The bold and intense new TNT drama series Animal Kingdom, inspired by the critically acclaimed Australian film starring Jacki Weaver, centers on 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (Finn Cole), who moves in with his morally questionable relatives in their Southern California beach town after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Thrown into the deep end of a family ruled by Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin), that makes their living through carefully planned armed robberies and other criminal activities, it turns out that joining her boys – level-headed Baz (Scott Speedman), mentally unstable Pope (Shawn Hatosy), middle son Craig (Ben Robson) and overly suspicious Deran (Jake Weary) – comes with enough danger and excitement that it puts all of their lives at risk.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Scott Speedman talked about why he wanted to be a part of Animal Kingdom, exploring edgier material, that none of these characters are what they initially seem, the instant chemistry among this group of actors, the relationship between Baz and Smurf, pitting family against family, and the police presence in the story. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
SCOTT SPEEDMAN: They reached out to me. Like any actor, I was aware of some of the good things that were going on, at that time, in television and I was looking to do something out of the confines of the networks, which I’d been on before and I liked doing, to a certain point, but the boundaries are there. You can’t take stuff as far as these other cable networks are trying to go. So, as soon as I read it, I knew that this had legs, if done right, to really follow these characters and go where it needs to go. Because of the new TNT regime, and knowing where Kevin Reilly came from, I knew that they were really wanting to do what I wanted to do, so it was immediately exciting to me.
This show is pretty intense and brutal, there’s some harsh language and there’s some nudity. Were you ever concerned about this show losing its edge, or were you pretty well reassured that this show would allow for that?
SPEEDMAN: Well, you never know. It’s always a leap of faith, obviously. You have a pretty good B.S. detector, after a lot of years of doing this, but who knows? Once you sign that contract, it’s not up to you. You’re not in control. But luckily, we have a great writing team and great showrunners, with Jonathan Lisco and John Wells, and huge support from the network. If anything, they’re telling us to push it further because they want to go there. At the same time, to be totally honest with you, I’ve been looking at other shows on smaller platforms and networks, and what did appeal to me about this show is that it’s not just going to be a critical darling. I really feel the commercial appeal of this show, too. That was really interesting and attractive to me. I do feel like this has potential to be a broadly watched show, and not just a niche show. To be honest, that’s what I’m after, right now. I don’t think it’s too hard core. I do feel like there’s a lot of accessibility with the show.
You’re playing the role that really put Joel Edgerton on the map with the movie, but this show feels so different. Even just changing the geography makes it feel so different than the movie did. Did those differences help you get passed any hesitation you might have had?
SPEEDMAN: Yeah, it was very simple, to be honest. Like a lot of people, I was a fan of that movie, but it just always felt more inspired by it. It very quickly became two different things. It’s blue collar Australia, if there is such a thing. When I became interested in the show, I went down and spent days in Oceanside, where the story takes place and where the family is from, and I was very happy with what that town is. It’s an interesting, strange town, close to San Diego, with the border right there and with Camp Pendleton right there, so there’s a huge military influence. There is an underbelly there that was apparent to me, right away. It’s a very rough town, in a certain kind of way. I knew that balance between the surfing and the Southern California feel and that underbelly, was going to be very interesting to me, so I was happy with that.
Baz is a guy that we learn has a lot of layers to him, but you don’t necessarily find that out in the pilot. He seems like he’s the sane one of the family, but then you learn that there are all of these other things going on. When you read the script, what was it about him that appealed to you and made you want to explore this character?
SPEEDMAN: Baz always had an heir of mystery to him in the pilot. The character that was there and what I bring to the table, I thought would combine for a compelling character and the writers picked up on that and took it in a different direction, and I think they’re doing that with a lot of the characters on the show. What you see at first isn’t necessarily what it is. Bringing complications to it and an heir of mystery really worked well for Baz. They’re pushing him in all sorts of different directions. You’ll think Pope is the evil one of the family and that Baz is the good one, and that’s just not what we’re doing, in a lot of different ways. I saw the potential in that, right away. No matter what you say to them, in the room, and what they say to you, in the room, you’re always hoping you have that connection that comes together and helps influence the storylines. I think the talented writers and showrunners do pick up on that, and they definitely have here. The scripts have been coming in super strong, and I’ve never been happier on a TV show before, so that’s good.
It seems like you must be having so much fun making this show.
SPEEDMAN: I am! You’ve probably heard this a lot, but when you get five guys together, it’s not always like this. We had an instant chemistry, along with Ellen Barkin, right away. These guys are great. We’re all different ages, but we all get along extremely well. They’re funny, good guys. There’s just a good comradery, which goes a long way and shows up on screen.
Ellen Barkin has always been kind of a bad-ass, so it’s fun to get to see her be a bad-ass on this show.
SPEEDMAN: She is very much a bad-ass, and she’s a bad-ass actor. When you combine that with the character, it makes for a really interesting character to watch. I think audiences are going to flip for that character.
How do you view the relationship between Baz and Smurf? As he’s grown up and not needed to depend on her as much, has that really changed the dynamic between them?
SPEEDMAN: Yeah. That’s one of the most interesting parts of the show. What is the pull there? These are grown men. Why are they still living at the house? They have their own apartments, but they’re also at this super insulated house. There’s an attraction, push-pull, vying or mommy’s attention and old stuff there still, where we’re all competing against each other for the attention of their mom. These are tough guys, but really, they’re momma’s boys at their core. There’s an interesting dynamic and a contradiction there that I find interesting to watch. That’s a great question. The nurturing aspect of Smurf makes for a carrot-and-the-stick mentality. Things are very light, until they’re not. That’s exciting.
