The inmates were on the loose Wednesday night in Los Angeles as Apple TV+’s new prison drama “Black Bird” took over the Regency Bruin Westwood Village Theatre. The global premiere had fans flocking to see its Golden Globe winning star Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Kingsman), who once again portrays the real life story of a fascinating individual.
Having excelled at embodying a British rock and roll legend, Egerton now tackles the criminal-turned-hero story of Jimmy Keene. This former high school football star (and son of a police officer) built a profitable life as a drug dealer until he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in a minimum security prison in 1996.
In a surprise turn, Keene was offered the chance at an early release if he would move to a maximum security prison, successfully befriend inmate Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), and elicit a confession regarding Hall’s suspected numerous murders. If successful, this would give Keene precious time with his ailing father (Ray Liotta) and prevent Hall from appealing his conviction and possibly killing again.
For showrunner, writer, and executive producer Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, The Drop), the late Ray Liotta was the only choice to play Keene’s father. “I wrote it for Ray and only had him in mind, but we got a little push back to be honest,” Lehane admits on the casting. “I said, ‘No, I want this guy.’ They agreed and we sent him the scripts and he read every episode in twenty-four hours and he was in.”
Lehane’s first meeting with Liotta was over zoom while the actor was working in Czechoslovakia. “It was a little scary because Ray assumed he was playing the younger version of his character as well,” Lehane shares with a laugh. “I had to basically fire him from a part that he thought he had, but it was a dream working with him.”
Lehane always envisioned the project as a limited series, but the length of the adaptation shifted amid the development process. “Originally, it felt like five episodes to tell this story completely, but they convinced me to do six through an intervention,” Lehane jokes. “Everyone wanted to do an episode that looked into the characters’ pasts, and that became episode four.”
In another moment of inspired casting, Lehane chose rising star Sepideh Moafi to play recruiting agent Lauren McCauley opposite Egerton. Moafi assumed that the acclaimed writer would ultimately go with a star name opposite Egerton, but Lehane gravitated to her take on the role.
“His scripts were so dialed in, they didn’t change from the moment I was involved to our last day on set,” Moafi shares of Lehane’s vision.
Moafi’s chemistry with Egerton is evident in the pilot, and Moafi credits the evolving process on set for finding that rhythm. The first hurdle the actors faced came during the scene in the prison’s dental office, where agent McCauley pitches the dangerous assignment to Keene.
“We tried the blocking and something felt stuck, so we cleared the room and rehearsed for 45 minutes,” Moafi recalls. “That time allowed us to find the pacing and the heart of the scene, and then we soared. In television, the schedule rarely leaves time to play and discover things like that, so that was very encouraging as an actor.”
Egerton had many sparring partners in the series, the most significant being Paul Walter Hauser as twisted killer Larry Hall. “I felt like I learnt from everyone in the show, and the amazing thing about playing opposite Paul is that he completely commits to playing a character with a corrupted soul,” Egerton says. “He goes to places a lot of actors would be uncomfortable to go to and that made our scenes really electric. I was constantly surprised and at times horrified with the choices he made.”
For Paul Walter Hauser, this is his most challenging role yet, following his breakout role in Cline Eastwood’s Richard Jewell and the well-received reinvention of Horace in Disney’s live action Cruella.
“Dennis’s writing and playing opposite Taron really drew me to the project before knowing the character,” Walter Hauser says of playing killer Larry Hall. “It’s a difficult character that’s a bit scary, thankfully I was able to shed him when they called cut.”
When it comes to finding inspiration on set, Walter Hauser recalled a key moment between his character and Egerton’s Jimmy Keene in jail. “There were a lot of moments of impulse and improvisation where I channeled this character and let him loose,” Walter Hauser shares. “There’s a moment in our finale where I do something that’s violent and sexual while yelling at Taron’s character and they ended up using it in the final edit.”
“As the scene ends, I’m going crazy and hollering, which wasn’t anything we had discussed, but they used that as well,” Walter Hauser recalls of his final moments filming. “I’m glad they kept it because it scared me watching myself… it felt like I was purging the character, vomiting this awful person out of my veins.”
In the series, Academy Award nominated actor Greg Kinnear plays detective Brian Miller, the detective who first suspects Larry Hall is less than a harmless loner. “My character is the guy who followed the evidence to Larry Hall and didn’t listen to all the others saying, ‘This is not the guy,’” Kinnear explains.
Despite being shot in Louisiana, the series does an incredible job of mirroring the actual setting of rural Indiana, which is familiar territory for Kinnear. “The majority of my character’s story takes place in Indiana, not far from my hometown,” shares Kinnear. “I was only fifteen miles from where Larry Hall resided, and recreating that midwest culture was important to me when Dennis offered me the part.”
Ahead of the premiere, Lehane took a moment to acknowledge the cast and crew in the packed theater by asking them to stand amid his remarks. He highlighted the real life Jimmy Keene who was in attendance as well as the family of Ray Liotta, referencing the late actor’s indelible mark on the project.
“Black Bird” premieres globally on Apple TV+ on July 8, 2022