If you can’t stand the heat, don’t watch The Bear. Right? YES, CHEF!
From the minute it burst onto screens, the FX/Disney+ show set in a neighbourhood sandwich shop in Chicago established its killer credentials. Here was a dramedy as 30-minute action movie and (literal) potboiler, the opening episode’s fast-paced, whip-edited energy perfectly capturing the intensity, mania and biting humour of a high-end kitchen on a low-end street.
Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is a fine dining chef, reluctantly returned home to assume the reins of The Original Beef of Chicagoland from the brother who killed himself, the late, lamented, chaotic, alcoholic Mikey. The show’s super-realistic set was created out of a working kitchen – specifically, the teaching kitchen of a culinary school – with exteriors from a real fast-food joint called Mr. Beef in Orleans Street in downtown Chicago.
The result: veracity from the off, with both hobs and tempers flaring as Carmy tries to pull the battered brigade into shape and save The Beef. This is a workplace drama where everything works, and everything burns.
“We definitely had some cuts,” says Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who plays Cousin Richie, The Beef’s manager, of the onset injury toll in the Golden Globe-nominated show. “Me personally, though, not really, because I’m not really doing anything. I’m just mostly smoking cigarettes and yelling at people. Which I can do pretty well. I can do it in a really safe way,” the 45-year-old adds wryly.
Who’s he kidding? No shade at all to White, whose Carmy – with his white t‑shirted, blue-eyed, denim-fetishising, cigs-as-sex-props cool – oozes chef-appeal. But Moss-Bachrach is The Bear’s secret sauce. Yes, he can blaze (in every sense) like a champ. But Cousin Richie, all heavy-lidded sullenness and simmering rage, is The Bear’s most intriguing, most unknowable character, his ever changing moods captured in the show’s rocking soundtrack.
What’s his deal? He has an ex and a kid and a side-hustle selling coke out by the bins. He seems to know things about poor dead Mikey (played, in a mic-drop cameo, by Jon Bernthal) that no one else does. Cousin Richie cares for his best friend’s legacy, and for Mikey’s grieving brother struggling to resurrect the sandwich shop. But he also hides a letter that Mikey left for Carmy. Plus, he spikes a bunch of little kids with Xanax at a birthday party. He is, frankly, an asshole.
Cousin Richie is the rogue one, and we rate him all the more for it.
Speaking of which: “I knew Andor was gonna be the best spin-off show of Star Wars just because of Tony Gilroy. I think Rogue One is maybe the best Star Wars movie since the 1977 one,” declares Moss-Bachrach, Zooming in from the Christmas tree-filled Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife, Ukrainian photographer Yelena Yemchuk, and their two daughters. He says that because this year he also slayed in another breakout TV show, the critically acclaimed Andor, a knotty, political spy drama set in a galaxy far, far away, etc, in which the actor plays a gruff rebel. It was created by Gilroy, who did rewrites and reshoots on 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “So yeah, I was totally confident going into Andor in a way that I’m not usually.”
But much as we would like to quiz Moss-Bachrach on Andor, we’re here to celebrate his role in The Bear. In a kitchen brigade full of main characters (chef’s hat duly doffed to Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri), it’s time to #chefkiss Cousin Richie, the restaurant (mis)manager we love.
Congratulations on The Bear, Ebon. How did you get the part?
I was in the UK making Andor when the script came to me, so I had to do a Zoom chemistry read with Jeremy Allen White. And that went really well. Then they go away and leave you for two, three weeks, enough to make you convinced that you’re never going to work on that, or anything, ever again. And then they call back and say like: “OK, great, we’re ready to do it.”
When you made it onto set, what number were you on the call sheet?
Ha ha ha! I think I’m number three on the call sheet. It’s Jeremy and then Ayo and then me. One on the call sheet’s gotta look sexy and gotta be in shape. One on the call sheet’s gotta be ready for the close up, 100 per cent. Then you get into two, three, four, five, six. That’s where I usually hang out, the two to seven range – “brothers and friends”! On Andor, oh my God, I don’t think we were even using normal numbers. We were using crazy weird Star Wars numbers. I don’t think I was allowed to even look at the call sheet on Andor!
Who was the actor on the Bear cast that you were most excited to work with?
Oliver Platt [who plays Jimmy Cicero, the Berzatto boys’ shady uncle, an investor in the restaurant] I’d worked with before [on unreleased 2013 film Gods Behaving Badly], so I was excited to work with him again. I didn’t really know most people in the cast. I’ve known Jeremy a little bit for many years, and I had such a nice time even on that weird, disembodied Zoom, sort-of-acting with him. So he was who I was most looking forward to working with. But that was just because he was the only known entity for me. Sorry, that’s a kind of lame answer.
Apart from Cousin Richie, who’s your favourite other character on The Bear?
Lionel Boyce brings such an earnestness and genuine joy of discovery to [bread baker and pastry chef] Marcus. That’s so on the other end of the emotional spectrum from the work that I’m doing on the show. His performance is beautiful and tender and wide-eyed. I really love his work on the show.
What was the funniest thing that happened during production?
