One of the biggest trends in Television over the past few years has been the boom in critically acclaimed, serialized dramas on cable television, and with the possible exception of HBO, no network has had more success with this than F/X. Starting with The Shield and continuing with series like Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and Damages, the network found that they had another hit series on their hands when they launched the motorcycle club drama, Sons of Anarchy last year. Now the boys of Sons of Anarchy are back with a whole new, thirteen-episode season, which began it's exciting return last week on F/X. I had a chance to visit the set in North Hollywood, and talked to some of the cast members about what fans can expect from the popular show this season.
First stop on our tour was to the SAMCRO Clubhouse, a bar where the gang hangs out and a familiar place to any fan of the show. Director Gwyneth Horder Payton is blocking a tense scene with the actors while show runner, creator and occasional actor Kurt Sutter watches on. The scene is from the twelfth episode of the season and starts off with Jax's (Charlie Hunnam) on again, off again love interest, Dr. Tara Knowles tending to a bleeding man while Gemma (Katey Segal) and some of the bikers watch in horror. The prop department brings in a large fake arm with several fingers missing covered in blood for the scene.
Ron Perlman (Clay Morrow) enters the bar followed by Charlie Hunnam (Jax Teller) to evaluate the situation. Perlman has his dog on the set and is walking through the blocking with him. The bleeding man, "Chuck," explains what happened to him and it involves this season's main antagonists, Ethan Zobelle played by Adam Arkin and Weston played by Henry Rollins, two very dangerous Separatists. After Jax tells Chuck to wait by the police car and that he can even, "Play with the sirens" if he likes, the women exit and the men get down to business. Clay and Jax make a deal with Sheriff Unser (Dayton Callie) in an attempt to keep the town of Charming safe while Piney (William Lucking), Bobby (Mark Boone-Junior), Juice (Theo Rossi), Opie (Ryan Hurst), Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) and Tig (Kim Coates) watch on.
After the rehearsal I had a chance to talk with some of the cast, (who's call sheet reads like a who's who of the best character actors from film and TV in the past last twenty years), about the new season and new story arcs on the show. As fans know, the season ended last year with SAMCRO having to make some hard decisions. With the FBI convincing SAMCRO that Opie was a rat, Clay tasks Tig with taking him out only to be shocked at the result, the accidental murder of Opie's wife, Donna. Ron Perlman who plays the leader of the motorcycle club, Clay Morrow, explains, "Well, Clay's got to make a decision, I mean he is tested in ways that he's never been tested before and we get to find out what he's made of. Because he's going to have to answer to what he does and whether he in fact answers to it or not will prove his leadership style. It will define his leadership style. We begin to understand why he is the leader that he is, whether we agree with it or not because definitely he is controversial."
"But he's going to go head to head with the only one who really suspects that they have an idea of what went down, Jax," the actor continued. "So there's going to be this major collision and it's going to be a question of what one does when one is faced with making a decision where not all the facts are in. Almost like ... we're going to invade this country because they have weapons of mass destruction, then what do you do when you go, Okay, so they didn't have weapons of mass destruction but it was so fucking right to take that country because of democracy in the middle east and all that shit. So that's what we find and that plays itself out, almost through the whole season," said Perlman.
A pivotal aspect of the series has been the relationship between Clay and his stepson, and next in line for president of the club, Jax (Charlie Hunnam). This was foreshadowed last season with Jax's discovery of his father's, a founding member of the gang, manuscript that indicates he was not pleased with the direction the club was taking at the time of his death. I asked Perlman, if he thought the manuscript would play an important role in this new season? "No, I don't think so. We're so busy with the new antagonist that's introduced to us in the most horrific way, we're so busy with him externally and then the internal struggle," he explained.
"Charlie (Jax) has two struggles," Perlman continued. "He's struggling to find out who his father's son is supposed to be, so he's playing that out in his own personal nightmare, but he's also struggling to find out, If he was in control of this, what would he do? What kind of leader would he be? You really don't know until your there. Then he just comes in with his guns loaded because of his deep profound hatred for Clay's in general modality, and specifically, where that modality led him in the last year. So the manuscript thing has kind of taken a back seat to the order of the day, which is to just stay ahead of the curve of this new group that is trying to destroy us. Then figure out how we remain a club in tact knowing that there are all these volcanoes that have just been created that we're placing bandages on, that are eventually going to erupt into something that will demand our attention."
Perlman further discussed the new antagonists featured on the show this season played by Henry Rollins and Adam Arkin. "We meet in the very first episode Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin). Against our better wishes we meet him and he represents the league of American Nationalists, which is a separatist group but there are all sorts of implications. There are only white guys in his little league. So he's not only a separatist group but he's an Arian group, a hating group, he's a militia, all that stuff he represents," explained the actor. "But I can't say very much more but he is so formidable in his skill set, in his depth of support he has behind him, in his organizational capacity and he's brilliant. He is a really formidable foe and his goal is to take us out. He will stop at nothing; he's even more ruthless than we are."
