‘Tulsa King’ Showrunner Terence Winter Talks Mobsters, Tulsa And Sly Stallone: “He Doesn’t Even Remotely Present As A 75-Year-Old Man”

Terence Winter knows a thing or two about depicting the underworld. He served as an executive producer on both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire before Taylor Sheridan called upon him to tell a fish-out-of-water tale about New York mafia capo Dwight “The General” Manfredi in Tulsa King, which is dropping Sunday on Paramount+. Here, the veteran writer-producer talks about the drama’s beginnings, avoiding mob stereotypes, and working with Sylvester Stallone.

DEADLINE: Tulsa King was an idea from Taylor Sheridan, correct?

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TERENCE WINTER: It was essentially the same idea. In his version our character Dwight was a 75-year-old kind of low-level bag man in the mob. He had never been to prison, he didn’t have a family and he got sent out to Kansas City as a reward for a lifetime of service. When I took it over, I really felt like I wanted to explore the idea of a 75-year-old man in the twilight of his years who’s only got a limited amount of time left, who wants to make something of his life. And I felt it would be more powerful if he had spent the last 25 years in jail and he’s fully expecting to be rewarded. Instead he gets sent by the boss’ son to Tulsa. Of course this is a huge conflict, because he obviously gave up everything for this life, including becoming estranged from his daughter. So I just layered it with things that I felt were gonna lend itself to telling a story over many, many hours. We also changed the venue from Kansas City to Tulsa, which I felt was much more the middle of nowhere for a guy like this. Kansas City actually has a pretty big mob presence to this day, but Oklahoma is just nothing. There’s crime obviously, but not organized crime. And dropping a guy like Dwight into the middle of cowboy country felt more ripe with possibilities.

DEADLINE: Your past credits include The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. What is it about the genre that keeps you coming back? 

WINTER: I love people who live outside of the lines. They’re just endlessly fascinating. I grew up in Brooklyn and around an area that had a lot of these guys, and by osmosis I just learned how they talked and how they thought and how it all works. I always understood the world well, and I also understand that these guys are more than just one color. They’re like anybody else. They have opinions, they have the families, some of them are really funny, though not so funny when you owe them money. But aside from that, they’re good storytellers. It’s always interesting to live vicariously through people like that. The challenge with it is to find a fresh way in. And that was the genius of Taylor’s original pilot, to take a guy like Dwight from New York and drop him in the middle of cowboy country. You take these two genres and mix ’em together. And that for me was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s brilliant. What a great playground.’

DEADLINE: Is that what makes him a different kind of gangster, that he’s in Tulsa? 

WINTER: Well, partly that. I think it’s also partly because of the last 25 years in prison. I think he’s a very different person now than he when he went in. Here’s a guy who spent the last 25 years reading and working out every day. So he’s really smart. He’s extremely well read. He’s more thoughtful. He’s not a knee-jerk gangster who just hits you on the head. I think that’s also a function of being older and estranged from his actual family. And also, the idea of questioning all the things he believed in as a young man and now sort of realizing that maybe these people in this life and this code I gave my life to doesn’t have my best interests in mind.

DEADLINE: But … he still hits people.

WINTER: Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect.

DEADLINE: In the opening scene the mobsters say to Dwight, “There’s nothing left for you here.” Is that ageism? 

WINTER: Well, it’s partly that. I think it’s also partly an excuse. He hears that from the boss’s son who views Dwight as a threat. This kid is the heir to the throne, but he is not remotely qualified to take over that family. And when a guy like Dwight, who’s a very formidable capo who’s much older than him is now in the mix, this young man wants nothing more than to get rid of this guy. Whether or not there really is anything left isn’t necessarily true. They just wanna get him out of the way.

DEADLINE: What’s going on with the marijuana business in Tulsa?

WINTER: It’s a huge business. And for the most part, a cash business. The growers and the people who own weed shops can’t put their money in the bank. It’s subject to seizure from the federal government. So it’s a lot of cash. Even though it’s legal by the state, they still gotta take that money and hide it or launder it or open other businesses and pay taxes that way. Even though it’s legal, the feds will come in and say, ‘well, it’s not legal as far as we’re concerned.’ And they will literally take your entire inventory.

DEADLINE: Diversity and inclusivity are very important now in Hollywood. There’s always a danger of reverting to stereotypes when depicting mobsters. Why is it okay to still dramatize them? Why is it still a relevant topic? 

WINTER: Well, I mean, real stereotypes generally are criticized because they’re a broad generalization. If you depicted every single Italian American as a mobster, that would be stereotyping. This is a guy who happens to legitimately be a mobster. The Italian American mob has been around since the turn of the last century, even before that, since the 1890s in America. And it’s still a thing. So I mean, that just happens to be what the show is about. And this is a good story about one of those people. It’s really just a function of the character. He’s a very different person. He’s a very different man than Tony Soprano, for example, but in some ways similar. He’s got a family and he’s got opinions about things and he is smart and he’s funny but again, he’s a more thinking man’s gangster and he’s older and he knows he’s not home. He knows he is in a foreign place, which might as well be another planet. He’s behaves differently than he would in New York, for example.

DEADLINE: My guess is he is going to be very successful in Tulsa. Is that gonna prove to be a problem for the family back home? 

WINTER: You would have to stay tuned and find out. He didn’t leave New York on good terms, I’ll say that much. And that’s pretty evident by one of the first scenes in the pilot. So that conflict continues through the series. I just, I’ll put it that way.

DEADLINE: One of the best moments from the first episode is when he’s in a hotel room with a woman who discovers how much older he is.

WINTER: Yeah, that’s something he’s conscious of. I think the character feels a ticking clock and feels like he’s wasted so many years. He doesn’t even remotely present as a 75-year-old man, not even close, but he’s aware of it when his back starts to hurt. It’s the function of knowing there’s a limited amount of time left to repair the sins of the past and trying to move forward and maybe not being as young as you once were.

DEADLINE: When you were shooting in Tulsa, did you have regular folks on the street say, “Hey, we don’t have the mob here!

WINTER: Not once. They were just thrilled to see Sly. I mean, that’s exactly the premise of the show. He is such a fish outta water. You do not see anybody that looks like him. When a guy like Sly walks into a cowboy bar in a silk suit, every head in the place turns. What the hell is this?

DEADLINE: So how much did you geek out over working with Stallone?

WINTER: I tried to parse it out over the course of the six months we were together. I first met him in 2015, when he was nominated for Creed as best actor. I was invited to a dinner in New York City where he was gonna be honored at Patsy’s Restaurant on the Upper West Side. I was living in New York at the time, and I said to my wife, “Is it goofy that I wanna meet Sylvester Stallone?” She said, “No, I wanna meet him too.” I said, “Great, I’m going to this dinner.’ I met him there and I talked to him for 30 seconds and he could not have been nicer. So I already at least met him by the time I started working with him. And then slowly, I’d get him on set or whatever and say, “Okay, I’m gonna ask you one Rocky question and then that’s it today.” Then I’d ask him another a couple of days later. He’s very happy to talk about his career and his legacy and he’s got some amazing stories, as you can imagine. And not just from the perspective of an actor, but as a writer, producer, director and editor. He’s seen it all. He’s done it all. It’s pretty amazing. There’s a reason this guy’s an international superstar. When you meet him, you get it. You totally get it.

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