Bryan Cranston was moving around the set like a lion on the prowl.
On a soundstage in Brooklyn on a late September morning, he was in his element, working on a tense, confrontational scene with actors he had handpicked for the drama series “Sneaky Pete,” which drops Jan. 13 on Amazon. With each take, Cranston changed his approach to the showdown among unsavory characters in the backroom of a seedy gambling joint in New York City. He added and subtracted menacing physical gestures, throaty snorts, and nervous laughter. He switched the path of his pacing around a large table. He massaged his monologue, adding pauses and changing the inflection of key words from a guttural whisper to an angry bark.
As he experimented through at least eight lengthy takes that morning, he held the rapt attention of everyone on the set. Actors who weren’t even in the scene gathered around the periphery to catch a master class in working the material.
“No two takes should be identical,” Cranston explains. “Otherwise, the actor is trying to replicate a moment in time as opposed to allowing this new moment to happen. Now I thought I should go this way; now I thought I should go that way. You just have to be comfortable, relaxed, and put it out there.”
For Cranston, his splashy moment as the heavy in the first-season finale of “Sneaky Pete” was all in a day’s work. Except that “Sneaky Pete” marks a new level of creative endeavor for the celebrated actor who since 2008 has collected four Emmys, a Tony, and an Oscar nomination.
Cranston created the series with showrunner David Shore at the behest of Sony Pictures TV, where Cranston’s Moon Shot Entertainment banner is based. He is a hands-on executive producer. But his on-camera role is limited to guest appearances in a few episodes.
The star turn on “Sneaky Pete” goes to Giovanni Ribisi, known for his comedy chops on NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” and Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” features. Ribisi plays a con man named Marius, recently released from prison, who assumes the identity of his cellmate in order to hide from those who want to settle an old score. He convinces the cellmate’s seemingly wholesome extended family that he’s their long-lost grandson, Pete — then is drawn into the world of shady characters who interact with the family’s bail-bonds business.
The idea sprang from a comment Cranston made at the podium in 2014 while accepting his fourth Emmy for the role that changed his life, Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” Cranston noted that his nickname as a kid, when he was directionless and always looking for an easy score, was “Sneaky Pete.” With breathless awards-show excitement, he urged all the Sneaky Petes in the audience to keep searching for their passion, as he has found in acting.
|‘SNEAKY’ STRATEGY: Cranston shares an insight with actors Marin Ireland and Giovanni Ribisi.|
The next morning, Cranston got a call from Sony Pictures Television co-president Zack Van Amburg, who pitched him on exploring Sneaky Pete as the germ of a TV series. Van Amburg’s confidence in Moon Shot’s ability to execute the project gave Cranston a head of steam. He sat down with Shore, who is also based on the Sony lot, and they hashed out the concept.
Moon Shot had been trying to develop a comedy series set against the backdrop of bail-bonds providers — an element of the criminal justice system that has long intrigued Cranston. Adding that element to “Sneaky Pete” gave it a natural engine for storytelling, beyond the long con Marius is playing on the family.
“Sneaky Pete” was snatched up for development in 2015 by CBS but didn’t land a series order. It wasn’t homeless for long: Amazon swooped in on the pilot shortly thereafter and gave the show a 10-episode order in November 2015.
Along the way, it became something of a reunion for key players from another acclaimed Sony TV drama, FX’s “Justified.” When Shore bowed out as “Sneaky Pete” showrunner in the transition to Amazon, “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost and exec producer Fred Golan stepped in. Yost had worked with Cranston years before on the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.” Margo Martindale and Karolina Wydra, two other “Justified” alums, had already been cast, along with Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, and Michael Drayer.
Yost and Golan were coming off the disappointment of a Fox development project that didn’t go to pilot. Stepping into “Sneaky Pete” was a definite pick-me-up.
“It’s rare to get handed a cast like that,” Yost says. “We didn’t have to go through all the auditions, all the calls and emails. This was just given to us with an amazing group.”
Cranston has a small but pivotal role as the white-tux-wearing gangster who is chasing Marius. The character’s name is Vince, in a nod to “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan. Cranston also directed an episode.
Golan credits Cranston with being deeply engaged but having a light touch when it comes to tough calls on storytelling. “He understands that we are taking his baby, and he is allowing us to raise it,” Golan points out.
Cranston draws on his years of experience with showrunners to be an effective producer. “I never say, ‘I don’t like this’ when I give a note. I always say the reason why, and try to include a potential solution. Once I state my case, I back off.”
Cranston did take the step of sending the “Sneaky Pete” cast pages of background detail on their characters. He knew instinctively that the actors would appreciate the material to help deepen their portrayals, and the move allowed Cranston to get to know the troupers as well. “The most important thing for an actor is to feel comfortable in your role — to know that you get that person,” he says. “It seeps into your bones, and that’s when you can perform at your best.”
Ribisi, for one, appreciated the effort. He can’t say enough about the opportunity to work on multiple levels with Cranston, who he calls “one of our great American actors.”
“I feel lucky more than anything else,” Ribisi says. “I would love to live with this character and this group of people for as long as it goes.”
The move to Amazon — with its commercial-free environs — allowed the producers to further refine their concept: The focus became less caper-of-the-week and more about the stakes of the long con as the character relationships develop.
“It’s a more pure form of storytelling,” Cranston says. “The pain in commercial television is having to make cuts to a story simply because you’re too long.”
The lack of arbitrary act-breaks is helpful in a maintaining the tricky balance of tension inherent in the ever-present threat of Marius being exposed as an imposter. Yost came into “Sneaky Pete” thinking it would be a nice break from the densely serialized work of “Justified” and “The Americans.” But he soon learned otherwise.
“Doing a con show is really difficult,” Yost says. “You need to have a big story arcing through the whole thing, but in TV you’re always laying the track while the train is in motion. There were challenges for us in terms of if we decided to go one way, we’d have to go back three scripts and rewrite to make it all consistent.”
Still, Golan calls the bobbing and weaving “the most fun I’ve had in years.”
Between birthing “Sneaky Pete” and writing his recently published memoir, “A Life in Parts,” Cranston has spent quite a bit of time as a scribe in the past few years (serendipitously coinciding with his big-screen portrayal of Dalton Trumbo in 2015’s “Trumbo”). Ever the meticulous craftsman, he finds writing “stimulating” but assures that he has no intention of giving up his work in front of the camera.
“I think I can say I truly enjoy the process, because it’s not my primary occupation,” Cranston says of writing. “I love storytelling and all the different elements that go into it. I have this kind of enthusiastic ignorance of going into something that I don’t know whether I can actually do. I’ll find out when the public tells me if I can do it — or not.”