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A Conversation with the Breakout Kings: Nick Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi

Nick Santora is the author of SLIP AND FALL and FIFTEEN DIGITS both forthcoming from Mulholland Books. He is also the co-writer, co-executive producer and co-creator of Breakout Kings which premieres this Sunday, March 6th at 10PM on A&E. Here, Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi (star of Breakout Kings, The Wire, Entourage and more) discuss their collaboration on the show, the concept of literary TV and, most importantly, which New York borough is the best.

Mulholland Books: Nick, you’ve described shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Breakout Kings as “literary TV.” What does the phase mean to you?

Nick Santora: I think to me, and there are other shows that I think fall into that category as well like Boardwalk Empire. But to me, it’s trying to take television to a different level of storytelling -when you’re doing stuff that you have not necessarily seen before. There’s television out there that is absolutely great; and that makes a lot of people happy and makes a lot of people a lot money, but it’s definitely, for lack of a better term, I guess, a bit old hat. It’s the straight case of where character dialogues are interchangeable and it just doesn’t make a difference who says what. I can state from experience: I’ve worked on shows where I’ve been on set, and I’m not going to name the show; but, where one actor was having trouble with his lines, and his buddy, another actor has said don’t worry, I know that line. I’ll take it and you take my line, it’s shorter. And my writer brain and my producer brain both cramped at hearing that until, I actually saw them play the scene and I realized- it just doesn’t make a difference, who says what.

Because the whole entire episode is about the case and the characters are nothing but meats puppets that give exposition. It really bothered me, and I swore that if I could ever get my own show on the air, I would try at least to make the show about something other than just the case of the week. And on Breakout Kings, that’s what I and Matt Olmstead, my co-creator on the show, have tried to do and I think that we have been relatively successful.

MB: Domenick, your Wikipedia entry claims that your main inspiration as an actor is the film State of Grace. While the film is a cult classic, it’s also kind of a narrow choice, so I thought I’d ask…

Domenick Lombardozzi: No, that’s not true. Although, I do love the movie. Gary Oldman. Fantastic. Although I did A Bronx Tale when I was fifteen, it wasn’t until I did a movie called Kiss me Guido that I really fell in love with acting– just the whole process, the learning what other people do, the camaraderie. It was that experience for me because we actually took that movie from nothing, and got funding, did readings to get money, to get that movie we made for Tony Vitale, and it was just that whole process that really inspired me.

NS: Kiss Me Guido is another example of literary film–Tony Vitale is really a talented writer. You know we can all go out and see a movie that is a lot of incredible special effects, and the star of the movie frankly is what’s done in the editing biz with the incredible talented editors, and the CGI, and all the incredible technology that is available today. Those movies are great and I love those movies; and I’ll be the first one to go and see one of those films, but, I also love a film where the star is the story, and the actors are bring the story to life.

MB: Dominick, you’ve played a lot of tough guys on screen and your performances seem really authentic. Are there other films you consider influential to your acting style?

DL: Well, sure–I mean, Nick will tell you I’m a big movie buff and from The Godfather to The French Connection. I love Gene Hackman, The Conversation. All those movies from ’67 and on, which to me are like the golden age of cinema have inspired me, taught me. I haven’t taken any acting classes or anything like that, so a lot of these movies were a form of education for me.

NS: Dom’s never taken an acting class, and I’ve never taken a writing class, you’re talking to the two least educated guys that you’ll ever interview.

MB: Well, I wouldn’t go to class now. As they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

DL: I don’t know if you guys remember, there was a trade school. Nick, you remember it, Apex Technical School?

NS: Yeah, every time you pass the school, they put a tool in your tool box. Dom and I went to the Apex Tech School of acting and writing.

MB: Nick, you’ve obviously worked on quite a few crime shows over the years or shows that are at least known for having crime elements, and here we have this new show with a really unique and inventive crime-related idea. Where did the idea for Breakout Kings originate for you?

NS: Well, it’s a funny story–well maybe not a funny story but, I hope it’s an interesting story. I was on my first year at Prison Break, and really loving it. It was a great show, and that we got to write basically a preposterous dime store novella over four years–that was just a blast. And the writers that I worked with and the actors that I worked with, and the whole cast and crew and the producers, were just wonderful people. I mean there wasn’t an argument in four years. It was Heaven. Ah and of course me, being who I am, instantly says, “Well this is too good to be true, let me leave it.”

