Michael Chiklis is in the set that is the office of his VEGAS character, casino owner, businessman and gangster Vincent Savino. Looking out the office window, one can see the entire casino floor, which looks exactly like what it’s meant to be – an opulent Las Vegas casino circa 1960 – rather than a set on a soundstage in Santa Clarita,California. In fact, outside the casino doorway is a replica of the Vegas strip of the era, complete with period cars.
On VEGAS, which has its first-season finale on CBS, Friday May 10 at 9 PM, Chiklis’ Savino has been bumping heads with rancher-turned-sheriff Ralph Lamb, played by Dennis Quaid. There is a real Ralph Lamb, who really was a rancher turned sheriff – his story is the basis for the series.
Chiklis, born in Massachusetts, spent seven seasons on the highly-acclaimed FX series THE SHIELD as Vic Mackey, an LAPD cop who was as dangerous (and law-breaking) as the criminals he pursued. Other notable roles have included a much more legally-upstanding police commissioner in five seasons of THE COMMISH, Ben Grimm/the Thing in two FANTASTIC FOUR features and a super-powered husband and father on one season of NO ORDINARY FAMILY.
AX: After seven seasons playing a fairly dark character on THE SHIELD, you had said awhile back, maybe at the time of FANTASTIC FOUR, that you were looking to play characters who were a little more positive and humanistic. Have you gotten over that feeling?
MICHAEL CHIKLIS: Well, you know, I went and did a stint on NO ORDINARY FAMILY for a year and that was fun and great and got canceled [laughs]. And you can’t dictate ahead of time what’s going to happen in life. Sometimes you have to go with what happens, with what’s in front of you, and in all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to do this show. But Nina [Tassler, CBS Entertainment president] said, “Chickie, come in here, I want to talk to you about this,” and I said to my wife [Michelle], “I don’t think I’m going to be interested in this,” and by the time I left Nina’s office, I called [wife Michelle] and said, “I think I might do this.” It’s a sexy backdrop for a show, a two-hander between those two cultures slamming into each other in the way that it did happen, when you think of 1960 and Vegas, with this influx of New York and Chicago Italians, mobsters, and cowboys.
AX: How much of an attraction was the wardrobe?
CHIKLIS: It didn’t hurt, that’s for sure. It’s a stylish period. I’ll tell you, my car was a winner. They put me in a black ’58 Continental with suicide doors. Come on.
AX: Do you have a sense of ownership of this casino set?
CHIKLIS: Yeah. This is my set [laughs]. Yeah, I sure do – I run the Savoy and this is the Savoy. So I feel like this is my place and it’s incredible. I feel like I’m dreaming sometimes when I come to set. Look at this set. It gives you the sense of how easy it is for these guys to suffer from a level of hubris when they start to feel their oats, with all this money and all this glamour. Frankly, it’s been fun to shoot in here [the office set] and look out through there [at the casino floor], because we’ll often have a hundred background artists in here. And when we’re in here, there’s no sign of camera crew or anything. So there’s that unique opportunity to see this really just looking like the period, with no sign of the modern world in it, and that’s fun.
AX: VEGAS has procedural elements, but it’s not a conventional procedural …
CHIKLIS: I was uninterested in just doing a straight procedural. I like to play interesting, complex characters, people who are three-dimensional, and when [Tassler] pitched it to me, I saw what she was going for – I think the word “hybrid” came up, which is somewhere we’re trying to bridge the gap between what you see on cable and what you normally see on procedural crime drama on network television. So if we can have a procedural element to satisfy people who like to try to figure out the whodunit of it all and marry that with interesting characters and that tapestry, Las Vegas in that period, then it can get really, really interesting.
AX: How volatile was the Mob in Vegas in 1960?
CHIKLIS: The way the gangsters of that day – really, what they wanted was to make it. They wanted a piece of the American Dream so that they could go legit, but they didn’t want to be New Money, they wanted to become part of the establishment. So it wasn’t enough to just make a few beans and do okay – they wanted to hit it and then sit back and become part of the establishment. By the way, people don’t understand something about the Mob. If the Mob was whacking people willy-nilly, Vegas never would have happened. It wouldn’t have happened. They had to be much more sophisticated than that. It’s called mythos, mythology. They had to create the myth. You ask a real gangster how they do it, they say, “Look.” You say a particular name – you say, “Costalano, party of six.” You’ve got a table for six right by the window in a second. It’s not because anybody killed anybody or anybody got braced or anything like that, it’s because of the myth surrounding the name. The way they created the myth is very, very selectively making good on the threat, but then everything else from that point is essentially a threat. You have to make good on it at least once.
AX: Does your character Vincent Savino use the Savoy to try to legitimize himself?
CHIKLIS: Yeah. That’s what I was just saying. These are immigrants or the sons of immigrants who came [to the U.S.] and they were trying to make it big and become part of the establishment and become legitimate. That’s what they wanted. The story behind the second GODFATHER picture is very much in keeping with these people that we’re dealing with behind the scenes in this show. In reading about this and researching it for my part, obviously, as an actor, I want to be able to portray a character and have some simpatico for my character. So understand that I’m not condoning anybody’s behavior – I feel the need to throw up that disclaimer. But I also have to relate to and play this guy and have a compassion for his point of view.
