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Mob City: A Walking Dead Reunion in the City of Angels

December 4, 2013  |  11:02am
<i>Mob City</i>: A <i>Walking Dead</i> Reunion in the City of Angels

When Frank Darabont first met Jon Bernthal, he knew if he ever did a noir project, Bernthal would be his leading man.

“He’s got this tremendous quiet masculinity,” Darabont said recently in a conference call with reporters. “It’s not forced. It’s not show-boaty. It’s quiet and it’s genuine, and it feels like such a throwback to Robert Mitchum and John Garfield, an earlier era of actor.”

So when Darabont began writing Mob City, a series steeped in noir, Bernthal was the first call he made. “He had told me that he was writing something for me,” Bernthal tells Paste. “Which is super exciting and a huge honor and very flattering. Frank is one of the great storytellers that we have. He’s an absolute brilliant writer. It’s great to have a friend and a partner like that.”

The two men first worked together on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Bernthal’s character Shane was killed off in the zombie hit’s second season. To the shock of the cast and crew, AMC also fired Darabont during the show’s sophomore year. “Frank got right back up and decided to fight another day, which says a lot about his character,” Bernthal says. “He obviously is in a position where he doesn’t have to work. Mob City is very much a passion project for him the same way that The Walking Dead was.”

In the series, which will air two episodes a week for three weeks beginning tonight at 9 p.m., Bernthal stars as Jon Teague, a 1940s Los Angeles police detective with questionable alliances. “With Shane, Frank really wanted me to play a caged animal,” Bernthal says. “He was very specific that in this project, he wanted me to play the cage. He wanted me to let off very little and not reveal exactly where I was at emotionally and what my strategy was.”

The series is based on L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, by John Buntin. The book tells the real-life conflict between the West Coast mob and the L.A. police department in the years following World War II. But Darabont, who wrote, directed and executive produced the series, decided early on that Mob City would not vie for historical accuracy. “This is honestly the loosest adaptation I’ve ever done,” he says. “I gave myself license to make up as much as we needed to make up to tell the most entertaining, good, sort of meaty mob story. That’s the promise that I wanted to deliver on. We’ve thrown caution to the wind on this one.”

The weaving of fact and fiction creates a compelling world rooted in reality. “Frank takes this sort of fictional little problem and as it spirals out of control it bleeds into the real underbelly of the history of LA,” Bernthal says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of movies like Forrest Gump where this fictional character bleeds into history. It’s a very smart, creative, beautiful way of sort of answering mysteries.”

Darabont has long been enamored with the 1940s era. “There was something very sexy and dangerous about it,” he says. “It’s a much more put-together era, much more elegant. People would dress a certain way. They didn’t just walk out of their house wearing their underwear. They presented themselves well. It’s a wonderful thing to put on film because everyone just winds up looking so of the era but also of a different world. It’s as unique visually as doing a science fiction movie.”

Bernthal says Darabont’s love of film helps to bring Mob City’s heightened atmosphere to life. “He’s a film enthusiast and a loyalist. The same way he wanted to bring the horror genre to long form television format with The Walking Dead, that’s exactly what he’s doing here with noir.”

For Bernthal, getting into the noir mindset was a bit of an adjustment. “It was really sort of an education into a genre I know nothing about,” he says. “In film noir, the characters are always a step or two ahead of the audience.”

For Ed Burns, who co-stars as Bugsy Siegel, donning Siegel’s high-end attire was the first step. “If you walk on to set and you’re wearing the period clothes, and you got your fedora on, and it’s packed with extras who are dressed in the period garb, and the room is as it would in 1947, a great thing happens as an actor. You kind of soak into that world. It makes playing those scenes a little easier.”

When Burns got the call that Darabont wanted him to play the legendary gangster, he was eager to work with the man he refers to as a “world class filmmaker.” “Frank basically said, ‘What I need from you is you’ve got to be larger than life,” Burns says. “When you come into the room you’ve got to own it. The woman have got to want to sleep with you and the guys have to want to kill on your behalf. When those are your marching orders, what actor doesn’t jump at that chance?”

The opening hour of Mob City ends with a shocking reveal. And Bernthal relishes playing a character with such moral ambiguity. “That’s what makes the character interesting. Otherwise he’s just a brooding guy in a suit. I think he’s a guy who has very very strong feelings of loyalty and love, but he’s been through such terror and so much in his life,” he says. “I think he feels more comfortable being in the shadows, watching from a distance, protecting from a distance, sort of affecting people’s lives from a distance.”

The series is steeped in mystery, and Bernthal is tight-lipped about what will unfold during the first season. “Just as The Walking Dead started with a character examination of the Rick Grimes character and then the world just opens up and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, that’s exactly what happens in Mob City. Towards the end of this season, the world really gets big. It starts with this minor little problem, and it starts to spiral out of control.”

Mob City also marks Bernthal’s debut as the lead character. “I felt a lot of pressure not necessarily from being the lead on the show,” he says. “I felt a lot of pressure because I really wanted to get this right for Frank. I’m doing this show for Frank, and I believe in Frank, and I want this show to work for Frank.”

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