And one day I go into the office, and Matt Olmstead, who is now my partner on Breakout Kings , came into my office to hang out and I said to him- “Hey I got this idea for this television show, and I’m thinking about developing it.” I pitched him the idea for Breakout Kings.

He then gave me great advice, and he said, “Listen stupid, if things here are so good, which they clearly are, why would you want to leave? Very rarely do you get a good run in the entertainment business, especially, the television business. This show is going to run for a few years, I feel it in my bones. Put the show in your back pocket and do it later. Because, if you go and develop it now, you’re going to have to leave this show and then if this Breakout Kings concept fails, you’re out of a job. Because we’re going to replace you here on Prison Break if you’re gonna leave.”

And I took that to heart and said he’s right, and I kind a put it in my back pocket. And years later, three and half years later, Prison Break ends, and Matt and I each had a year left on our respective contracts. We weren’t writing partners, and we went out to lunch and we realized that we were going to get assigned to a show because, 20th Century Fox, as handsome as Matt and I are, they’re not going to pay us to sit around and be good looking. So, they’re going to make us go on a show to help out. And we said you know what, and Matt said you know what, we’ll go and help out any show they want but, we should really try in the mean time to develop something on our own.

We really had a good time working together, let’s come up with a concept and do something together. And we did have fun working together for those four years on Prison Break and so, I said, “That’s a great idea. How about, do you remember this idea, I mentioned it years ago; I doubt you remember it.”  And before I could even finish the sentence Matt said, “Breakout Kings.” And the fact that he remembers the title years later to me made me confident or made me feel good. It made me realize that maybe it was a pretty decent idea or at the very least a catchy title. Then Matt and I proceeded to work on it together and write a pilot, we were both proud of and go ahead and get it going. That’s really how it came about and the truth is that if Matt hadn’t give that advice, so many years ago, I probably would’ve tried to develop it that year. And I would’ve missed out on a great run on Prison Break, and who knows what would’ve happened with the show. Because–Matt and I say this all the time–this show would be completely different without Matt involved and would be completely different without me involved, and I’m glad we did it together. You know, everything happens for a reason.

MB: Here’s a question that applies to both of you. There are two major types of shows: linear narratives that function like novels, The Wire and Prison Break, for example. And  episodic shows like Breakout Kings that feature recurring characters, but are structured to have an individual story in each episode. Does your approach differ depending  on format?

DL: From an actor’s point of view, we all knew we were doing an episodic kind of show, but, you know, what Nick and Matt created for us were these characters that were all different and throughout each episode they each have their own little story, and it helps the actor because it just keeps your interest in that serialized kind of way.  You can’t jump into The Wire during the second season and know what the hell is going on–it’s just not formatted that way. With Breakout Kings, I feel like I’m getting both worlds, and hopefully–God willing–we’ll get a second season–it’ll expand.

MB: Right, because the backstory of each of the characters is so unique and there seems like there is a lot to work with as an actor. As a viewer, I want to know more about all of them.

DL: Yeah, the whole thing with Ray and his daughter, his job, the badge- all that stuff. You have Charlie, all these characters, yeah every episode, we’re chasing a fugitive but the heartbeat of the show, I think, is who these people are, what they are running away from and what they’re running to. Would you agree Nick?

NS: Yeah I agree. Dom couldn’t of said it better, from if I’m gonna speak from a purely business stand point, and put my producer hat on; it’s much better business to do episodes or do a TV show where people can tune into any episode and watch it and not worry that if they missed an episode that they have to catch up. That it’s not a big deal that they can do that. Writing a show like Prison Break is mentally exhausting. By the way, Breakout Kings has been exhausting too. It’s hard making a TV show. But, Prison Break was insane at times where we had bibles of the show that were phone-book thick. Where we totally relied on the assistants to help us, and they were wonderful at it–to help us keep track of the story lines. And if you, tried to tune into Prison Break halfway through season two, you’re a goner, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s a show people who hadn’t watch it but, heard good things about it I’ve told them–just go get season one and watch it straight through.

In fact one of the the actors on our show, Malcolm Goodwin–he and his wife had never seen it. And I just saw them last week and when we were shooting the opening title sequence for Breakout Kings, it was all they could talk about. They went and got season one of Prison Break and they started watching it and his wife Vanessa finished it in three days–and was just hooked. She said, they’d sit there and watch five, six episodes in a row. You have to do that with this show.

