Black Bird's Greg Kinnear And Sepideh Moafi On The 'Perfect Script' And A Six-Hour Table Read [Interview]

The new Apple TV+ series "Black Bird" provides plenty of opportunities for electric performances. Taron Egerton plays Jimmy Keene, a criminal presented with an intriguing option: In exchange for his freedom, he must go undercover in a maximum security facility, befriend a possible killer (Paul Walter Hauser), and get the man to reveal the locations of where he buried his victims. Egerton and Hauser are doing some of the best work of their careers here, and they clearly relish being able to dig into these juicy dramatic roles.

But the show also features a terrific supporting cast of performers who make their subplots feel just as vital as the drama happening within the prison's walls. The late Ray Liotta is fantastic as Egerton's character's dying father. "The Wire" actor Robert Wisdom continues the great year he's having on TV (he played a grieving father on the most recent season of "Barry"). And Sepideh Moafi and Greg Kinnear are totally dialed in as a pair of colleagues who spend years trying to obtain justice for the murder victims.

You know Kinnear. "Little Miss Sunshine." "As Good As It Gets." "You've Got Mail." He's a stalwart screen presence, a familiar face, and the type of actor where you knew it was only a matter of time before he played a dogged investigator named "Brian Miller" in a prestige drama. The only shock here would be if he didn't nail this role. (Don't worry. He nails it.)

Moafi, on the other hand, was a discovery for me. She's worked on several shows ("Notorious," "The Deuce," "The L Word: Generation Q"), but I'd personally never seen any of them. I wondered if she might get blown off the screen in a show that's so stacked with bigger name actors. But when she enters "Black Bird" as a tough-as-nails FBI agent Lauren McCauley, Moafi not only holds her own, but she cuts through Jimmy Keene's B.S. like no other character and quickly made me feel silly for ever doubting her.

I recently had the chance to sit down over Zoom with Kinnear and Moafi to talk about working with showrunner Dennis Lehane ("The Wire," "The Outsider"), what they brought to their roles, their approach to finding their way in to these characters, and more.

'That first scene ... is unlike anything that I've read and been able to play'

Sepideh, your character serves as a bridge for the audience between two worlds here. This show is about performance in many ways, and it sort of seems as if Lauren almost had to play multiple characters as the show sort of goes along. She's one way with Brian, she's another way with Jimmy (Taron Egerton). Tell me about developing those different versions of your character.

Moafi: Well, I think when you're working with a great script — and in this case, it was a perfect script that barely changed throughout the time that I was involved — it makes your job a lot easier, because you don't have to sort of create these other worlds and imagine why your character's going to different places. It's all there on the page. And so I didn't have to do much. I just had to really delve deeper and deeper into the script to hear or feel or intuit, I guess, her behavior. McCauley and Miller have a relationship that has spanned over about a decade, the entirety of our show's timeline.

So obviously there's a certain backstory, the hundreds of hours, if not thousands of hours they've spent working on these cases together, the conversations, the number of drinks they've had together. I mean, that is a huge backstory in its own right. And Greg made it so easy, not only because he's a brilliant actor, but he's just a lovely, deeply human, generous person and we had immediate chemistry when we met. So I think that offscreen chemistry and friendship reads on screen. So again, the work is kind of done there. And with Taron, it was the same thing. We became friends immediately and these scenes are written ... I mean, they're like tour de force scenes.

That first scene that we see Lauren recruiting Jimmy, essentially, is unlike anything that I've read and been able to play, definitely in television. Even in film or theater, you just don't get to hit so many levels and do so much within one long monologue. So as an actor, it was really exciting, but as these characters, it's kind of the reality of what Lauren has to do in order to do her job successfully, and as you know, she is one of, if not the ... She's the only woman, female lead, in this show, but she's one of the few female characters in this male-dominated world. And as we know in many career places, women face intense adversity, especially during this time in any law enforcement. Women have only been able to be part of the FBI for 51 years. And so all of these factors play into how I got to interpret her and all of these circumstances made it easy for me to just throw myself in and play, really.

'I think he was a dog with a bone when it came to Larry Hall'

Greg, your character doesn't have to put on quite as many masks in this show, and sort of at a glance, Brian kind of seems almost like an archetypical character in a way: The dogged officer with a hunch who's fighting this uphill battle to get folks to believe him. So I'm curious about what kind of conversations you might have had with Dennis about being able to put your own spin on this guy and make him feel like a real person, essentially.

