'Mob City': 'The Walking Dead's' Jon Bernthal goes gangster in gritty Los Angeles

jon-bernthal-mob-city-tnt-325.jpgOn Wednesday, Dec. 4, with the premiere of acclaimed filmmaker Frank Darabont's "Mob City," TNT brings the classic gangster drama to Tinseltown, which does have the gritty urban landscapes of New York and Chicago, the sandy beaches and palm trees of Miami and Havana, the tall buildings and neon signs of Las Vegas, and even snow (miles away on mountaintops, that is).

When it's pointed out Los Angeles isn't associated with the mob as much as other cities, Darabont tells Zap2it, "Well, all the more reason to tell the story of the mob that was, because it's a largely unexplored area. You've seen lots of stories about the mob in Chicago and New York back East.

"It's a lesser-known bit of history now, but it was very prevalent, it was fascinating, what was going on. I didn't even know the extent of it, until I read John Buntin's book, 'L.A. Noir.'

"We're definitely getting into Mickey Cohen's world, because that, to my knowledge, has never been done. He's such a fascinating character, he and Bugsy Siegel. Then certainly there's everything that was going on in the LAPD at the time, the struggle for the soul of the Los Angeles Police Department, trying to clean out the corruption, William Parker.

"But this is really rich material."

Subtitled "The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," the nonfiction book by crime writer Buntin traces organized crime in L.A. from the 1930s to the '60s, with such characters as crooks Cohen and Siegel and their nemesis, LAPD Chief Parker (after whom the LAPD headquarters, Parker Center, is named).

"Mob City" -- which lost the title "L.A. Noir" because a video game already had "L.A. Noire" -- blends the stories of these real-life people with fictional characters.

Airing in two-hour blocks on three consecutive Wednesdays, "Mob City" stars Jon Bernthal, who previously worked with Darabont on AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead," as LAPD Detective Joe Teague, a former Marine and Guadalcanal veteran who has just been assigned to a new organized-crime task force headed by Detective Hal Morrison ( Jeffrey DeMunn).

Parker ( Neal McDonough) is the man behind the task force, part of his campaign to rid L.A. of Siegel ( Ed Burns) and Cohen ( Jeremy Luke). And while he's at it, Parker has no problem going after his own if he finds corruption.

Also starring are Milo Ventimiglia, Alexa Davalos, Gregory Itzin and Robert Knepper.

On this day on the show's sets in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, Bernthal is shooting a scene in Teague's sparse apartment, in which he is thrown back against an open refrigerator. One take collapses every shelf in the fridge, and another shreds Bernthal's white shirt, stretched over protective padding on his back.

"You never have to worry about me," he says after the scene is done, "as far as getting beat up and all that stuff. I can handle it. The acting -- I don't know."

A longtime boxing enthusiast - which shows in both his strong physicality and less-than-pristine profile -- Bernthal hasn't yet shot a boxing scene for "Mob City," but it may happen before production ends.

For right now, Bernthal says, "As you can see in this episode, in my apartment, you're going to see boxing gloves on the wall. They're definitely alluding to the fact that I box."

Bernthal also found inspiration in "L.A. Noir."

"It's a great book," he says. "There's such this pioneer Wild West spirit to this city, and there are so many things that are in flux. One of the things I love about this show is it takes these fictional character that I play, and it puts him at the center of all these historical stories."

On another day, McDonough sits at the table in the picture-perfect set of a 1940s kitchen, wearing Parker's severe, dark-blue uniform like a suit of armor.

"There's a lot of me in Parker," he says. "That's why it's fun to explore him, again, because there are no biographies about him. He was such a polarizing figure. People say he was such a racist, yet he was the guy who had the first African-American woman on the force.

"He was the one who invented Internal Affairs. He started wiretapping before anybody was doing it. He said, 'If we're going to win this thing, we're going to go deep. If you're prepared to go deep, come join my team.' "

As for the change in title, Darabont says, "I love the directness of the title. I love that it promises the kind of pulpy entertainment that we're hoping to deliver.

"What we wanted to do was do what the best noir movies always do, which is tell you a good, heated pulp kind of story, a tale. That's certainly the direction of the show."
Photo/Video credit: Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc.
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