Ed Burns: 'Mob City' Made Me Fall in Love With Acting Again and Led to My Dream Project

Yahoo TV
Ed Burns in "Mob City"
Ed Burns in "Mob City"

You've seen him play himself on "Entourage" and Grace's boyfriend on "Will & Grace," but director/actor/writer Ed Burns tells Yahoo TV that his role as real-life mobster Bugsy Siegel in Frank Darabont's new TNT crime noir drama "Mob City" is one of the most fun acting jobs he's ever had.

"You have a filmmaker who knows what he's doing, who is also very collaborative," Burns says of Darabont, creator of "The Walking Dead." "I get to play a guy who, as Frank said on day one, 'Look, this guy's larger than life. Go have fun with him.' 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."

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Burns, who began his Hollywood career 18 years ago with the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "The Brothers McMullen" and has starred in big-screen movies such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Friends With Kids," and "Alex Cross" along the way, loved his experience on "Mob City" so much, in fact, that it drew him back to TV, and with the same network, for an upcoming series that the New York native calls his dream project.

What drew you to the project, and to the acting side of the camera?

Quite honestly, Frank Darabont. My agents called and said, "We've got this project, they're interested in you for the part of Bugsy. Take a look at the script." I get the script, and because it's Frank, I'm inclined to just say yes no matter what it is.

Then I start reading the script, and the dialogue is so much fun. The scripts are so well told that after I read that first one where my character is introduced, then you're just hoping that the rest of the scripts are as strong. This is one of those cases where I feel like with each episode, the show gets better and better and better. After reading through the five episodes they gave me, it was a no brainer. That's why I did it.

The nice thing that happens here is, [I showed] up on set, and it's even better than you would hope.

The setting, the clothes, the dialogue ... it really does look like it was so immersive, and fun ... kind of like the kind of playing you do when you're a kid, and you just let go and play these big characters.

Funny you say that. 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. As an actor, there were certain kinds of movies you always wanted to be in. You want to be in a western, you want to be in a war film, you want to be a gangster in a film noir. I was a big fan of those films when I was in film school. Bogey, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson. Love that stuff. 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.

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And you don't get dialogue like that every day. You don't get to work with a world class filmmaker every day. Maybe even most importantly, the cast that Frank put together, top to bottom, all great, great actors. It's like being an athlete. All of a sudden, you're on an all star team. Everybody can play, and play really well. You're always better when you're working with those kinds of actors.

What kind of prep did you do for the role?

I did some reading on Bugsy's history. I discovered that he was from Brooklyn, which was great, because that meant I didn't have to do any accent work. I could just embrace my New York accent, which isn't always the case. I did some research on the time, and who he was. As far as wanting to bring anything to the performance, whether it was tics, mannerisms, or how he might gesticulate, I didn't look into any of that. Frank's big note was, "Bugsy is larger than life. You've got to come into every room and own it immediately, whether you're trying to charm the girls or scare the s--- out of the bad guys." Hopefully, I did it.

Meet Bugsy:

You are very often on the other side of the camera, and though you had a great time as an actor in "Mob City," did you also kind of want to be behind the camera?

Yes, absolutely. I'm watching Frank and looking at the budgets that he had 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. More important than that, I'm watching him have full creative control. The executives at TNT are supersupportive 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.

Fortunately for me, I hit it off with the folks at TNT. After we wrapped, about a month later, I came back to them and said, "Hey, I have an idea for a show." They said, "We loved working with you. We'd love to hear it." Now, I'm going to shoot my own pilot for TNT set in New York against the world of cops, and this big Irish American family, set in 1967.

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We were just going to ask you if the experience of "Mob City" made you think about creating your own series...

It actually did. [My show] is called "Public Morals," and it looks at a division of the NYPD that basically handled vice crimes, prostitution, gambling, primarily. Set in 1967. I play a cop within that division, but also the patriarch of an Irish clan that's living in Hell's Kitchen. It is a dream project for me in that I get to do the kind of character work that I've been doing in my indie films and explore the Irish American experience. But on the other side, my dad was a New York City cop. For years, I've been trying to get a couple of different NYPD movies made, and for different reasons, we couldn't get them either cast or financed. Now, I have an opportunity to do that, so it's sort of those two things.

The third thing is, I'm a little bit of a New York City history buff. I always walk around the city lamenting the fact that it's a shame that this isn't here anymore, and that isn't there anymore, and this has changed so dramatically. Now I get to go and re-create all those things. Personally, that's going to be a lot of fun for me to do.

Have you filmed the pilot yet?

No, we literally just started casting this week. We haven't actually cast anybody yet, but we've started the process.

Will you film in New York City?

We will, and I'm really looking forward to it. We'll film in New York in March.

Get a sneak of "Mob City":

"Mob City" premieres Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m. on TNT.