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Ed Burns, Milo Ventimiglia, Robert Knepper: 'Mob City' gangsters vs. good guys

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Based on the critically acclaimed book “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” by John Buntin, the TNT miniseries “Mob City” (which premiered on Dec. 4, 2013) opens in post-World War II Los Angeles, home to glamorous movie stars, powerful studio heads and returning war heroes. But it's also a city caught between a powerful and corrupt police force and an even more dangerous criminal network determined to make L.A. its West Coast base. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (played by Neal McDonough) has made it his mission to free the city of criminals like Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (played by Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (played by Jeremy Luke), the ruthless king of the Los Angeles underworld. Parker also won't hesitate to go after anyone from his own police force who sells out honor and duty for the sake of a big payout.

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To carry out his sweep of organized crime, Parker sets up a new mob task force within the LAPD. Headed by Det. Hal Morrison (played by Jeffrey DeMunn), the task force includes Det. Joe Teague (played by Jon Bernthal), an ex-Marine who holds his cards close to his chest. Mob City's exceptional ensemble cast also includes Gregory Itzin, Robert Knepper, Milo Ventimiglia and Alexa Davalos. Mob City is produced by TNT Originals, with Frank Darabont, Michael De Luca and Elliot Webb serving as executive producers. Attendees at 2013 New York Comic-Con got a sneak peek at scenes from “Mob City,” which had a panel discussion with Burns, Ventimiglia and Knepper. After the panel, the three actors gathered for a press conference at New York Comic-Con. Here is what they said:

Why do you think gangsters of the 1940s are significant today?

Ventimiglia: I think the answer to that is that mobsters never went away. I think there’s always room for the kinds of stories that a show like ours, like “Mob City” tells. Who isn’t fascinated by the stories of bad guys? There’s a lot more depth than the guys that fight and do battle with the bad guys. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

Knepper: You look at America in the old days, we had people coming here from all over the world, back in the turn of the century. You go to big cities. I grew up in Detroit. You see the melting pot in Detroit, New York, Chicago. All these different ethnicities and religious groups coming together, finding the dream of America — and at the same time saying, “I’ve got to fight for my place in America.”

And they resort to mobs. They resort to saying, “I’m going to take you out if you come to my street.” There’s kind of a romantic notion about that nowadays that can be identified with being American. We all had to get along. And we’re still trying to get along. I think that’s part of it as well — glorifying it in a way, but also saying, “This actually really happened in our country.”

Can you describe the characters that you play in “Mob City”?

Burns: I play Bugsy Siegel, obviously a real character. He’s sort of the head of the crime syndicate in Los Angeles. Milo’s character is a fictional character named Ned, who’s a lawyer but who’s kind of playing both sides of the fence. Robert’s character is Sid Rothman, who’s also a fictional character, who’s sort of my hit man, the muscle of the operation.

Knepper: You’re basically hanging out with the crooks.

Burns: Yeah. In ’47 … What’s Neal McDonough's character’s name?

Ventimiglia: William Parker.

Burns: William Parker. They’re basically making a move to squash the mob. And that’s kind of what goes on. Frank [Darabont] would do a much better job of giving a succinct synopsis of what the show is. That’s the best I can do right now.

Ventimiglia: It’s the war of 1947 between the cops and the mob.

Did you have any hesitation about doing “Mob City”? Why did you want to do this miniseries?

Ventimiglia: There was no [second] thought in it for me.

Knepper: Frank Darabont, Frank Darabont, Frank Darabont!

Burns: It was sort of a no-brainer.

Knepper: I remember in the pilot asking Simon Pegg that question. He said, “I’m dying to work with Frank Darabont!” Every actor you know who’s worked with Frank says the same thing. I felt the same way for years as well. If Frank calls, you try to work it out. And the fact that he likes you and wants you in it is a really nice feeling. Each of us probably has our own specific thing that he saw. He has a wealth of films and is respected in the business.

For me, it was “Prison Break,” which I realize is a beautiful rip-off of “The Shawshank Redemption.” [“Prison Break” creator] Paul Scheuring would probably admit it. And the fact that he appreciates that and embraced it and loved [my “Prison Break” character] Tea Bag, it’s just great — the fact that he told me he loved it. Milo, what about you?

Ventimiglia: I put myself on tape. As I hear, Frank said, “Who the f*ck is this guy?”— in a good way. My family comes from Chicago. My dad’s upbringing and all that, I always hear stories about old crime syndicates and the mob and all that. Who doesn’t love a gangster picture? For me, it's knowing that Frank is at the helm and the boss, and we’ve got these great characters … and such a beautiful script.

