From showrunner Graham Yost (Justified) and co-created by David Shore (House) & Bryan Cranston, the Amazon original series Sneaky Pete follows a con man named Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) who, upon getting out of prison, finds himself assuming the identity of his cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry), in order to hide out with Pete’s estranged family. Because they haven’t seen Pete in years, they have no reason to suspect that Marius is not their long-lost loved one, but when a vicious gangster (Cranston) goes after Marius’ brother, it jeopardizing the new web of lies that he’s weaving.
While at the TCA Press Tour, on behalf of Amazon, Giovanni Ribisi, Bryan Cranston and Graham Yost spoke at a small roundtable (with Collider and a couple of other press outlets) about how Sneaky Pete came about, evolving from a CBS procedural into a serialized series at Amazon, the appeal of this character, playing a con man, why this scenario could even be possible, and the moral aspect of the story. Cranston and Ribisi also shard a totally unrelated, but very funny story about Ribisi’s time on Junior Star Search.
BRYAN CRANSTON: Hi guys. I was just trying to see if I could find something on YouTube. Gio mentioned that he was on Junior Star Search, back in the day. Remember that show, with Ed McMahon? Anyway, should we get started?
Question: Bryan, how did you and David Shore come to co-create Sneaky Pete?
CRANSTON: I gave a speech one time, at the Emmys. I was receiving an award, two or three years ago. I gave a speech and in the speech, I just wanted to reach out and say how appreciative I was. I didn’t know where I was going, at any particular time, when I was a teenager. I had a childhood that was rather challenging. I grew up a little too fast and was looking for the shortcut and how to avoid responsibility, and my family nicknamed me Sneaky Pete. And then, at 22, I discovered the cumulative factor of the last few years and realized that acting was a passion, and it has been ever since. I just wanted to say, “If you’ve lost your passion or haven’t found your passion yet, try to find it or reintroduce yourself to anything that brings you joy. It doesn’t have to be on a professional level, just whatever level. I hope you do. And to all the Sneaky Pete’s out there . . .” Zack Van Amburg (the president of Sony Pictures Television) called the next day to congratulate me and said, “You know, I think Sneaky Pete could be a show.” I said, “What’s the show?” And he said, “I don’t know!” But he did say, “You grew out of it, but what if you don’t grow out of it?” I thought that was interesting. So, David Shore and I got together and started chatting about it, and we came up with this concept about a guy who doesn’t grow out of it, is a Sneaky Pete con man in his mid-30s now, and what is his life like? That’s how it began.
Graham, how did you come to this show?
GRAHAM YOST: I knew it was in the works because Jennifer Kennedy, who was a writer on Justified, was on the writing staff. And I would run into David Shore because they were in the same building where we had the writing staff for Justified, they were just on the second floor. So, I knew they were there. And Sal Calleros, who’s one of the writers on Sneaky Pete, I’ve been tracking for years and knew he was on it, so that’s how I became aware of it. And I think I ran into [Bryan] Cranston at something and asked what he was doing, so I knew it was going on.
This is such a complicated and complex character, at the center of the story, and audiences will really question whether they should be rooting for him or not. So, what made Giovanni Ribisi the right guy?
YOST: There’s just a humanity to him. You just see something behind his eyes. I think it’s also in the writing, to the flashbacks when he was a kid, that it didn’t come from nowhere.
Giovanni, what’s it like to be an actor who’s getting to play a guy that’s essentially an actor?
GIOVANNI RIBISI: That is absolutely part of it. There’s something within this story that’s more thrilling, in the sense that it’s extemporaneous. He’s needing to come up with solutions and his own story, and write whatever it is and be believable about it, from moment to moment. And the stakes are going to prison or getting a bullet in your head, as opposed to a bad review from a critic. So, it’s a little different, in that way.
Were you sneaky, as a kid?
RIBISI: Well, yeah, I was an actor.
And Bryan told us that you were on Junior Star Search?
RIBISI: I was! I was on Junior Star Search when I was 10 years old, in the acting category. The adult version of Star Search didn’t have an acting category, but for the kids, they had an acting category. It was the strangest thing. It was full blown 1980s, with big hair, mullets and the whole deal.
You didn’t win, though?
RIBISI: No, I lost.
CRANSTON: Do you know who you lost to?
RIBISI: I forget the guy’s name. I think it was Seth Something-or-Other.
CRANSTON: Seth Rogen? Seth MacFarlane? Seth Green?
RIBISI: No. This is more embarrassing and probably something to apologize for even more, but I ran into him at the Moonlight Roller Rink. I was skating, coming around a corner and doing my little jig to “Welcome to the Jungle.” I was 14 years old, and my hair was even longer with more of a mullet, and I was like, “Hey, man!” He was at the Moonlight Roller Rink.
Bryan, you sort of play the bad guy in this.
CRANSTON: Sort of. And by the way, [Marius] is a bad guy, too.
Did you immediately want to play this role?
CRANSTON: No. This was originally sold to CBS. When they didn’t pick up the show, Sony said, “We’re not done with this. We’re going to send this out.” And it was picked up immediately by Amazon, which was a good home for it. They said, “Feel free now to expand on it. Take away the elements that you didn’t want to necessarily include and include what you want. Breathe into it.” With that mandate, we went in and retooled it, to a degree.
What were some of the changes that you made?
CRANSTON: We wanted to up the stakes and make it more dangerous, and we wanted to take away the procedural aspect of it. We wanted to serialize it. That’s the biggest change that occurred. And we wanted to be able to explore some sexuality and some dark humor, and that gave us the permission to do so.
Since this went through a long development process, going from CBS to Amazon, how long of a gap was it, from pilot to posting it on Amazon to shooting the season?
