Giovanni Ribisi may play a con artist on TV, but don’t expect him to pick your pocket anytime soon. The actor, whose career spans more than three decades, stars in a new Amazon series co-created by Bryan Cranston called Sneaky Pete. Ribisi plays a con artist by the name of Marius Josipovic, who assumes the identity of a former cellmate in an attempt to save his screw-up brother’s life. Ah, the life of a con man! In an interview on the Vulture TV Podcast, Ribisi talks about studying up on scams, his Friends memories, and why he never wanted to do a network procedural.
You’re currently the star of Sneaky Pete, where you play a con man named Marius Josipovic [Jah-si-pah-vick.]…
Josipovic. He’s very specific about how his name is pronounced.
He is. Josipovic. Yeah, exactly, you saw the episode.
I enjoy how he kept correcting people on how his real name is pronounced, because he’s all about adopting different identities.
Exactly. I think that was a conscious thematic exercise. The show is about a guy, my character, Marius, who starts out in prison. His cellmate, his name is Pete Murphy, he gets tired of listening to all the stories of when he was younger and the more innocent days. Then when he’s getting out of prison, he finds out he’s in trouble with Bryan Cranston’s character, so he figures that the most sensible thing to do is to go find the family of his old cellmate and assume his identity.
There was a documentary called The Imposter, a real-life situation where a family lost their son — who was 13 years old — and then three years later, someone showed up to their doorstep and said, “I’m your son.” The guy was actually from Spain and he had different color eyes, but I guess he filled a certain need for the parents and the other family members so much so that he lived with them, I think, for several years.
I like how pretending to be someone else is the path of least resistance for Marius.
Right, exactly! Bryan Cranston and I actually talked a lot about this. His mother was strung out on dope and there was no father there, so it was basically fraternity turned into paternity — that sounds really corny — for his brother. That was the road to empathy for me, as far as looking at the approach to the character. I don’t think he’s malicious, per se, but I think he just grew up in a situation where most people would think to go left and he would go right. All he wants to do is extricate his brother from the situation, but it seems like every time he does go right, he gets deeper and deeper into a situation. Then that expands, of course, into the family members that he’s living with and the skeletons that they have in their closets.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the documentary, The Imposter. It sounds like the conned have needs that a con man can fulfill, in some ways.
Yeah, that’s interesting that you say that. There’s a book called The Confidence Game that is about the psychology of being conned. It’s really phenomenal and speaks to a fundamental sociological point in a civilized world, but also in regard to the con artist and what their intentions are and the ethics of how far they will go.
How was this project originally pitched to you? Did Bryan Cranston approach you?
It was sort of the normal route. My agent reached out to me and said that there’s this script, it’s Sneaky Pete, Bryan Cranston is doing it. David Shore was the showrunner at the time when the show was originally at CBS. I don’t know if you know that — we were originally with CBS. I went in and looked at something I’d made this promise to myself that I would never do, hour-long episodic television for networks. That was just my thing because I’d heard that was the toughest job for any actor.
Their hours are insane.
The hours and also the length of time. You go, I think, ten months and it’s kind of like you go into a hole.
So were you attached to it at CBS?
Yeah, well that was the thing. I thought, Well, in this case, instead of going left let’s go right. Let’s explore this. We did the pilot. It was indeed one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done. CBS didn’t pick it up, and then six or seven months went by and I got a phone call from David and Bryan saying that Amazon’s interested. I thought, Oh, well that’s a whole different medium really. That’s going into shows where it was like, Okay, we’re going to make a ten-hour feature film.
And you don’t have to do a 22-episode procedural.
I mean, I’m not afraid of hard work. At the end of the day, it is what it is. For me, if you respect the people and they are all trying to do the best job that they can and stretch their own parameters, then no matter what, we’re there to do something that’s effective.
It must be interesting to work with Bryan. What was he like as a director?
It really is like working with an actor. He’s very savvy when it comes to camera work and what he wants to do and where he wants to put a camera to tell the story, but when we were on set, a lot of his work was specifically with actors and behavior. It’s almost experimental, so it’s a pleasure, you know?
In researching the role, did you hang out with any con artists?
Yeah, a little bit, but I think the book The Confidence Game really was the most inspiring thing.
Did you learn how to pickpocket?
Yeah, there’s a little bit of that. It’s not necessarily a craft that you learn theoretically as much as it is a craft that you learn by practicing and getting good at it. And here’s your wallet. No, I’m kidding. [Laughs.]
Why do you think stories about con artists are compelling?
I think there is a power to it. It’s not necessarily because people want to con other people, but it’s from the other perspective of, Is that possible? Have I been lied to? I think there’s a certain sort of power there, and I think we’ve always had a fascination with it.
Your acting credits stretch back 31 years. How has your approach to roles changed over the past three decades?
It’s changed drastically. I’m definitely not the same actor that I was when I was 9 years old, and that’s because my intentions, my goals, aspirations, or whatever were different. I grew up in the ’70s and in Los Angeles during the new blockbuster era. Star Wars was the first film that I saw in the movie theater. I wanted to be an actor, then it turned out to be this Wizard of Oz story: I was 10 or 11 years old and it turned into something that I didn’t think it was. Then puberty hits and everything’s embarrassing and you’re going out in front of an audience, so I got really into music for several years until a friend of mine introduced me to the Actors Studio and Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro and Gary Oldman. It really was a revolution for me. That’s when I really decided that I wanted to chase being an actor.
A lot of your roles encapsulated this Gen-X slacker culture that’s associated with the ’90s, like in Suburbia.
I guess, the slacker culture, but I still think that for the last 20 years we’ve been in a phase that’s still, musically — for film, writing, whatever — we’re in this ultraconservative time period, if you hold it up against what they were doing in the ’70s and the ’60s. During that acting class, Quincy Jones came to talk and he spoke for a good three hours. One of the things I’ll never forget, he said he was working in the studio with Miles Davis and Miles Davis was talking to another musician there and he said, Hey, do you ever try to the play the wrong note? To try to do what’s wrong? When you have a sociology that’s based on a popularity contest and quantified with how many followers you have or how many likes or how many hearts have turned red, it’s difficult. It’s this strange thing of acceptance.
In the interest of populism, I did want to talk to you about Friends. You first appeared as an extra who drops a condom into Phoebe’s guitar case, then later, you came on as her brother. Was that ever something you and the producers ever talked about?
No, it’s interesting. I did another show with the same producers, concurrent with Friends, and I guess the network decided to pick up one of them and not pick up the other. So I knew them and they were friends of mine. I started working on Friends, I think it was 20 years ago now. A lot of it, you know they would call up and say, “Come on, can you just come and do this thing? You’ve gotta throw the condom in it.” I think I was mainly focused on trying to do movies at the time. Whatever. So many times when I would do an episode, I would be working on another film. So honestly, I have vague recollections of it.
I know that the cast, they’re just some of the nicest people and I think they did something on a pop-culture level that really impinged, and there’s something to learn from that. But you know, that’s 20 years ago.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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