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Milo Ventimiglia taps dad's Chicago stories for 'Mob City'

By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol

RedEye

5:55 PM CST, December 8, 2013

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"Mob City" tells the story of Los Angeles gangsters in 1947, but Chicago's mob history helped Milo Ventimiglia create his character in Frank Darabont's miniseries.

"It's funny. I kind of went back to stories and things that I heard from my father in Chicago," Ventimiglia said during a recent interview, adding that his father's side of the family came from Chicago Heights in thye south suburbs.

The actor grew up listening to his dad's tales of the city's gangster past and used those stories to help fill in the blanks about attorney Ned Stax, one of the fictional characters Darabont has mixed in with historical mob figures including Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke). 

"I would throw things out at Frank about who this guy is and how he found himself in this life and we agreed on a lot of it," Ventimiglia said.

With his fancy suits, slicked-back hair and shiny shoes, Ned may seem like a squeaky-clean, upright L.A. citizen who happens to legally represent criminals. Don't be fooled, Ventimiglia said. Ned works as a "fixer" in every aspect of Siegel's criminal enterprise. 

"Ned's hands are dirty, but they're under white gloves," he said. "And that's the thing, it's a different kind of dirt. Everybody kind of looks for the gunman and nobody looks for the guy who's organizing the execution."

Executions come fast and furious in the six-episode "Mob City," which is airing two episodes beginning at 8 p.m. each Wednesday through Dec. 18 on TNT. Darabont's ode to noir mysteries of the 1930s and '40s focuses on the battle for L.A. between the mob and a corrupt-but-changing police department in the 1940s.

Darabont's involvement was all Ventimiglia needed to audition for "Mob City." "I'm such a fan of his work," he said. "I'd always been a fan of his work, everything that he had done."

Fans of the former "Heroes" star have the chance to see Ventimiglia in another project this week. His action series, "Chosen," returns Thursday for its second season on Sony's streaming video service, Crackle.

Ventimiglia plays Ian Mitchell, a lawyer and father who was forced in the first season to participate in a deadly game in which regular people are chosen to kill other innocent people while also being targeted by other "chosen" assassins, which in Season 2 includes newcomer Chad Michael Murray.

Ventimiglia not only stars, but serves as executive producer for the series, which makes positive response to the show all the sweeter.

"We had so much fun with the first season," he said. "And knowing that people really responded to it and were excited about it, to come back and do a second season—and now we're talking about a third—it's just great."

Ventimiglia talked more about both his projects, which you'll find after the "CH:OS:EN" trailer below.



What got you interested in the project?
For me, first and foremost it was Frank. I'm such a fan of his work. I'd always been a fan of his work, everything that he had done. I just wanted to be a part of that with him, but then seeing his beautiful script and knowing that my friend Michael De Luca was producing it, I was like, "Wow, this is in good hands."

Also hearing that Jon Bernthal was the first one in; I was a fan of his work. It was a very easy thing to say I wanted to be a part of it.

Then I just had to prove to everybody else that I deserved to be a part of it. So as is traditional, you put yourself on tape and apparently Frank saw it and said, "Who the fuck is this guy?"—in a good way. He said that to Mike De Luca. And Mike De Luca said, "Oh yeah, I know Milo well." So it all worked out. But it was just one of those things that I really just had to find a way to be a part of it.

Did you know the role that you were going up for or did that come later?
I did know the role but the version of the script that I read, my character didn't pop up because they left off the last five pages of script and my character doesn't come in until toward the very end. So it was just something that [I went in] not knowing who my character was but knowing he was kind of a fixer for the mob. [I knew] that he was the legitimate face, the legal face for the mob, but he had a lot of dark skills. I'm like, "Well, if Frank's writing it I'm in. It's going to be great."

Ned wasn't a real person. But is he sort of a composite of people from the time?
He's completely fictionalized. … There was also research that I'd done about the time [that helped in] understanding let's say the importance, the weight that even these fixers or attorney kind of characters like let's say Sidney Korshak, who was a big attorney for the unions and for big crime families and whatnot. He was just a guy who was so smart and knew every single angle and he was there to look after the guys that were asking him for help. So I think for me I tried to draw on that and stories that I've heard, and also too just really lean on Frank for the direction of the character and where he's going to go and what he's going to do and what kind of mayhem he'll have to get everybody out.

