Ellen Barkin is One Fierce Mother on Animal Kingdom
An an overcast May morning on the Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank, California, the Cody family compound at the center of TNT's gritty new drama Animal Kingdom looks more like a fraternity house during a rager than the modest seaside dwelling of a mother and her four sons. Bright, neon-colored plastic Solo cups and empty beer bottles litter the outdoor space; half-eaten pizzas are stacked five boxes high, surrounded by torn bags of chips and popcorn. Bikini-clad women and ripped SoCal surfers populate the pool in the center of the courtyard as an inflatable shark and monkey float by, and a tiki bar serves up margaritas and daiquiris to the already inebriated crowd.
"I’ve aged out of being the guy who can throw these kinds of parties," says a laughing Scott Speedman (Felicity), who plays adopted son Barry "Baz" Brown. "I get to come in and get pissed off that they're having parties—which is funny to me."
But it’s just another day in the life of the working-class Cody family, who also happen to run a criminal empire in sleepy Oceanside, California. Based on the 2010 Australian film of the same name, Animal Kingdom was developed for TNT by executive producers John Wells (Shameless) and Jonathan Lisco (Southland). The producers' first goal was to shift the focus of the source material from a caper to an in-depth character study of an extremely unconventional family. "I like a good heist movie as much as the next guy," Lisco says. "But the true DNA of this show is about a provocative, powerful and perverse matriarch who has this emotionally incestuous hold over her boys and uses her ability to manipulate them to her advantage."
Enter Janine "Smurf" Cody (Ellen Barkin), the head of the family and mastermind behind its illegal activities (jewelry store holdups are just the tip of the iceberg). Together with Baz, Smurf manipulates her sons Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) into doing her bidding while letting them indulge in booze, drugs and women. "I think she’s a good mother—she's just in a very bad situation," says Barkin, who studied Jacki Weaver's Oscar-nominated performance in the original film to prepare for the series. "Yeah, she has idiosyncrasies—some of which are clearly unhealthy—but she's giving her boys what they need: a home, a shoulder and a friend. She is a character who maybe is capable of monstrous things, but I certainly would never call her a monster."
"We were looking for someone who brought a certain amount of power and maternal quality, but who is also still a sexual being," Wells says of casting Barkin in the role. "[Smurf] is somebody who has been charismatic enough to hold all of these adult sons of hers within her sphere of influence and tantalize them in some way."
Smurf's insulated world is thrown upside down by two unexpected arrivals: her 17-year-old grandson, Joshua "J" Cody (Finn Cole), who moves in with Smurf following the death of his mother, and her eldest son, Pope (Shawn Hatosy), who comes back to the nest after spending three years in prison thanks to a botched job. Their return drives the other Cody boys into a crazy competition for their mother's attention and affection. "I look at them as a pack of wolves," Hatosy says. "They don’t really survive by themselves, so the only way to eat is to do what the mother wants you to do. They’re all jockeying for top position—and they never know when they're going to gain that power."
Although he is technically a blood relative, J is viewed by certain family members as an outsider, and they question his true motives for re-ingratiating himself with the tribe. "He doesn’t know where he fits in because they are such an unpredictable bunch, which makes them dangerous and scary," Cole says. While Smurf and Baz stick up for J, he forges an alliance with Pope as the two prepare for the family's next crime spree. "He sees something in Pope where he almost feels sorry for him," Cole explains. "But these characters aren't very approachable in terms of emotional conversations, so it's difficult to bond with someone at that level."
Pope's homecoming is especially tough for Baz, who assumed the unofficial leadership role in Pope's absence. The two were childhood besties before Smurf adopted Baz at age 12, but Pope's history with mental illness and anger issues pushed him out of his mother's good graces and opened the door for Baz to take control. "It’s frustrating for Pope, because it seems Baz can do no wrong," Hatosy says. "Baz has made a lot of mistakes, yet he continues to climb in Smurf's eyes. Pope is her own son, yet he can't do anything right." The Smurf and Baz dynamic is further complicated by the fact that Baz's bedroom connects to Smurf's bathroom. "That’s very weird!" Speedman acknowledges. "There is a lot of oedipal stuff at play."
There may be a number of questionable alliances while cameras are rolling, but the cast members admit they are a big happy family on set, and the younger actors often turn to Barkin for advice. "She is a force of nature on and off screen," Speedman says. "I wouldn't say she calls the shots, but she's got a presence about her, and when she comes to work, she's ready to go and everybody is bringing their A game."
Barkin previously worked in television on the short-lived series The New Normal and Happyish, but the 62-year-old actress views her work on Animal Kingdom as her "first real TV experience" and raves about her costars. "The person closest to my age is maybe 22 years younger than me! So just by nature I’m going to take a maternal position," she says. "We’re not having dinners outside of work, because there isn’t time in this TV world, but we’ve created a relaxed, familial environment. I just love being one of those rare women who get to play a part where she doesn’t have to apologize for being a bad person."
Animal Kingdom, Series Premiere, Tuesday, June 14, 9/8c, TNT