need to. I think you'd really shine.
HitFix: Well Ed talked earlier about how he had been itching to play, you know...
Ed Burns: To go dark.
HitFix: To go dark. So are you itching to go light?
Robert Knepper: I'm itching to go light. But not like "Ha, ha, ha light." [He lets out a maniacal laugh.] Dark comedy.
HitFix: That was really scary by the way.
Robert Knepper: I can't help the way I look. My jaw just goes a certain way when I do that. I think it's true. Most guys who play heavy stuff always want to do comedy. The comedy guys always want to do heavy. And it's just part of nature. But I think when you see somebody that does both or does it all you go, "Wow, that's an actor." And I was trained and I always thought of myself as a chameleon so, you know, you get pigeonholed when you're known as the guy who plays the bad guy or the whack job. So it's nice to be able to mix it up.
Ed Burns: When Woody cast you, I know it's small. Was it a whack job?
Robert Knepper: No. No. But I have to say I was so intimidated by him that I couldn't even. I mean I was acting opposite him. Julia Roberts is here and he's there. I'm like blah, blah, blah, blah. I was just a nimrod around him. A total nimrod.
HitFix: So but that's what you're looking for is the chance to go lighter and less crazy?
Robert Knepper: Yeah or like a comedy that is so real and almost embarrassingly funny because it's so real. Like I love "The Office." I love "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I love people getting upset over stupid things. You know, things that you misidentify something you think is something else or like a date kind of thing and "Oops, that went horribly wrong." You know, something like that that's real.
"Mob City" premieres on TNT on Wednesday, December 4.