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The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach on the Art of Playing the Obstacle

Photo: Matt Dinerstein/FX

On The Bear, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie is the kind of guy you love to hate. He’s consistently condescending to his younger co-workers at the Original Beef of Chicagoland, in particular trained chefs Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who take over the restaurant after Richie’s best friend and Carmy’s older brother, Michael (Jon Bernthal), dies by suicide. Richie’s loudly distracting, bringing out the clannish worst in the Beef’s other staff members and encouraging them to ignore Carmy and Sydney’s instructions and best practices. “Richie is doing whatever the fuck Richie does,” Sydney irritatedly says in third episode “Brigade,” and for the most part, that means he’s actively getting in everyone’s way (and dealing cocaine out of the alley behind the Beef).

Richie’s abrasiveness and manipulation might be familiar to viewers who remember Moss-Bachrach’s Desi on Girls, while his loyalty and principled persistence bring to mind the actor’s turns as NSA analyst-turned-hacker David Lieberman/Micro on The Punisher and Theranos-investigating journalist John Carreyrou on The Dropout. “He would definitely take a bullet for the restaurant,” Moss-Bachrach says. “I think he would do anything.”

In a Zoom chat with Vulture, Moss-Bachrach discussed crafting Richie’s braggadocio for the FX on Hulu series, reuniting with Bernthal post-The Punisher, and why Richie is so quick to trash the Snyder Cut.

Richie is immediately fully formed. Over the course of the season, you learn more about why he is the way he is, but from the start he’s very loud and takes up space physically and emotionally. How did you approach such a bombastic character?
Chris wrote this character from someone he knows really well, and that can be good, and that can sort of box you in. You can feel like, Well, this is a specific person and I don’t really understand, but Chris allowed enough room in there. For me, stronger than anything with Richie is that he’s a man who is on a little boat in the ocean, and the boat has sunk, and he’s just swimming as hard as he can against the current to get back to land. His whole world has melted away.

He is a survivor who feels that people are trying to erase him, or erase a certain neighborhood. He’s got his back against the wall, and he’s aggressive. He says something about how Sydney is trying to change the restaurant and force the old customers out. He really values people who can pay $6, $7, $8 for lunch, and he is very wary of forces that are boxing these people out. That instinct of his feels very just and right to me, as does Sydney’s attempt to make the kitchen cleaner, psychically and hygienically — a better, safer kind of space. They become oppositional, but there’s probably a world where these two things can work in tandem. Maybe that’s something that could get explored at some point.

He cares very deeply about that restaurant. That’s his connection to Mikey, who was everything to him. Richie was very much a dude who, growing up, I don’t think his parents were really in the picture. He probably lives, maybe still, in his grandma’s basement. He was married; that didn’t work out. I think he’s a really good dad when he’s there and out of his own way. But Mike was very much his anchor and made sure Richie got fed — three square meals a day, probably since the time they were 6 and 8 years old. He’s so thrown since Michael died. When the show starts, it’s only been four months.

The Bear doesn’t really have jokes, but there’s a lot of humor that comes from Richie and his outsize reactions. The character walks a line between tragedy and comedy. Did you approach him as someone who provides comic relief?
I have different experiences. When I read it, I thought he was a very funny character, but I really don’t like jokes, you know? A lot of the time, I find them patronizing or condescending when I see them on TV. So after I read it and dramaturge-head goes away and I just sort of become an actor, I’m trying to fight for my guy. There were times for sure on set when things got ridiculous. In the scene where the restaurant gets a C and we have this bout: “You take the C,” “No, you take the C,” “No, that’s your C,” and we’re throwing a piece of paper back and forth. You take a little slip of paper and throw it as hard as you can, it’s inherently hilarious. But I never went about trying to be super funny. I did think this guy needed to have no indoor voice. He needed to be on a certain volume and intensity. I didn’t see a world where it would work as a subtle, nuanced performance.

Was there ever a point where you felt you were being too over the top? How did you calibrate that?
That’s just trust. I felt, every second of every day, like it was too much. That accent was so loud in my head, rattling around in my skull. I felt like I was just way over the top — and it could be, for all I know. I’m too close to it. But that’s just trusting Chris and Joanna. I want to push it, I want to go far, but I want to be truthful and honor the people this guy is based on. And no one ever told me to pull back, which I’m shocked about, and maybe was a mistake.

Throughout the season, there’s the constant stress and tension of the kitchen, and a fair amount of the time, Richie is adding to that by just standing around. What kind of preparation and blocking went into figuring out where Richie would be in those scenes?
There was an enormous amount of rehearsal, especially in the first episode — people getting familiar with the space. For me, I was working on a sci-fi thing right before we started shooting the pilot; I flew straight to Chicago from London. There were so many knives and weapons on this action-y thing I was working on; there’d be enormous, long safety discussions and so many different protocols. Then I got to Chicago and it was just like, full kitchen, full stoves, burners going, knives sharp as hell. It was complete chaos.