Kinnear: Well, I kind of read him, and in talking to Dennis early on, first and foremost as a father. The story opens with him at his daughter's football game. And that was, to me, more the through line of him than anything, a father to his daughter. Because of that, these girls, including Jessica Roach, who he finds in this cornfield early on, all of these girls who are victims, I think he felt differently about as a father. And I think the relationship that Lauren and he have is different. I mean, has so much respect for her, but I think he cares for her and is protective of her, as well. And so I feel like that's the through line that made him a little bit more off the page than the detective dog with a bone. But that said, he's that, too. I mean, he's a Vietnam vet who dismantled bombs in real life. That was his vocation. Very task oriented, driven, and I think he was a dog with a bone when it came to Larry Hall.

Sepideh, when you initially read the script, was there a specific scene or a moment where things really clicked into place for you and you knew how you were going to portray this character?

Moafi: I don't know if it was a specific scene, but within the first few paragraphs, I couldn't stop reading. I had the first three scripts before I auditioned for this part. It was like any novel that you can't put down, like a Dennis Lehane novel. You just can't put it down. It's a page turner. And so I, as just a reader, I loved reading the script and these characters and this world just exploded off the page. Really. What sets Dennis apart in my mind is that you feel his characters. It's not that you just understand them. It's they really like enter — I felt like Lauren entered my bloodstream just in reading about the way he describes her. It's so specific. It's so clear.

And yet Dennis, as a collaborator, as our showrunner, as our creator/producer/writer, he trusts us completely. He trusted me completely and gave me the freedom and empowered me, really, to bring all of myself the same way that Lauren brings all of herself to her work. And so, yeah, there wasn't a specific moment. It was just, I couldn't put the scripts down. Even though I thought I didn't have a chance in hell of getting this part, honestly — I thought it was for sure going to go to a big name — but I thought that this was just such an incredible opportunity to get to enter the mind space, the heart space of this woman, this singular woman in this male-dominated world.

And you have to tell me about your amazing Paul Walter Hauser-as-Larry Hall impression. Were you like Michael Jordan out there just crushing game tape to study that? Tell me about filming that moment.

Moafi: (laughs) I feel like whenever you get into a flow with a story ... and that's like what Lauren would ... that's Lauren. It's, you're so sick of hearing this voice, and I feel like in that moment, it's like, "I can't stand this guy anymore. We can't pin him down." And so that's where the invitation came from, really. But no, I don't think there was any prep or thought about it. It's just, again, it's written on the page as she's quoting him and that's how he talks and how many hours have they heard him speak? They know him in and out and they know that they want to get him, but they just can't.

'It was such an oddball experience making it'

Greg, as we record this, I believe "Mystery Men" is about to celebrate an anniversary this week. And we're obviously now living in a world in which superheroes are the dominant characters in American storytelling. And I saw that earlier this year, Ben Stiller said he would be interested in coming back for a sequel. So I was just curious if you'd be interested in coming back to play Captain Amazing's twin brother, or maybe a version of the character who's been reconstructed in some way after the events of the first film?

Kinnear: If Mr. Furious is coming back, then Captain Amazing is coming back. No question about it. Yeah. That's funny. That [movie] has such a crazy following. It was such an oddball experience making it, but God, I didn't know it was that long ago, but it was really fun. So yeah, sure, I'm back. I think I got Psycho-defrakulated in the original "Mystery Men," so they'd have to do some creative work, but that can always be figured out on the page.

Moafi: Always.

'It's an amazing performance that Ray Liotta gives in Black Bird'

I think I have time for one more question, so Greg, I just wanted to ask you: When you think back on your experience making "Black Bird," is there a specific memory that jumps out at you? Maybe even not something that made it into the cut of the show, but just a memory during production that makes you laugh or that you appreciate, looking back on it now?

Kinnear: Honestly, it was a beautifully cast show and it was — two things come to mind. One was the table read, because I was dreading it. It's Covid, we're all going to do it on video screens. I don't even know how to operate my Zoom. And I was like, "My God, there's going to be six hours of pain. Anything, I don't care how good it is. This is going to be pain." It was riveting. It was a six hour video read of a show that was written so beautifully that I found myself glued to it. And that's when I knew "Black Bird" had a real shot.

The second thought I have is kind of walking behind the trailers one day when I stayed around, maybe accidentally on purposely a little bit. And I ran into Ray [Liotta] and got to talk to him briefly. He was an incredible actor whose early work inspired his whole career. We were lucky to have him in this. It's an amazing performance that Ray Liotta gives in "Black Bird" and tragically we lost him this year.

"Black Bird" debuts on Apple TV+ on July 8, 2022.