It makes it very difficult from a writing stand point, and it also makes it a little bit difficult from a business stand point because, if you don’t get big number right off the bat, your numbers are only going to go down. Where a show that’s episodic, if you don’t get big numbers right off the bat, you can hope the show builds over time, because, people know, they can still jump in thinking “Oh I’ve been meaning to catch that show.” As opposed to “I missed the first three episodes, I won’t know what’s going on.” From a creative stand point, they’re both challenging in their own ways. Like I said, writing a show that’s serialized or novelistic, you just realize after a while you have to pay everything off, everything has to link up, story-lines have to be interwoven and it’s straining in its own right.

From an episodic standpoint, it’s difficult in that each week you are required to have that big case of the week. I love cases of the week–where we have these super bad guys and we do that on Breakout Kings, and they’re interesting in and of their own right, but, they are just a tool, to see how that case reflects on our heroes. You know the six Breakout Kings and how it affects them and how they react to it. So the way to make those cases interesting we also, have to come up with a great character, and write a great character for the bad guy, so people, are interested in that person as well. So we have bad guys in season one that are completely sympathetic, bad guys who might not even be bad guys, bad guys who are so bad that we have to get into their psyche and figure out why they’re, why they are the way they are. As oppose to just bad guys who are bad guys because, we need a bad guy.

MB: Nick, you’re from Queens. And Domenick is from the Bronx. So let’s put the TV stuff aside for a minute and cut to the chase. Which borough reigns supreme: The Bronx or Queens?

NS: As a guy who’s born in Queens, and Dom is a guy from the Bronx, I could say without a doubt that, the Bronx would crush Queens. And it’s solely for this reason, the Bronx has the Yankees, and Queens has the Mets and I’m a Yankees fan. I’m a Yankees Fan, I love the Yankees and I used to practice law at court house on Grand Concourse which, was literally in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

DL: Which means the Bronx gave him more business.

NS: That’s true. I used to practice law too in Jamaica in the Sutphin Avenue Court house, but, I did a lot more in the Bronx, you get much bigger verdicts in the Bronx than you do Queens. Now, I’ll ask Dom a question. Let me interview Dom. When you are reading the script, what in the writing about the script makes you say, hey this is something I want to do, as opposed to, this is something I definitely don’t want to do, or I’ll do it but, it will just be a pay check?

DL: Well, I don’t think I ever did anything for the pay check.

NS: That’s the perfect answer.

DL: Well, here you go. Last pilot season, I read numerous pilots, and it was Breakout Kings that stood out to me. Just because of how it was set up. I’ve never seen that before–fugitives catch fugitives. Actually my friend Anthony Masnamoro actually told me, he goes: this show’s for you. This is perfect. And so for me it’s the writing and like, you and Matt–it’s who you were working with. I know you guys asked around and you know what you wanted, you read a script, and you envision yourself doing that for six, seven years, and if you say yeah, I can play this part for five, six, seven years and it’ll keep me interested then you go for it. If you can’t envision yourself playing that part for five, six, seven years, then why bother?

NS: Right, and from my standpoint when you write a role and then you start the audition process for that particular piece of writing you’re looking for an actor that’s going, to bring something to the role that you hoped for and then something that you didn’t expect. And when Dom read, what we had hoped for in the Ray character, was someone who despite being a cop who has to very often do these dangerous things, and distasteful things, who has this big heart. There was a scene at the end of the pilot which I can’t give away but, basically he talks about something that deals with his daughter and Dom came in and read that scene the way I feel I would live that moment if that was a true moment in my life and I was talking about my daughter. He came in and just brought this heart to the character, that we always hoped would be there and was always hoping for someone to come in and nail it, and Dom just came in and nailed it.

What Dom also brings in that we didn’t expect frankly, is a great physicality in Ray Zancanelli that doesn’t have to be overblown. When we wrote the character, we knew he would be a tough cop, and look the tough cop in most shows is a guy whose, always grabbing a guy and throwing him up against the wall and always grabbing a guy and throwing him out the window–and trust me Ray Zancanelli throws a lot of people against walls and out windows in Breakout Kings.

DL: Knocks a lot of doors down, too.

