EXCLUSIVE: During the celebrated run of Sons of Anarchy, creator Kurt Sutter made a tradition of giving the fleeing masses of San Diego Comic-Con something to stay for on its final day. He’s revived that Jimi Hendrix-at-Woodstock tradition in Hall H today, where he will launch Mayans M.C., the FX spinoff series that focuses on the Latino motorcycle club that became a bigger and bigger part of the Sons series over time. The new show, which Sutter created with Elgin James and exec produces with James and pilot episode director Norberto Barba, premieres September 4.
There are familiar faces from Sons, like Mayans leader Emilio Rivera, and there is Edward James Olmos, from Miami Vice, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica. But most of the cast is comprised of newcomers. Here, Sutter explains how the series will honor and even broaden the mythology built over seven seasons of Sons, even as the show learns to fly under its own power. He also explains how a show that seems so timely and topical — a Latino gang proliferating on the border of Mexico is the nightmare scenario that President Donald Trump espouses in building a wall and eradicating illegal immigrants — won’t get caught up in politics. Even if the stamp on the drugs sold in the pilot episode bear a moniker that translates to “Tiny Hands,” a subtle shout out to the president during his campaign.
DEADLINE: In Mayans M.C., your central character, JD Pardo’s EZ, is trying to become a member, and you tie together a lot of complicated strings that will create conflict down the line. Those certainly weren’t there in Sons of Anarchy when we first met Charlie Hunnam’s Jax, the prodigal son of SOA’s former leader.
SUTTER: They weren’t there. It was more an emotional crisis for Jax than a circumstantial crisis, but my challenge in all this was first of all, how do I differentiate this from Sons, and yet have it be familiar enough. How do I transition from one mythology into the next without it feeling derivative. I liked the idea of it being a prospect and having it be almost that Tony Montana thing of starting out at the bottom and then watching the rise. Whereas Jax began as a prince, right, and it became about him taking the throne. My biggest challenge with Jax in the first couple of seasons, because he was Hamlet, it was, do I do this, do I don’t do that? It was keeping him proactive, so even if what he did was reactive, I had a hero who was constantly in action, despite the emotional crises that came with each circumstance.
DEADLINE: Last time you did an involved interview with Deadline, you were putting your medieval-era Bastard Executioner under the ax, and turning your attention to the Mayans. Can’t think of many show creators who voluntarily kill their own show, which could have returned to FX and tried to build a larger following.
SUTTER: Yeah. Here’s the deal with Bastard. I loved that show and for me it was such a palate cleanser, going from writing urban vernacular and crime, to essentially iambic pentameter. I loved the mythology of that world based on history, but what it came down to was money. It was a really expensive show to produce, even with the bump from the UK and the bump from Wales. And because of the violence we couldn’t f*cking sell it. That was the problem. We had no buyers internationally, so I mean the reality of it is I’m sure Brian [Grazer] and I could’ve gone out and found another place, whether it was Netflix or…we could’ve probably with effort maybe kept it going. But for me, if people don’t dig it, if people aren’t watching it, it just feels desperate. You have to take a step back and go, OK, this is how it’s supposed to go. This is where it is supposed to end. John Landgraf and the network, they were more upset about it than I was. They loved the show. I was just so f*cking tired and there was no way to sustain it. I loved working with all those people and it lives on like what it is and we move on rather than holding on to it and not letting go and trying to bend it into something else that it wouldn’t be because now we want to sell it. We would have had to change it, and by the time you’re done with that…I’ve done projects like that. By the time you’re done with it, you don’t f*cking know what it is anymore.
DEADLINE: It would be tempting to try turning it into something more familiar and successful in a period setting, make it another Game of Thrones, which has as much violence but makes it work.
SUTTER: The violence in that show is ruthless. What I learned is that if you’re forcing people to know a history, you have to have something or someone iconic that they can hang some knowledge on to move forward, like if it’s The Tudors, that is Henry VIII. You have an iconic character that people know of so that when you put a twist on it they’re like oh, that’s cool. But to introduce history that people don’t know, about the revolution in Wales and the UK, which became the backdrop for this character, there’s nothing for them to plug into.
Game of Thrones is fantasy, right, and there is IP and you can f*cking go anywhere with it. There are no rules. You can have dragons. You’re not limited to the authenticity of history or reality, and that’s what I like to do. I like to take fictitious characters and circumstances and wedge them into a real world. I wanted to do it in that genre as well and it didn’t work.
DEADLINE: Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings had magnificent architecture, cities. You had a post-Rome barren wasteland where not much was built and it was all dirty, with people trying not to starve.
