Meet the Gangster-Glam Stars of 'Vegas'
by ray rogers
Long before it became an icon of over-the-top glitz and glamour, megawatt superstar productions, five-star restaurants, and glimmering casinos promising revelry and escapism on the Strip, Las Vegas had humble beginnings as primarily ranch territory. Vegas, the new CBS primetime show premiering September 25, takes viewers back to the early ’60s, when the gambling mecca was in transition from the shoot-’em-up Wild West to the emerging Sin City, and real-life Sheriff Ralph Lamb—as portrayed by Dennis Quaid in his television series debut— fought the mob and instilled his version of law and order to the land.
In the role of mobster Vincent Savino, iconic tough guy Michael Chiklis (The Shield) returns to TV to square off against Quaid and Carrie-Anne Moss’s Assistant District Attorney Katherine O’Connell. We sat down with Chiklis and the actress known to The Matrix fans a s the righteous Trinity—she’s still on the quest for truth and humanity, only this time it’s not in a battle of men versus machines, but a turf war between gangsters and cowboys.
What about 1960s Las Vegas appeals to you?
Michael Chiklis: It really was a frontier town, and there was this culture clash between sophisticated organized-crime families and the local population. Both were equally tough and uncompromising, but they had to become compromising—otherwise Vegas wouldn’t be what it is today. That’s what fascinates me the most about the period—the unlikely alliances and the great ideas that had to come into play in order for Vegas to become successful. Right at that time is when the casinos started to bring in the Hollywood elements, singers, comedians, and all of the entertainment icons of the day, obviously to draw crowds. But they were also flying in oysters from the East Coast. They really thought outside the box.
Carrie-Anne Moss: I grew up in Canada, and I remember my mom and aunt went to Las Vegas a couple of times to see Elvis when I was a kid. They would come home with bags of coins for us they’d won from the slot machines, and I had this kind of romantic idea of Las Vegas, never having been there at that point. The thing that appealed to me about this script was the fact that Ralph Lamb grew up in Las Vegas, and his family had been living there for years and years. Now it just feels like a play place, where you go and have an “experience.” I always feel when I go to Las Vegas that there’s not a lot of nature—and I know that’s not true—but you’re usually in hotel rooms, and you don’t even have to go outside if you don’t want. At one time it was much simpler. I was kind of taken with the natural world being Ralph Lamb versus the material world of the mob, Michael’s character, Vincent Savino. I’m interested in that struggle.
Why does that resonate for you?
CAM: I tend to be someone who appreciates the natural world, and nature and truth and beauty and integrity, and I feel passionately about the other side of corruption and greed and exploitation. My character in the show feels that way, too. She has a great deal of passion for keeping where she’s from as pure as possible.
Michael, some of your biggest TV roles have been police officers. What’s it like to play the other side of the law?
MC: I’m standing on the shoulders of many great actors, from the very early days of film all the way up to Tony Soprano. One of my earliest memories is seeing On The Waterfront, watching Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger play gangsters. These are all iconic, powerful performances. Some people would argue whether they’re romanticized or not. For me, it’s important I make this guy unique. You can’t look at someone you’re playing as a villain; you have to understand his perspective on things. These guys were mainly immigrants and sons of immigrants who wanted to pursue the quintessential American dream of making a lot of money and becoming part of the mainframe of American culture. They wanted their kids not to have to do some of the things they may have had to do while they were trying to make it, and for them to be accepted as part of the fabric of America.
Michael’s character is a composite of many types who descended upon Vegas in the early ’60s, whereas Carrie-Anne, your character is more of a fictional creation—there wasn’t a female assistant DA in Vegas at that time. How did you research this role?
CAM: I went to the library and got some books out. I talked to this woman at the library and told her what I was doing, and she looked at me and said: “Oh, women then? They didn’t like women like you and me.” She was talking to me as if I were the character I’d described to her: “They didn’t like women who were educated, or were choosing not to have kids, or were choosing a different way. They didn’t like us at all.” I also imagined my grandmother—her name is Beatrice—back then. I grabbed all of the postcards she ever sent me; I read all of her writings. She was a firecracker—beautiful, passionate, had four children, and was the foundation of her family. She wore pink lipstick and bright colors. She did her hair and traveled. She was separated from her husband. She worked on her feet as one of the only saleswomen on the floor of the Sears furniture department. She played bridge and liked her martinis. She was awesome.
What’s it like shooting together?
MC: First of all, Carrie-Anne is absolutely lovely, and I mean that both physically and as a person. She’s a really, really cool girl, and very smart. You can tell that with her, you get what you get—she’s solid. We bonded in talking about the fact that we’re very family-oriented; we’re both married with children and low-key homebody types.
CAM: When Michael walks into the room with that whole mob group, it’s a trip! That ego in his character is so out there. We’d never worked together before, but I always thought he was a really great actor. He’s lovely; and, like he said, he’s passionate about his family, which I dig.
What do your kids think of your work?
CAM: Mine have never seen anything I’ve ever done. They’re pretty little still, especially my daughter. My two boys get that I have a different name when I’m working; I go by my married name in my real life. So when people come up and say, “Are you Carrie-Anne Moss?” they are like, “Why do people think that’s your name?!” [Laughs] I want to protect their innocence for as long as I can and not bombard them with my journey. I think that when my children do see The Matrix, they won’t believe it— that that’s the woman who tells them not to play with guns in the backyard, who says not to be violent and rough. I may have to just say, “Sorry guys, I’m a hypocrite!”
You’ve both done a lot of TV and movies. Is there an adjustment one has to make when doing one or the other?
CAM: A little bit. With a movie you have a beginning, middle, and an end, so you have a clear focus as to the arc of your character. Here you’re more at the mercy of the writers, and you have to just trust that process.
MC: This is essentially being shot with the high-end production values of a feature film—down to every last detail. We basically re-created old Fremont Street. You can drive down the street and walk into Club Savoy and walk into the middle of the casino, all in one shot. It’s stunning. They had a baccarat table in there, and [the set designer] sees it and says, “No, no, this is from the wrong period; it’s from the ’70s—you’ve gotta get the right one.” And same goes for the costumes. It makes it easier for me as an actor to walk into that space and be transported into that period. Do you think Vegas is better today or back then?
CAM: Just because I’m very old-fashioned, I think I would have liked the innocence of it back then a little more—if there was any. [Laughs]
MC: From a comfort and accommodations standpoint, today, without question. But looking at it from a romantic standpoint, it must have been incredibly exciting back then, and really brand-new, and you know—the Rat Pack, man. Think about some guy from Podunk, Iowa, back then; it must’ve been mind-blowing! As it is, it’s still mind-blowing.
photography by andrew eccles