In Amazon’s SNEAKY PETE, now streaming its entire first ten-episode season and renewed for a second, Giovanni Ribisi plays a con artist named Marius Josipovic. When Marius is in prison, his cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry) talks lovingly of the grandparents he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Upon release, Marius impersonates Pete and winds up in the family bail bonds business. He is frequently teamed with Pete’s cousin Julia, played by Marin Ireland. Julia doesn’t realize that Marius isn’t really Cousin Pete; she also doesn’t know much about the bail bonds game herself.
SNEAKY PETE was created by Bryan Cranston, who plays crime lord Vince in the series, and David Shore. When Shore ceased active involvement with the show, Graham Yost, of JUSTIFIED fame, came in as show runner and executive producer.
Ireland, previously a series regular in THE DIVIDE and THE SLAP, and Yost sit down with two reporters during Amazon’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour to talk about SNEAKY PETE, which Yost describes as being in the tradition of “hopefully the best of the con artist stories, whether it’s THE STING, which is something we actually reference in the show a couple times, PAPER MOON, even FOCUS, which was a rock-solid sting movie of a few years ago with Will Smith, with a new twist.”
ASSIGNMENT X: When did you come onto this? It sounds like Bryan Cranston and David Shore created SNEAKY PETE and then …
GRAHAM YOST: Yes. David and Bryan created the show. You know the story of Bryan getting one of his Emmys, I forget which one it was, and he said something about being “a Sneaky Pete” when he was a kid. And that started the conversation with David, and there began the show. So at any rate, [there was] the CBS version [which the network decided not to proceed with]. Amazon picks it up with some changes, and then I came on board in February of ‘16. The original writers’ room couldn’t get a lot of traction on the stories, and for whatever reason, David said, “I think I’m done here.” So they approached me, and I said, “Marin Ireland? Yes.” Actually, that was part of the reason, because I was a fan of THE DIVIDE.
AX: Can you talk about what the changes were from the original CBS concept? Did it become less procedural and more con artist-oriented?
YOST: Part of what David Shore does so well is a procedural that has really complex characters, and so that was part of the original idea, that there would be different cases every week. That was built on a twenty-two-episode idea, to keep it moving for a long period of time, that was the biggest thing. Amazon doesn’t really do that sort of thing.
AX: Is there still some kind of new con every episode?
YOST: In SNEAKY PETE, we wanted there to be some kind of con in one form or another, whether it’s a big con or just lifting a wallet, but that’s always part of the story. So [Marius getting into the family safe] becomes a big thing. And it’s interesting – the joy of a writers’ room, I was originally thinking, “Eh, getting into the safe will take one episode.” And they said, “You know what? We’re going to stream the 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 bigger reveal, and then there are ramifications because of that.”
MARIN IRELAND: Something that’s cool about the way that the show has evolved is that, at least for me, as I start to read more of the scripts, yes, there’s that big con, but because you as the viewer start mistrusting everybody and what everybody’s doing, it starts to feel like all these tiny, tiny relationship things are probably happening among all of the individuals within it, which builds into a bigger thematic idea, of kind of conning people on a regular basis that we all do.
AX: Did you come in when they did the pilot for Amazon pilot season?
YOST: No, I came in after it was already ordered. But it was fun. Because we were working with Elmore Leonard’s world [in JUSTIFIED]; now we’re working within the SNEAKY PETE world that’s been handed to us.
IRELAND: That speaks to the outrageous skill level of Graham and all of those writers. Because I can’t imagine doing something like that. They were taking characters that they didn’t start and then bringing them all together and it was really stunning.
AX: SNEAKY PETE subverts some things we expect in crime dramas, where if someone pulls a gun, the person they pull the gun on might not do what they say, where a liar, when confronted, might not confess to the lie …
IRELAND: Right. A liar doesn’t do that.
YOST: He just builds a bigger lie.
YOST: With the writing staff that we were able to put together, one of our guiding principles is to give the audience what they want in a way that they don’t expect. And so a lot of that is turning things on their heads, and going a little farther. You pull a gun on someone and they’re maybe not going to do what you say. They’ll say, “Okay, kill me.” And so we want to play with those things, partly deconstructing them, but it’s also trying to find the reality for those characters. Where are they, what are they going to do? And all of the characters in this first season, there’s a certain desperation involved. It’s at a rough point for all of them.
AX: There’s also an early episode where an event hinges on the different sound of an actual gunshot and shooting a blank …
YOST: They would sound different, and that was Cranston. We were working on that scene, in the second episode, where you find out what happened three years ago, and it was Bryan who was reading the script and he said, “How about if we talk about how blanks sound different, that there’s more of a pop?” He and [director] Michael Dinner were working it on the set, the moment where he puts the two guns to Marius’ chest, that was just something that they worked out. When you’re working with actors like this, they’re going to come up with stuff. And you have to be open to it, because it really adds something to the reality of it, and the fun of it.
AX: What have you come up with?
IRELAND: Well, I can’t really spoil too many things, but usually when those things happen, it comes out of solving a problem between two actors. There’s an episode where Giovanni is dealing with an issue that I can’t know about, and then I show up, and I have my own crisis. And he was like, “I feel like my thing kind of goes away …” And I was like, “What if the thing that I can’t see, you have put down, and when I show up, I sit on it? So that you look like you’re really interested in what I’m saying, but I’m literally sitting right on the thing.” Things like that. For him, then, that makes the whole scene. It’s moments like that that were fun for us to figure out that add an extra layer. Stuff like that, that for him just let the scene feel for him more dangerous.
