Animal Kingdom‘s Shawn Hatosy talks to ADTV about what makes his character tick and what it’s like working again with director John Wells.
Critics’ Choice-nominated actor Shawn Hatosy (Southland) returns to television Tuesday night in TNT’s dark and wonderfully twisted new drama Animal Kingdom. Inspired by the 2010 film of the same name, Animal Kingdom tells the story of the Cody family, a criminal family run by ruthless matriarch Smurf (Ellen Barkin), as they negotiate the risks of engaging in criminal activity and the perils of their insular, animalistic family dynamics.
Shawn Hatosy plays Pope, Smurf’s recently released from prison son who has to determine a new place for himself now that his adopted brother Baz (Shawn Speedman) has ascended in the family ranks. As Hatosy describes him, Pope Cody could be either a school teacher or a serial killer. It’s this brilliant tightrope act in Hatosy’s performance that is already garnering raves from preview screenings and could be a source of Emmy contention this time next year.
I recently talked to Shawn Hatosy about what it’s like playing such an unpredictable character and how director John Wells, with whom Hatosy has worked multiple times in the past, helped Hatosy and the rest of the talented cast navigate the impact of Pope Cody.
AwardsDaily TV: Shawn Hatosy, we last saw you in Fear the Walking Dead where your character, Cpl. Andrew Adams, was left for dead. Is there a return to the series in the cards for you?
Shawn Hatosy: Well, I think he’s a zombie, [Laughs] but I don’t know. Nobody told me anything. In fact, I remember when that offer was presented to me they said, “Yeah, this is going to be three episodes, and Adams is going to die in the finale.” That show is very secretive with their scripts, so I think we got the draft the day before we were shooting. I got to that part of the script, and I was like, “Wait a minute, he just beat him up. I don’t know if he’s dead or not!” So, I have no idea. Nobody’s mentioned it to me. I’m just assuming he’s a zombie somewhere.
ADTV: I’m looking at the press cast photos for Animal Kingdom, and the main cast is glowering at the camera. It’s quite an intense bunch of actors. Was there any “glower-offs” or competitions to see who could have the most threatening look?
SH: I think they’re just all trying to be like Pope because Pope’s just naturally… that’s just the way I look when I try to [Laughs] take a picture. Pope is king of that dead stare… It’s just a blank, glossed over, shark-eye look. That’s what I was going for when I took the pictures.
ADTV: That’s interesting. I totally picked up on that. You don’t seem to be looking at people as much as studying them. Is that intentional?
SH: Well, his relationships are all complicated, and so I think it’s likely a consequence of how he was raised and his very sheltered relationship with Smurf [Ellen Barkin, his mother on the show]. He has a history of these mental issues, and he’s been managed and he knows it. Also, he’s right out of prison when we meet him in our narrative and he has not been taking the medication that he needs, and we kind of go into that a little bit in the subsequent episodes. It’s unnerving nonetheless.
ADTV: As you mentioned, Pope has just been paroled in the beginning of the series, but he doesn’t say much about the experience. Is this something the show will be exploring further?
SH: We talk about it a bit and delve into that. Of course, the motivating plot point there is that Baz [Scott Speedman] is somewhat responsible for Pope taking the fall, and it also explores Pope’s loyalty to the family because, you know, he kept his mouth shut and he served the time and was quiet. So, there’s that. There’s also that bit of guilt that Baz feels when Pope comes home. It complicates the wires a little bit, twists them up, and adds another level of tension for the family.
ADTV: Absolutely, and it’s a very interesting family. In the pilot, there is zero emotional acknowledgement of Josh’s [Finn Cole] mother’s death, and the remainder of the family is similarly emotionally detached. What’s going on with these people?
SH: Well, we all take our cues from Smurf, and as this story unfolds… well, you see a little bit of it in the pilot… It becomes apparent that Smurf’s relationship with Josh’s mom, Julia, was not the best. We’re kind of walking on egg shells a little bit because we know Smurf hated her, so we just don’t want to upset that… no one wants to upset her. I think, as the story unfolds, you see that there is a very complicated history with Pope, Julia, and Baz which we really do explore. Smurf has to present to Josh that she cares about Julia to the best that she can, and it comes off very cold. We all know what’s really going on there.
ADTV: In the pilot, one of the most intense scenes happens when Pope watches Josh’s girlfriend as she sleeps, then carries her to the bedroom and lays her down on his bed. You’re really uncertain of what his next move was going to be. What’s going on in his mind as this scene unfolds?
SH: That’s one of my favorite scenes of the series… we’re on episode 10 now… because it just shows so much about this show, I think. It kind of captures the essence of it because there’s no dialogue. It’s just this action. It’s unnerving. It’s uncomfortable, and you’re right, you don’t know what he’s going to do. I mean, some people view that scene completely differently. Lynn, our wardrobe designer, she’s like, “What do you mean, he was going to rape her. That’s what he was going to do!” And then some other people were like, “Well, no, maybe he was just caring for her because she looked uncomfortable.” I really like that kind of ambiguous notion. But, for me, Pope is as unpredictable as they get. As the series unfolds, he is loyal and that is in regards to the family. He would do anything for them, anything that he’s asked to do for them, including going to jail. I also think that, if I’m doing my job right, you’ll see that there’s more to it than just this darkness. The history and the trauma, I think it will lend itself to the viewers to see him in a little bit more of a sympathetic way. I know it sounds crazy [Laughs], but I think that’s true of Pope.
