Long before Walter White started to break bad, Bryan Cranston was the one on a collision course with a life of crime.
"I was a sneaky kid," admits the actor who played White for five seasons on AMC's Breaking Bad. "I had your basic troubled childhood. My parents split. My father was out of the picture. My mom was an alcoholic. I was growing up too fast. And my family started calling me Sneaky Pete because of my behavior."
Now, five decades and four Emmy acting wins later, he has returned to his inner outlaw by co-creating and producing the new Amazon series Sneaky Pete. The show, set to debut Jan. 13, was dreamed up by Cranston and writer-producer David Shore (House). It stars Giovanni Ribisi as an ex-con man who assumes his cell mate's identity when he gets out of prison so he can literally start a new life. That life begins when he starts working as a skip tracer for his newfound family's bail bonds service.
The idea stems from Cranston's reflection on his early nefarious ways, exploring a character that "was asked to make grown-up decisions even as a child. Our main character, Marius (Ribisi), probably stole food first and then got more sophisticated as he got older. I think it's so interesting to pose the question, 'If you're sneaky at age 13 and you don't outgrow it by the time you're in your 30s, what kind of life will you have?'"
Read more: 'Sneaky Pete': TV Review
The series has a history almost as complicated as Marius'. It began as a CBS pilot in 2014 with Cranston and Shore at the helm. When CBS rejected the pilot, they began to shop it around and Amazon liked it enough to test the pilot with its subscribers. The response was enthusiastic, so it ordered Pete to series but with some slight but significant changes.
Those started with Shore leaving the production and being replaced by veteran showrunner Graham Yost (Justified). The new version was also able to become something more than the CBS pilot, which focused primarily on Marius' detective work with his cousin Julia (Marin Ireland). Courtesy of the freedom that comes with airing on a streaming service, the story arcs suddenly became more personal and less procedural.
"That procedural element was part of the game plan with CBS," explains Ireland. "Which I understand. When you're doing 22 episodes, you have to make a show where people can jump in whenever they want. So moving to Amazon was exciting because we could pace things very differently. One case or con could stretch over many episodes."
Or one relationship, like the teased romance between "cousins" Marius and Julia. While shooting the pilot for CBS, Ireland says she and Ribisi would talk about "our dream version of the characters, that it would be kind of like Dave and Maddie in Moonlighting. It felt so fun to be playing to play that." Yost adds that he and the writers "called it cousin-cest. We wanted to see how far we could go with it. That relationship gets established in the pilot but we have to be careful it doesn't become our show's Sam and Diane. If you go too far too fast, you've blown it. If we're lucky enough to get a second season, though, that'll be a big part of what we do."
The other major difference between the Amazon series and the CBS pilot - Cranston himself. In the first version, the final moments show Ribisi talking to a bad guy known only as Vince. Given the chance to redo elements of the show once it got picked up, there was just one addition to the cast that the producers wanted. They were eager to find someone to turn Vince into a living, breathing threat to Ribisi. And they didn't have to look very far.
"There was a produce-orial decision for me to play Vince," Cranston jokes. "When Amazon gave us free reign to create a show without governors, like a network should have, we knew the character should be in it. We had to see the guy who threatened Marius, so who could we get? I told everyone that if I'm the best actor for that role, I'll do it. But I'm not the star, which was important to me. I want to be a supporting character and that's it."
Yost admits that Cranston's role "became bigger than we planned. But Vince is so much fun in this story. It's a little like President Bartlett on The West Wing. He wasn't the main character at first but ultimately, the show became about President Bartlett." Vince won't be quite that prominent in Sneaky Pete but Cranston says he's willing to take the character wherever Yost suggests.
"When I was seducing Graham to join us, I told him what he could expect from me," Cranston explains. "I said, 'If you say yes to this, you are the boss and have the last word. I'll punch and kick and scream but then…it's all up to you. You'll just have to put up with my shenanigans and then decide everything."
With all the changes Sneaky Pete went through on its way to Amazon, there were a few things that stuck around. Particularly the cast, which also included Margo Martindale. Cranston and Shore had sought her out to play Audrey, Marius' new grandmother and after reading the script, she figured it'd be a perfect fit.
"It had great potential and those weren't bad people to work with either," she explains. "I love the fact that Audrey is a very secretive character. Even though I was playing her, I didn't know what to think about her. I'm a huge fan of mysteries and Audrey is one big mystery. On the surface, she appears to be completely cool waters and calm. But there's a past with complications and I always want to play complicated people."
She considers Sneaky Pete "a carryover" from her days as backwoods drug kingpin Mags Bennett on Justified, in large part because Yost has been at the helm of both shows. However, "the flight pattern for Mags was soaring and she was a character that suited my imagination more than any part I've ever played. Audrey has the potential to be that for me now."
Beside Martindale and the rest of the cast, the other critical thing that made the transition from CBS to Amazon is the show's unique tone. It had a Rockford Files-ish vibe to it from the start, a detective series that manages to alternately be action-packed, light-hearted and still character-driven. While Ribisi says he signed on because playing Marius seemed like an "opportunity to grow and learn and wake up in my own life," the show's tone was the biggest selling point.
"From the beginning, I loved how the show explored the darker underbelly of humanity but was also about discovering ultimately how ridiculous it all is." he adds. "I love how as the show progresses, it becomes absolutely absurd in the best way."
Despite being the boss, Yost takes no credit for that approach.
"I inherited a lot of that tone from the first version. When I came on, I thought of the show in terms of what we did on Justified. You want people who can be funny but not force it. And this cast has the ability to be funny without being 'funny.' David and Bryan insisted from the beginning that these characters all get the joke. They'll banter and spar but ultimately, it's like, 'I get you and you get me.'"
That's not to say that there isn't something a bit more serious going on with Sneaky Pete, which didn't fully register with Yost until he went to Toronto for a college reunion and ran into a classmate who had become a Crown attorney (the Canadian equivalent of a federal prosecutor). Yost told his friend that he was doing a show about a con man, to which the friend replied he'd rather spend time with murderers than con men because the latter are a far more despicable bunch.
"Until then, I don't think I realized how dark con men could be," Yost explains. "They really take advantage of people, ruin their lives. There's a real cost to what they do. Which I think is the big arc of our series. Con men are always going to be self-serving narcissists but Marius has a yearning to be a better man. That's why Bryan has actually been calling this Breaking Good."
Adds the original Sneaky Pete, "I like to believe that as long as you lead a good life, anything can be fixable. That's the story we're trying to tell."
Sneaky Pete launches Friday on Amazon.