SUTTER: Every time I would get notes about violence, I’d be like, it’s called the Dark Ages for a reason. Half the population still believed in wizards, and ghosts, and goblins, and demons. It’s like it was such an odd period because it’s pre-Renaissance so there’s no real enlightenment yet. People trying to wrap their brain around civilization and not doing it very well, you know what I mean?
DEADLINE: What is most gratifying in returning to the world of motorcycle outlaws?
SUTTER: After the third or fourth season of Sons, I was having a conversation with Eric Schrier, who’s president of original programming at FX and deals in acquisitions and stuff. They were trying to make a deal with some Spanish-language network or company, and if I had any ideas for something that could translate…the only thing that came to mind was this Latino club in Sons. That deal never came to fruition and it all went away. In Season 6 or so of Sons, when the IP was doing really well, from merchandise on down, we thought about expanding the IP, delving into different worlds and that’s when the idea of Mayans came back around. John Landgraf and I agreed we didn’t want to just dovetail from Sons into that. It would be unfair to either property. Bastard came along and we didn’t know it would only last a season but we always knew we wanted to wait at least two years before we came back to that world and just by the circumstance that’s basically what happened. I started developing it. I knew I didn’t want to do it by myself; I didn’t think that a white guy from Jersey should be the sole voice of a Latino biker club.
I met with a handful of really talented writers initially, and then when it started moving forward in a more legitimate way, I met Elgin James — super-talented. I don’t say this to be overly self-effacing, but my key to success is, I surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I’d met with three or four different writers that day, who were really talented and had a lot of stuff going on. I sat down with Elgin and it was so clear to me that I was no longer the smartest guy in the room. I didn’t know anything about him, but it’s a fascinating story. Elgin doesn’t speak Spanish, but he is this melting pot of about four or five different cultures, black, Colombian, and he grew up as an outlaw and understands that world. To me, he was the smartest choice, and he’s been instrumental in this.
DEADLINE: What were the parameters of the new series and the EZ character?
SUTTER: I had a loose parameter of what I wanted to the show to be. A prospect, a guy that was not from the world. No legacy like there was with Jax. EZ was supposed to have a completely different life. He was like the golden boy and that gotten taken away from him. It was Elgin who came up with research and this very fascinating and brutal thing that’s going on now, in not just Mexico but in other Central and South American countries. These cartels have been in power for so long that they’ve become the establishment. You have this generation of kids coming up rebelling against the man, but it’s no longer the government or the police; it’s the f*cking cartels. There are vigilante groups, a lot of them are orphans and castaways of parents who were either killed or disappeared. In some cases, these are children of parents cut their kids loose because they knew the cartels would use their kids against them. This hatched a whole idea that I just loved from a storytelling point of view. You can’t go wrong when you have orphans in your corner.
DEADLINE: It takes the series in a way I hadn’t seen coming. I met Elgin at Sundance in 2011 when he was there for Little Birds. He was waiting to find out his sentence after being convicted of extortion, and he served a year.
SUTTER: Yeah, he did.
DEADLINE: He had a violent upbringing, nearly being beaten to death on the streets of Boston and forming FSU, a rainbow coalition of misfits and he said they fought neo-Nazi skinhead gangs and others, stealing from bad guys and giving some of that money back to the community. He said he made the gritty film Little Birds to not glorify violence. No music in a violent scene and the violence was shot from the victims’ point of view. He also said he pulled out of a deal for a movie on his life that Nick Cassavetes wanted to make with Justin Timberlake because he was embarrassed by his past actions and didn’t want them glorified. A series like Mayans involves crime and is inherently violent. How did these sensibilities factor into what we’re going to see this season?
SUTTER: In terms of tone? The big challenge of dovetailing Sons into this is, you can’t ignore what we did for seven seasons, and the fanbase of that show, because we want to bring them along for the ride. Tonally, it’s about finding the balance where it feels familiar enough to be satisfying yet can ultimately find its own voice. The challenge for both of us is, how do we honor what our creative sensibilities are in this world and then ultimately allow it to become its own thing? For him, he’s brought a lot to the table, in terms of story, and all his stuff. He runs the writers room for me, so he and the writers are doing the heavy lifting. His story sensibility has been integral in rooting this into a culture. When we were in Austin he had a really lovely point of view on it, in that we’re honoring the voice of those who are unheard, Los Olividados, the forgotten ones, that to him is really poignant.