NS: But, he also does it with a look. Dom has a physicality about him and he has a look that he can just with his eyes tell someone, shut the fuck up. And that person’s gonna shut the fuck up. He brings that through in Ray in a way that I don’t think we did expect, and it makes it easier to write, where we can just write Dom gives the guy a look and the guy knows instantly to stop screwing around. So when you’re writing these characters, you pray for someone like Domenick Lombardozzi to walk through the door, because, two things- one, the character we envisioned is going to live the way we had hoped for and two, my job’s gonna be easier the next few years of the show, if the show runs for a few years, cause it’s just easier to write for somebody like that.

There really isn’t a character on our show that we have difficulty writing for. I’ve been on other shows, and Matt has too, where we eventually just start writing less dialogue for certain characters because the actor either can’t handle it, or isn’t really getting it or understanding what we really want. And then you have the privilege of writing for some of the actors, like all the actors on Breakout Kings. I’ve gotten to write for Bob Knepper, whose one of the, I think, the best actors around. I’ve gotten to write for James Gandolfini and Dabney Coleman and these are actors that you don’t even have to think when you write. You honestly just sit in front of the computer and start typing, and it just comes out because, you know no matter what you put down, their gonna make it work–and sometimes stuff down that might not even be that great, and they make it great. So it’s an interesting thing about the mix between writing and acting that when it clicks, it’s just wonderful.

MB: Once you have established a character with a certain actor, does it affect the way you write that character in the scripts?

NS: Yeah, I think, so well for example, with Dom and with Jimmy Simpson, who plays Lloyd Lowery on our show, I will very often make references to actors-cause all three of us love film so much- as do the other actors on the show, but, it just seems Jimmy and Dom very often, if we’re talking about a scene and dissecting a scene and trying to figure something out that needs to be figured out will sometimes, I’ll make a reference and say, it’s Michael Keaton in Beetle Juice, minus the manic-ness but with that bravado. And then Jimmy and Don will go,”I know exactly what you mean.” And they’ll turn around and do it and make it their own, but, it’s my way of articulating it.

My biggest weakness as a producer is sometimes, being able to articulate to an actor clearly, what I’m thinking of in a scene. I think that’s something that I can better at. So, using a shorthand sometimes really helps. I know Dom and I were once talking about something I saw him doing, something great in a scene and I said to him, hey was there a little hint of Jackie Gleason in there, and Dom goes you picked up on that, because Dom and I are both Honeymooners fans- huge Honeymooners fans. Do you remember that Dom?

DL: Yeah, I remember that.

NS: Man, I think that was back in the pilot. In fact that was the first time you ever see Ray Zancanelli, and he threw a little Gleason in there, and I just saw it. I was sitting on my little director’s chair, and ah…

DL: And away you go.

NS: And I smiled. And I said here we go because, I’m gonna love working with this guy’ cause, he just did an homage to Gleason there, and it was great. So that’s a shorthand definitely, helps me. I don’t know Dom do you feel like you have a shorthand with me and Matt?

DL: Here’s the thing, I know when Nick is writing my lines and I know when Matt is because, their just two different people, and that’s fine. It’s just, I just take it. You know, I get the scripts and I just know when Nick is going for I think most of the time, right Nick. I mean usually it’s just, I want to just change a word here and there it’s just because I can’t pronounce it. You know. Or make it into a joke, anyway. But, sometimes the rhythm for me is very important and Nick, I always call Nick and say, “Nick, can I change it to this so it just flows a little better for me. “Nick is like “Yeah, of course.” But, other than that everything is just always on the page for me. I mean it’s just, the hardest part of doing this job was the time, the weather, it was never the writing, that all came pretty easy because, they just know who we all are- they knew, Nick and Matt, know who these characters are so.

NS: One, I’ll say that, obviously, I know you know this. Every character and every script is a group effort, from the Breakout Kings team here. But I appreciate the compliment from Dom–but also, though there is one scene, that I will for lack of a better term, quote unquote take credit for. Which is a scene that I fought for, actually–the studio didn’t want in the script when it was in outline stage, and I fought for it because, I said: you’re making a mistake–this will be the most memorable scene of the episode. And it’s an episode where, Ray Zancanelli, burst into his ex-wife’s new home because, he feels like his daughter might be in danger from particular fugitive who has found out who the Breakout Kings are, and where they live, and where their families live, and that kind of stuff.

