Season 1 of Sneaky Pete starts streaming today on Amazon after a long and winding road that began when Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston and House creator David Shore first sold the hour-long drama to CBS. That was more than three years ago—or as one of the new show’s stars, Marin Ireland, puts it, “Back in the Carter administration.”
A lot has changed since then. In May of 2015, the network decided to pass on the show, but a month later Amazon decided to give it another chance. But they had some conditions. For one, they decided to bring in Justified showrunner Graham Yost to help guide the project. Another request was even more consequential: Instead of just serving as an executive producer, they wanted Cranston on screen.
From the beginning, the show has revolved around Giovanni Ribisi’s character, an adept con man named Marius, who assumes the identity of his cellmate Pete in order to escape the gangster he robbed just before entering prison. (Though the show’s title shares its name with one of Jesse Pinkman’s drug-dealing friends on Breaking Bad, this “Sneaky Pete” is not the same character.)
Filling out the main cast are Marin Ireland (Homeland) as the real Pete’s cousin and Margo Martindale (Justified, The Americans, everything else) as his grandmother, both of whom he decides to join in their fledgling bail bond business in small-town New York. With minimal suspicion, they accept their long-lost relative back into their lives after a 20-year absence.
As those three actors, along with Cranston and Yost, told The Daily Beast on a recent Thursday morning in Pasadena, California, the original CBS version of Sneaky Pete was intended to be a “con-of-the-week” procedural, albeit one filled with people who are more “complicated” than your average NCIS character.
But all that changed when the show moved to Amazon. Instead of 22 episodes, they only needed to produce 10, which allowed them to focus on one driving narrative in the same way Breaking Bad built toward its epic conclusion. When Yost came on board to retool the pilot, the team quickly figured out the most efficient way to insert Cranston.
In the original version, Ribisi’s character Marius was seen talking on the phone to an unseen gangster. They conveniently used the existing one-sided phone call to work Cranston’s new character, a former NYPD cop-turned-gambling kingpin named Vince, into the episode. “They were like, he could be that guy,” Ireland says of Amazon, noting that they shot Cranston’s side of the conversation at an apartment in Los Angeles months after Ribisi’s part was finished. It was originally conceived as a cameo and a “fun reveal” to end the pilot, but once Vince was established as the villain, they knew they had to keep him around.
“When I first decided to offer Bryan Cranston the role, he had to sleep with me to get it,” Cranston jokes, cracking up his co-star Ribisi. “And then he was so disappointed, we almost lost him!
“The glorious thing about this storytelling process is, when we came up with the idea to put this character in, we didn’t know the scope of that character,” Cranston continues, more earnestly. “I didn’t know as a producer, I didn’t know as an actor, where it was going to go, how it would go. And you shouldn’t know, because it needs to come alive in that writing room.”
The character Cranston plays, the so-called big bad of the first season, if not the whole series, is much closer to Walter White at the end of Breaking Bad than the one viewers met at the beginning. It’s Vince’s sadistic tendencies that drive Ribisi’s Marius to hide out as Pete in the first place. But Cranston says he doesn’t think about the connection between his most iconic, award-winning character and this one. “It’s always nice to be a little afraid of something and a little challenged by something,” he says. “If you go, this is paint-by-the-numbers, this is me, I’m less interested in playing that kind of character.”
“It was bigger than he thought it was going to be,” Yost says of Cranston’s role on the show, which has been curiously downplayed in the early marketing campaign, comparing it to Martin Sheen’s character on The West Wing. “It was so much fun having him in the story,” he adds, that they kept writing more for him to do, including a four-page monologue that comes near the end of the fourth episode.
Yost asked the writer of that episode, Justified’s Benjamin Cavell, to cut it down to a more reasonable length, but Cranston had already memorized the long version, which runs nearly 10 minutes, so that’s what they shot. “And it’s genius,” Yost admits, saying “there’s something about this streaming show and the pace of it” that allowed them to take bigger swings than he was able to before, even on a cable show like Justified.