YOST: The CBS pilot was shot in March 2015. And then, it was on Amazon in August 2015. We started shooting again on the first of June 2016.
When you went through the Amazon pilot process, did you find yourselves reading viewer feedback, or did you avoid that entirely?
RIBISI: Yeah, or you take it with a grain of salt. A long time ago, probably 10 years ago, I went down the rabbit hole of the whole thing and was just like, “Oh, my god!” I just learned from that moment that everybody has an opinion and their microphone becomes louder, if they say something that’s more controversial and hyperbolic. But, I think there was an overall sense that people really liked the pilot and are really excited to see more and are excited about the show.
Giovanni, since this character is sort of an asshole, how do you see him?
RIBISI: That’s looking at it from maybe perhaps an objective point of view. For me, you want to try to look at it from, what’s behind that? He’s trying to survive. You can really distill his own objective and the M.O. based on that objective down to wanting to save his brother. What’s great about this show, and the snowball effect of this thing that just starts to go and the heat just gets so unbearable, is that with that simplicity, it’s so fucking complicated. He’s put in these situations where it becomes such a huge thing with five irons.
Why does this family even believe that Marius is Pete?
CRANSTON: That was by designed. We realized that a mother would know, but a grandmother might not, especially after 25 years. If you knew someone as a boy and now they’re an adult, you can change your appearance to have that be possible. We were very careful in casting the real Pete, as we call him, to be roughly the same age, bone structure and height, so that it’s plausible.
These characters are all so layered, and there’s so much more to them. They’re often funny and likeable, even when they’re doing bad things. Was that the vision for the show?
CRANSTON: Certainly, to infuse the drama with humor was by design. In fact, Graham Yost’s edict, when casting for people outside of our main cast, was to make sure that they can all handle comedy. His notion – and I agree with it – is that, if you can handle comedy, you’re more likely to be able to handle drama, but it doesn’t go the other way.
Giovanni, as this show evolved, were you surprised at just how layered these characters are?
RIBISI: I was absolutely surprised. I think that we all were, in the sense that, every week or every two weeks, we’d get a new episode and it was surprising and revelatory, and it just made you look forward to the next one. And it just kept building from there. It was this sense of, “Oh, my gosh!” It wasn’t that I was relieved, but I felt privileged to be in this austere group of filmmakers and actors. I will say that the show, in this season, starts to pick up a momentum. It starts to pulse and thrive and go, and it becomes relentless. It’s something that, while it was challenging, I’m so proud of having experienced.
Is there any moral lesson from the journey that Marius takes?
YOST: There is a moral aspect to it. The skills you have, as a child, to survive a difficult or in Marius’ case a pretty horrific childhood, he was taught because of that. He got pulled into the con world and was shown how to do these things, but those skills don’t help you anymore, if you’re trying to be a full adult. When Bryan [Cranston] first told me about this show, he said, “It’s Breaking Good.” Marius has an arc. We hope that we get the viewership and that people get all the two-day shipping they can handle, and we’ll get to do the full story. It’s that kind of arc for all of these characters. It’s not necessarily redemption because the past is the past and he did what he had to do to survive. Going forward, what choices is he going to make? There’s stuff you’ll see, at the end of the season, where you’ll see a little bit of the pain and humanity behind the facade of, “I don’t care.”
Graham, do you stay involved with The Americans, just so you can pull people from their cast, like Margo Martindale and Alison Wright?
YOST: My involvement with The Americans is just to applaud Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields]. I was involved early on, in helping Joe sell it, and I keep my name on it because it’s awesome to have that credit. And I get to read scripts he cuts and go to the premiere. They’re great guys and it’s a great cast. That’s one of the reasons I came on this thing – look at the incredible cast that we were able to put together for The Americans, and I’ll take partial credit for it. Gavin O’Connor, who was the director on the pilot of The Americans, brought in Noah Emmerich, and getting Noah was fantastic. It was John Landgraf’s idea to get Keri Russell. And because we had those two, we were able to get Matthew Rhys, but we didn’t know that Matthew Rhys was going to be that brilliant. So, coming on to Sneaky Pete, there was a great cast, but it was already put together. I didn’t have to do any work. I didn’t have to struggle over who was going to play the cop brother. We had Shane McRae, and he’s fantastic. It’s so rare to get a cast like this. I think that’s one of the reasons why Bryan [Cranston], after it was passed on by CBS, pushed Sony to find a home. We’re not going to get a cast like this very often, in television or movies. It’s so hard to get the chemistry right. So, you’ve gotta go with it, if you can.
Bryan, how did this experience, as a director, compare to other directing jobs that you’ve done?
CRANSTON: It is a little different because I have more to do with this, unlike when I was directing The Office or Modern Family, where I’m just a hired hand. I like that, too. I like all aspects of it. In that, I just focus on my work and try to come up with four or five surprises that aren’t in the script. If I can surprise my bosses with something that they weren’t expecting, then I’ve really done my work, and that’s hard to do. It’s tough to find where that might be. And you’re not giving actors any acting advice like, “You know, your character wouldn’t really do that,” even though they’ve been doing it for seven years. You can’t be like, “Let’s make a change now.” But with this, it’s new. It’s the first season and we haven’t fully developed these characters. Being from an acting background, you plant ideas in the way of questions because I don’t even know, myself. It’s a lot like, “Do you think Marius would do this?,” or “Do you think Marius could be curious about that?” It’s not a manipulation. It’s a possibility. You’ve gotta be open because a good idea is a good idea, and I certainly learned that a long time ago.
Sneaky Pete is available to stream at Amazon Prime on January 13th.