Inside the Complex, Evolving World of ‘Sneaky Pete’ Season 2 (Exclusive)
By Joel Keller
Myles Aronowitz/Amazon Prime Video
On the surface, the scene being filmed on a Brooklyn soundstage last September was straightforward: A guy named Pete and his mother introduces his friend Marius and girlfriend Gina to his grandparents, Audrey and Otto. The only thing that may have looked amiss is that Marius hugged Otto a little too tightly.
But for a fan of Sneaky Pete, the Amazon original series, whose second season premieres on March 9, the scene generates a ton of questions. Wait, so Pete's mother, Maggie Murphy (Jane Adams) has come back to the Bernhardt Connecticut farm for the first time in 20 years? Why is the real Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) still posing as his old cellmate, Peter Murphy? Why is the real Pete (Ethan Embry) out of prison and impersonating Marius? And how did Marius reconnect with his season one protégé Gina (Jasmine Carmichael)?
Of course, the journey to get to that point is what has attracted viewers to Sneaky Pete. "There are a lot of stories to follow and a lot of lies to be dealt with," Margo Martindale, who plays family matriarch Audrey Bernhardt, tells ET from the set. "Following a line is difficult, but fun."
Despite flying under the radar in the buzz department, season one of Sneaky Pete -- a series that started life as a procedural pilot for CBS before transforming into its current form on Amazon -- was a hit for the streaming service. The first season, which debuted with a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, became the second most streamed original scripted series on Amazon Prime when it debuted last year.
Showrunner Graham Yost isn't surprised that the show is popular. "We're very proud of the show and we felt that in this modern world, so much depends on word of mouth," he says. He feels more people recognize this series over his last one, FX's Justified, joking that "maybe it's just because I only associate and socialize with Amazon subscribers, which is a very great demographic, by the way, because we're all attracted to free two-day shipping."
It didn't hurt that the first season's "big bad," a nasty gangster named Vince, was played by Emmy perennial (and Sneaky Pete co-creator) Bryan Cranston, in his first regular TV role since Breaking Bad ended in 2013. During the show’s first 10 episodes, Marius executed a long con to get his brother out of Vince's clutches, sending Vince to prison for shooting a FBI agent. Because of that, there was no plan to bring Cranston back in season two in any acting capacity. "I think Bryan wanted to come on and help set up the show, but I think this season stands on its own, having experienced it and having seen snippets here and there," says Ribisi, who also directs an episode this season.
There was an even bigger challenge for Yost and his writers to overcome: How do they keep Marius connected to the Bernhardt family? The answer: Money. "Instead of going for the model being the long con, let's go for the model being the heist, because all heist movies have a con aspect to them," says Yost. "How can we do that in a Sneaky Pete way, and start to build out from there?"
At the end of season one, two thugs named Frank (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and Joe (Desmond Harrington) kidnapped Marius, thinking he was Pete; they were looking for a haul stolen by Maggie that turned out to be $11 million. This keeps Marius in the game. With the help of fellow con Marjorie (Alison Wright), he springs the real Pete from prison and convinces him to spill Maggie's whereabouts. The ensuing caper involves the Mohegan Sun casino, a stuffed buffalo and lots of misdirection, including pretending that Marius is the real Pete.
"Maggie is accepting the notion, at least temporarily, that who we know as Marius is False Pete," says Peter Gerety, who plays Otto Bernhardt, head of the family and a Vietnam vet who is in the bail bonds business. "It's just really interesting. It's like reading an epic novel where they lay in so many characters and you have to get into the middle of the book before it all starts making real sense. And it means the emotional things become much more impactful."
As the outsider of the group, Carmichael says Gina is a good representative for the audience. "She only knows as much as Marius-slash-Pete tells her," she says. “This season I have been doing a lot more whiplash, in terms of who's conning who, who is this person's identity, what is going on here, what did I step into?"
Adams, a veteran character actor who has had memorable roles on shows like Frasier and Hung, has fit right into the cast of consummate pros.During the scene where Real Pete sees his grandfather Otto for the first time in 20 years, she showed that professionalism by improvising a throwaway line before starting each new take with Ribisi, allowing her to take a slightly different approach each time the director said "action."
"She is so alive and just a nuclear bomb in anything, in the best way. I mean that as the highest praise," says Ribisi about his new co-star.
Of course, just because there's a lot going on with Marius, Pete and Maggie, doesn't mean that the Bernhardts themselves are in the background. All of them are trying to clean up the messes they’ve created: Audrey tries to cover up her involvement in the death of the NYPD detective who was hunting down Marius on Vince's behalf; and her son Taylor (Shane McRae), a Bridgeport cop, is aiding in the cover-up while helping another NYPD detective wrap up the investigation.
"I think what Audrey is is a very smart, intuitive woman who is semi-normal," says Martindale, "She has dealt with a lot of lowlife in what she does [for work]. But this is something that just happened to her normal life that snowballed into a catastrophe. She will go to any length to save her family."
Meanwhile, Audrey's granddaughter Julia (Marin Ireland) is trying to launder the money she recovered from her ex, who connned Audrey into getting involved in a bad real estate deal using money from local crime lord Chayton Dockery (Chaske Spencer). Otto is being tailed by an associate of the hitman he hired to kill him; the hitman himself was killed by Dockery's henchman in a bad case of botched timing. And Carly (Libe Barer), the youngest Bernhardt sibling, is trying to make sense of all of it while making a connection with her Aunt Maggie.
"I had to go back and re-look at Season one," says Gerety while sitting on the Bridgeport PD set, "and just the other day finished making a ... I guess you would call it a log, where I went back and I read all of the scripts through season two, because I just needed to try to follow the various storylines. But I think that complication is of great value."
With such a huge cast, Yost admits that servicing all of them, then bringing the storylines together by season's end, is a difficult task. However, he has experience managing a show with a big cast -- Justified had no shortage of characters in its six-season run -- so he feels that he and his writing staff have laid the groundwork for at least another season. "I think that that shows that hopefully the future of the series would be that the stories coalesce into more of a singular story from here on in. We felt we had to deal with this fracturing that happened in season one, and we had to play that out in order to bring that out for the final run of this season and then hopefully into the future."
And what becomes of Marius by the end of the next 10 episodes and beyond? Yost turns to his Emmy-winning producing partner for a clue. "As Cranston said, this series is Breaking Good. It's about a bad guy becomes a good guy basically, and finding his humanity. That's one of the really fun things working on this show: playing with a con artist who's totally in it for himself, except maybe he's not."