Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays 'Cousin' Richie in The Bear. Image: FRANK OCKENFELS/FX
The Bear can lay claim to being the best new television show of the decade. Unconstrained by genre, by convention, this story of a celebrated chef returning to take over the family sandwich joint in downtown Chicago following the death of his brother was a triumph.
An in-depth character study. An intense portrait of grief and family, food and community. A masterpiece of succinct and stylish storytelling.
The Bear centres on Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto, played with shades of a young Al Pacino by Jeremy Allen White. But if The Bear is one of the greatest shows of recent times, then Richie Jerimovich has a shout to be the most compelling supporting character this side of Succession.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s complex portrayal of ‘Cousin’ Richie, a noisy chaos machine with a deep connection to the restaurant and the neighbourhood, adds depth and heart to The Bear.
When he calls The Big Issue, Moss-Bachrach is preparing to film that difficult second season. And, this time, he knows people are waiting to devour it.
“It’s not a helpful thing to think about,” he says. “The more that melts away, the better. The nice thing about the first season of things is you work in isolation, or lack of expectation, which is great for art.”
But there is little fear that The Bear won’t roar back into our hearts. For all the fast-paced kitchen nightmares, nothing feels left to chance by series creator Christopher Storer, who has evolved show and characters without losing any of what we loved.
“The show is made really quickly,” Moss-Bachrach says. “It takes a while to write but once we start going, it’s very, very fast. You feel it in the show. If we started to slow it down and make it formal and studied, it wouldn’t have that same madness.”
While the rest of us marvelled when we first watched The Bear, Moss-Bachrach had initial misgivings.
“I was surprised by how much editing there was. And how much music,” he says.
“When we made the pilot, it was so chaotic with people speaking over each other and there was so much going on. So I was surprised they added more to make it even more chaotic.
”At first I was a little disappointed because I thought the writing was so good. I was like, you can’t hear all these great things people are saying. But I came around.”
Moss-Bachrach is at home in Brooklyn. Behind him, his basement looks like Richie’s life might feel, or maybe the inside of Richie’s head. Moss-Bachrach is, he says, midway through a last-minute DIY project before decamping to Chicago.
Living in New York, he knows all about how neighbourhoods change over time.
“I moved here from Massachusetts in 1995 and it was a completely different city to now,” he begins. “That said, New York in ’95 was completely different from the New York of 1975. People remind me it’s called New York. It’s constantly reinventing itself. That’s the nature of the city.
“But at the same time, every time I walk around it’s like a million little deaths. And if I were 17 years old, I don’t know where I would be able to live.
“It was a city you could move in to [in 1995]. Great bands came out of that period because there were rehearsal spaces, artists could have studios. And that’s what makes a city great. The next generations are not coming here because it’s too expensive.
“My sweet residential neighbourhood in Brooklyn was filled with independent businesses and bookstores 16 years ago. But we all know how this story ends. It is true everywhere. And it’s something to fight against for local folks.”
Moss-Bachrach’s alter-ego is doing just that in The Bear. Aiming to preserve a way of life, sticking up for working people. He might go about it in chaotic or hapless fashion, but there is righteousness beneath Richie’s rage.
“Richie is like the defender of the neighbourhood. He wants the place to serve the community. He is very much against gentrification.”
The result is never less than compelling, though Moss-Bachrach needed persuading to pump up the volume.
“It is a joy to play someone who is kind of like a baby, you know?” he says. “He is deeply lost and selfish and needy and angry and really funny.
“Richie is on maximum volume the entire time. It’s fun to just shout. It is what I thought acting was when I was three years old.”
So how did he crank up his character to match the chaos of the kitchen?
“I went in at a pretty high level,” Moss-Bachrach says. “But the directors were saying ‘more, more, more, louder, louder, louder’.
“At some point, I said, ‘I’m way outside of my comfortable volume. I’m really trusting you guys that I’m not going to look like amateur hour, like somebody just yelling and chewing the scenery. They said, ‘Trust us, we can keep going.’ So I did.”
There is no space in The Bear. There is no silence. And Moss-Bachrach has a theory. It might be authentic and the acting and writing sublime. But The Bear flew because it was released as many of us were coming out of lockdown. And we’d not only had enough of silence but could connect with the quiet grief that underscored the first series.
“I have theories about people being starved for shows that were just about a bunch of people being together,” says Moss-Bachrach. “We’d been in such isolation for so long.”
The one-take intensity of episode seven was perfectly judged, bringing season one to boiling point. And the finale had so much heart.
“I thought [the first season] ended beautifully with everyone just sitting around having family dinner at the end. I didn’t need any more after that. Obviously I’m happy to make more but that was a beautiful, touching ending.
“This second season explores how trying to make an ambitious restaurant is a really hard thing to do.”
Might it also be hard for Richie to find his place in this brave new gastro world? He certainly begins season two anxiously pondering his purpose, patching up an old baseball poster on the wall while all around him revolution rages.
“That’s exactly right. I mean, I don’t want to say too much, I’m still processing it all,” says Moss-Bachrach.
“But there is inherent drama in trying to build anything. Look around my house, it is in a state of total chaos right now. All we’re trying to do is put a new bookshelf in and we’re all deeply stressed out!
“So trying to tell the story of building something, and doing it in a really honest way – about gas lines and certifications and inspections – that stuff is real, and deeply dramatic. I’d much rather watch a show about it than experience it myself.”
Just as The Wire was beloved by police, so The Bear has been warmly embraced by the hospitality and restaurant worlds, says Moss-Bachrach.
“People come up saying, ‘Thank you for showing what we have to go through’, or ‘I couldn’t watch, it was too triggering’. So I think we really nailed something.”
And the rewards, it seems, extend beyond acclaim, adulation, a first Emmy nomination and regular shouts of ‘Cousin!’ while he is out running.
“The food in Chicago is too good. It is distractingly good,” he says. “But I feel a little disingenuous when they send extra dessert from the kitchen. I mean, I eat it. But I don’t feel great about myself…”
The Bear is on Disney+ from 19 July
This interview with Ebon Moss-Bachrach is taken from The Big Issue, on sale from 17 July. The Big Issue which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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