On the surface, TNT’s new drama, “Animal Kingdom,” is about a family of criminals headed by a controlling matriarch, Smurf (played by Ellen Barkin). However, as the first season comes to a close Tuesday night, viewers have seen that each of Smurf's boys has his own love/hate relationship with his mother, while they try to pull yet another big heist.
But what do you do if you’re in the middle of this intense, violent world, and you’re hiding the fact that you’re gay? The sexuality of youngest son, Deran (Jake Weary), however, hasn’t been portrayed as your typical coming out story, and that’s been the intention of the writers.
The series, based on the acclaimed 2010 Australian film of the same name, was developed for TNT by executive producer Jonathan Lisco, who talked to NBC OUT recently, along with Weary, to break down Deran’s story and whether it’s true in this case that mothers always know when it comes to their gay sons.
NBC OUT: We found out early in the series that Deran is deeply closeted, but it didn’t completely take over the story. How did you navigate how you wanted to tell this story?
LISCO: I think a lot of people are surprised by how this show is subtler than its premise suggests and that we’re doing that on purpose, obviously. We’re putting in certain superficial things that draw people in who might not want a deeper narrative and then surprising them by how layered the characterizations are and then they stick with it because they like the combination, the cross pollination of all that. With the Deran/Adrian storyline we did that very thing so in episode two you see Deran in the stall of the bathroom and you’re not sure what’s happening and then he beats the heck out of that guy (Adrian, played by Spencer Treat Clark), and you never even see that guy’s face. A lot of people at that point thought, “Oh okay, they’re just doing it to show the brutality and what Deran is capable of. That’ll never be a real storyline.” We started with the DNA of that and then said, “No, we’re going to thwart your expectations and turn this into not only a real storyline but a real relationship between Deran and somebody that he genuinely cares about, be it a man or a woman. In this case a man.”
WEARY: I think there’s something about this show that’s surprisingly a lot about love. There’s so much about family and what kind of relationships each member of the family has with each other and also outside of the family. A lot of the show is very much about staying in the family and keeping it a very exclusive. Every character is supposed to be so exclusive to Smurf and the family business, so I think that’s another interesting aspect of it. It’s a part of the struggle for Deran, because it’s something that he’s definitely struggling with that he can’t really express to his family.
NBC OUT: Even when his brother Craig (Ben Robson) tells Deran he knows about Adrian, it doesn’t make everything okay, does it?
WEARY: No, it’s totally him.
LISCO: Smurf’s relationship to all of her boys has depended on wielding her sexuality with them, in a certain way, and wanting to believe that even though it’s taboo deep down they find her attractive. So the idea of Deran being with a woman would be hard enough for Smurf, but it’s at least something that she can understand. The idea of him having a group that she really is outside of threatens her deeply, and threatens her ability to manipulate her sons.
WEARY: It adds to the element of Deran wanting to escape and leave. I mean there’s an episode where he says, “I just want to leave Smurf.” I think that’s a big part of why he’s driving himself crazy. I mean, he can’t just be who he is and find his identity.
LISCO: We think about Deran sometimes as, in some ways, the baby of the family but also the one who’s most possessed of his own need to escape the gravity of her power and so he might be able to one day have his own life if he can ever work this out.
NBC OUT: I’m always watching Smurf, because being a gay man, I believe mothers always know. Mine did! Does Smurf know?
LISCO: All I can say in response to that is we have discussed in the writers’ room that she does, and we have discussed that she doesn’t, but I think you make a very interesting point. Mothers always know, and if [she] doesn’t, why doesn’t she? I think that’s the question to ask, so if we do go in the direction of her not knowing is it self-denial? Is it suppressing what is right before her? Is there some emotional reason why she’s doing that?
NBC OUT: What will we see moving forward, even into the second season?
WEARY: This is something that obviously doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process, and I think that’s something that I’m really excited about for season two. I think there are so many different layers to this character. It’s not the stereotypical gay character on the television show. There’s so much more to it, and that’s why I love playing him.
The "Animal Kingdom" season finale airs Tuesday, August 9, at 9 p.m. on TNT.