Ellen Barkin is one bad mother in TNT’s sexy new drama

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By Lori Acken

Ellen Barkin is 62. Sixty. Two.
Trust me, you’re going to need to remind yourself of that mere moments into Animal Kingdom, TNT’s scorching, action-packed new drama based on the critically acclaimed 2010 Australian film starring Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver and Blindspot’s Sullivan Stapleton. The series premieres on TNT Tuesday, June 14.

Barkin — all tousled locks, burnished skin and plump pout — also rocks skyscraper heels, skinny jeans and plunging tanks like a boss as Janine “Smurf” Cody, matriarch of a crime family that is literally family. Though Smurf sits out the actual heists that have made her crew filthy rich, she rules her grown sons — scruffy, smart-mouthed testosterone cases Craig and Deran, spooky parolee Pope (real name: Andrew) and savvy, adopted Baz (real name: Barry) — with an iron will and silky persuasiveness that vacillates between mama-bear protectiveness and barely veiled seduction.

And when Smurf’s long-estranged, drug-addled daughter Julia — the only Cody not game for the game— ODs as her weary teen son “J” (real name: Joshua) sits beside her, blankly watching Press Your Luck as the medics do their thing, Smurf sees a chance to bolster her troops.
“It’s like, ‘OK, let’s go! We’ll take him through recruitment with the boys, and then he’s ready to go!'” says the mesmerizing Barkin, relaxing in a Pasadena restaurant with Scott Speedman, who plays Baz (and, indeed, gazes at his costar like a smitten son). “He’s another soldier for her. Also, in some ways, I take something away from my daughter, dead or alive. It’s like [Smurf] does end up having the final word.”

And one of her dead girl’s shirts, which Smurf wears to the burial — because nothing says “mourning mother” like pilfered gold lamé.

Thus begins an enthralling battle of wills as J moves into Grandma’s house just as the simmering Pope (Southland’s Shawn Hatosy) — sacrificed to a stint in the pokey after a run goes wrong — is released from prison and finds the perplexed lad living in his room. With his rank in the Cody army already threatened by Baz, and Smurf still miffed about his screwup, Pope arguably has the most to lose. And no intention of doing so.

So, as the lusty Deran and Craig test their nephew’s taste for life on the edge, Baz cultivates J’s considerable smarts — perhaps because he knows his brothers’ shared temperament. Or maybe because he wants to give the kid the escape hatch he, too, is mulling for the sake of his pretty girlfriend and their child. Could be both.

“J’s kind of mirroring what Baz went through to a certain degree, and that’s the fascinating part,” says Speedman. “That’s why I relate to him so much, and I think Shawn and I are going to really battle for that kid’s soul — his ‘innocence’ in a certain way. Baz is deeply conflicted at this time in his life. What does he want to be in this family? Where is he going to go? It’s going to be interesting to watch play out.”

Though the idea for the feature film was culled from Australia’s colorful Pettingill family and its glass-eyed matriarch, Kath, Barkin said that, in researching her character, she also considered her own sweet mom and grandmother and what it might take to break them bad. “What motivates a woman — especially at my age — to still be really actively involved in a life of crime and passing it on to her, not just sons, but now her grandson?” Barkin ruminates. “What’s the psychology of that?”

And what might it do to her progeny, especially when she’s not there to run the show?
“It’s not just about whether or not you’re your mother’s favorite — because their whole lifestyle depends on their mother,” Barkin reflects. “So if she cuts you, you’re done. It’s like, you’re done. You’re done in the neighborhood, you’re done in the community — you’re done. And she wields that power unapologetically. She knows it. She likes it.”

Barkin says she’s keen to see how the 10-episode series — which moves the action from Melbourne to Oceanside, Calif. — allows a deep dive into the film’s compelling characters, fleshing out who the boys’ dads were, why they still have rooms at Mama’s and, yes, why Mama seems to score her outfits at Forever 21.

“Being a woman who has probably arranged her whole entire life to be surrounded by men, I think appearance is always a big deal,” says Barkin of Smurf’s sultry ways. “But why is she inappropriately sexual with all her sons? Why are her clothes a little too tight and certainly too young? It’s like she’s using whatever currency she has, for as long as she has it.”
Then Barkin pauses a moment and smiles at Speedman.

“And,” she purrs, “if one of those boys were ugly, she wouldn’t like them so much. You know that’s true.”

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