He understands that voice of those who aren’t usually given a voice. That is how he has been able to put his own stamp on this. Look, I love this world but I’m very aware that…not that my imagination is drying up, but I’ve been telling stories in this world for so long I worry about how can they not to start to feel derivative? How many more stories do I have? I need those other creative voices now in my ear, showing me where to go and how to tell stories to keep it fresh. My creative team…it’s all people of color, and my writers room is half women and people of color, and I’m the only white guy in the room. And I want to eventually get the white guy out of the room. That becomes its own thing, that we handle that transition and we bring people along, so it’s no longer about oh, I’m watching this because I love Sons. It’s, I’m watching this because I love these characters and I’m into this world. And SOA is a distant memory. I’m not going away, but my role becomes more producorial and then I can point people in the right direction rather than be in there doing all the writing, so it doesn’t become the Latino version of Sons, which is the f*cking last thing I want this to be.
DEADLINE: Sounds like these shows evolve. When you started Sons, you had a bible and an idea of the road ahead. Including the climax, how close was Sons to what you had in your head?
SUTTER: The reason I originally said seven seasons is, I knew from working on The Shield that it monetizes after that time and becomes too expensive to make. I had a sense of how I wanted it to end, that ultimately that Jax will realize that he can’t be a good father/son/brother and still be a good outlaw. He’s tried to marry that sh*t for seven seasons and that at the end of the day…
DEADLINE: Like Michael Corleone trying to go legit and finding out the hard way it can’t happen?
SUTTER: Exactly. I didn’t know what that would look like and whether he just went away, or…I didn’t know what the story outcome of that would be, but theoretically that’s what I wanted. What I learned in Sons is that I would come in with a blueprint of a season, and how it would go, and I realized that the looser my grip was, the better it became because the story found itself. Things happened as I wanted them to, in terms of the bigger mile markers, but the fun part was, I never knew how we would get there. With Mayans I have a sense of where I want it to go and there are parallels to a Godfather-esque journey.
The good son, the golden boy, but more interesting is to watch his rise to power, from the ground up. More in a Scarface way, the scrappy player who is looking for his niche and then rises. Ultimately what I think I want to do with this is watch EZ’s rise to the throne. I love the idea of a guy with his intelligence and IQ, and that photographic memory, what does that look like when you point it at outlaw sh*t? Jax was made complex by his oversensitivity and his thoughtfulness. For EZ, it’s like he has this gift and this talent, and in his mind by this age he would’ve been working in the aerospace industry, living in Marin County with a wife and two kids. But now this is his life. How he rectifies that is a big part of our journey.
DEADLINE: But unlike Tony Montana or Jax’s straight rise, EZ’s got conflicting motivations that we play out in the pilot.
SUTTER: What I wanted to do, in the same we sort of ultimately did with Jax over a couple of seasons where he rectifies that journal of his dad’s and how he decides how to move forward with the club to honor that, we’ll do the same thing with EZ. By the end of this first season we don’t necessarily tie up all the threads but by the time it’s done, we’ll have the sense of him feeling like, OK, I’m in the right time at the right place. So that moving forward we remove some of those obstacles where you go, sh*t, how’s he going to do this? These factors exist like they did in The Shield, where after that first season, the secrets were buried but always there between Shane, Ronnie and Vic, but it wasn’t until the last season that we opened up that closet and it became the sort of Damocles for him. The cool thing is now, we’ll have that secret of EZ that even when it’s buried it’ll always still be out there. So at any point we can have somebody poke it and have that create the conflict that we need.
DEADLINE: You had one vision for this pilot, and you were going to direct it. It changed a lot and you did some recasting, I recall you did the same with Sons and replaced Scott Glenn as the patriarch and cast Ron Perlman. Why? And what were you looking for in Mayans that you didn’t get with that first attempt?
SUTTER: The first pilot a couple of things happened. To be honest, one thing is, because of the way I tell stories and my obsession about details, what I learned is it was really difficult for me to be behind the camera and watch the story, and that when I watched the pilot I directed, and the network and everybody was on board with this point of view, the stuff that was visually compelling lacked a certain tone. And the stuff that had the right tone for me was not visually compelling enough for a pilot. So I just…I copped to it. The visual palate and tone hadn’t been set, and there was a responsibility to get it right. It was a humbling realization. With Sons, we ended up shooting about 90 percent of that pilot over and then the same thing happened on Mayans. It wasn’t so much actor choices; most of it was the problems that happened on a script level. One of the things I realized was that because the women characters were so strong on Sons, and that maternal and paternal triangle was so strong, I was trying to wedge that into this storyline. I had this mother figure, and it had nothing to do with the actress playing the mom, but I was trying so hard to make her not Gemma that I couldn’t serve the character and she came across really two-dimensional. I realized this is a story about two sons and a father, and that [mother] character became history and an emotional catalyst for the men, but it wasn’t what this show is. We replaced John Ortiz with Michael Irby, and that was really in the writing because I had that [club leader] Bishop being a little bit more indecisive. He was under the wing of Alvarez [Sons’ vet Emilio Rivera]. And we realized what it did is undermine the power of that charter, of that MC, so we changed that character. He became a military guy, more aggressive, and John just wasn’t the right choice for that and that’s why we went to Irby. It had nothing to do, honestly, with performance.
