After spending one six-episode season commanding zombies on The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont's next small-screen venture tackles a decidedly different genre — but a flashy one all the same.
Darabont's Mob City premieres Wednesday on TNT, taking viewers on a trip back to Los Angeles circa 1947, during escalating tension between the Los Angeles Police Department and the mobsters controlled by Mickey Cohen. But the show wastes little time establishing that the two sides of morality — "white hats" and "black hats" — often blend together to form something murkier. During a conference call with reporters, Darabont explained he's drawn to that dichotomy between nobility and monstrosity, mixed together with copious amounts of booze, broads and bullets.
"I've always loved the noir genre," he said. "It's always got an air of dangerous stakes and desperation and, you know, everybody's got an angle. There's the dangerous women; you don't know if they're on your side or not. I always have loved that kind of storytelling, that genre. It's just a pleasure to roll around in it."
Darabont came to Mob City by way of John Buntin's historical novel L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City. The filmmaker bought the book from a newsstand at Los Angeles International Airport on a whim, and was immediately hooked.
"I couldn't put it down for two days," he said. "So I checked into the rights, only to discover that my friend Michael De Luca, who I've known since, gosh, 1986 [working on Nightmare on Elm Street III] … I've known him all these years. I called him up to find out what he wanted to do with it, and he was excited about my interest, so we decided to partner up."
The project quickly came to life as a six-episode event series for TNT, but just as quickly, Darabont decided to take liberties with Buntin's source material.
"This is honestly the loosest adaptation I've ever done," he said. "It's not in any way to disregard John Buntin's book, because it really is the inspiration for everything. It's really a good book, definitely our touchstone. But I gave myself license very early on to just make up as much of what I felt I needed to make up to tell the most entertaining, good, sort of meaty mob story — good, pulpy noir stuff."
Darabont honed in on Buntin's chronicle of the conflict between notorious criminal Mickey Cohen and the L.A.P.D.'s "boy scout" police chief William Parker, portrayed by Jeremy Luke and Neal McDonough, respectively.
"John did a brilliant job of distilling everything to that dynamic, because it really was the fulcrum point of so many events and the entire power struggle, those two men butting heads," Darabont said. "That's very much in the long game of the show. I wanted to be very accurate with the fact that Mickey Cohen rises to prominence as the head of the L.A. mob very much around the time, or not too long later, William Parker rises to the head of the L.A.P.D. Suddenly, you've got these two guys who are running their shops, top of the show in their worlds, and their worlds conflict."
Joe Teague is at the center of that conflict. A Marine turned police officer, Teague is the heart and soul of Mob City, a man caught between loyalty to his job and loyalty to an old life. Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane on The Walking Dead, plays the conflicted Teague, and according to Darabont, he was the only choice for the role.
"The first time I worked with [Bernthal], I had the thought in my head, 'If I ever get to do a noir project, I'm going to want him to play my noir hero,'" he said. "I'm going to want him to play my lead, because he's got that very period feel to me. He doesn't come off as, you know, a contemporary guy. Plus, he's got this tremendously quiet, masculine [energy]. It's not forced. It's not, you know, showboating. He's got this very testosterone kind of masculinity that's quiet, and it's genuine."
Opposite Bernthal is Heroes veteran Milo Ventimiglia as mob fixer and lawyer Ned Stax, a man with mysterious ties to Teague. As with many of the characters on Mob City, classifying Stax as a hero or a villain is not a simple task.
"He's just a guy who is smart enough to understand all the players in the game of the streets of Los Angeles and is lucky enough to have, let's just say, an in with what's going — a personal relationship with what's going on in the L.A.P.D. side," Ventimiglia said. "It doesn't mean that they're working together or looking out for one another. I think that no matter what, there's a self-interest, and then beyond that, there's what's possible. Where we kind of go with Ned, we see that he's a darker shade of gray than what I think he's introduced as."
Teague and Stax are just a couple of the shady silhouettes cast upon Mob City. The greater ensemble includes Ventimiglia's Heroes co-star Robert Knepper as mobster Sid Rothmen, and several of Bernthal and Darabont's fellow Walking Dead alums, including Jeffrey DeMunn as Teague's boss Hal Morrison.
Also along for the ride is Ed Burns, the writer-director-actor who rarely appears in projects he didn’t pen himself. Burns, who plays infamous mob boss Bugsy Siegel, said Mob City made him "fall back in love with acting."
"This is the most fun I've had acting since Saving Private Ryan," he said. "When you're given such great words to play with, and you're in the hands of a world-class filmmaker, and he surrounds you with a great cast, this is what every actor — you hope to get these opportunities. Unfortunately, sometimes they're few and far between. This is one that made me fall in love with acting again."
TNT airs the first two episodes of Mob City Wednesday beginning at 9 p.m. ET/PT.