Checking in with The Bear's Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Ebon Moss-Bachrach is one of those actors whose career, laid out in a Venn diagram, would probably look less like a stacked circle than a sort of free-form chandelier: For more than two decades, he's proved defiantly uncategorizable in roles ranging from Girls' earnestly denimed singer-songwriter Desi to vigilante sideman Micro on the dearly departed Marvel series The Punisher and the real-life investigative journalist John Carreyrou, whose reporting helped take down turtlenecked Theranos scammer Elizabeth Holmes on Hulu's hit limited series The Dropout.
But it's his breakout turn as Richard "Richie" Jerimovich — the brash, chain-smoking foil to Jeremy Allen White's spiraling Chicago chef Carmy on the FX dramedy The Bear — that has brought the 45-year-old Massachusetts native a wave of critical raves (and an attendant cavalcade of hot-beef hot takes). Within days of its late-June debut, the show swiftly became a meme-breeding smash: the horny, chaotic feel-tense hit of the summer.
Via Zoom from Provence, where he was vacationing with his wife, the photographer Yelena Yemchuck, and their two young daughters, Moss-Bachrach spoke to EW about the Tao of Richie, his newly minted membership in the Star Wars universe, and what comes next.
There wasn't a ton of marketing for The Bear, or much sense going in that it was going to hit like it did. Even the trailer didn't quite convey what the show was. When did you first realize that it had become a phenomenon?
It happened pretty quick, right? We have a group text with the cast, and Matty [Matheson, who plays aspiring prep cook-slash-meatball groupie Neil] kept saying things like, "Oh, this woman from Bon Appetit really loves it. And this person, this great chef." Once chefs started to respond, I think that's probably when we were like, "Okay great, we did our job," you know?
Well there are a number of Hollywood projects, famously, that have failed to capture the realities of food service. So it feels like that authenticity was a big component.
Jeremy talked about it, certainly. Matty and Chris [Storer, the show's creator]. It really felt like a calling, to make an honest portrayal of the kitchen. It felt like it's been something that's been so romanticized in so many different shows.
Tell me about how the project came to you. Was it an easy thing to say yes to?
They sent me [spec scripts for] the first two episodes, and to be honest, I was starting to make the Star Wars show and I didn't even read it. I was so overwhelmed with like, it was COVID, I was getting my family over to the U.K. [to shoot Andor]. It just sort of slipped through the cracks.
And my agent, to his credit, called me two weeks later. He's like, "Listen, I really think you're making a mistake by not reading this." I mean, this character of Richie was written so well. It just was so beautifully formed, and there was so much life on the page. And I remember I had to do a Skype audition with Jeremy. We were staying in this cool loft in London, and my daughter was in the other corner doing fifth-grade Zoom school. I was on the other side of the loft in like a little undershirt, going "F--- this! F--- that! Are you f---ing out of your f--in' mind?" You know, just screaming. And I made eye contact with her two or three times, and she just kind of looked at me with these huge eyes, like, "Are you kidding me right now?" [Laughs]
In your own life you're a Massachusetts guy, and a Brooklyn guy. Was there a crash course in Chicago lore you had to go through?
Well, I think the essence of the guy is not specific to Chicago. I mean, I've known Richies, I've met them: loud, taking up a lot of space. You can find him in New York, you can definitely find him in Massachusetts. This is like a particular Chicago sort of a manifestation of that energy. And so yeah, I spent a lot of time in dive bars and in Italian restaurants. I ate a lot of meatballs. I ate a lot of calamari, in service of this project.
For the art.
Absolutely. [Laughs] And I've talked about this before, but I've got a friend who's a Chicago teamster, just the most generous guy, and when I got to Chicago to make the pilot he very quickly took me under his wing and showed me all his spots. And it was such a joy to take this deep dive. Chicago's got so much pride. It's got such, I don't know, such a sense of what it means to be a Chicagoan. And there's also a sort of a Midwestern warmth and friendliness. People are very willing to just talk to you. And that was so, so helpful in making this guy.
Coming from stuff like Girls or The Punisher, how was it to take on the sort of raw physicality of this role?
If I had to be on a horse or do some kind of cowboy thing, that would be stressful for me. But [here] I could just take up a lot of space and smoke, I guess that just kind of came naturally to me. [Laughs] And there's nothing I love more than cooking for a bunch of friends — being by the stove, having a lot of hot oil around and music cranking. Having three different conversations going at once. And so I guess years of doing that in my own house, it felt very comfortable. I mean I bake a lot, and my arms are just covered with scars from oven racks.
Was every scene on The Bear tightly scripted, or was there room for riffing and for improv on set?
There was room. They were very clear about wanting us to play with things. And Ayo Edibiri [who plays the ambitious sous chef Sydney] she comes from stand-up comedy, and she's so bright, so fast and so quick and so gifted with language. She and Jeremy also had the huge added obstacle of having to accomplish these tasks — you know, cut garlic really thin, make a paillard in the course of a scene, when I was just standing there smoking.
The scene where you accidentally-on-purpose get stabbed in the butt by Sydney, did that play out how it was written on the page?
We came in one Wednesday morning at like 6 a.m., and I think we did it four or five times. And my reaction was fairly different every time. Sometimes it hurt a lot. Sometimes I was so angry with her. And the take that they used, I feel like Richie's like, "Of course. Of course I got stabbed." And I'm glad they used that one, because it just gives a sense of the true absurdity of it.
You really get to peel the onion of Richie over the course of the season, his vulnerabilities and his emotional evolution. Like that scene of him sitting in the car, talking to his daughter who's afraid to go to school, or when he thinks he's the reason that Original Beef doesn't pass its health inspection. It must have been nice for you to get past the persona, and beyond just the aggression and the comedy of the role.
