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It was only six years ago that moviegoers met the Cody family in the 2010 Australian film Animal Kingdom.
The pic managed to net then-relative unknown Jackie Weaver an Oscar nomination, but the executive producers behind TNT’s upcoming drama of the same name are hoping viewers will be able to accept a fresh take on the story.
“There are any number of fantastic films which became very good television series because the initial material was rich,” executive producer John Wells told reporters Thursday at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour. “When you think of MASH, do you think of the film MASH or do you think of the television show M*A*S*H* — both had their own aesthetic, wonderful performances by a number of actors.”
Animal Kingdom is a family crime drama set in a gritty surf community of Oceanside, Calif. — a far cry from 1985 Melbourne, which served as the setting for the film.
The movie “only scratched the surface on how far down we can drill down on these characters, and Smurf is a great example,” said showrunner Jonathan Lisco. “You learn that she’s capable of great menace, some emotional cruelty, but also capable of great love … but it never really answers the question whether or not her capacity of cruelty or her capacity for love is the scarier component of her character, and I know that’s something we want to explore in the course of the series. I think that’s a rather bottomless pit when you have an actress like Ellen Barkin.”
Barkin had the biggest challenge, taking over Weaver’s role as Smurf, the loving but also smothering matriarch of the family.
“She’s a very different character but lives in that same space as a mother,” said Wells. Lisco elaborated: “We’re going to make it a more nuanced portrayal of a mother who both loves her sons but also vandalizes them and has emotionally warped them while at the same time coddled them.”
Added Lisco, “We wanted to be very careful that we not try and replicate performances from the film.”
Barkin herself said she had no problem taking over a role made famous by someone else, comparing it to joining a play revival. “I don’t really think I’m stepping into anyone’s shoes,” the actress said. “I don’t think the movie was a beginning, a middle or an end point for us. It was more like source material as much as a book I might read.”
In addition to watching the movie, Barkin said she also did extensive research about the real Australian family that the film was based on and came to learn that the matriarch had a glass eye after having been shot in the face.
“I tried to convince John and Jonathan to let me have a glass eye,” Barkin said with a laugh.
Animal Kingdom brings Wells and Lisco back to TNT after the two worked on the network’s gritty cop drama Southland. TNT famously rescued the series when NBC axed it in 2009 after one season.
Wells, who also has a series — Showtime’s Shameless — on pay cable, spoke of how the TV landscape has changed since Southland. “There are so many different opportunities to do different kings of programming. That’s all changed completely over the last seven or eight years,” he said. “Creatively, we’re having many more opportunities to tell more difficult stories.”
He called the difference between network and cable programming “substantial,” as compared to earlier in his tenure. “A lot of the things that I was involved in early in my career could never be on network television — they would all be on premium cable,” said Wells, who was also behind NBC’s landmark drama ER. “So TNT, all these various outlets, are giving us the opportunities … to do the work that we always wanted to do but oftentimes was a real uphill slog at the broadcast networks.”
Animal Kingdom premieres later this year on TNT.
Watch the trailer below:
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