As the one who’s not blood related, how does Baz look at Pope (Shawn Hatosy), Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary)? Do you think he feels the same way about them, as they do about him?
SPEEDMAN: Well, we’re not totally sure what they think about him. Without having a very familial love for these guys, and vice versa, I don’t think there’s a show, really. It would just get too nihilistic and to dark. I think what makes this show work is that they are brothers, for all intents and purposes, especially Pope and Baz. They have their issues, for sure, but Pope is the one that really brought Baz into this family, so there is a deep connection there, between all of the brothers. As the show progresses, I think that will get tested and pushed and pulled, but that has to remain there.
Baz also doesn’t seem to want to push or test J (Finn Cole), in the same way that the rest of them do. What do you think Baz sees in J, when he looks at him?
SPEEDMAN: That’s pretty loaded. I don’t know. He is essentially going through what Baz went through, when Baz came into the family, so he’s mirroring him. There are a lot of questions about the kid. Baz was maybe a little younger when he came into the family, but like J, if Baz had been adopted into a different family – and I talk with the writers about this quite a bit – he could have been a lawyer or been influenced in a much different way. J is like that, too. J is a smart kid who just needs some nurturing. Unfortunately for him, he’s being nurtured by these people. We’re fighting for his soul, and we’ll see what happens.
Baz has his own family, as well, and he has a daughter. Is that something that keeps him more grounded, or is that something that keeps him in the situation he’s in because he sees that as the only way to provide for his own family?
SPEEDMAN: Yeah, that’s another part of why he stays. But, he’s very much tested with his loyalty. Smurf tests him, in the sense of asking, “Who is your real family, us or them?” She doesn’t like outsiders. This is an extremely insulated group, and Catherine (Daniella Alonso) and Baz have had a pretty contentious relationship, over the years, so he’s pushed between the two, which comes to a head at certain points, this season.
How do you think Baz feels about having his own family? Was that something he even wanted?
SPEEDMAN: What I love about the writing of this show is that they’re not writing into the cliches that, because Baz has a kid and a wife, that means he loves his kid and his wife and will do anything for his kid and his wife. These are different kinds of people. What makes them tick is different. So, you’re very smart to ask that question. He’s not beholden to those rules, so much. That’s what I love about what the writers are doing. They’re testing that notion of family versus family, and Baz gets pulled away from his immediate family, at times. It makes for a very complicated character, which is what I want to do, especially with where we are with television, these days.
By the end of the second episode, we learn that Baz has a bit of a secret life going on. Will those lies all bleed into each other, at some point?
SPEEDMAN: In ways, absolutely, but not in the way you might think. The writers are doing such a good job with, just because we bring this story in, in Episode 2, we don’t have to have a pay-off or comeuppance for Baz, as a result. There’s no moralistic story that needs to be told. That just is what it is. Just because we see that one version of that, that doesn’t mean that’s the only version of that. That’s not his only secret. He’s a serial attacher. Because of his history, which we do explore, you will see why he is the way he is. That’s far more interesting to me than a moralistic story.
When we meet these characters, they’re all questioning where they’re at and what their place is, in this family and with Smurf, and they’re talking about doing things on their own, and it seems like there’s no way that could turn out well.
SPEEDMAN: It can’t. It would be a boring show, if it did.
What can you say about how much of a disaster all of that is going to start to become? Will that blow back on everyone?
SPEEDMAN: Absolutely, yeah. What I like about it is that it doesn’t seem like a neat little show. It really feels like there are major places that we can go, that we haven’t even begun to explore yet with this family. When you bring someone explosive like Pope back home, he’s a disrupter. He’s walking violence and walking chaos, and that can’t work with all of the other elements, so it makes for very explosive story points. And then, you have Deran and Craig, who are these characters that seem, at times, like they’re just goofing off, but they have their own things that they want to do and lives they want to explore. We get into all of that, as the story progresses. And those guys have been doing insanely good work, as actors, so it’s cool.
All of these characters feel like they’re walking an edge and that they could snap, if they’re pushed passed their limits, with some of their limits not being quite as far as others. How far do you think Baz can be pushed? What is his limit?
SPEEDMAN: That’s the thing, the minute we think a person is under control, that’s the one character that’s going to go off the rails, if pushed to go off the rails, story wise. It’s more interesting to watch somebody like that have to go through the ringer and see what happens and what comes of it. I have no idea, though. This is just me saying that. But, Baz is going to get pushed. There’s no question.
The cops start sniffing around this family pretty quickly. How difficult will that make it for this family to continue living the way they’re accustomed to living?
SPEEDMAN: I don’t think we can have this show without a police presence. That was such a big part of the movie, too. I think that will add so much stakes to what we do and how we do it. With gripping television, that’s really important. The writers don’t make anything easy. They’re not writing because they know the solution is around the corner. They write something complicated, and then figure out how to get out of it in a very smart way, which makes that authority presence feel very real and very scary. I don’t know where we’re going to take that, but so far, it feels very grounded and real and, as a character, terrifying.
Animal Kingdom airs on Tuesday nights on TNT.