This was all sh*t that happened on a script level, so the same way on Sons what I was able to do is do a complete page-one rewrite along with the reshoot, plug in these new actors. I knew that I couldn’t justify me directing it again, and I had already signed on Norberto Barba in the role Paris Barclay played on Sons. He was my directing EP and I thought, I’m not going to bring somebody in from the outside, some feature guy who doesn’t give a f*ck what I think. He was on board the whole time we were creating this and it was an opportunity for him to leave his mark on the show, to plug himself into the world, in the cast, and everything. So I handed it off and Norberto really focused on the visual palate and what this was going to look like. Elgin and I could then focus on the story, and that ended up being what worked.
DEADLINE: Recasting happens, even when they shot well into Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz before they replaced him with Michael J. Fox. Scott Glenn was a great badass in Urban Cowboy. What was it like to have to tell him he is not going to be the star of the series?
SUTTER: It’s brutal man. Scott’s a tremendous actor and he was one of my favorite characters on Leftovers, and the work he did there was so great. But this was about tone. And we really needed that dark humor to resonate, and it was just something that Scott had trouble wrapping his choice of character and who that guy was, around the humor. He really pushed back against it because he didn’t know how it worked, right. I understood that and the truth is, on a script level, I didn’t make the decision, so it was difficult for him to make that choice. But we realized that because our hero wasn’t in a place yet where he could bring it to the table, we really needed Clay to be that source of dark humor. John [Landgraf] and I had a short list. We had 10 actors, and Ron was the first name on both our lists, right. Ron can play that with his eyes closed. That swagger and physically he’s right. But a lot of that was just, again, I hadn’t made the choice, I hadn’t committed to it, and then really watching the first pilot, realizing that it’s such a dark world. How do we bring that flavor to it, which is authentic? Because when I hung out with those guys up in Oakland, it was so f*cking irreverent. That’s how they survive. You have to lead with that or you’ll implode, and then we know we needed an actor who could pull that off. Ron was the right choice. But yes, it was a brutal f*cking phone call.
DEADLINE: A short or long call?
SUTTER: Legally I can’t be the first person to make that call, Fox had to terminate the contract. So he knew about it and he was very kind to me. Basically, he asked what happened, and he was kind enough, before I said anything, to place it on the heads of the executives rather than me, you know what I mean, but the truth was it wasn’t them. And it wasn’t about his performance. It was character and script, and needing a different actor because now the role was different. I’ve seen Scott many times since then, in fact usually it’s in Idaho where he lives and where Katey and I bought a place, and we’re friends. He’s a lovely guy, but yeah, that was a brutal call.
DEADLINE: In one Mayans M.C. promo, bikers are riding across what looked like a border wall. Given Donald Trump’s preoccupation with a border wall, with immigration, and the kids separated from their parents…
SUTTER: F*cking crazy…
DEADLINE: How do you think this will impact public reception to a show about Latino outlaws?
SUTTER: Well, I don’t write political shows. Sons was never a political show, but what I do have to honor is the authenticity of the world, and the idea for a whole arc about white supremacists in Sons was based on the fact that when Obama got elected, there was a 40-something percent uptick in white supremacist groups enrollments.
SUTTER: Yeah, it just blew us away. To me, that was so f*cked up, and authentic, and so without ever mentioning Obama, we honor the authenticity of that, and we do the same here. We’re on the border. We’re dealing with border patrol, we’re dealing with immigration, so it would be inauthentic to not at least acknowledge the tension that’s there. In the pilot, Angel tells EZ the f*cking game is changing and we have to be in front of it. That is real, but in the same way on this side of the fence, since Trump’s been elected and all this stuff with the border is going on, there are these f*cking militias, these vigilante groups on this side that have felt empowered to go hunting immigrants jumping the wall. So we have a whole episode about this group of f*cking yahoos that are going out and picking people off hopping the fence. We deal with that reality, and we reference it. The club references it. But we never comment on the administration. I never use the word, Trump, although the name of the sticker on the heroin means tiny hands.
DEADLINE: Tiny hands?
SUTTER: You know how everyone has street labels for their drugs? Theirs was tiny hands, which I’m sure will come back and bite me in the ass.
DEADLINE: It’s a little shout-out?