AX: Did you do any research with real bail bonds bounty hunters?
IRELAND: It’s funny. I did, especially because, originally in the CBS version, we were much more bounty-hunting sidekicks with each other. So at that point, I was doing all this crazy research on “lady bounty hunters,” because you really uncover some fascinating people [laughs]. There’s one of those famous female bounty hunters, she’s like four-foot-two and she’s a wild person. So that was very fun, but ultimately, the interesting thing about the character is, she is kind of bad at it. She thinks she knows more than she actually does, and part of what she’s doing is trying to get better at it, and she gets shown up a lot by Marius, because what’s most important is when they have these conversations and read people, which is what she’s not good at. So it started to become less important to me to understand the ins and outs of it, and the things I didn’t know kind of were fun for me as we went along in trying to pull that off, as it were, as the character.
The other weird thing is that the show originally was set outside Hartford, [Connecticut], and then it went to Bridgeport, which is actually where my real-life grandmother currently lives. But then I felt like, “Now I really don’t have to do any research, because I actually know what it’s like when your grandma lives there, and I can really easily imagine having to move back home.”
AX: Since SNEAKY PETE has become more serialized in its move to Amazon, is there more of a chance for Julia to learn some skills from Marius?
YOST: The whole first season takes place over ten days. So there is a limited amount of growth in terms of knowledge of being a bail bondsman/bail bondswoman. It ends up being a more personal story for Julia, and you’ll see where it ends up. She does a very smart, brave and courageous thing that ends up putting her in a terrible [situation], and that’s all I’ll say about that.
IRELAND: But what I love about where we were going with this, too, when I talked to Graham about a big picture idea, this woman in the beginning was not, “And then she becomes a crackerjack bail bondswoman.” That’s not what’s interesting to Julia. The life that she left behind was risky and wild and nuts. She’s not thrilled about her chance at this moment to start over being in this atmosphere. I think she’s so grateful to get to start over, and to hopefully build a stable life for her kids, but I don’t think that this was her childhood dream, being played out as being an excellent bail bondswoman. So what’s fascinating to me is her level of commitment and how, for me, that was a big battle for her a lot in this season, where she knows this is the right thing to do, and she loves her kids and she wants them to have a good life and a good chance at a stable life future for themselves, but this is not her passion. It gives her space to backslide, because it’s not where she wants to be. She doesn’t want to be sitting at that desk for the next thirty-five years, like her grandmother.
AX: How did you feel about the way JUSTIFIED wrapped up? I honestly thought that was the one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen.
YOST: I think it’s the best series finale that I’ve been involved with – because I’ve never had one before [laughs]. The series finale in the past was, “You’re canceled,” and that’s not a very good way to end the series. We were proud of that. We went back and forth on how we were going to end it. Ultimately, we decided that this was the closest to what we thought Elmore [Leonard, who wrote the novella on which JUSTIFIED was based] would do, that he didn’t always kill off the bad guys, he certainly didn’t kill off the good guys, and usually the woman got away with the money. So that’s how we decided to go. And I’m a very sentimental person, as even Marin knows. We wanted to go for a little sentiment. It was actually Walton [Goggins, who played the criminal Boyd Crowder] who said, “Let’s go to, ‘We dug coal together.’”
AX: Was working on some of the characters and storylines in JUSTIFIED, because Boyd Crowder is in a sense a con man, although a much more violent one than Marius, good preparation for doing SNEAKY PETE?
YOST: Well, doing any work in Elmore Leonard’s world is good work if you’re going to do a show about criminals, because he had a very quirky and idiosyncratic way of looking at criminals. He was always looking at ones that were colorful. And so we tried to bring that to this. But we were given a lot. If you’ve got Bryan Cranston playing Vince, then you’ve got this interesting, complex criminal. And then we built that world out a little bit, and got some more people in his circle, and then had other people coming in cons. So – spoiler alert – Ben Vereen pops up in this series, and plays a big role from the midpoint on. That was an interesting character to create who is part of the con world.
And we worked with Apollo Robbins, who is a great recovered con artist, and one of the greatest pickpockets in the world. His wife, Ava Doe [Do Le Ahndao], was actually our contact person. There’s a great piece on Apollo in the New Yorker, and in the video that the company sent, you can see him picking someone’s pocket and how he does it. But his sense of what it is to be a con artist and the cost, the personal cost, and that was a big part of the story of the series, [which] is Marius, and Marius’ growth. We needed to be incremental. But also the sense of con history, and these people in the world, and the camaraderie that they have amongst themselves. They’re like show folk. And that was an attractive part for us.
AX: What would you most like people to know about SNEAKY PETE?
YOST: That it’s real, it’s funny, it’s scary, and it is entertaining.
IRELAND: It’s genuinely surprising. When I watch anything these days, I want to be surprised, I want to see something new, and reading the episodes, I was always really thrilled. In each episode, something took me completely by surprise, which I think is quite a feat.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Interview with SNEAKY PETE executive producer Graham Yost and star Marin Ireland on Season 1 of the Amazon series