ADTV: Pope has this incredible pent-up aggression – there’s mental illness there too – that barely simmers below the surface. Where do you think this comes from?
SH: I think it is just the way that Smurf has controlled them and her hold on them. If you look at Baz in being a childhood friend of Pope’s who she took in and adopted and now Baz is Pope’s brother… He’s also in the hierarchy kind of climbed the ladder and now he’s captain of the team. So, that is a major hangup for Pope, and I think that’s sort of responsible for that anger and aggression, and, as I see it, you’re stronger in packs within the family, so a new mouth to feed [Josh] has come in and you want him on your side. And also, you have to keep him close because we’re trying to determine whether or not he’s somebody that we can trust. So, I think there’s a little bit of competition between all of us to see how the teams are going to line up.
ADTV: So, as an actor, did you use any particular tricks to get yourself in such an aggressive state?
SH: Well, I don’t see it as aggression. He is, by nature, because of this family – they’re animals – but there’s that kind of aggression. I think Pope for the most part doesn’t really allow himself to get to that point. I wouldn’t call him a hot head or anything like that. That is one thing that John Wells [director of the first two episodes and producer of the series] was really cool about helping me with just always letting the cast know… you just never really know when Pope is going to go off… It helps me as an actor seeing people react to me in character, and I think, in the way that he looks at people too as we were talking about before, it doesn’t feel good to him to be managed. And then you’re introducing Josh / Jay into it…
ADTV: Talk about the relationship between Pope and Jay. It looks like a constant fraternity hazing on the surface, but there’s just something deeper there between the two of them.
SH: Yeah, we sort of delved into the whole history of Jay’s mom and Smurf. This history is revealed, and it is a fact that Pope was a lot closer to Julia than it seems at first, and he was actually pretty devastated when she left the Cody house. So, there’s that connection. In the pilot, he tells Jay that “Your mom and I shared the same room.”
ADTV: Yeah, there’s that line where [Pope] says, “Your mom was afraid of thunderstorms,” and it’s kind of nice… but it’s also kind of menacing and creepy at the same time.
SH: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s by design. That’s my favorite thing about Pope. There’s almost this sparkle about everything he says that could be interpreted as a serial killer or a very kind preschool teacher. It’s very fun to play and to carve out those dimensions.
ADTV: I can see that. Is this one of the biggest acting challenges you’ve had? To play the two sides of that coin between the serial killer and the school teacher?
SH: It is a challenge because, you know, he is so unpredictable. As an actor, what we strive for is consistency in the character. Well, the character is so wildly inconsistent, so that becomes what you have to go for is inconsistency. It has been consuming to try and get it right, but I think, if I am doing my job right, it can’t just be the creep factor which he has in spades. Every once in a while, you have to think, “Is he just going to rape her or is he making sure she’s just getting a good night’s sleep?” That’s the line you want to draw and step on both sides a bit.
ADTV: You mentioned John Wells a few minutes ago. Clearly, he has a very strong track record with actors. What have you found he’s brought to the table to support your process?
SH: Well, I can also speak from personal experience with John because I worked with him on ER in a very twisted character there, and then we spent five years together on Southland and now this. Just having that kind of creative relationship for that many years… It’s hard to put it into words how that feels, but it’s the freedom to make big choices and take risks that I don’t necessarily have on other projects. It’s definitely rewarding. I think one of the main things that helps all of the actors is that they’ve sketched out this concrete foundation – this backstory – that has become like our Bible. We’re all coming from the same place. Often as actors, we have to interpret it and make it up, but he laid it out for us in a pretty explicit way so that we know what’s at stake. So that helps a lot. And, you know, it’s John Wells. He’s got a pretty impressive history combined with all of the scripts being “10’s” – they’re all great, so that, as actors, is important. We aren’t spending a lot of time interpreting what the writer means because it’s right there. Because it’s a character drama and it’s about the relationships – it’s not really plot driven – we have the time to play a scene for truth. It’s grounded in reality. He gives us a chance to take the looks and feel something rather than a narrative that’s trying to get information to the audience… I’m really proud of it. Because it’s dark, it might turn some people off, but the Cody’s are wild beasts. They’re living together in this wild habitat that’s about to explode. I enjoy it.
ADTV: So, what’s next for you when you wrap up the season?
SH: It’s been a pretty rough shoot in that we’ve been so consumed with filming. It’s been a pretty rough shoot. I’m excited to see how people respond to it. I’m already starting to see that. I enjoy this modern age of social media where you get feedback real time while the show airs. Even the negative comments. I get off on hearing people’s bizarre interpretations. I read somebody saying, “Oh, there’s Shawn Hatosy playing a hothead just like he did on Southland.” [Laughs] These characters are so vastly different. But to me, I enjoy that. It’s like doing a play live where you kind of feel the audience and that energy. In this era, you have a slice of that thanks to Twitter or Facebook be it good or bad.
Animal Kingdom – starring Ellen Barkin, Scott Speedman, and Shawn Hatosy – has a 2-hour premiere Tuesday, June 14, on TNT at 9pm ET.