So I got there, and I found out everyone had been in substantial training with different chefs. Lionel went to Copenhagen to work with Richard Hart, who is a baking hero of mine. Jeremy and Ayo worked like crazy. They were all very, very proficient. I have the fun job of not really having to do anything. [Laughs.] I just have to be in the way and take up space, and that drives the scene. You have the urgency of them needing to get their prep done, and then the obstacle of time, and me being in the way. It’s nice to be an obstacle in a scene.

The standout of that tension is the seventh episode, “Review,” which is filmed as one uninterrupted take, during which Richie accidentally gets stabbed by Sydney. Can you talk about filming that?
That was a thrilling day. That was just an incredible, great day. That’s when the set does feel like theater, or like a soccer match, because the stakes are so high. We did get a few takes; I think we ultimately did maybe four or five that day. Each take required so much concentration on everybody’s part, so much telepathy and silent communication between camera and props and the actors and the directors. We got through the first one without a hitch and we could have gone home, but then we went and tried it again, and in the second one, there was a focus issue. There was a camera issue about eight minutes in, so we stopped and started again. Things change a lot. That stab moment changed a lot. I think the first time we did it, there was a lot of pain and a lot of anger because it’s a very intense thing. But then the last take — which was the take I think we used — maybe the repetition of doing it so much, or the insanity of the whole thing really seeped in, and it just became funny to me. That’s what’s in there, and I think that’s really nice and feels like a very appropriate reaction to that for Richie. I definitely don’t think it’s the first time he’s been stabbed.

He does sort of throw his hands up at it, like, Of course this would happen
There’s a protocol! They have a protocol in place. He immediately calls Ebraheim, they go straight up to the front, they know where to go. Ebraheim has experience with triage. It’s like any other day for him.

I really appreciate the Richie arc in the last episode, “Braciole,” in which Richie finally shares the note Mikey left for Carmy and expresses some vulnerability, telling him, “You’re all I got, cuz.” I’m wondering if you had a scene you’re proudest of, or any favorite moments from the season. 
My favorite moments are not ones I’m particularly involved in. I can tell you that my favorite moment of the season — when we shot it, I watched this happen and my heart just melted, and when I watch it on TV, I feel the same way — is episode four, “Dogs,” when Richie and Carmy come back after the crazy birthday party. There’s some cake and ice cream that Marcus serves up, and Richie and Carmy are so beat, and everyone is so exhausted. Carmy takes one bite of cake and says to Marcus, “Chef, this is delicious” and Marcus gives him this thumbs up. The thumbs up comes straight out of his heart. Maybe I’m just sentimental or something, but that encapsulated so much of this season for me. I liked the family dinners; it’s so nice to shoot a scene where you’re just sitting around a table with five, six, seven, eight, nine, even ten people. You don’t really know when the camera is rolling, and you’re just sitting there being with everybody. That’s my favorite stuff.

I’m curious about the use of cousin between you and Carmy, and all the emotional layers you put into that word. 
I don’t know if that’s a Chicago thing or just something from the neighborhood Chris grew up in. That was sort of a leap of faith. I don’t really understand the cousin thing, still. It’s obviously family, but they’re not literally cousins? I guess it’s kind of like bro, but without the bro.

What was it like to work with Jon Bernthal again? The Bear is such a different show than The Punisher
Jon had a really hard job in that he had to come in for a day and be the kind of guy everyone had been talking about. Few actors could have done it as well as him. He’s so magnetic and charismatic and loose and trusting, and is someone who can really show up. That’s a really hard job. I wouldn’t want to have to do that. He and I have a pretty good history and are friends. In between The Punisher and The Bear, we worked on Lena Dunham’s new movie, Sharp Stick, which comes out in a couple months. I haven’t seen that yet, I don’t know how many of our scenes are actually still in there, but we play good friends in that.

Jon’s scene was the last thing we shot, so we were able to change our appearance a little bit and we didn’t have to do any stupid stuff with wigs or anything like that. We had to shoot that in L.A. because Jon was in the middle of doing American Gigolo and we could only really get him for a day. A few of us went out to L.A. and we shot it there, so the whole temperature was quite different, the light was different. It felt not so dark, in a way.

I was very intrigued by Richie being thankful for Philip K. Dick but also using the Snyder Cut almost as an insult in describing the Ballbreaker fans in the first episode, “System.” What are your feelings on Richie’s sci-fi preferences? 
Richie likes hard sci-fi. He likes Iain Banks, he likes Philip K. Dick — Philip K. Dick is actually probably more on the popular side of the stuff he likes. He likes to go deep. Snyder Cut stuff feels … [Laughs.] I really love that line. I don’t think he’s into Marvel stuff. He likes the deep stuff, the world-building. Probably Foundation.

Is Richie reading Kim Stanley Robinson?
Definitely. Any of the stuff that would be on a stoop for free, that’s his education.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher Storer is the creator, co-showrunner, director, and writer of The Bear. Joanna Calo is the co-showrunner, writer, and director of The Bear. Moss-Bachrach is part of the cast of Star Wars: Rogue One spinoff Andor.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach on the Art of Playing The Bear’s Obstacle