When we as actors see something on the page and you don’t have to act. You just have to show up and say the words and it’s going to be great. But then you get around such great players, and you can embrace who your character is and find new dimension and depth, it’s just such a really wonderful process.

Were you concerned that the subject matter would be toned down because it’s on TV?

Burns: No, because it’s not network [TV]. It’s basic cable. I was pleasantly surprised that we were allowed to do and show and say almost everything. And if you’re going to make a gangster show, you want to make it realistic but also fun, so we were able to do that.

Bugsy Siegel has been played many times by other actors. Ed, what was your angle on Bugsy Siegel? You’re one of the few actors who played Bugsy Siegel who actually looks a lot like him.

Burns: Well, thank you very much. My thing was I purposely did not look at the Warren Beatty film. I watched the documentary on Bugsy. I did some reading, a little research on the time period. But Frank said to me, “Look, this guy has to be larger than life. He walks into a room, and people have to immediately love him and fear him. And just have fun with that.”

The other thing … I did my research, I saw he was from Brooklyn, and I was like, “All right, I didn’t have to work on an accent” — which works for me, if you’ve seen my work. I do one accent that I do really well.

Ventimiglia: I can’t wait to see the caricature of you as you get older.

Knepper: There are a couple of things I want to add to that when it came to the show. Everybody knows Ed Burns, right? And I’m sitting there thinking, “I’ve been best friends with this guy since I was a little kid.” You can’t manufacture that relationship. You either have it or you don’t.

Ed came on to the set. [He says to Burns] And immediately (not that I had any preconceived idea that you would be this way), but you immediately reached out to everybody. You were like an Ohio boy: “Hey, everybody, I want to talk to you. I want to know your story.” It really pulled us together. And that’s a beautiful thing because, one, you don’t have any time; you’ve got to figure it out.

And that relationship, the bunch of us, the boys, was boom, right there. Every day, we told stories. Every day, we cracked each other up. We were curious about each other. We wanted to know about our past, about our families, and that’s what these guys would do in real life. Bugsy Siegel and Sid and Ned, we’d hobnob with each other, we’d take the piss out of each other, we’d joke with each other, we’d commiserate. And that real-life bonding came into the character as well. It was great.

Burns: Yeah, I think on the show we feel like real friends, probably because, not just the three of us, all of us clicked immediately, which doesn’t always happen. We got really lucky.

Ventimiglia: Jeremy Luke, Richard Brake, the posse and the crooks.

Milo, why have you been playing a lot of bad guys lately? And what’s the appeal of playing a bad guy?

Ventimiglia: I’m always bad. I don’t know. Look at me. I just look like trouble. My character [on “Mob City”] is actually a guy who operates on both sides of the law. He is, of course, the attorney for the mob, but he’s so intertwined in the underbelly of the mob and the inner workings of it, that you wonder just how much of the dark side he’s in. For me, it was kind of like real life. Sometimes you’re the good guy. Sometimes you’re the bad guy. Sometimes you just need to get things done.

Burns: I’ve done so many romantic comedies, that I couldn’t want to have an opportunity to beat the sh*t out of somebody on screen. It was so much fun, so it was very easy to tap into my dark and violent side. I think most actors love playing the bad guys; they’re always much more fun. So not a lot of real effort required.

Knepper: I would add that I learned years ago here in New York, Bill Esper was a great acting teacher. He always taught you to play the opposite. I’ve found, especially when I’m playing bad guys, bad guys don’t think that they’re bad guys. They think they’re doing something really great. And, in this case, protecting family, protecting a best friend. That’s how I go about it. I say, “What am I doing positive here, not negative?” And then, usually that works out.

Milo, you’ve been doing mostly movies in recent years. Why did you choose “Mob City” to be your return to television?

Ventimiglia: For me, a script like “Mob City” that Frank wrote, coming off of “Heroes” and coming out of “Gilmore [Girls]” and “American Dreams” and “[The] Bedford [Diaries],” those things kind of raised me. It’s always about the material. And in this [“Mob City”], I can’t say it enough. It was such a great script.

It’s funny. I barely pop up in the first episode until the very end, so they were selective about who got the entire script or not. My character hadn’t even shown, and I was like, “I’m in!” You see it on the page. And it’s always about that for me: What’s the character, who I might be working for and with, and what stories I’m telling. This was definitely something to step back into the TV arena with because it truly is that special.

Robert, how did you prepare for your “Mob City” role?

