Real-life Jewish mobster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel wasn’t just any old thug, he was a celebrity gangster, who craved the limelight. So when executive producer Frank Darabont was casting the role for TNT’s noir series “Mob City,” he searched for an actor who could play that rare breed of movie-star mobster — and he came up with Ed Burns.
And Burns got into the role. So much so that at the press day for the series, the “Brothers McMullen” star was decked out in a black suit, black silk shirt, and black tie. He was really feeling the part of Bugsy in his upscale gangster gear, especially since starring in a noir film was one of the genres on his bucket list.
“For me, personally, there were moments when we were shooting, where it was downtown L.A., Craftsman houses, period cars, period street lamps, the two of us [Burns was with Robert Knepper, who plays fictional mobster Sid Rothman] in the car in our suits and fedoras. I remember looking over and thinking, “This is it. This is the Bogie-Cagney moment.” You half expected Edward G. Robinson to walk out of the house. You could check off the box: Dream come true, got to do one of these.”
Loosely based on John Buntin’s book, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, “Mob City” is the fictional story of Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), a former Marine, who has been assigned to a new police task force whose job is to free the city of thugs like Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), the head of the mobsters.
Along the way, there are the requisite surprising twists and turns that make up the noir genre, as several people turn out to not be who they first appear to be, several of the cops are corrupt, and in true noir style, there is also the mysterious dame — Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos), who enthralls the men with her beauty and her secrets.
In this interview with xfinityTV, Burns discusses how he got his mob on for the role, what he was surprised to learn about Bugsy, how much fun he had, and more. Check it out.
As somebody who also works behind the scenes — writing and directing, what was it that made you want to do “Mob City”?
Frank Darabont. World-class filmmaker. He wanted me to take a look at the part of Bugsy Siegel. I just hoped that it was more than a gamble. The scenes were so great. The dialog terrific. I jumped in. My first scene was an epic six-page scene that was shot out in the desert. It was easily the best time I have had acting since “Saving Private Ryan.”
There are three factors to why this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. One, great scripts and great words to speak. A world-class filmmaker at the helm, who loves actors and loves to collaborate. Then, thirdly, is he’s given each of us such a great cast, and we all got along, that’s another.
First scene we acted together, it’s like five guys in that back alley and you start playing, and it’s like, “Oh, these guys are really good.” You know you have to step up your game. But we kind of jelled immediately. That doesn’t happen very often, where all of those things line up.
Were you attracted to noir films when you were growing up?
I was a big film noir fan. I got introduced to it originally through my mom, who’s a big James Cagney fan. Then later on when I was at film school, I studied film noir, but I’ve always been obsessed with the genre. I think as a young actor, you kind of have, let’s say, a bucket list of certain genres you want to play in: Western, war movie, film noir.
There have been a lot of portrayals of Bugsy Siegel. He is such a famous personality, especially with what he did in Las Vegas. Did you watch any of the other performances?
I did not. I pulled out my Bugsy DVD two nights before leaving New York to come here to start shooting. I was like, “You know what? I am actually not going to watch it. I will wait, instead, until I have finished shooting.” I just did not want that in my head. I purposely did not watch anything. I did some research online. I watched a documentary. I tried to get familiar, again, with the time.
I knew a lot about him. I like gangsters and have read several books over the years. It was really just that. Because we are interacting with fictional characters, I knew Frank was not looking for me to come in and try and do a by-the-letter Bugsy impersonation. He wanted a larger-than-life guy, full of bravado, full of self-confidence but who could also turn from being the most charming guy in the room to the most violent guy in the room.
Click on the Image Below to Watch the First Episode of “Mob City”:
What did you learn about him that might surprise us?
Part of the legend was his relationship with George Raft and the fact that he had done a screen test. He had this part of him that fancied himself a little bit as a wannabe movie star. I didn’t know any of that, but then it’s, “Ah, OK. So this guy is very flashy, very charismatic.” Also Frank noted early on, “He’s like got to be larger than life. When he comes into a room, he’s got to own it.” So I tried to play as if this guy thinks he’s a movie star. So when he shows up, he carries himself that way.
Is Bugsy the most ferocious person you have played?
Oh, hands down. As I said before, I have not had this much fun acting since “Saving Private Ryan.” And, it’s because of the opportunity to tap into something I have not tapped into before as an actor. But it’s also more than just that. The guy does whatever he wants, and Frank has written such a great version of him. A lot of times on the job, you look at the scene you have to do the next day and you are, like, “Oh, my God, how are we going to make this work?” The complete opposite on this. You look at your lines and say, “Tomorrow is going to be a great day at the office.”
More fun that even your own movies?
Yeah. Quite honestly. The stuff I write for myself, I am writing to the things that I think are my strengths as an actor that I can do very easily. If it’s a fastball down the middle, I do that because I have got everything else to do. Playing Bugsy required a lot more work on my part as an actor as far as my preparation, thinking about who this guy is, how I want to approach those scenes so, it’s very different.
Did you have to learn how to do anything physical in terms of fighting or ’40s style fighting?
No, no, no. There is a little dance step that I had to learn but that did not take long.
Bugsy always was a ladies’ man. Is he going to have a romance in this?
He’s hanging out with a couple of whores, but I don’t think you can call that romance.
In the second season, might you want to direct an episode?
Yes. I would love to. It would be a blast. But that is premature for this conversation.
Did you work on a Jewish accent for him?
I was born and raised in New York so I was happy, doing my research, I had forgotten that he was from Brooklyn. So, I was like, “OK, this is going to be a very easy accent for me to handle.” It was just a matter of throwing it on a little bit thicker than my normal speaking voice.
“Mob City,” which also stars also stars Milo Ventimiglia, Neal McDonough, and Gregory Itzin, will air in two-hour installments over three Wednesdays, on TNT. The second night is this Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 9/8c.