“Whereas Walter White is a good person who devolves to being a bad person, in this case, Pete is a bad person,” explains the multi-award winning actor. “He does steal from people, but there’s a possibility that he could evolve to become a good person.”
At awards shows, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Cranston refer to himself as a “sneaky Pete” growing up, hence the jumping-off point for the show.
Coming from a challenging childhood, Cranston says “my own family dubbed me Sneaky Pete.”
“Until I found a passion with acting at the age of 22,” says Cranston, further adding that during his award show acceptance speeches, he would say, “I hope all the Sneaky Petes out there might be re-introduced to that thing that once brought them joy. It could be a vocation.”
In Sneaky Pete, which originally was hatched at CBS with Cranston co-creating with House‘s David Shore, Giovanni Ribisi plays recently prison sprung con man Marius, who assumes his cellmate’s identity of Pete. He finds Pete’s family in rural Connecticut and works his way into their good graces, and eventually employment at their bail bond business, tracking down criminals. Pete/Marius also begins to have eyes for Julia (Marin Ireland), who is, well, his cousin. Cranston plays Vince, an urban kingpin to whom Marius is in debt for $100K. Vince hears that Marius has returned and gradually makes his life quite uncomfortable for him, specifically keeping his brother hostage.
How autobiographical is Sneaky Pete?
While Cranston doesn’t specify being a confidence man like Ribisi’s title protagonist or an organizer of underground card games, he says: “I was a sneaky kid, and wrote about in a book recently (A Life in Parts). It was cathartic to be able to go, ‘Oh, I did that too.’
“But there are many example of things that I was circumventing accountability in and finding my way through. And it’s OK if you’re a teenager from a broken home and you have no father as a mentor and your mother is becoming an alcoholic before your own eyes,” says the actor.
He described his life at 13 having free rein with “no one telling me what I can’t do. You’re trying to find your way in and out of situations ,and it’s all trial and error. And that’s how you become a ‘Sneaky Pete.'”
For example, recalls Cranston, “To get by at school, I would ask my teachers, how do I get a ‘C’ in this class?”
While the CBS version of Sneaky Pete was intended to be more of procedural with Ribisi and Ireland’s characters solving the bail bond case of the week, that pilot for the broadcast network remains largely intact in its transition to Amazon per showrunner Graham Yost, who signed on to the series following its arrival on the streaming service.
However, the big change for Sneaky Pete upon landing at Amazon was Cranston expanding his role on the show. Initially he was expected to play a recurring character, but it swelled to him appearing in every episode.
“It was a producer-ial decision first and foremost,” says Cranston about his full-on addition, “and to breathe life into it and expand it.”
“And time and money,” chimes in Ribisi, who first worked with Cranston more than 25 years ago on the TV comedy series Davis Rules, when the older actor guest-starred as Bonnie Hunt’s boyfriend. The two also are co-credited on two features, Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
“We had three weeks to redo our pilot for Amazon before it was tested to the world,” explains Cranston, “and rather than holding a casting session, hiring an actor and re-creating scenes, I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it’ and that just made sense.”
Other changes entailed the running time of each episode going longer on Amazon as opposed to CBS (from 42 minutes to more than 50), with an emphasis on the overall arc of the ensemble characters. While not writing to a commercial-break cliffhanger was a nice change-up for Yost, who is coming off the FX series Justified, leaving a dangler at the end of an episode of a streaming series is crucial, in an effort to maintain the binge effect.
“People often wonder what’s the best way to break a bingeing problem: Stop in the middle of an episode,” says Yost, who worked with Cranston on the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. “Or else if you wait until the end, you’ll let it roll.”
The pilot episode of Sneaky Pete is available now to watch on Amazon Prime, with the rest of the series debuting on January 13.
Will there be a Season 2?
Says Cranston: “We’re hoping we get a next season because when we completed our initial order, we all felt that there’s more to tell. We come to a nice conclusion of sorts, but as most good shows do, (the end) provides more questions than answers.”