SUTTER: It’s a little shout-out. We did the same thing on Sons. The character that Adam Arkin played was all based on those nationalist groups forming under the guise of patriotism, when it was always about the Aryan Brotherhood. The joke is that it was the heroin brotherhood — it was all about money and drugs. There are a lot of circumstantial and political parallels between the Mayans and The Shield. Shawn Ryan wrote that show in the shadow of everything that was going on, not realizing how it was going to blow up, right, so the idea of Vic Mackey in the post 9/11 world. …To a certain degree that has sort of happened here. I started this pilot before [Trump] was even elected right, the first drafts of it. All that happens and then as I’m writing a scene in Episode 6, where my antagonist is in this detainment center and I’m realizing, oh f*ck this is like…you understand. The parallels are right there and it’s not like I’m going out of my way to bend the story to fit it. But when story lands there I have to acknowledge it or it’ll feel like bullsh*t. It’s about finding the balance of all that. How do you acknowledge the authenticity without it being a statement?
DEADLINE: You don’t want to turn it into a polemic?
SUTTER: Even the opening image of the pilot, “Divided We Fall,” I wrote that a long time ago and now it’s going to feel too on the nose now because of everything that’s going on. It was there before, more a comment on the world than the political climate. You have to worry about it, but it would be inauthentic to change it.
DEADLINE: Can I draw symbolism in the very first image, seeing the crow run over by a motorcycle driven by a Mayan?
SUTTER: That was a little playful nod, yeah.
DEADLINE: The series starts three years after the Sons finale, and they remain a hovering presence. How much will we see of the actual club when you don’t want this show to play like Sons Light, or a Latino Sons?
SUTTER: I was always very protective of that Sons mythology, even though I want it to live on in the minds of the fans and not alter that. I feel like I can still tap into the world without commenting on that. We were up in San Bernardino [for a major shoot-out scene] and I remembered we had a San Bernardino [Sons’] chapter. Who was president? We realize it was Robert Patrick, a great guy who I think would have paid us to come do that role in providing back-up. He loved it, we got to bring in a face people will recognize. That was coincidence, but we will do things like that, there will be intersections throughout the series as time goes on. [Mayans] mythology will stand on its own and then it’ll be easier to go back there. For now, I don’t want it to feel like a cheat, but just seeing that reaper in the pilot was really important to me, a cool callback for people and a relationship and the irony that it’s Irby and Robert Patrick, and they were both on Shawn’s show. There will be intersections, we’ll see familiar faces in a way that won’t impact or suggest how life has continued in Samcro in Northern Cali.
DEADLINE: You’ve said that you see the Sons saga in four chapters, this is the second. Sounds like Marvel superheroes on motorcycles. How much is it hovering in your head, the chapter where John Teller gets out of Vietnam and starts Sons with Piney, and Clay and Gemma in the background? Does telling that story still interest you?
SUTTER: Yeah. One of the cool things about [Mayans] is we do something we never did on Sons. We never had a flashback on Sons, because I felt like it pulled you out of the world. But because of who EZ is, and the way his brain works, it’s organic to this show. Callbacks will set up that prequel you mention. I’ve talked to John about it and it’ll be a couple seasons in before we try to do it, but that will be the third chapter, but it will only be like 10 episodes. I don’t see it as a series that goes longer. It’ll start in Vietnam, and it’ll be about the formation of the club and then stop after the last member of the original nine joins. That was Clay. That way we don’t begin to infringe on the story we based that on in Sons.
And if I’m still alive when Mayans is over, I do have a thought and it’ll maybe be one of the things we lay track to. Jax didn’t destroy all those copies of John Teller’s manuscript, and at some point maybe down the line we have Drea’s character still out there with the boys, we have Jimmy Smit’s character still out there. At some point perhaps there’ll be a brother story with Able and Thomas, coming back to Charming. Where it all began. If I’m still alive, that might be the last chapter.
DEADLINE: EZ Reyes is closest to Jax here, since we follow his progression in the Mayans gang. Why did you choose JD Pardo to play him?
SUTTER: We searched. There’s a more limited pool because of the Latino pool of actors is obviously smaller than the white pool of actors. JD came and read for a different role, right, but there was something about him I liked right away. In the club they call EZ Boy Scout. To me, JD has that quality. He read for a different character and didn’t feel like a lot of these guys coming in. A lot of them come from that world and have that hard quality. There was a part of him that was really clean cut and articulate, and felt out of place with the other people auditioning and that’s exactly what I wanted. A guy who felt like an anomaly the same way Emily [EZ’s former girlfriend and the wife of a cartel leader] was an anomaly in that community. Being a white girl, with the backstory she came with her dad who was part of a big agri-firm. She is an anomaly like Jax was, and like EZ is. For him, I needed an actor who had that boy scout, golden boy quality. That’s what I saw in JD’s audition, and when I had him read with Clayton [Cardenas, who plays EZ’s brother], and with Sarah Bolger. And then JD went on and f*cking packed on about 40 pounds of muscle, in between that first scrapped pilot and the one you just watched. JD’s like Charlie Hunnam, he’s really lean, but he went out and put on that prison muscle for us, and the difference in physicality between the first pilot and the second pilot is pretty amazing. It affected him psychologically. Even his walk, his swagger is different, and it just grounded him more in that world.