Cranston may steal a few scenes along the way, but Sneaky Pete belongs to Giovanni Ribisi, who appears in nearly every scene of the show. In the same way Breaking Bad chronicled Walter White’s transformation from high school chemistry teacher to hardened criminal, Sneaky Pete sets out to chart his character’s evolution from ex-con to family man. Cranston has been known to call this show “Breaking Good.”
But though he was personally offered the gig by Cranston, whom he describes as “one of our great American actors,” Ribisi hesitated to say yes at first. He had heard from friends that the “hardest job” for an actor is doing a one-hour drama series on television. “Not that I’m afraid of a hard job, but it’s something that starts affecting more than just the work. You get lost in it,” he says. “There was a part of me that thought I probably won’t do that in my lifetime, until, of course, somebody like Bryan calls and then it’s just like, ‘Well, fuck, of course I will. Dammit!’”
Ribisi broke through in the late ’90s, appearing in dramatic films like Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room. He had recurring roles on the sitcoms Friends (as Phoebe’s brother) and My Name Is Earl and recently appeared as one of the two leads on the short-lived and much-maligned Fox comedy Dads. But Sneaky Pete marks his first first major foray into the world of television drama.
Why did Cranston want him for the part? “Because he’s Giovanni,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I wanted to make sure that we chose the best actors. That will carry us farther than anything. Cast it correctly. Good actors will be able to take material and ingest it and live in it and go! I want actors to really be invested in this, as I am.”
It was Cranston’s passion for the project that also got Ireland and Martindale to sign on all the way back in 2014. When Cranston and Shore sent her the pilot script “back in the CBS days,” Martindale read it and immediately said she was “all in,” adding, “I thought those aren’t bad people to work with.”
The addition of Graham Yost to the creative team only got her more excited. Martindale describes her role as Mags Bennett on Yost’s Justified, which won her her first Emmy Award in 2011, as the pinnacle of a long acting career. “It suited my imagination more than any part I’ve ever played,” she says. “It was like playing in my backyard and flying.” She believes the part on Sneaky Pete has the same “potential.”
“I was a little anxious about the time frame and the commitment of a network show,” Ireland adds, “but the thing that sold me was Cranston and Giovanni and Margo, they were all on board, and David Shore. For me, I felt like I wasn’t just a girlfriend or a wife. It’s a woman that I didn’t see a lot of, especially on network television.”
For one, her character Julia’s relationship with Ribisi’s Marius/Pete is one of the more complicated dynamics in recent television history. She thinks they’re cousins; he knows they’re not. They would refer to the awkward sexual tension on set as “cousin-cest.”
“It’s complicated,” Ireland says, carefully. “I think she’s kind of confused by it. I don’t think she identifies it as such. And I think that’s part of what leads her to make some other weird decisions.” It’s also a “useful thing” that viewers know something romantic could still develop between them down the line.
“We can play with that, but we have to be very careful, because that is the show’s Sam and Diane,” Yost says, referring to Cheers’ central couple. “If you go too far, too fast, you’ve blown it out.” He predicts their evolving relationship will be a “big part” of a potential Season 2.
Aside from Better Call Saul, another Breaking Bad-related project, the past couple of years have seen a string of compelling, but mostly humorless drama series—think The Leftovers, Westworld, and Mr. Robot (except for that Alf episode). So it is refreshing to see what could have been a generic drama series embrace its comedic side the way Sneaky Pete does, at least in the first four episodes screened for critics.
Graham Yost has a mantra about actors that Cranston likes to quote: “If they can do comedy, they can do drama.”
“And it is by and large true,” says Cranston, who made his career by transitioning from the comedy of Malcolm in the Middle to the drama of Breaking Bad. “The narrative structure of a drama is enhanced with a sprinkling of levity. When it’s not just a straight line of drama, but it’s buoyed by a moment of levity, it gives the audience a breather. It gives the audience a chance to exhale.”