Bryan Cranston returning to TV is probably reason enough to celebrate, let alone the fact that he co-created a show. Sneaky Pete stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius, a con artist who assumes his prison cellmate Pete’s identity. Posing as Pete, Marius and his cousin Julia (Marin Ireland) fall in with the real Pete’s grandparents, Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto (Peter Gerety), who collect bounties for bail bonds, in an effort to pay off gangster Vince (Cranston) to bail out his own brother.
Cranston created the show with David Shore, who has since passed the showrunning baton to Graham Yost. Cranston, Yost, Ribisi, Ireland, and Martindale spoke with reporters during the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Here are 10 things to know about the new show, which premieres January 13 on Amazon.
As he revealed in his biography and hinted at during one of his many Emmy speeches, Cranston was nicknamed Sneaky Pete growing up. He would find shortcuts to chores and mini-scams like reselling used suntan lotion. Sony Pictures Television exec Zack Van Amber thought his Sneaky Pete persona could become the lead of a series.
“I might be a con man if I wasn’t [an actor],” Cranston said. “Zack Van Amber said, ‘What if you were a teenager and you didn’t grow out of it and you’re now 35? What are you then?’ So that got us thinking about a bad man with a sense of purpose and goodness in his soul that’s undiscovered.”
The show only gets its name from Bryan Cranston, whose Sneaky Pete schemes were simple. Ribisi is playing a whole different character, and each of his plans creates more problems like a game of whack-a-mole.
“Ultimately the character is his own concoction from Graham and Bryan, and David Shore originally,” Ribisi said. “In a way, you could distill it down to a simple thing where a guy wants to save his brother from a situation, or extricate his brother from that. What was so fascinating for me was how complicated it became, because of his own logic, because of his own reasoning. The various tributaries he would go down to cover his tracks or lie or build a bigger lie.”
While performing off Broadway in the 1980s, Martindale worked as a private investigator to make ends meet. Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) worked in the same office. That gave her some real world experience in Audrey’s line of work.
“Everybody there was an actor,” Martindale said. “Wayne and the boys got to go out on the street and bust up counterfeit rings and stuff, do surveillance in a car. All of mine was done sweet talking people on the phone, getting dirt on people, getting dirt on husbands from neighbors, getting dirt on anybody who was applying for a job for headhunters. It was a deceptive job. Very Audrey.”
Sneaky Pete began as a CBS show, where Shore had conceived it as a “con of the week.” Marius/Pete and Julia would catch a different crook every episode. Yost took over in February 2016, when it was already an Amazon show, and realized he could go into more detail. For example, Marius trying to crack Audrey’s safe became a major subplot.
“I was originally thinking getting into the safe will take one episode,” Yost said. “The writers room said, ‘You know what? We’re doing a streaming show. We can slow that roll. Let’s explore that. Let’s make that harder, and let’s make the safe be a big thing, so that once we finally get into that safe, it’s a big reveal, and then there are ramifications because of that.’”
For the CBS incarnation of the show, Ireland studied bounty hunters, especially female bounty hunters. But the Amazon version became more character-driven.
“Originally in the CBS version, we were much more bounty hunting sidekicks,” Ireland said. “At that point I was doing all this crazy research on lady bounty hunters. You really uncover some fascinating people. One of the most famous female bounty hunters is 4’2”. That was very fun, but ultimately the interesting thing about the character is she is kind of bad at it. She’s trying to get better at it and gets shown up a lot by him.”
Watching Cranston play a charismatic villain will certainly be a treat for Breaking Bad fans, or anyone who loves great characters. Cranston created himself a very different role in Sneaky Pete, though.
“Walter was an everyman,” Cranston said. “Over the course of six years, we got to unveil the type of personality he eventually became. Under the right set of circumstances, I think anybody could have that same journey. Vince is a different guy. He had a different track. He had more of a Sneaky Pete nature to him from the very beginning. Even while he was a cop, he was not a clean cop. He was working an angle from the very beginning, so he’s a very different character than Walter White.”
There’s a long history of con artists in movies, and maybe less so on television. Sneaky Pete captures the American hustle, but with a twist on crime story cliches. Holding someone at gunpoint doesn’t always make them obedient, and catching a liar doesn’t make them honest.
“One of our guiding principals is to give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect,” Yost said. “So a lot of that is turning things on their head and going a little farther. You pull a gun on someone and they’re maybe not going to do what you say. They’re going to say, ‘Okay, kill me.’ We want to play with those things. It comes from the tradition of hopefully the best of the con artist stories, whether it’s The Sting, which is something we actually reference a couple times, or Paper Moon. Even Focus, which was a rock solid sting movie with Will Smith. That tradition of con artist stories is something we’re living up to with a new twist.”
Ribisi is playing two characters on Sneaky Pete. There’s Marius, and there’s Marius as Pete. The same things that make Ribisi convincing on screen are what makes Marius convincing to Pete’s own family.
“From a con man’s perspective, it’s that the more you believe in it, the more they believe in it,” Ribisi said. “There were certain situations where there was an accent or a specific vocation or certain thing that you’re trying to put forward, but I think at the end of the day, it’s just, ‘Look the guy in the eye and say the line.’”
Alfred Hitchcock and George Lucas frequently refer to a story’s “MacGuffin,” the object or goal of the story’s hero. Marius/Pete has a lot of MaGuffins. He’s trying to get into Audrey’s safe, he’s got to forge Pete’s driver’s license, and there are plenty of other MacGuffins they won’t spoil yet. In one upcoming scene, Ireland decided to sit on the MacGuffin that Marius needs, adding a layer to Julia’s scene with him. She’s talking to him, and he just wants her to move!
“I was like, ‘What if you have put it down, and when I show up, I sit on it?’” Ireland said. “‘So you look like you’re really interested in what I’m saying, but I’m literally sitting right on the thing.’”
Yost cast stage and screen legend Ben Vereen as Porter, a character who enters the story in the second half of the season, with a rich history tied to con artist legend.
“Ben Vereen pops up in this series and plays a big role from the midpoint on,” Yost said. “That was an interesting character to create. That’s part of the con world. We worked with Apollo Robins, who’s a great recovered con artist and one of the greatest pickpockets in the world. His sense of what it is to be a con artist and the personal costs, that was a big part of the story of the series, is Marius and Marius’s growth. It needed to be incremental, but also the sense of con history, these people in the world and the camaraderie they had amongst themselves. They’re like show folk.”
Sneaky Pete premieres on Friday, January 13 on Amazon.