The funniest thing, I’m not sure. But to shoot the first episode, we rehearsed a whole bunch of things… everyone was still getting used to the kitchen. And Chris Storer, the creator and the director of this episode, he just kept saying, “faster, faster, faster, faster, faster”, all the time. And we would be going so fast that I didn’t think that [viewers] were gonna be able to understand it. At one point I was like: it can never be fast enough.
And you feel that, I think, in that first episode. It has an energy that doesn’t really [return] till later on, maybe the seventh episode. So I found that really remarkable and brave that he wanted to do that – [it was] to some degree even stylised, almost not realistic. It’s a borderline absurd telling of the story.
Which plot points or narrative strand did you enjoy the most? Mine is Richie “inadvertently” drugging all the kids unconscious at the party.
That is funny. And what does Cicero say? “What, are they fuckin’ dead?” And then: “Actually, I’m kinda into it.” I really enjoy the Richie/Cicero dynamic. The history between these two guys is really funny. We just hint at it, and you don’t really get a sense of exactly what it is. There’s just these little glimpses, like “I hate when you call me Rick.” And this story that keeps coming up about this woman that fell down the stairs, because her bathtub was overflowing. Just these little windows and glimpses into these small potatoes Chicago guys thinking that they’re big and tough.
Why do you think The Bear – a show with no hype, no previous IP, no “stars” – was such an out-of-the-box hit?
Obviously, the writing and the subject matter. But I honestly think the reason that it did take off like it did is because we were coming out of the pandemic, and everyone was so isolated. And this show was just the complete opposite of that. Everyone was together, sweating on each other, spitting on each other, in a tiny little confined space. It was the anti-quarantine. That energy and socialisation and being together, is what people – me, certainly – missed. Whether or not [audiences] knew that on a conscious level, I think that that is one of the driving forces of why it did what it did.
How have the responses to The Bear, and to Cousin Richie, changed your life personally and professionally?
Certainly before the show nobody rolled down the window of their minivan and yelled “Cousin!” at me. That happens a lot now. And I’ll tell you something that’s been really cool that I never expected: the show has been so embraced by the restaurant and hospitality world. So now I have the experience of going into restaurants and being treated almost like another member of staff, someone from the same industry. With the same kind of bonhomie a chef or a waiter from down the street would get. I get a kind of insider, sort of family feeling. Which is really cool. Am I getting those hard-to-get tables in hard-to-book restaurants now? Ha ha ha, you know, maybe… I’m getting there!
Does Jeremy Allen White have Main Character Syndrome in real life?
What do you mean by that? Like he’s starring in his own movie? Ha ha ha, how can I answer that question, man? I gotta go back and work with him! No, he doesn’t. He’s lovely. I guess maybe sometimes you can catch him looking at himself in a reflection from a store window, getting lost in his own eyes… No, not really.
What’s next for Cousin Richie on the show?
I don’t really know what’s next. They’re still working on scripts, and we start filming at the end of February. The first time we shot for maybe two months. And this time, we’re making 10 episodes rather than eight, so maybe we’ll shoot for 10 weeks or so… But if I had to guess, I would say that these guys are going to try and start opening up this new restaurant. That’s what it seems like from the last episode of the first season. I don’t see any great change happening to Richie as to where he is at, psychologically, mentally, emotionally. I still think he’s kind of a complete mess. And I don’t think any of that is going to change anytime soon.
How are you going to celebrate your amazing year this festive season?
We might have a little Christmas party over here at home. But I’m not sure how I’m going to celebrate this year. It’s been so nice, honestly, walking to get groceries down the street and people saying how much they love the shows all the time. It feels really, really good. It’s been a pretty great year for me.
What are we going to see you on next?
I made a Dust Bowl-era thriller with Sarah Paulson. It’s called Dust and it’s a really dark, very scary, [Roman] Polanski kind of movie that takes place in the ’30s in Oklahoma, with lots of environmental [challenges] like dust storms and droughts. That was a really wild movie. I also made a fun, goofy, light romantic comedy with Jennifer Lawrence called No Hard Feelings. But I have no idea when these movies are coming out. The Bear happened so quickly and it gets released so quickly, that second season might be out before either of these movies.
Finally, obvious question alert: what’s your favourite sandwich shop in New York?
I gotta go with Defonte’s, down in Red Hook, Brooklyn. They’ve been making incredible Italian sandwiches for a really long time. And they’re massive, massive sandwiches. My favourite from them is the Valentino sandwich: provolone cheese, sweet peppers, spicy peppers on a big roll. And actually, there’s a scene in [Netflix series] The Punisher where my character and Jon Bernthal’s character are going on a road trip. And I start eating a sandwich. And Punisher, Frank Castle, is like: what is that? I knew I was gonna have to eat a bunch of the sandwiches when we were shooting. So I asked them to get this Valentino sandwich from Defonte’s. Even after shooting that and eating 15 of those, that’s still my number one sandwich.
Thanks Ebon. Do we hope you now get a Defonte’s discount for life? YES, CHEF!
The Bear is on Disney+ now. Not seen it? Tuck in. Seen it? Go in for seconds