DEADLINE: A little aside. We mentioned the inevitable collision with border politics. The pilot reminded me of Sicario and the sequel Soldado, which deals with the drug cartels. Both were written by Taylor Sheridan, who was the sheriff in Charming for a couple seasons of Sons. How much of that potential to write with such a strong voice, did you see while he was on your show?
SUTTER: I didn’t see any of that. I haven’t kept in touch with Taylor at all, but I’ve seen his success. I knew at the time that Taylor was a frustrated actor. I didn’t know at that point that he wanted to write and direct, I didn’t know any of those ambitions I just knew that he was pushing back against that world so strongly that it ultimately forced my hand, in terms of making a deal to continue. We couldn’t make a deal with him and I’d never seen an actor do before where he forced our hand and we had to come up with a whole different storyline that involved Unser, and again it goes back to that big-picture stuff. It’s exactly what was supposed to happen, not only for his career but for the story that really rooted Unser into the Sons’ mythology. He became the linchpin of a lot of those mythological beats. And clearly, being a guest star on this show was not what Taylor was supposed to be doing, you know what I mean? We parted ways and I don’t know what he did when Sons ended, but my guess is that he threw himself into his writing and clearly that’s what he was supposed to be doing.
DEADLINE: He told Deadline he was on the DVD box with Jax and felt slighted he wasn’t paid as much as some of the supporting cast. It led to his realization that he needed more than the goal of being sixth on the call sheet, and he just went and threw himself into writing Sicario and Hell or High Water, and then he wrote and directed Wind River. His movies feel like you’re watching a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s uncanny to see a voice like that unlocked by you saying, I can’t pay you what you want to make.
SUTTER: The voices I unlock by screwing people over. I say it that way because in no way am I responsible for what he’s done. But it does show that if you’re driven, if you have that passion and desire…whether he knew he could write or not when he left, the ability to realize, this isn’t enough for me, when for so many people it would be enough. You have to be driven by something greater than you, where you don’t surrender and you commit to something like that. Whether it’s being a writer, or f*cking selling chemicals. I believe in that and the fact that that wasn’t enough for him really suggested that he had something else he was supposed to be doing.
DEADLINE: Was there a moment like that in your own career?
SUTTER: For me, it was this long circuitous journey. I started out as an actor and not unlike Taylor, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. I had to find something else and then had the opportunity to go back with a mentor of mine and go back to grad school. There, I plugged into dramatic literature on a level I never could as an actor because I was working three jobs and doing bad f*cking off-off-Broadway and sh*t like that. To suddenly be immersed for two years in a program where all I did was read the masters, influenced by the poetic realists, the absurdists…like Chekov and all those crazy motherf*ckers. It lit a fire in me and that’s when I started writing. I came out of grad school and thought I would be a teacher. I thought I would plug into academia. I could have stayed in DeKalb, Illinois at Northern Illinois, which was a great program, but I didn’t know if I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the cornfields. That was really my only option if I wanted to stay in academia, and made the decision not to and move Los Angeles and started writing. I wrote the script Delivering Jen and gave it to my best friend at the time, Nicole Clemens, who then became my agent. I realized, I can do this. I have a voice, and after that, I wrote so many bad screenplays but it didn’t matter because I knew I could do it, and that’s all I did, man. For two straight years all I did was write 12 hours a day. I loved TV, wrote spec scripts and then the opportunity on The Shield happened and on that show I was blessed to have a showrunner like Shawn who saw my potential even when I didn’t and pointed me in the right direction, and from that show really figured out what my voice was and was able to channel it moving forward.
DEADLINE: You have been known to use salty language on social media. I specifically recall you using the “C” word in describing a female trade reporter. We’re in a moment where careers are ending over word choices like this. As you reemerge in the public eye, what kind of moderation can we expect in Kurt Sutter, in the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, when it seems like one person a week at least is being taken down because of things they’ve said?