When I was growing up, when I saw CASINO and some of these shows, I was fascinated by the whole culture of the Mob and how that worked, so there’s that allure. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s fascinating, just the creation of Vegas, how that happened. It’s really an “only in America” kind of story, where organized crime could find enough common ground and cooperation with law enforcement, with some pushing back and forth, and certainly there’s a ton of collateral damage. That’s why there’s the boneyard. There were people who were sociopaths and people who tried to game the system and tried to go too far, but I think at its core, there was a desire on the part of the smartest of the Mob people to not be underworld. They wanted to be part of the establishment, really part of the establishment. So there was a conscious effort on their part, yes, to protect what was theirs, or what they perceived was theirs, and their own interests, but to not overstep to the degree that the law would want to get rid of them entirely. And that’s a fascinating thing to me. How did that happen? How did it work out? Who are the ones who survived it and are still alive today? Because there are guys that survived it.
AX: Would you say the relationship between Savino and Ralph Lamb is friendly or adversarial?
CHIKLIS: Well, it’s both. It’s both. These are guys – by the way, at this point, [one of the men who is the basis for the character] that I’m playing and Ralph Lamb are friends. They’re in their mid-eighties, they’re both retired, and they’re almost like old soldiers who have fought against each other in a war that have become friends, because they relate to each other. They have respect for each other.
AX: When your character and Dennis Quaid’s Ralph Lamb come together, are you ever worried there’s going to be too much détente?
CHIKLIS: [laughs] No, I don’t worry about that. We war on and off throughout this thing. It’s sort of inevitable. I’m practicing a lot of illegal acts here. He’s on the side of the law, so he’s going to have to come down on me. The thing is, is that he’s a brilliant gangster that I’m playing. He’s not your average petty thief, he’s a very smart and sophisticated guy and he’s going to prove to be very elusive, and I think that’s really a lot of the fun.
AX: Has VEGAS developed the way you were expecting when you shot the pilot?
CHIKLIS: It’s been exactly what I hoped it would be. I had I think a really incredible, wonderful time on this show. It’s evolving, it’s a classy show. The crew is exceptional. [Series creators/show runners] Nick Pileggi and Greg Walker are two of the nicest men I’ve ever worked with. I’m very proud of the show and proud to be a part of it.
AX: Do you feel like new viewers can come in without being familiar with what’s happened so far on the show?
CHIKLIS: Yeah. We’re feeling really balanced now. If you’re a newcomer to the show, you can jump right in, you won’t be lost really, but if you’re a fan of the show and you’re into it, there’s this great underbelly happening, this story through-line that’s roiling. And if you’re a person who’s watched this from the beginning, then you’re right with us and you can’t wait to see what happens next.
AX: You directed an episode of VEGAS – you’ve directed before …
CHIKLIS: I did THE SHIELD a number of times.
AX: How is it directing yourself?
CHIKLIS: It’s not as hard as one might think. In ways, it’s even better, because you’re very, very focused and consumed by the whole thing, the whole process. Plus we live in a modern world and I’m sure twenty years ago, it would have been more difficult, because we didn’t have playback, but it’s not as difficult as you might suspect.
AX: You’re very Internet-connected; you take photos for your wife’s website carpoolcoutoureandcocktails.wordpress.com. Do you check out VEGAS’ fandom online?
CHIKLIS: Yeah, naturally. I like Twitter and Facebook. Particularly Twitter, because it really is a forum where anybody in the world can reach out to me and say something. Sometimes that’s not a great thing, but more often than not, it is, and it’s a way for us to communicate directly and for them to feel connected.
AX: What else are you involved in at present?
CHIKLIS: Well, I recently finished a very small independent film called PAWN [released theatrically earlier this year] that was the first movie that I produced under my production company Extravaganza. I thought we really brought an incredible cast together, considering the size and the budget of this movie. It’s a movie with me and Ray Liotta and Forest Whitaker and Common and Stephen Lang and Nikki Reed. It’s like ten stars in this little tiny movie and it’s a pretty cool little thriller, all things considered. And it was the first foray into producing movies for my company. And it’s really exciting, because it’s going to be the first of many.
Go to Michael Chiklis.com and you’ll see a bunch of the stuff that’s happening right now. I have a band that I’ve been recording with and I have four singles out now. I’m doing this completely independent thing. I’m going to have ten-time platinum producer Anthony Resta producing the album. We’re doing it single by single right now, because of time.
AX: What style of music?
CHIKLIS: Rock ‘n’ roll. I sing and play some drums, but I’m primarily the lead vocalist. And some news will be breaking soon from the production side [following this interview, it was announced that Extravaganza had signed Jim Caviezel and Laura Dern to star with Chiklis in WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL].
AX: Anything else we should know right now?
CHIKLIS: Just that I’m looking at the second half of my career now and I intend to build my brand in Extravaganza.
Related: Exclusive Interview: VEGAS Star Dennis Quaid talks going old school in his first TV series role
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Article: Exclusive Interview: VEGAS Star Michael Chiklis