Knepper: I think we work in similar ways and in very different ways. I learned a long time ago to start with the character on the inside and go out. No. They tried to teach me that, to start on the inside, but I still screw it up. I still get an idea in my head about something, like this [“Moby City” character I play].

I heard of an iconic actor called Sterling Hayden. I just kept hearing him in my head. And I stupidly went for Sterling Hayden’s voice, and I had to go back organically and find what it was, who was this real guy. The trick I realized was, especially with the ‘40s, is don’t go for that [he makes an Edward G. Robinson mobster voice]. It’s just a cliché. You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot. They [Burns and Ventimiglia] were very good about not doing that.

Ventimiglia: I just can’t. It’s hard.

Knepper: You can’t act. Is that what you’re saying? You can’t act the part. You have to be believable. I can screw up all the time and people think I’m not acting.

Why do people root for gangsters in movies and TV?

Burns: I think part of it, honestly, is just wish fulfillment. You’re all in New York. Somebody accidentally bumped into you on the sidewalk, a cab cut you off, the guy in the deli pissed you off. You want to go all Walter White on them or Bugsy Siegel. You want to take that f*cker and bash his head through the window. I know you do. So you put on “Breaking Bad” or you live through those characters.

I’m kidding around, but I think that’s a big part of it. It’s a little bit of wish fulfillment. We wish in those situations that we could act the way the gangster does. The other thing is, they’re fascinating characters. These two guys [Sid and Ned] are fictional characters in this piece, but Frank had a blast writing them. Bugsy, a real character, lived a crazy, wild life. And that makes for great drama. I think it’s for all of those reasons.

Milo, since your “Mob City” character is fictional, where did you get your inspirations on how to play the character?

Ventimiglia: I think a guy like Ned Stacks, he’s a guy who has the smarts to understand how to orchestrate something. So that was the way I saw Ned Stacks. I saw him more as a Sidney Korshak. He’s a guy who’s so goddamn smart, he can see all the angles, all the players and everything going on, and know exactly how to maneuver and how to do what his boss is asking him to. So that was the approach for me.

It was less the guy who was family. He’s a guy who was actually groomed to be in this business because somebody actually saw him and saw how smart he was and said, “You’re going to work for these guys.” And he took it and embraced it, and they embraced him.

That was a big thing with our characters: My character was placed there and this is my godfather. This is my guy, in a way. So I’m there to serve whatever needs he asks. It was coming from a very intellectual way, a smart way: being able to beat the game of chess.

Are there any lines or scenes in “Mob City” that resonated the most with you when you first read the script?

Ventimiglia: I think they all kind of hit in the trailer.

Knepper: Yeah, there’s a lot in the trailer. One of the beautiful things about this show is that TNT wisely, I think, is going to air two episodes at a time for three weeks right before Christmas. And it’s one of those beautiful Christmas presents for everybody. And you would spoil Christmas if you said what it was. It was glorious to act it, and now we see snippets of the product, and it’s going to be a beautiful present. And we don’t want to spoil it.

Ventimilgia: You want to keep your ears open as much as your eyes, which will be glued to what you’re seeing.

Milo and Robert, since your “Mob City” characters are fictional, did you worry about what their fate would be, knowing that they could be killed off at any time?

Knepper: [He says to Ventimiglia] Did you feel that on “Heroes” ever? You were a superhero.

Ventimiglia: Yeah, but they did sh*t like take my powers away. It’s funny. I heard stories from way back about Tom Fontana on “Oz,” where it’s like, “I didn’t die, but I get gang raped in the shower!”

With Frank and the script, we had such a short amount of time — six episodes and two months of actual production — that I personally wasn’t thinking about who’s buying it, who’s sticking around or anything. It was just like, “Hey, let me just enjoy the hell out of this, because when am I going to get an opportunity like this to be around great actors, amazing crews and a boss that gives everything through the production?” I didn’t think about whether I was living or dying. It was just like, “I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of it.”

Knepper: Nothing in this business lasts forever. No show lasts forever. And no character on a show lasts forever. When you’re dealing with a genius, you just have to step back and let him do that for you. It’s not like I can go to Frank and say, “Can you please keep my character alive for the whole series?” You just can’t do that.

Did Frank Darabont tell you what influenced him to create the fictional characters in “Mob City”?

Ventimiglia: The John Buntin book. I know in the conversations I had with him, Frank said he was influenced by the John Buntin book.

Burns: And old ‘30s and ‘40s noir films.

Ventimiglia: He wanted to make …

Burns: A noir film with heart about a city that was going downhill.

For more info: "Mob City" website

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