'Legends' Cast, Creators Reveal "Bumps" and "Clever Shortcuts" to Making TNT's New FBI Drama
This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Prolific show creator Howard Gordon (Homeland, Tyrant) has added another line to his resume: executive producer on TNT's ambitious new drama Legends. The Fox 21-produced series, set to premiere Aug. 13, centers on the secret world of FBI "legends" — fake identities used in undercover work — and a chameleonlike agent who begins to question who he really is.
THR sat down with Gordon, showrunner David Wilcox (Fringe) and actors Sean Bean, Ali Larter and Morris Chestnut to discuss the long journey that landed the series on the air.
What inspired you to adapt Robert Littell's spy novel Legends for television?
Howard Gordon: It was a very long process, one that actually started at the same time as Homeland, believe it or not. The book came to me through Fox, and I wanted to do it, then we developed it for NBC with a number of different writers. When NBC passed on it for the second time, [TNT programming president] Michael Wright and his team felt it was the right time, right script, and they picked it up right away.
David Wilcox: I came in pretty late. I think I sat down with Howard probably about eight weeks before production started. (Laughs.)
Gordon: It's definitely been like that. The show has had its bumps. It's a very challenging concept: A guy who has an existential identity crisis, and doesn't know who he really is, conjures things like brain wipes and brainwashes — which can be very cheesy. We wanted to go deeper, make it more psychological.
Wilcox: Also, how did we want to conceptualize this show? Was it driven by character or by cases? We decided we wanted to be more character-driven. Then, what do these so-called legends look like? After some discussion, we hit the ground running and reconceived the show alongside our co-executive producer Josh Pate — and started writing as fast as we could.
Key to it working was landing a great cast. Sean, how did you decide what to do after such a dramatic season-one exit from Game of Thrones?
Sean Bean: I was in London, and Howard rang me and explained the concept of these legends. It sounded exciting, and his passion was infectious. I really wanted to get my teeth in because there was no chance of getting bored.
Playing Martin Odum — an FBI deep-cover operative who slips in and out of various identities, sometimes unknowingly — requires you to master many accents. How easy is that for you?
Bean: I had a voice coach, and I can do accents. But I can't simply slip into them quickly and easily — I have to work at it for a bit and do my homework. It's harder than people think. Especially coming from England and working with Americans, you're a bit self-conscious at first — but you've got to throw caution to the wind.
Morris, you recently had an arc on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, and Ali, you gained a fan following from starring on NBC's Heroes. What attracted both of you to doing a basic cable drama?
Morris Chestunt: I wanted to do a show on TNT—I'm a big fan. So I slept in their lobby for three days. (Laughs.) They finally gave me a meeting. They said, "The pilot's already done, and Howard Gordon's on the show." So I went into a secret room — had to sign away my life — and watched it. I loved it. So I'm paying them about $300 a week to be on the show. (Laughs.)
Ali Larter: One thing that really attracted me was that the kernel of the show was: Who am I? All the different faces we have to wear — I wanted to explore that. In my own life, I'm a mom. I'm cooking! But it's one side of me. My character, Crystal McGuire, is someone who has chosen not to have children. She's not married. She has sacrificed having emotional commitments in her life. I love that because it's so different from my everyday life.
All of the characters in Legends are inspired by the book but also by real FBI agents. What surprised you most while researching alongside them?
Gordon: They love to tell their stories. That said, it's certainly not always on the record.
Larter: I researched with an FBI agent whose partner was female. It was very interesting to see how she was in a power position, how she dealt with men — being in control and not coming across as bitchy. Also, you look at the size of women's hands. ... We can't hold a Glock the same way a man does, so we have to practice more.
David, you mentioned you want the show to be serialized and character-driven. How do you achieve that alongside its procedural format?
Wilcox: The cases keep the momentum going, but ultimately the show is about Martin Odum. We're all so familiar with the stories and shortcuts used in procedurals; we don't need to see four different scenes to get from A to B. We like clever shortcuts that are believable but don't feel like total cheats — that way we can focus on the reaction of the characters and their emotional state and what's happening to them in a broader sense.
Gordon: It's a bit like The Wizard of Oz: Everybody's coming together to figure out who the Wizard is. Who is Martin Odum? Also, there's great chemistry. The casting gods shined down on us: Aside from being a not-unattractive cast (laughs), there is that thing you can't calculate.
If you could create your own legend, who would it be?
Wilcox: I'd be Howard Gordon. (Laughs.)
Gordon: I would be a farmer.
Wilcox: I like that, too. Let me at it.
Gordon: There's a really good wine cellar on my farm.
Bean: Mine is similar to Howard's: I'd like to live in a wildlife preserve.
Chestunt: A basketball player?
Larter: Someone like Jane Goodall. I like the idea of being able to live a less complicated life.