SUTTER: Here’s what I would say. First, I’d like to think that I’ve grown to a certain extent. A lot of those responses that I had were all fear-based. I’ve been doing this long enough to know now that it’s not all going to go away tomorrow, but that fear isn’t quite as loud in my ear. It’s there but it’s not as loud, so it just gives me a little bit of breathing room. But you’re right. It’s a different climate. When I re-upped my deal at Twentieth, knowing that it would most likely dovetail into a Disney deal, there was a whole different conversation I had with the powers that be.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
SUTTER: I mean, it was a sit-down. With people who respect me and whom I love and respect, so it wasn’t like an HR kind of interrogation. It was more like, we love you, we know who you are, here’s what you need to do. It was just, basically, don’t sabotage yourself. And the truth is that by that time, which was months ago, I had enough time under my belt where they saw that I had changed. I had earned enough trust where I had some…the window opened up long enough for me to make better decisions. It wasn’t coming off heels of a lot of radical behavior, but they know the potential is there. That was the conversation. So I have people that handle most of my social media now, and I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, unless it’s show-related. That’s really what I’ve learned the power of social media is for.
SUTTER: That is primarily what I use it for. The #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful. I think it’ll land in the right place and has done and will continue to do the right thing. But like anything else, when it hits, it gets exploited by so many elements, in terms of media, and individuals, and so it becomes this other thing than what it was intended to be. But ultimately that sh*t falls away and you are left with what the original intention of it was, and hopefully that awareness and the constructive shifts are the things that remain. For me, it’s just being aware of those other elements that are out there, the things that don’t have anything to do with what this movement is about, but rather the people who are exploiting it, writing books about it, trying to manifest it for their own benefit. Parts of that movement are potent and very important, and clearly there needed to be a shift in perception and understanding. But you’re always going to have entities that exploit that, and I think it’s about staying clear of those entities, and focus on what the point is. For me, it’s understanding my own behavior, right, and I respond and the language that I use, and just acknowledging it on some level. The danger of those other entities is that it can become easy to dismiss the whole thing, and go f*ck that, and that’s not the truth. The truth of it is still there. The reason why it happened and the core of it is still there, and that’s important, but that’s the danger of these other entities. I think what’ll happen is that that noise tends to go away because it’s bullshit, and hopefully what’ll be left is a shift in perception, a shift in behavior, and understanding, and awareness. That’s my hope.
DEADLINE: You mentioned your writers room is filled with women, with people of color, and you being the only white guy in the room. Did you need the #MeToo movement to become that inclusive?
SUTTER: It’s a really good question, and I want to answer honestly so I’m just going to take a step back and then I’ll answer because it’ll help me find my truth. When we were doing Bastard, Paris [Barclay] was president of the Directors Guild and was very aware of the need to increase or to bring to the table women, in terms of being television directors. So for Bastard, we really made this effort to go out to women. I myself met with a couple of women in New York and Paris who had relationships with directors. We were obligated to use a certain amount of Brits and people based outside of the U.S. in Bastard, but we had gone out and I’m not going to mention names, but it was wild. We approached and tried to hire six different directors and got turned down by all of these people who didn’t like the material, or didn’t understand it, or thought it was too violent. We ended up only using, I think, one female director in the eight that we had left. And Paris got so much blowback about it, and I was like, what do you do, show people your emails? But I was cognizant of all that. This show, because of the cultural component, I was looking at a lot of writers, not because they were women, but because they were of color. So it wasn’t as much, hey, I want to hire X amount of women. It was that I wanted to fill the room with people that understood the culture, and so subsequently I was putting together the writing team. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this out loud, but I didn’t have a design that I wanted the writing staff to have half women. It just worked out that way. Culturally, it made sense. The energy in the room is great. One writer didn’t work out — she did her 16 weeks and went on to a different show — but right now it’s Elgin, myself, two men, two women. Being politically correct is not one of my priorities.
As a human being and as a man I’m so focused on trying to stay aware of my own truth in any given circumstance. Not that I can’t be full of sh*t, but it’s difficult for me to be inauthentic because it just feels so sh*tty. As a result I lead with what I really think. Not that I can’t have any filters, which in the past was probably the case, but ticking off those politically correct boxes is not a priority of mine. So I didn’t hire women and Latino writers just to do it or because it was expected to me. The only consideration was, it made sense, creatively. But I’m glad it happened. I enjoy giving opportunities to people who may not have necessarily have gotten them otherwise. That feels important and the right thing to do, but the truth is if [you do it to fill a quota] then everybody suffers. So, it’s the balance of all that.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the HR sit-down. Was there a price to pay when you spoke up alongside show creators like Seth MacFarlane about your disdain for Fox News, a sister company?
SUTTER: No. I thought Seth put his money where his mouth was. I was so buried in the show at that point, but I poked my head out of the sand and saw all that was going on, and when they came to me for a response because of the show I was doing and my deal at Fox…I felt that to say nothing would be interpreted that I…
DEADLINE: Was a wimp?
