'Mob Wives' Creator Jennifer Graziano on 'Big Ang,' Casting Chicago and Moving into Scripted
The woman behind VH1's blossoming reality franchise tells THR about the challenges (and odd conveniences) of finding mafia ties in other cities and how far she plans to take her well-received premise.
In just over a year, Jennifer Graziano has done something few reality producers are able to accomplish in an entire career: She's created a thriving brand.
Fueled by a desire to get into TV and a life spent organized crime adjacent, she successfully launched VH1's Mob Wives in 2011. Following a group of Staten Island women with blood or marital ties to the mafia, it was recently renewed for a third season.
The series has been a boon to the network, pushing its showing among adults 18-49 up 33 percent, year-over-year, and locking down women 18-34 over all cable nets in its highly competitive 8 p.m. Sunday slot during the month of April.
Mob Wives will also see two spin-offs debut on VH1 this summer -- one following a different set of similarly connected women in Chicago and a lighter series starring Mob Wives cast member Angela "Big Ang" Raiola.
Throughout all of this, Graziano, working closely alongside producers at The Weinstein Company and Electus, is plotting further ways to grow the Mob Wives empire, including additional spin-offs in other markets and a possible scripted venture. She's also had to deal the personal fall-out that comes with documenting the personal lives of friends and family members. (Graziano's sister Renee is among the Mob Wives stars, and the show documented the 2011 arrest of her ex-husband, and alleged gangster, Hector "Junior" Pagan.)
Graziano, named one to watch for The Hollywood Reporter's Reality Power List, recently spoke about her plans for the franchise, how she's navigating the line between her personal and professional life and how she's plotted the starring vehicle for Big Ang since the beginning.
The Hollywood Reporter: Big Ang really connected with the Mob Wives audience. Why did you hold her introduction for the second season?
Jennifer Graziano: I did know going into this that Big Ang was a star. I’ve known her since I was a kid, and I always had her in mind, but what I wanted to do was build the brand around the initial four women who had real close, authentic relationships. Big Ang has been a part of my family for like 25-30 years. She’s actually my older sister's best friend. My thought was that she only really has a real connection through Renee, so let me build this first with these women who have these deeper relationships and kind of bring Big Ang in either for a couple of episodes that season and then have her in full time for the second season. And I think from a casting perspective, you always want to have something up your sleeve for the following season. Ang was my magic trick.
THR: The relationships portrayed on reality series are often forced or even fabricated. What do you think having women with decades-long histories brings to the genre?
Graziano: It’s been my goal in casting both New York and Chicago to have those real relationships. I wouldn’t put a bunch of women together that don’t really know each other because I think when they do, you really get to feel their pain, their bond and why things bother them so much. If you have a bunch of women who don’t know each other and there’s some sort of argument. it’s easy to walk away. And in the mob world, it’s very hard to make friends outside of it. People don’t understand it. So if, for instance, your husband is going to jail, you might not want to tell it to your child’s friends' mother who’s going to look at you funny. You want to tell it to the girl who knows exactly what you’re talking about. In this particular world, you want to make sure that they have real authentic relationships so they can relate on each other’s issues.
THR: Given your ties to the women in New York, how was casting Chicago different?
Graziano: Even though Chicago is one of America’s major cities, it’s still is very much Midwestern. There’s that kind of laid back feel with the women. Although their mindset and their values and their “mob mentalities” are very much the same as New York, they just live their life a little bit slower and a little less aggressively. But for the most part, in terms of their beliefs and those "everybody keep your mouth shut" type of values, they're very much the same.
THR: Was Chicago always the obvious next step for you given the city's historical relationship with the mob?
Graziano: When you think of the mob, obviously the first thing that comes to mind is John Gotti and Al Capone. Those are the two major cities. Obviously New York was first because I had the cast I already knew. And I just wanted to go next to a city that had that big mob backdrop -- the history that's somewhat still alive. There are other cities that still have mob activity but it's a little bit less so.
THR: How did you cast the new series in a town where you didn't already have an established network of women?
Graziano: Although the mob is separated by cities, it’s kind of like a cult. If you’re a mob kid and you’re going to LA, your father is going to say, “Oh go see such-and-such, he’s going to take care of you." So I went through a couple of family friends to get introduced to some of the women and one of them I actually knew from the past. It’s just a matter of getting into the city, sitting down with a few, getting referrals and picking out the best characters.
THR: How much time have you been spending there?
Graziano: A lot. During the casting process, I was here every other week, and since we’ve been filming I come at least twice a month.
THR: With the casting on the original series, do you foresee any changes?
Graziano: Like I said, I always have something up my sleeve and I always want to be able to pepper something in so I’m thinking maybe. I’m not saying the original cast will change but there may be some addition.
THR: The original Mob Wives has put you in some uncomfortable positions with your family. How are you with that right now?
Graziano: It’s gotten a little easier. Obviously in the past there were some really sensitive family issues that were happening throughout episodes nine through thirteen. It was difficult but I made a commitment. When I do something I’m going to do it 110 percent. I made a commitment to myself, VH1 and the women that we’re going to do this together no matter what. Things were happening with my dad and with my brother-in-law, and we made the decision to keep the cameras rolling. On a personal level, I know that my sister is OK with it, because she’s an open book. If you meet her at the nail salon and you know everything about her in five minutes.
THR: I've heard you say the original inspiration for the series was to do something scripted. Is that an arena you still want to get into?
Graziano: Originally I was writing a scripted version about myself and my friends growing up. That ultimately led me to saying, “Well, why not do a reality version? I’ve got the cast under my nose, and I can circle back to this.” Right now I’m in development on a series that is... I don’t want to say a spin-off, but it’s a "What happened before they were mob wives." It’s set when they where 19-20 years old and what was going on in those days. I have a couple of other scripted projects in development as well. And we should be out to market with the main one soon.
THR: This has been such a crash course in the industry. How have you found the scripted development process different from reality?
Graziano: Reality is much quicker. It’s much easier to get a concept going and on tape and to shop. And if you have great characters… you have to find those real characters, and in the scripted world you have to create them. The process takes a lot longer, but, to me, I’m a creative person. I love to create so there’s much more depth to that creative process.
THR: As you focus more on scripted, do you still have the desire to expand the current franchise of the reality Mob Wives?
Graziano: Oh yes, I’m currently looking in Florida and Vegas. I have also Philly and Boston on my shortlist. Obviously the Mob Wives franchise is my baby and I’m never going to turn my back on that. I’m definitely looking into expanding that -- as long as I find the right cast that’s going to make sense.
What's your experience been like working Ben Silverman at Electus and the Weinsteins?
Graziano: Honestly it is amazing. I couldn't ask for better partners. They've both placed so much trust and faith in me to really run with this show and create my vision. As a first-time producer upon meeting them, this type of latitude is rare. I've learned so much from them both. Ben is Mr. TV and Harvey is Mr. Movies. I'm right where I need to be to further my career in TV and ultimately into film. David Glasser and Meryl Poster from Weinstein have been amazing in all aspects of furthering my career. They're great mentors.
THR: Back to Big Ang. How do you want this to be a departure from what we've already seen of her?
Graziano: She's larger than life, and there’s going to be a couple of characters added to her show that are really going to make a splash. So I think that this show is going to be much different than Mob Wives in the sense that it’s going to be a lot more lighthearted and a lot more colorful and fun. Given the circumstances of what’s been going on with Mob Wives and the intensity, I’m looking forward to some of that colorfulness.
Mob Wives concludes its second season May 27, at 9 p.m. ET, with the second part of the cast reunion.