With his good looks and native New Yorker street smarts, actor and director Irish American Ed Burns was a natural to play Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, the dapper psychopath who can kill a man without a hint of remorse in "Mob City," the new TNT gangster drama that begins Wednesday, Dec. 3.
In recent years it’s become increasingly clear that television shows are becoming the new movies, with genuinely first rate scripts, actors and directors giving Hollywood a pass for smaller, but smarter enterprises that pick up more acclaim and awards.
Burns, who has always had dual careers inside and outside the studio system, values his independence more than many other actors, writers and directors, and so his decision to sign on for this hard-hitting 1940s mob caper signals a change of approach to the medium and its message.
A lot of it has to do with the fun of unfiltered creativity that TV permits.
“I get to play a guy who is larger than life. I get to have fun with him,” he told the press.
“When you get to play a bad guy who has a commanding presence – the guys all like him, they’re willing to kill for him, the girls all love him, you get to beat the s*** out of people and whack people in every episode… I don’t know if I can speak for all actors, but for me, it’s the kind of job that I love.”
Burns made his debut 18 years ago with his insider portrait of an Irish American family in "The Brothers McMullen." Since then he’s been featured in everything from multimillion-dollar epics like "Saving Private Ryan" to groundbreaking comedies like "Will and Grace."
But the ballooning budgets of the studio system delayed or put the kibosh on interesting film projects. TV offers an escape from that.
“I’m watching the budgets that director Frank Darabont’s been given, the amount of time, all of the toys, the production value, the type of actors, and the wardrobe... he’s getting to re-create 1947 Los Angeles and not really having to skimp,” Burns told the press.
“More important than that, I’m watching him have full creative control. The executives at TNT are super supportive of his vision. You could tell it was an atmosphere where they wanted Frank’s show. They were only there to support his vision. As a filmmaker, that’s a rare thing to find.”
The full, creative control on offer is biggest attraction for this fiercely independent actor, writer, producer and director, so it’s no surprise he’s looking at the TV medium in a new light.
“There was a night on set, we were shooting in downtown L.A. We show up. We’ve got our period clothes on. We’ve got the fedoras on. The street is lined with cars from the ‘40s. They’ve got the period street lamps. It looks like a scene from one of those classic film noirs that, as you were just saying, you grew up with,” he recalled.
“Me and the other actors were sitting there on the set that day. We’re looking at one another, and we’re like, ‘Can you believe this s***? We’re actually getting paid to do this!’ It was a blast. This is the most fun I’ve had acting since 'Saving Private Ryan.' Easily. It got me to fall back in love with acting.”
Since the character he’s playing hails from Brooklyn, there was no need for Burns to research the accent. In fact his experience on set was so enjoyable, both for himself and the production crew, that when he came back to them after it wrapped with an idea for his own show they were immediately interested.
Burns pitched them the idea of his new show "Public Morals," which they immediately green-lighted, and which he is soon to write, produce, direct and star in.
Set in New York City in 1967, police officer Terry Muldoon daily walks the line between morality and criminality trying to resist the temptations that come from dealing with all kinds of vice, which it must be said can sometimes get the better of him and other officers.
Muldoon knows this line is thin, and he’s determined to raise his sons to be honest and hardworking as he deals with the dark underbelly of the vice world.
Other executive producers on Burns’ latest project include Steven Spielberg. But there’s no need to wait to see him in a hard-hitting crime drama. "Mob City" starts this Wednesday on TNT.