Does Ned get his hands dirty too or is he just sort of the puppet master?
Ned's hands are dirty, but they're under white gloves. And that's the thing, it's a different kind of dirt. Everybody kind of looks for the gunman and nobody looks for the guy who's organizing the execution. So it doesn't necessarily make his hands any cleaner. Like I say, his hands are dirty but he wears 'em under white gloves.

What helped you get into character the most?
I think it was the beautiful setting that we were given from the clothes and the sets and the structure of the words and how it was played out. And then it was just being around great actors. You fall right into it. When were all looking at one another and we believe is 1947 and then when the cameras stop rolling, once you see 2013 you go, "Oh, OK, you're back to normal life." It's an easy jump to make. There was no stretch to it.

How hard was it getting around the dialogue, since it has its own sort of style and cadence?
It wasn't difficult, but it was definitely something that I had to pay extra and careful attention to and really put a lot of effort into it. I think a lot of the stuff that I've done recently has been very modern. And this has such an old-world feel to it. But once I got into it—it's like Shakespeare in a way—it's a little confusing but then if you understand how each word is perfectly placed and you just say them as they are, it comes very easily.

What makes this mob story different from others?
Frank Darabont. Frank Darabont, Frank Darabont, Frank Darabont. I think there's a certain way of storytelling that he does ... where we can take real characters and put them in fictionalized settings and still have to write to actual events. And I think that is very difficult to do. I'll tell you what, it didn't feel like a bunch of actors playing dress-up.

You talked about working with Frank, but you're getting reunited with your old "Heroes" pal…
[Laughs.] Robert Knepper?

Exactly.
Yeah. It's funny too, because our characters are on the same side but a bit at odds. But he was a blast. When I saw Rob show up on the pilot for a days worth of work I'm like, "Oh holy shit. Buddy, what's going on? How are you?" Then to see, of course, what his character falls into over the course of six episodes. It was a lot of fun. We just kind of looked at one another and laughed and said happy birthday to each other on the same day and it was good. It was a lot of fun.

I like the scene in the second episode where it's the first time you guys are together at the table.
Oh yeah, he's busting my chops.

You can tell right away that he's maybe a little jealous and he's trying to figure out how you'd manage to do what you did when he failed. Are your characters always going to be at odds even though you're working for the same guy?
For the most part that's always something that's very apparent. But at the end of the day these guys are on the same side. They are going for the same thing. They just have different ways of operating. And to Ned, he's not the guy that holds the gun. He's the guy that is the brains and orchestrator. I think as long as Ned knows that and respects what other people do and he doesn't hold the animosity that anybody else is coming at him with a lot of regard, things will be fine.

Is Ned's relationship with the police detective played by Jon going to get him in trouble with his boss?
I don't believe that Ned would ever put himself in a troubled spot with his boss. Ned's interest is his boss. Ned's livelihood in life is given by his interest in his boss. But Ned's also a human being and that's the thing that adds another level of drama, when you have personal relationships that get in the way of what your life and livelihood are. So I think no matter what, it's in Ned's best interest to always stay on the better side of the guys that you're doing work for.

Do you think that bond is more important than the bond he has with his detective friend with whom he served in the war?
I've got a lot of friends who were in the service together and those friends develop something—only they can understand. The people that you're with are the only ones who understand what you went through, what you're going through, what the experience was. So I think given what Joe or Ned experienced in the war is something that only they know. But life moves on and people head in different directions and the directions that both of them took happens to be on opposite ends of the law. But at the same time, there is kind of the respect of the past and of a history that, of course in our show is, a big story.

A quick question about your other show: Are you excited for Season 2 of "Chosen?"
Very excited, man. Very, very excited. … It's a lot of fun. It's nice when you're a part of something from the beginning, the rough inception of it. Then it's something that people are asking for more. I couldn't be more excited.

How different is the experience since you also are a producer, a boss? Is it nice to have that hat, too?
It's just a different hat man, different hat. I've been producing for the past nine years, stuff that people don't even think to ask, "Who put that together?" A lot of digital content, sold some shows, did some features, things like that.

But for me it's just being a part of projects like "Chosen" where you got a great story and a good set-up from a really, really visually talented and emotionally talented writer/director, Ben Ketai. It's just fun to be part of, be in association with. But also they're looking to you for direction and to kind of be one of the leaders on something is a responsibility that I take seriously. And I try to lead with a lot of fun.

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