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The gritty, dark 2010 movie, Animal Kingdom, which takes place in the low-rent outland of Melbourne, Australia, revolves around a loving but manipulative mother named Smurf and her sociopathic sons—a family of shoddy, brutal criminals. The ominous film earned critical praise and an Oscar nomination for Jackie Weaver as the mother from hell.

Imagine taking that sociopathic group of trailer-trash criminals and dumping them in a beach town in Southern California, complete with surfboards and jeeps. You’d get Animal Kingdom, the high-adrenalin character drama of a TV show, produced by multiple-Emmy-winner John Wells (ER, The West Wing, Southland, Shameless) and premiering tomorrow on TNT (9/8c). It stars Ellen Barkin as the matriarch and Shawn Hatosy, Scott Speedman, Jake Weary, Ben Robson and Finn Cole as her boys.

We checked in with the fun-loving Hatosy, who plays the menacing character of Pope on the show, to talk about his TV family’s dysfunction, fatherhood and “creative steroids.”

“Pope is unpredictable, with a history of mental illness. But he says what he’s going to do and just does it. That’s something I think people will identify with.”

So what brought you to Animal Kingdom?
It was a combination of things. Executive producer John Wells, producer-writer Jon Lisco, who wrote the pilot, and the source material, the original Animal Kingdom movie. John and I have an interesting history going back to when he directed me in an ER episode. Later I worked closely with him on Southland for five great seasons (2009-2013). We had it so good on Southland, I wanted to do something like that again. It’s hard to put into words the freedom I feel when I work with him. It’s kind of like creative steroids—there’s this confidence to take risks because we’ve had a history.

What was it like to play someone whom another actor had already played?
I didn’t know Ben Mendelsohn, who originally played Pope, before I saw Animal Kingdom the movie. It has strong performances across the board. But many people have played Macbeth or Hamlet or even Danny Zuko in Grease. And, my traction wasn’t, “Oh, I can do that, in that same manner.” I always felt there was my own attribute that I could bring to the Pope character, not only that it would make it real for me but also engaging for the audience. Pope is unpredictable, with a history of mental illness. But he says what he’s going to do and just does it. That’s something I think people will identify with.

Do you see Pope as ultimately good or ultimately bad?
I don’t see Pope as black and white. I find him to be of varied colors [laughs] and polka-dotted. Mostly he’s just trying to survive and ultimately his main goal is to get that approval from Smurf, his mother. In the “animal kingdom,” sitting on top of the mountain with her, that would be what he’d want.

Yeah, we’ve seen the first couple of episodes. He really seems to want to please his mother.
Even though Pope is twisted and dark, his behavior is the result of Smurf and 38 years of her parenting him. She has such a strange relationship with each son—a manipulation that’s multiplied for Pope because it’s been longer. And, then she has such adoration for Baz, her adopted son, and has placed him on a pedestal and let him basically run the family. And this is a trigger for Pope to try harder to get in good with her, which exacerbates his own troubles.

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Sons and mothers are always complicated.
Absolutely. There’s an Oedipal element in each son’s relationship with Smurf, and we’re all struggling to try to get there to the top with her. But you just never know what she’s going to do—if we’re being accepted or, when we do something right, if she saw it. It’s that thing: “Look at me, look at well how I’m doing.”

You’re trying to be the top dog.
Right. It’s like a wolf pack. But somehow the father figure has disappeared, and so we’re all jockeying for that top position. And you don’t leave the pack because if you do, you’ll die. The only way for us to survive is to steal and scam, and do what we have to do. So as much as we dislike each other over internal domestic stuff, we would kill for each other outside of the family.

On the show, you and your brothers live in a beach town in sunny Southern California. That doesn’t sound too bad.
When I grew up back in Maryland and was watching TV and saw Beverly Hills 90210 and other shows set in Southern California, when it’s wintertime you go, “I want to go there.” And that’s going to get people to tune in. Plus, it’s just a really good show. This time in our business, television is THE medium. With executive producer John Wells knowing how to keep a show going with quality writing, you can hang your hat on that.

Plus that’s some cast you’ve got.
Everybody in the cast is very talented, and playing a family, we’ve all been very connected from the get-go. And, all the way from Ellen Barkin to Scott Speedman to Finn Cole to Jake Weary and Ben Robson to myself, we’ve got each others’ backs outside of work. We’re really determined to make Animal Kingdom the best show possible.

But do you leave Pope at work?
I leave Pope and all his stuff on the set. But my little guy Leo has a real dark side. It emerges only with me and my wife [Kelly Albanese]. Not so much with others [laughs]. With us, he’s a lot like my character Pope. He’s got some, uh… tendencies. We might look at him a certain way, and he’ll say something out of nowhere, and we’re thinking, “Where does that come from?” But you can’t help but laugh. He’s three years old. But we hope this means he’s just strong-willed and that he’ll go far in life.