Giovanni Ribisi on Bryan Cranston, their ‘Breaking Bad in reverse’ show
LOS ANGELES—“It’s essentially ‘Breaking Bad’ in reverse.”
That was how Bryan Cranston described “Sneaky Pete,” an Amazon streaming series that he cocreated with David Shore, to Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the title role. Giovanni had qualms about committing to the project, but learning that Bryan was attached to the crime-drama show made him sign up.
It’s a decision that Giovanni has not regretted. It’s his first leading role after more than two decades in the business. Amazon has renewed “Sneak Pete” for a second
Bryan has directed, written and appeared in the series that stars Giovanni as Marius, a con man who assumes the identity of his cellmate, Pete, when he gets out of prison to elude a gangster (Bryan’s Vince). He moves in with Pete’s unsuspecting family that hasn’t seen Pete in 20 years.
The show arose from a speech Bryan made when he won an Emmy in 2014. Reminiscing on his days as a wayward youth, Bryan said: “I was a kid who always looked for a shortcut. A schemer. My own family named me Sneaky Pete.” A TV executive called Bryan the next day and encouraged him to make a show inspired by his Sneaky Pete days.
Excerpts from our chat with Giovanni in West Hollywood:
When you met with Bryan for the first time about the series, what did he tell you about your character, Marius/Pete? Bryan was very specific. One of the things he said was that it’s essentially “Breaking Bad” in reverse. That could just be his way of selling it, but it’s [about] a guy who grew up bereft of family, of a normal nurturing environment, where his mother was a junkie and his father was out of the picture. Marius was forced to survive with his brother and parent him.
That was the conversation I was having with Bryan. It’s not like my character is bad and he’s good. It’s not black and white, because that would be naïve. But he evolves into having values that are based on trust. The show started out on CBS as a procedural series. When it went over to Amazon, the whole concept changed.
How did you and Bryan become friends? If you look at our IMDb pages (laughs), after 30 years or however long he and I have been acting, Bryan and I have done probably about 50 movies together. But we never really knew each other. I was, needless to say, a huge fan of his. He’s one of the great American actors we have, so that was my initial draw to doing the series.
I wasn’t interested in doing an hourlong episodic television because I’ve heard horror stories that you go in for 10 months and that becomes all-encompassing. It was going to be shot in New York, and I live in Los Angeles. When I learned that Bryan was one of the creators, all of that changed for me, especially after meeting him.
What was the biggest lie you ever told? I told the littlest lie, like, two minutes ago. No, I’m kidding (laughs). I’ve never lied (laughs).
You started very early as an actor. What’s your experience been like in struggling to get roles? I’ve been a performer since I was 9 years old. It’s interesting because there’s a give and take there. There have been times where you pour your soul into something. Then, they don’t hire you because your eyes are brown. You get used to that rejection.
Can you be sneaky in real life? I’ve been sneaky a couple of times in my life (laughs), yeah.
Marius finds himself in situations where he realizes he has bitten off more than he can chew. Have you been in similar situations? Oh my God, every time I do a movie or jump into something, yeah, because there’s always never enough time to develop the character. You never feel finished with the part. You’re subject to so many opinions that can affect your choices as an actor.
The older you get, the more you embrace that communal effort where it isn’t just about you. It takes an “army.” In relationships, as well (laughs). I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But that’s a different story.
In working on this series, what did you learn as an actor that surprised you? It’s from watching Bryan work, especially with where he is in his life, his diligence and how committed he still is despite the success he’s had. He said before he had no idea how much money he was earning. He’s not interested in money. He doesn’t know how much he was getting paid for the show, which is probably too personal. Sorry, Bryan (laughs).
But that says a lot about him. He was so focused even though he had a million other things going on. I watched the entire “Breaking Bad” while we were making the show.
You directed a music video last year. Is directing something you’d like to pursue? Yeah, absolutely. I’ll be directing on the show this season. I’ve been a part of a visual effects company for a long time. That was part of a stepping stone to understand the different factors that go into filmmaking. I studied cinematography for quite some time. I have directed music videos and commercials but, ultimately, my goal is leading toward the narrative form.
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