SUTTER: Not saying anything would send the wrong message. So what I said was…basically I tried to protect the other creative entities that have helped me, Fox, 21, and FX. I’ve never been subject to those things, because they protected me from that. My statement was just the condemnation of the buffoonery that happens on the…I don’t want to call it news, so on the propaganda channel. It was, yes, that is buffoonery and clearly anybody with any awareness or self-respect is aware of that. But it was also about protecting the people who allow me to do this, which was Landgraf, and Dana [Walden], and all those people who’ve kept me from being subjected to that world, and kept a clear separation of church and state.
DEADLINE: Way above those guys you just mentioned is Rupert Murdoch. Wouldn’t he be in that category of underwriting your success?
SUTTER: Yeah. Look, obviously, we all live under that crown, right.
DEADLINE: Not for much longer.
SUTTER: For now, anyway. But what was done and what was said [on Fox News] was so egregious and the response by the whole community was such that to condemn me, or for there to be any blowback on me specifically, would just set another f*cking fire that they didn’t want. So, I just became one of the f*cking loudmouth artists who were bellyaching. I didn’t get any flak from anybody. If anything, I felt like I protected the people who protect me, and if they got any blowback, I don’t know about it but it didn’t trickle down to me.
DEADLINE: Promoting shows and movies has become an interesting exercise. We’ve seen liberal, thoughtful stars who seem to spend their promotional tour bashing Donald Trump. You admire their honesty, but can also imagine that the part of the country that loves Fox News and the president become polarized. To the point where marketing departments have to wonder why the send stars out to limit the audience of the movie or TV show they’re promoting.
SUTTER: This is my personal opinion, but when stars and other people use their platform like that, even on important, big issues, it just feels like bullsh*t to me. Not that these issues aren’t important to me, but it’s not why you’re there. There are other things one can do to express that opinion where it’s going to have real weight, but this feels like a cheat, a bait and switch to use your launching pad for a point of view that’s just yours. It’s not why you’re there and not why the audience is watching you. I go back to the famous Dixie Chicks example, right, when she was lambasting Bush. I know some of those ladies, and they’re amazing women. But to go to a country music event, where you know who your base is, you’re not naïve. What happened was awful and the backlash was insane, but still one has to be aware of what your role is as an artist at any particular time. Not that you can’t use your status, your money, your access to an audience to help people, but you have to pick and choose the medium, the time and place to what is effective. Because to put it out into a situation where it’s just going to, as you say, polarize people, you undermine both things. You undermine the cause you’re standing on and you undermine the real reason why you’re supposed to be there and everybody, in my opinion, comes up short.
DEADLINE: How does this factor in your own celebrity, and when there is an Emmy slight or somewhere else. Are we looking at a kinder and gentler Kurt Sutter?
SUTTER: Well, here’s the deal. My job is not to channel my liberal or my centrist view of politics and the world into my work. I can imbue a character with a point of view, but the point of view isn’t my liberal point of view. The point of view is about a circumstance. So I wouldn’t create a show that leans into anything I believe politically. What’s happening in the world is real, and yes, Latino characters are going to have a really specific point of view about the sh*t that’s going down and anything less than that point of view would be inauthentic. But that has nothing to do with what I believe. That’s the circumstances and the reality of those characters. But when somebody comes to me separately and asks me about Fox News and wants an opinion, that’s a different story, and to put forth that kind of stuff on Twitter is my prerogative. I’m not bringing people to a show for one thing and then baiting and switching and trying to f*cking jam an agenda down their throat. They can then choose to follow me or unfollow me or tell me I’m full of sh*t as much as they want. But I think one has to be aware of what your role is as an artist and be responsible to that. And then, find the right mediums, and the right time, and the right vehicles to move along what you believe is the right agenda.
DEADLINE: What gives you the most pleasure here?
SUTTER: I love f*cking with a genre. On Sons, whether people got it or not I don’t know, but creating that action testosterone show where the expectation is one thing and then within that, you deliver three-dimensional characters, and complex stories. I was able to pull in an audience that, if it was just about family issues and emotional journeys they wouldn’t be there, but you pull them in with the lure of the genre, and then you’re able to give them a little something more. I always say that people showed up for Sons because of the bikes, and Charlie, and the action, but they didn’t stay because of that. That sh*t gets old. They stay because you push a button in them, whether it’s a mother button, or a father button, or something they plug into where they understand these characters. That’s the only reason why they keep showing up, because the rest of that stuff gets old, right. Tonally, we’re trying to do the same thing here. It’s the action genre but hopefully we layer in things that have more weight, whether it’s emotionally, or world climate, drop some sh*t in where people go, “Oh that’s cool. I wonder where that’s going?”