by Erin Lentz | February 26, 2014 | People
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How’d it look?” Ed Burns asks. It’s late spring 2002, and we’re on the Sheer Bliss ski run in Snowmass—a bluebird powder day. Nothing can be heard but the faint hum of the nearby lift and the gentle jests of his younger brother, Brian. “Terrible,” his brother jokes. We’re all navigating snowboards. Ed, at 6 feet, 1 inch tall—not your typical stature for the sport—is commandeering the largest Burton Custom deck built, and both he and his brother slice turns surprisingly well, given they’re native Long Islanders. At the time, I’m their snowboard instructor, imparting tips for tighter turns between their hilarious exclamations about our mountain scape. Staying true to Burns’s nature, a video camera captures the moment. “Cut!” he yells, falling down slope. He schleps himself and his board back up the hill. Take two.
Fast-forward to a recent autumn day, as Burns sips black coffee at the chic Aspen Social Club in New York City. It’s 12 years later, and this writer, actor, director, and producer is remarkably the same. Age has served him well. Dressed casually in a plaid snap button-down, NY Giants baseball cap, and designer jeans, he’s running slightly behind schedule, insisting on driving himself around the city. Similar to when he carried an elderly lady’s lunch tray at Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant in Snowmass, Burns, though his star has continued to rise, remains unassuming and refreshingly down to earth. He has married one of the world’s most revered supermodels-turned-yogi-andactivist, Christy Turlington, and has two children. He still is a passionate snowboarder (bravo, Aspen/Snowmass Ski and Snowboard School!). Yet similar to that day on the Snowmass lifts, when explaining how grateful he was to work with actor Robert De Niro (15 Minutes was released the previous year), talk quickly turns to film.
Burns first rocked the indie scene in 1995 with his breakout hit The Brothers McMullen, which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in on a shoestring $25,000 budget. The film became a Sundance darling, winning the Grand Jury prize and eventually grossing $10M domestically. His latest tackle is Mob City, a new TNT series that lassoes the 1940s Los Angeles crime scene. Given his sharp features and thick Long Island accent—delivered with that trademark rasp—physically he may seem a natural to play nefarious mobster Bugsy Siegel, but embracing a villain and murderer, though exalted, is a departure from his norm, a challenge readily met. At age 45, his ambition and gratitude are in tandem, a potent combo for someone who most values screenwriting, family, and giving back. As he embraces and pioneers the new digital film age, Burns, akin to McMullen, is still betting big.
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What’s the premise of your latest project, Mob City?
This is the most fun I’ve had acting since Saving Private Ryan. It’s a [type of] character I’ve never played before—the homicidal maniac with a quick temper who also is a very charming and larger-than-life guy, who walks into the room and people are drawn to him. Every time I’d get the new script I couldn’t wait to show up to the set to do this work.
How did working with Executive Producer Frank Darabont [The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Walking Dead] push you as an actor?
When you work with a world-class filmmaker you can tell the difference. That’s why I was as excited working with Steven Spielberg in Private Ryan. You’re in smart, safe hands. Frank wrote the majority of the scripts. The dialogue is crisp and real and funny. It hints back to the noir films of the ’30s and ’40s. Our cast, top-to-bottom, is incredible. We all kept saying—across the board—[that] everyone who showed up on set is the real deal; it’s like sports. It elevates everybody’s game.
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This character is quite a departure from the kind you normally play. How did you prep to embrace someone as nefarious as mobster Bugsy Siegel?
I was very happy [Bugsy] was born in Brooklyn, and therefore, I didn’t have to do anything about the accent. When he comes into the room, he’s got to own it. He’s a guy who was able to get anyone he was in contact with to not just fall in line because he was the muscle, but get behind him and support whatever he was up to. He could turn extremely violent, and [I didn’t] hold back from that. All of a sudden he’s throwing a punch and breaking somebody’s nose.
Why do you think Americans are obsessed with mob culture, whether The Sopranos or the classic ’40s noir films?
Everybody’s got a part of them that’s the rebel, the outlaw, or the bad boy. Most of us don’t act on our primal urges because you might end up locked up for assault. However, I’m sure most people who live in a big city like New York wish they could pull a Bugsy Siegel. We’re attracted to the dark side. And anyone who’s a movie buff came across the noir films of the ’30s and ’40s and fell in love with the genre. There’s something about those characters, those archetypes, that stark black and white photography, and the actors we had then—Cagney, Bogie, Edward G. Robinson—iconic guys. We were shooting in a suburban neighborhood near downtown LA, with little Craftsman homes, old-style street lamps, 1930s and ’40s cars. We’re in the jackets and fedoras, and the cast said, ‘You could now mark this off.’ Actors want to be in a war film, want to be in a Western. I don’t have the Western yet, but this is one of those genres that we said, ‘How cool is this?’
