As a Producer, Bryan Cranston Knew the Best Way to Save His Pilot Sneaky Pete Was to Act in It Himself

His new series hits Amazon Friday

When his iconic TV series Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013, Bryan Cranston wasn't looking to dive back into another series role. But in May 2015, when CBS passed on Sneaky Pete, the drama pilot he had co-created, co-written and executive produced, Cranston knew there was one surefire way to help the show find a second life: hire himself as an actor on the show.

His instinct paid off: Amazon (and its viewers) loved the retooled pilot—significantly improved by the addition of a riveting scene with Cranston in the closing moments—and gave the show a series order. The full season, one of this year's most anticipated shows, debuts on the streaming service Friday, with Cranston appearing in all 10 episodes (he also directs an episode).

Sneaky Pete stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius, a con man who has just been released after three years in prison, where his cell mate, Pete, talked incessantly about his idyllic childhood. On the run from Cranston's Vince, Marius decides to assume Pete's identity and hide out with his family (including Margo Martindale as his grandmother), who run a struggling bail bonds business, and haven't seen Pete in 20 years. The tension escalates after Vince tracks down Marius, and threatens to remove one of his brother's fingers each week until Marius repays his debt.

Cranston told Adweek that Sneaky Pete refers to his family nickname growing up. "I was raised in a lower income household, with a fractured family: I didn't have a father in my life when I was 11 to when I was an adult, and my mother become an alcoholic," he said.

"What happens is you start to self-parent, and you're making mistake after mistake and just weaving your way through, looking for shortcuts," Cranston said. "So my family was even calling me Sneaky Pete: a guy who was looking for shortcuts. A guy who was circumventing responsibility and striving for mediocrity. That's fine when you're in that condition, but at some point, something has to break."

It did for Cranston in his early 20s, when he embarked on a two-year motorcycle trip and realized he wanted to be an actor. When he accepted his fourth and final acting Emmy for Breaking Bad in 2014, Cranston dedicated his award to "all the Sneaky Petes out there."

The day after the Emmys, Cranston received a congratulatory phone call from Sony Pictures Television co-president Zack Van Amburg: "He says, 'I think there's a series there: Sneaky Pete.' I said, 'What's the series?" And he goes, 'I don't know! But I do know this'—and he left me with this little nugget—'What happens if you didn't mature and change when you were 20 years old? What happens if you're 37 and you continued that path, what would you be?' And I thought, 'Hmm, that is interesting. You'd probably be a criminal.'"

Cranston worked with House creator David Shore to flesh out the idea for a show, and sold the pilot to CBS, which envisioned it as a skip-tracer procedural. When that network passed on the pilot in May 2015, Sony desperately searched for a new home, and found a potential buyer in Amazon. However, the streaming service wanted a serialized drama, not a procedural.

When CBS owned the rights to the pilot, there had been no discussions about Cranston appearing in the show. But Cranston knew that hiring himself as an actor might help entice Amazon—and the Amazon consumers who would be voting on whether the pilot should get a full season—to pick up the project. "If I'm honest, there's some of that," Cranston said. "We were on the brink of having this go down the drain, and nobody wanted that to happen."

Amazon gave him money to shoot additional scenes, but Cranston had only three weeks to make the changes and get the pilot ready for the next round of judging on Amazon's site. "We didn't want to wait until later in the year, and that played into it as well. We didn't have the time to cast [someone else] and be shooting in three weeks. So I said, 'okay,'" said Cranston. "I knew that if it was a sale, that I am tied to this. But I was fine with that. I learned long ago, storytelling is storytelling, whether it's onstage or television or film, and you just want to tell good stories."

Cranston's plan worked, and Amazon ordered a full season. As a result, Shore stepped aside, as a more serialized version of Sneaky Pete "was not in his comfort zone," said Cranston, who "seduced" Justified creator Graham Yost to take Shore's place as showrunner.

Yost, who was looking for a gig after Fox passed on the pilot script he had been developing, was enticed by the two threads set up in the revised pilot: Cranston's Vince as a looming threat to Marius, and Audrey's (Martindale) mistrust of the man who claims to be her grandson. "So we felt, okay, we've got two engines, right off the bat. That's where we're going to have to go for this season," said Yost, who opted to set Sneaky Pete's first season over just 10 days.

Yost, who had assembled many of his former Justified writers and producers in anticipation of that Fox project coming together, put that team to work on Sneaky Pete. "It's like, can we keep this team together? What fun!" said Yost. "You get that team, and then things start to develop in the room."

One of the biggest developments as Yost and his writers plotted out this season: They realized they wanted to use Cranston, whom Yost had worked with on HBO's From the Earth to the Moon, as much as possible. "We said to Bryan, 'We won't overuse you. You're a busy guy.' But boy, that first episode after the pilot, we wanted to explore how Marius got into the jam he's in," said Yost, turning to Cranston. "You're having the time of your life, and you're so good in the big takedown scene. It's like, okay, we'll just do one scene in the next episode, but then the episode after that, there's going to be a big scene, there's going to be a 10-minute monologue. And it went on from there."

Because Amazon, like Netflix, releases the entire season at once, Cranston was able to shoot his scenes from several episodes at once—as he did when he returned to direct an episode—and that footage could be inserted later.

Now, with a full season completed for Amazon, Cranston can barely imagine what Sneaky Pete would have looked like as a more generic CBS procedural—and one that he wouldn't have been acting in.

"By virtue of the amount of people that watch CBS or any other broadcast, there is a value to that. People find comfort in the sameness of shows, and knowing that things will be all wrapped up and all answers will come to us at the end of an hour. But that's not how life is, and that's not really the most engaging storytelling out there," Cranston said. "We like the left-hand turns."

Especially when they help him stumble into another juicy TV role.