Perlman went on to discuss the reason behind adding new villains to the show this season. "I think we are painting a slightly larger canvas because now we are going against somebody rather than the first season where we were just a motorcycle club going against other clubs. Now we're going up against something that is much larger than any of these little localized clubs that have formed their own personal families in order to live out their lives in there own socially, philosophical manner. Now we're going against something that's national, that's political, that is really skewed in terms of it's radical philosophy and it's racism and all this other stuff. So we're going against much larger conceptual enemies. You know it's forcing us to polish up what it is we do and what we have going for us to where maybe we can keep our heads above water with these guys because they keep beating us at every turn. They're that formidable and epic. It's a mythic kind of thing," said Perlman.
All the members of the ensemble attribute the shows success to creator Kurt Sutter, who occasionally plays the role of Big Otto on the series. Sutter, in an unprecedented move from a series creator, invited all of his cast members into his office, one-by-one before the second season started to discuss where they would like to see there characters go this season. Ryan Hurst, who plays Opie explains. "The other thing that Kurt did that I thought was neat was at the end of last season before the writers started writing for this season, Kurt brought each of us in one by one and asked us what we see for our characters this season? I went in there fucking prepared. I'm a director and producer too and I went in there with fucking notes and 99% of them are in this season."
"A lot of the times, all though I don't like to admit it," Hurt continued. "We might not understand something or want to change something and go up to him and say, this doesn't make sense. Nine times out of ten he'll go, I'll show you how it works. That's what differentiates Kurt. He knows exactly what he wants but he also knows that each of us has our spin on what we want. There is that middle, happy thing that is cool," replied Theo Rossi who plays Juice.
Kim Coates, the veteran actor who plays the vicious, Tig, on the show had this to say about working with Sutter. "I had a scene that for me was non negotiable. I was so angry, truly, at what I had to do that I called a meeting. Another cast member also had to take a meeting based on this scene. Within, you know, forty-five minutes he told me, you know this is an incestuous world. Yes there are rules, clubs have rules but it's a slippery slope, man. It's drugs and it's sex and booze, and love, passion and commitment and when you're fucked up, shit happens. So he not only convinced me that this was the way to go, it actually sent me into what ever Tig had to do next. It was much easier for me knowing that that was what I had to do based on that scene."
"I really do think that Sutter's got, in my opinion, the greatest ensemble of actors," continued Coates about his cast mates. "They are so freaking amazing and hopefully people will continue to watch the show based on the acting, writing and the forty-five minutes of what they are seeing because there is nothing else like it on television, there is no doubt."
Perlman discussed his relationship with Sutter. "I think I have a real good relationship with Kurt. I wish I had more access to him but that one very generous moment where he invited every single cast member to come in and talk about what they saw, what they felt and what they aspire to see happen to their characters, it's a very, very serious thing. I talked a lot about mortality issues," explained the actor. "About a man getting to the point where he realizes his days are numbered and every single thing that he does, feels, thinks and believes is slightly altered because of coming to grips with the mortality issue. Kurt said, what is the first thing a guy does when he realizes that he has far more less days to come than he does behind him? I told him that he starts biting the head off of everybody. He just gets out of control angry. He's like railing against reality and he's taking it out on everybody that he loves. Then low and behold, and episode came in and there it was. It's just lifted off of the conversation. I think it was the third episode."
Actor Tommy Flanagan, who plays Scottish biker Chibs on the show, explained where his character's arc is headed this season. "Chibs comes to life this season. My whole back-story comes into play this season. You find out my history and I've got a family. You find out what I'm all about, how I got here and stuff. So that's good, it's been a really good season actually for me especially. Kurt and me kind of discussed it last season. What was new that could make Chip come to life. This season's really going boom, hopefully and it was all discussed last year."
As I continued my tour of the set I was escorted to some vary familiar places to fans of the show including the Teller-Morrow garage, Jax's bedroom, Gemma's living room and the Charming Police station. An interesting fact to know is that space is so limited at the soundstage in North Hollywood where Sons of Anarchy shoots that often many of the sets double as production offices. On this day, when I happened to be in the Charming Police Station, I was told I was actually in the Writer's Room and in fact breakdowns for every episode of the second season were up on the conference room wall, I was asked not to read them.
Finally, the actors talked about the reactions that they have gotten from real life motorcycle club members. "We've been in situations where we've been asked questions from bikers and they'll go, you know, that was great but we wouldn't have done it that way," Coates described. The actor went on, "I keep saying, this is a television show! Calm down. I'm glad you love it, glad that you're into it and we're trying to be as realistic as we can but it's a TV show. Back away for a second, it's just a show."
Mark Boone Junior who plays Booby "Elvis" Munson on the series had this to say. "Well we have people that advise us. They're not real happy with some of the direction of things that we did do in this new season because real biker clubs do not do some things that as club members we do and if they do, they're dead. It's a Soap Opera with violence," explained Junior. "Again, it's TV," shouted Coates!
It may be only TV, but it is good, smart, fun TV and that's not easy to come by. Season two of Sons of Anarchy began last week and air every Tuesday night on F/X.