And I just wrote that scene, and my wife and I have been together happily since I’ve been twenty-four years old, and she’s been twenty-two, well if you can image that. However, I put myself in the mind-set of–if I was divorced, and my wife married someone else, and that scumbag new husband was gonna tell me what I could and could not do with my daughter. And I wrote that scene with my blood pressure at eight-fifty. And printed it up and we sent in the script and Dom called me up- and it was so funny- he didn’t know that I had to fight for that scene, and Dom called me up and said “Dude, I just read the scene Nick, and holy shit. I love the scene.” I’ll tell you what, it’s my favorite scene of the year and Dom comes in and just kills it.

DL: One of my favorite scenes, to perform, actually.

NS: Yeah, he just absolutely crushed it. So sometimes when writing, people will say, “Oh, it’s the character.” And it’s true you have to get in the head of the character. I know when I write, you know, this character, Tea Bag, played by Bob Knepper, I find myself sometimes talking out loud, in a southern accent not realizing it- and hearing a guy from New York trying to use a southern accent is absolutely preposterous.

But, I sound like some bastardized version of Atticus Finch, but the truth is sometimes to get the scene to a pure place you have to ask yourself well, would this character react in the same way I would? If the answer is yes, well, then it’s a really easy scene to write. It’s rare that the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s just a cheat, saying oh well, I would react this way, so I’m gonna write the character reacting this way. But there are similarities I feel between me and Ray, so that was, a very pure place for the character to go. In which, that was a place that I would go. And, that was a very easy scene to write.

DL:And as an actor, it’s very encouraging because, it’s based from I wouldn’t say so much as truth because, I know Nick is not running around doing all that, but that’s where his heart is- and then you see it in the writing. So when you read it and perform it, you know it’s coming from a truthful place; and it makes a world of a difference.

NS: That last scene too, in the pilot- where he talks about his daughter, I have two daughters, Matt has daughters. And, you write these things and often your heart kind of bleeds onto the page a little bit and that just hopefully makes for good writing and gives the actors something they can really sink their teeth into.

DL: Not only did we have good writing, a lot of the performances were right on, but we also had Gavin Hood who is an amazing director. When I auditioned, I had some reservations, but it had to be the best room I walked into- fifteen years I’ve been acting. It, he just ran it a completely different way. Then when you work with in on the pilot, he’s just so into it, and he got a lot of these performances out of us. Would you not agree with that Nick?

NS: Oh yeah listen, I would say that Gavin Hood’s one of the best directors I have worked with and will ever work with. And he respects the script and he respects the actors. And in television look it’s different, in television the writer is in charge, so when the director comes in of course they’re going to respect the script because they have to because they want to be invited back to direct another episode. Where in feature films very often, you have directors being incredibly disrespectful of the written page. Gavin however, was respectful not because, he had to but because, he loved the story and wanted to present that story on film- and he was an absolute joy to work with. He really works well with actors. Which to the point where during the audition process, there were times where we had to pull him aside and say Gavin you cannot spend an hour with every actor, we need to go home today.  He just loves working with actors. And he would have actors in the room and go, “Let’s try it again this way, let’s try it again that way, that’s wonderful, now, you’ve got it. Now, you’ve taken my notes great, throw it away, this one’s for you.” You remember all those catch phrases, Dom?

DL: Oh God, yeah.

MB: Any last thoughts?

NS: Yes, watch Breakout Kings. Sunday Nights at 10pm on A&E. Starting March 6.

Discovered in his Bronx, NY neighborhood, Domenick Lombardozzi first gained fame after attending an open casting call and winning the role of Nicky Zero in Robert De Niro’s directing debut, A Bronx Tale.  But it wasn’t until he portrayed the flawed Baltimore police detective, “Herc,” in the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” that seminal filmmakers like Sidney Lumet, Joe Roth and Michael Mann took notice and cast Lombardozzi in their films. He starred in “Miami Vice,” “Public Enemies,” and in 2008 was cast in a recurring role on “Entourage,” followed, more recently, by a guest-starring appearance on “Bored to Death.” Lombardozzi can currently be seen in Academy Award-winning director James L. Brooks’ romantic comedy, How Do You Know.

Nick Santora has written and/or produced for several television series such as The Sopranos, Law & Order and The Guardian. From 2005 to 2009, he was writer/co-executive producer of the hit Fox drama Prison Break. His new show Breakout Kings will air on A&E starting on March 6th. Learn more at http://www.nicksantora.com. Mulholland Books will publish FIFTEEN DIGITS in hardcover and SLIP AND FALL in paperback in Fall 2012.