When John Wells and Jonathan Lisco set out to create a television drama inspired by the critically acclaimed 2010 Australian movie “Animal Kingdom,” which chronicles the dramas of a working-class crime family, they had to update the story and make it more palatable for American viewers.
“Quite frankly, half the characters were dead at the end of the movie and that makes it a little more difficult to do an ongoing television series if everyone is being killed,” said Wells, whose credits include “Shameless,” “Southland” and “ER.”
The series, which premieres on TNT June 14 at 9 p.m., shares the same premise as the film: following the deadly overdose of his mother, teenager Josh (Finn Cole, “Peaky Blinders”) is drawn into the family from which she tried to shield him.
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They include his crime-boss grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) and her four nefarious sons: Baz (Scott Speedman, “Felicity”), the newly released from prison Pope (Shawn Hatosy, “Fear the Walking Dead”), mercurial third child Craig (Ben Robson), and youngest, Deran (Jake Weary).
Instead of Melbourne, the story now takes place in Oceanside, with surfing, sand and the Mexican border setting the stage.
But Wells and Lisco also take creative license, shaking up the casting and chronology, which helps differentiate the TNT Cody brood from the film version.
For instance, Jacki Weaver cast a large shadow with her Oscar-nominated performance as the monstrous Cody matriarch.
“Jacki Weaver’s performance was so extraordinary, the very first thing I had to do was find my way into the character that was as far away from her way as possible,” said Barkin, who anchors the show’s solid ensemble cast. “Her surprise was actually how hard she really was. She starts off a little benign, but when the cops pose a threat, you see who she really is. I thought I’d flip it. I start hard and then maybe we’ll see some softness. Maybe not.”
Trying to figure out when to reveal Smurf’s softer side was a topic of discussion during a recent taping in an Episode 7 scene between Barkin and Speedman. The writers wanted Smurf to cry but Barkin wondered if it was too soon. As a compromise, Barkin became teary in one take and stayed dry-eyed in another.
On TNT’s “Animal Kingdom,” Ellen Barkin portrays the matriarch of a Southern California family whose excessive lifestyle is fueled by criminal activities.(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Scott Speedman as Barry “Baz” Brown in “Animal Kingdom.”(Doug Hyun / TNT)
Finn Cole as Joshua “J” Cody in “Animal Kingdom."(Doug Hyun / TNT)
Jake Weary as Deran Cody in “Animal Kingdom.”(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Scott Speedman and Ellen Barkin in “Animal Kingdom.”(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Ben Robson as Craig Cody in “Animal Kingdom.”(Michael Muller / TNT)
Shawn Hatosy as Andrew “Pope” Cody in “Animal Kingdom.”(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Ben Robson, from left, Scott Speedman and Jake Weary in “Animal Kingdom.”(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Finn Cole in “Animal Kingdom.”(Eddy Chen / TNT)
Ellen Barkin and Finn Cole in “Animal Kingdom.”(Doug Hyun / TNT)
“The writers are very open and you can talk to them and that’s a John Wells thing,” Barkin said. “It’s a collaboration. He’s our boss, obviously, but he wants everyone to speak up. If I play a scene, I don’t know what’s going to happen after that scene. So it could’ve had a quiet, gentle ending or an angry ending. But I have to figure out the ending. It has to feel organic.”
Barkin’s thoughtfulness for the characters and each episode is one of the reasons Speedman loves working with her, he said. “She’s a player who comes ready to go.”
The actress is also fiercely protective of her character and doesn’t want the writers — six total, evenly split between men and women — to shortchange Smurf because she’s a woman.
“Every time you have a bad woman in a movie or a show, there’s always something in her that has you forgive all the badness and you feel sorry for her,” said Barkin. “I don’t want her to be sympathetic. Smurf might’ve had a very tough life, but I just think she’s bad.”
Which everyone hopes will make for good drama.
“We want our characters to fear threats from outside the family — the cops and criminal rivals — but also we want them to fear threats from inside the family and even from inside themselves,” said Lisco, the show creator who doubles as a writer and executive producer. “It’s really a study of a complicated woman and her children.”
This story is part of The Times’ special summer television issue. Read more here.