Oh yeah. I mean, a little redemption goes a long way. There are very clear reasons to me why Richie's acting the way he does. He's very, very lost and very, very sad, and fighting desperately to keep his place in the only home he really has. The desperation motivates so much of that behavior. So to me, it's all really justified. I mean, I think he's deeply insensitive to a lot of other people. But he has his back to the wall from before the show even starts. So when the stakes are like that, there's room to do anything. When you're fighting for your life, anything goes.
Jon Bernthal at this point is almost like a life partner for you — you guys had Punisher together, you have The Bear [where he plays Carmy's deceased brother and Richie's best friend in flashbacks], you have the new Lena Dunham movie Sharp Stick. Was The Punisher where you first met him?
To be totally honest, no. I was doing a Lanford Wilson play called The 5th of July many years ago in New York, I was maybe 23 years old, and I was with all these awesome actors — David Harbour and Robert Sean Leonard and Jessalyn Gilsig and Parker Posey. And I met this guy maybe a month into the run who was mine and David and Robert Sean Leonard's understudy, he was covering all of us. And that was Jon Bernthal. He never got to go on, but he was so cool and nice.
And then years later, he came to an opening of another play I was doing, when he had started to become the Jon that we know now, and he reminded me that he was the understudy. I just think he's such a good actor, and such a great dude.
Well to switch lanes a little bit, this April marked the 10th anniversary of the launch of Girls. I know you joined the show a few years in, but do you have a sense now of the sort of long-tail impact of it on the culture, and on your career?
I don't know about on my career, but definitely on the culture, because now I'm starting to have children of friends of mine who are watching it for the first time. I think it's such an important show. I know for me it was really important. I mean, there are so many shows we never would've had, I think, had it not been for the ground that Girls was breaking.
Did you just sort of stay in touch and stay friendly with Lena? And then at some point she said, "Hey, I'm doing this movie and I want you to be a part of it. Come hang out with your friend Jon Bernthal!"
That's exactly right, yeah. She was like, "I wrote this weird character. Can you come to L.A. in December?" Lena also feels like family, so that was also another really cozy set, which I really gravitate towards. But I haven't even seen the movie yet.
I'd love to talk about The Dropout for a second, which was also one the more zeitgeisty shows of this year. It seems like we've had a particular obsession the last couple years with scam artists, between The Dropout and Inventing Anna and some of these other stories. Do you share that fascination?
Doesn't everybody kind of always want to pretend that they're someone that they're not? I mean, it seems so tempting, right? Always. It seems really human to me. There's so much literature, and so much art about the con man.
And Elizabeth Holmes, that's like some good old-fashioned con stuff. She found the richest, oldest, most egoistic white guy she could find, and then he brought in all his cronies. And they couldn't believe that they'd been duped, so they just doubled down and doubled down and doubled down. It's astonishing.
You have more than 60 credits on your IMDb, stretching back more than 20 years — Royal Tenenbaums, Mona Lisa Smile, American Splendor. When people come up to you, do you usually know what role they're recognizing you for? What do fans generally tend to want from you when they approach you about your work?
People come up to me a lot and they'll be like, "You're an actor." I say, "Yeah." And they say, "What do I know you from?"
And I try to read them, and then offer something up. And I've been so delightfully wrong so much of the time. But I think probably the things that have had the furthest reach have been The Punisher and Girls, probably. But the other day, somebody came up to me about John Adams. So I don't know. [Laughs]
I feel like men in black will come and drag you away while you're answering this question, but is there anything that you're allowed to reveal about Andor?
I think I can tell you that it comes out on September 21st. And that Stellan Skarsgard and Diego Luna are in it. And it's [created by] Tony Gilroy (Rogue One, Michael Clayton), who is so great.
It must be pretty wild, to join a franchise of that size.
Definitely. It was stressful for the first day to be out in the galaxy, far, far away, and feel like there's some serious expectations. You have to really, you know — you've got to show up.
You're like, "Can we just go back to stabbing me in the ass?" What is the schedule for season two of The Bear? Where does it go from here?
They're figuring it out. I think we probably start shooting sometime early next year, but I really don't know anything. They're smarter people than me, and they have a plan.
Have you watched the show yet? Do you generally tend to watch your work when it's finished?
I usually don't, mostly because I really enjoy the experience of being on set and making the thing. And so much of the time, the product that I watch is so different from my experience that it's confusing and frustrating. And I'm powerless at that point to do anything about it. Not that I'm upset with the work or upset with the edit, but it's just like, "Wow, this doesn't feel like what it felt like on the day."
But there was no way I was not going to watch this one, because I was so curious. And when I did watch the pilot, I was really shocked with all the crazy editing and crosscutting with the video games. It felt to me like a skate video from the '90s, it was so crazy and anarchic. It took me a couple viewings. And Yelena was like, "Actually, no. It's great. You're being crazy. It's really cool."
I watch it with my family too, because this is the first thing I've done that my kids have been able to watch, really. The Punisher is so violent. Girls I'm excited for them to watch, but not for a little while. They're 11 and 15. I don't think they want to see their dad like that — all the tears, and the eye makeup. [Laughs]
Well, The Bear feels like a show that we maybe didn't know we needed, but it's made a lot of people really happy this summer. And it's nice that you're a big part of that.
Thank you. This show makes me hopeful, because it's really just about these weirdos in this kitchen together, trying to figure out this basic life stuff. And the fact that so many people are responding to is really heartwarming. I feel like a cheeseball, but it's just, it's really nice.
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