Mob City premieres Dec. 4 at 10/9CT on TNT.
When Jon Bernthal teamed up with Oscar-nominated writer/producer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) on the set of Darabont’s apocalyptic AMC drama The Walking Dead, he knew he’d forged a personal and professional partnership that would last long after viewers ultimately discover who comes out on top, the living or the undead.
So when the actor, who played loose-cannon former cop Shane Walsh, learned his character’s time was up around the same time Darabont was confoundingly excused from the show he’d helped make a pop-culture phenomenon, there was already a silver lining in the works — Darabont’s stunning new TNT limited series, Mob City.
“Leaving The Walking Dead was sad and very hard, and the cast and the crew will always be family to me,” says Bernthal, “but Frank and I had been talking and we knew that [Mob City] was on the horizon. This has been a passion project for Frank for many years, and we were very much a part of each other’s lives when we both left the show, so the fact that he and I and Jeff DeMunn [who played Dead’s departed moral center Dale Horvath] could all come together again was very, very sweet.”
A fact-and-fiction hybrid loosely based on John Buntin’s 2010 bestseller L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, Mob City captures the violent tug-of-war between Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (Desperate Housewives’ Neal McDonough) and ruthless gangsters led by Bugsy Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke) for control of the city in the 1940s. And does so in Darabont’s uniquely cinematic style.
“Frank really wanted to bring the noir genre to TV, and I think — in the same way he did with The Walking Dead and the horror genre — his goal and his hook with the American TV audience is to create really compelling characters and a really great story,” Bernthal says.
At the center of the tale is Bernthal’s Detective Joe Teague, an ex-Marine recently returned from Guadalcanal, who has been assigned to a new mob task force, even as he battles his own inner demons. Bernthal says playing a Marine sergeant in HBO’s Emmy-winning 2010 miniseries The Pacific, which was also set at Guadalcanal, helped him understand the psychological burden his character carried home.
“A lot of people say that’s where the Marine Corps became the Marine Corps,” he says. “It was an unbelievably rugged and tough fight for those guys and Frank has made this character one of the few survivors. When Joe comes back, it’s an incredibly hard transition for him. One of the really cool things about this show is that it will bring up themes like PTSD and divorce in the 1940s, and make cultural comments as the show goes along, sort of like Mad Men does.”
Though Teague is a classic noir tough guy, Bernthal says it’s his faithful heart that drives him.
“He has a very clear mission in this story,” Bernthal explains, “I can’t tell you what that mission is — and I think the audience will be guessing throughout the series why he is doing the things he is doing. But like all of the central characters in Frank’s stories, this is a guy who will go to the end of the world for love and for the people that he loves and to protect the people that he loves. If you trace all of Frank’s stories, that’s really what it’s about — what people do when you scrape off the veneer of the comforts that dull us every day and put them into situations where they gotta survive. How far will they go? That’s very much where Joe Teague is coming from.”
And it’s not just Teague’s emotions that take a beating.
“He’s a great, classic noir character — he gets his ass beat from beginning to end,” laughs Bernthal, a former baseball and football player who still likes to box in his rare spare time. “I’m a real physical guy and I do all my own stunts and I love it, because I find that in good, hard, physical scenes, it’s really easy to find the emotion and what’s going on beneath it all. When you start shaking your body around and take a couple blows on the face, it frees you up.”
Bernthal believes viewers will also be taken with Mob City’s vintage film noir look and storytelling style — a great rarity in today’s TV landscape.
“This is not done like a modern piece of noir,” he says. “It’s done in a classic way, which I think is really cool. One of the components of classic noir — and I know that I sound like a total film geek talking about it, because I had no idea about any of this before I started this project — is that the characters are always going to be a step or two ahead of the audience. There’s always this sense of, ‘Why didn’t he do that?! What’s really going on here?’ And it just gets bigger and bigger and starts to spiral more and more out of control as it’s completely reshaping and sending the main characters into a whirlwind. It’s a genius way to tell the story.”
A story that’s close to Darabont’s heart.
“Frank grew up in Los Angeles,” Bernthal says. “He has a group of people that have worked on every project with him and a lot of them are his friends from back in the Hollywood High School drama club. They’re all native Angelenos and they grew up in Hollywood. They grew up with these stories, and they’re so passionate about the subject matter. That’s really cool.”
When we spoke, Bernthal was in London putting his newly-bolstered World War II knowledge to additional use as a brutish American army tanker in next year’s feature film Fury.
“The first month and half was just training,” Bernthal says. “Brad Pitt, Shia Laboeuf, Michael Peña, Logan Lerman and myself, we’re a tank crew, so our training consists of a lot of fighting each other and a lot of sparring in the morning and then getting really proficient on the tanks. We went to an incredible military boot camp led by a few Navy Seals, and there’s just been an unbelievable effort by David Ayer, the director, to bring this group of people together to form a real bond and a real tight unit to portray this crew — which if you talk to any tanker, that’s what they say is really the defining element of a tank crew. It’s just an incredible bond. Because you are literally sleeping, defecating, urinating, fighting, praying, crying together in this super enclosed space for unbelievable amounts of time.”
In the meantime, Bernthal can be seen in a pair of Christmas Day releases, the boxing comedy Grudge Match starring Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone, and Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street with Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“If you can, as an artist, collaborate with people who have a real passion and a real hunger to tell a story and are really excited to be there, it’s just such a blessing,” says Bernthal. “That’s really been the atmosphere for the last few years of my life!”
Mob City airs Wednesdays, Dec. 4 through Dec. 18, on TNT
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