Adapted by onetime Walking Dead boss Frank Darabont from the acclaimed book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, the three-week/six-hour series — premiering Wednesday at 9/8c — boasts a cast that also includes another Dead man, Jeffrey DeMunn, as well as Neal McDonough (Justified), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), Alexa Davalos (Reunion), Gregory Itzin (24), Robert Knepper (Prison Break), Jeremy Luke (Don Jon) and film vet Ed Burns (playing Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel).
Bernthal fronts the narrative as Joe Teague, a police detective caught in the gray area between do-right Chief William H. Parker (McDonough) and the gnarly likes of mobster Mickey Cohen (Luke). DeMunn helps round out the LAPD’s ranks, while Ventimiglia and Knepper flank Cohen and Burns’ Bugsy.
Here, Bernthal details why Darabont’s involvement cinched his trip to 1940s Los Angeles.
TVLINE | I just polished off the first two hours of Mob City, and this is great stuff. There’s simply nothing like it on TV right now.
Thank you for saying that, man. I appreciate you saying so.
TVLINE | Is that one of the things that drew you to the project, that it was so distinct?
Look, I’ll be honest with you. I was shooting The Walking Dead, and after Frank [Darabont] left we stayed in pretty close contact. He sort of called me to make sure that the plan was still for me to die off at the end of Season 2 — “Hey, pal, I’m writing something for you, so stay available” — and that’s really all I needed to hear. I’d follow him anywhere. And then, when I read the script for the first time, I was really, really excited. Frank is fascinated by the long-form television format. And sort of like what he did with the Walking Dead, being a real lover of the zombies-horror genre and bringing it to television through great storytelling and characters, that’s what he’s doing with film noir. He’s unbelievably passionate about, and hopefully the TV audience will be there.
TVLINE | How do you as an actor do the noir format justice? Do you immerse yourself in old films, or is a lot of it born of Frank’s touch as a director?
I had to educate myself quick, and a lot of that does come from Frank. He gave me a ton of movies to watch, I read a lot of [Raymond] Chandler and got really into Phillip Marlowe. I also got really into [James] Elroy and read not so much the earlier ones — not the L.A. Confidentials — but White Jazz, those. One of the really cool things about the show and about film noir is … you’re really not supposed to know why the character is doing what’s he doing. So much of television now, we need to spoon-feed the audience, “Yes I’m going to do some bad things, but this is why I’m doing bad things,” and this is sort of completely the opposite. You’re left guessing. It’s very much a slow burn and the mystery sort of unveils itself as the show goes on. It’s a world that opens up and gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and more and more dangerous, as the season goes on.
TVLINE | There’s a speech early on in the series about white hats, blacks hats, grey hats…. How gray would you say Joe’s hat is?
I’d say it’s pretty gray, man. It’s pretty gray. And that’s really not necessarily describing his morality or his sense of right and wrong [but] the world he’s living in. He’s very much a lost person, a guy who very much lingers in the shadows, a guy who watches from afar. He stays in the back of rooms. The reason why he’s like that is revealed through the course of the show. Frank’s a lover of flashbacks and messing with/bending time, and all the devices that he used in Shawshank [Redemption] and Walking Dead, he’s going to use in this.
TVLINE | What’s one of your most favorite dynamics on the show to play? Between Joe and…?
Oh, man, there’s a lot [that I love], but I’ve got to say, Alexa Davalos is just an unbelievable, unbelievable actress. I think she’s really going to take the world by storm. It was just a real, real joy to work with her, but I can really say the same about so many of the people on the show. Robert Knepper is just incredible, Jeremy Luke, Ed Burns, Milo [Ventimiglia]…. Obviously, Jeff DeMunn is one of my favorites human beings in the entire planet, Neal McDonough…. There’s literally not a single weak link.
TVLINE | You mentioned Jeffrey DeMunn — did you guys ever look at each other across a scene and think to yourselves, “We’re a long way from zombies.”
I think it was weirder for the crew than for us. [Laughs] There are a lot of Walking Dead fans who worked on [Mob City]. Us, in suits and ties, talking to each other did seem very weird, but Jeff is a pro, he’s the real freaking deal. We picked up right where we left off, with a new project and a new world, and we dive into it 100 percent.
TVLINE | What about this time period do you covet most? What one thing from this era would you bring to the 2010s?
Look man, there’s so much. The music, the clothes… that’s all great, but for me there’s something really, really interesting about the place, the time and the setting of this show. I mean you’re dealing with a wild, wild, wild town where there’s real lawlessness, where these people are products of the depression, World War II. These are hardened people who are living life to the fullest because they’ve all lost people and they know how precious life is. That said, they’re in the crazy, crazy world of Los Angeles in the ’40s where anything is possible and there’s glamour and there’s glitz. So it’s interesting playing this character who kind of deplores all that. He’s very brutally realistic, but for some reason he’s drawn to this city…. When you read the history of the city, it’s fascinating, so steeped in corruption and mystery and scandal, and that’s really what this show is about. As the show starts on these minor people in the history of Los Angeles, it grows, and grows, and grows. Eventually, this of mundane problem that’s introduced by a number on a matchbook in Joe Teague’s mailbox grows to really affect the entire city of Los Angeles. And all these historical figures are introduced and affected by this one little problem.
TVLINE | And are you at liberty to say if we will see Joe face off against Bugsy Siegel?
I’m not at liberty to say, sorry,
TVLINE | All told, what would you say Joe’s journey is over these six hours?
I can’t tell you too much, but it’s a very, very rough ride. I’ll tell you that. Like all classic noir figures, he just gets this s–t beaten out of him left and right. You’ll see as it goes!