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You were an aspiring unknown when you launched The Brothers McMullen at Sundance in 1995. Given the indie craze that followed, what’s the biggest change in filmmaking since?
Things are digital now. Digital cameras not only can compete with the look of film, some people even say they prefer a digital look. Anyone can get their hands on a digital camera and make a movie inexpensively, so that barrier to entry that existed during The Brothers McMullen era made it very hard for the regular kid who has no connections in the business to go make a movie. Now that’s all gone. You can go out and buy a $2,000 camera, shoot your digital film, cut it on your laptop, and release your films digitally. If I didn’t get into Sundance [back then], that was it. No one would ever get to see the movie. There wasn’t any other platform where I could get the movie out. In these past 20 years that’s been the dramatic change.
But you have since embraced this digital era, pioneering the first iTunes film premiere ever with Purple Violets, and now releasing The Fitzgerald Family Christmas on Netflix and On Demand. How is video on demand effective?
Early on I found myself watching a lot of movies on iTunes. With theatrical releases you can open in a theater in New York, maybe LA, and that’s it. If it eventually goes on DVD it’s going to be 10 months later and no one’s going to remember. So we thought, How do we get the movie out so that people between the coasts—if they see me on Jimmy Fallon or Conan—get the movie the day after? iTunes. [Purple Violets] was the first movie to do so, and it was very successful. Add Netflix, and now with The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we held back on Netflix, the DVD, and On Demand. So it [gives it] a second release.
With actress Connie Britton on the set of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas
Being a writer, actor, producer, and director, is there one hat you prefer?
By far the writing. I started as a writer. The first dream was to become a novelist. Only after I wrote my first screenplay did I think about directing. It’s the one part of the process that isn’t collaborative. So I get to sit down and disappear into this world I created, and I love it.
Having 10-and-7-year-old children, how do you balance family and film—given how busy your wife, Christy, is too?
Prior to having kids, it’s very easy to be selfish. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take care of you and things that are important to you. I was more than willing to say, “It’s no longer about me; it’s about them.” The rewards that come with that are huge. You have to be present, not only physically, but also mentally. I’m very lucky because I make my independent movies. My wife and I both decided we love New York and want to raise the kids in New York. For the most part I don’t have to travel much. I’m able to coach the soccer team and the little league team and drop off and pick up every day after school.
Christy has made a huge impact with her foundation Every Mother Counts, which advocates for global maternal health. How does supporting her philanthropic efforts, as a couple, create a broader impact for the organization?
Almost everything [philanthropic] that I do now I do for her charity. I love what she’s doing, and I love the cause, so it’s very easy for me to jump on board and help her out.
Burns embraces the notorious Bugsy Siegel in Mob City
What’s a typical Burns family ski vacation like?
The kids ski. They’re not up for snowboarding just yet, but my daughter is starting to think about it. Every winter we usually do two trips out West. I picked up [snowboarding] later in life, as you well know. I always loved being on the mountain, but was a terrible skier. So the snowboarding I enjoy. We’ll get in 10 days [of skiing], which for New York is a good amount of time.
That’s Aspen talk, by the way. Everyone counts how many ski days they get in. What’s next? Will The Brothers McMullen reappear?
The 20th anniversary of The Brothers McMullen going to Sundance will be in 2015. I looked at people who made sequels to their small indie movies—Richard Linklater with Before Sunrise and Kevin Smith with Clerks. I started thinking about a sequel to The Brothers McMullen; messing around with ideas, I couldn’t find what I wanted to do. But I had each of the brothers having a son, and as I started to write, I became more interested in these teenagers. So I thought, Why don’t I do a prequel? I’m writing a script now. It’s the young McMullens, and it takes place in 1986. They’re four years apart, so it’s the last year of eighth grade, [then] the last year of high school, and last year of college for these three guys. Hopefully we’ll shoot in March/April and have it ready for Sundance in January . It’s a lot more fun to imagine who they were as kids or as young men. And, it’s different.
photography by Rainer Hosch; courtesy of turner entertainment networs, inc. time warner group (mob city); courtesy of Tribeca films (the fitzgreald family christmas); Styling by Sam Specter Grooming by Losi for Martial Vivot Salon at the Wall Group; Shot on location at the Aspen Social Club, 157 W. 47th St., New York, 212-221-7200