I truly believe that you can do anything you want in this life.
Animal Kingdom is about to pack a wallop with its sixth and final season. Developed for television based on David Michôd’s critically acclaimed 2010 Australian film of the same name, the series has been a top performer for TNT and one of the cabler’s few remaining scripted originals.
For the uninitiated, the show kicked off with 17-year-old J (Finn Cole), who, following the death of his mother, moved in with his estranged relatives—a criminal family governed by matriarch Smurf Cody (Ellen Barkin)—in Southern California. The Cody family has come a long way since its season one introductions, not least having lost two of its biggest players in Smurf and Scott Speedman’s Baz (Smurf’s adopted son, who was later revealed to be J’s father) along the way. The final season will flash back to 1984, giving viewers new insight into the Cody clan as teenagers. As such, fans will also get a look at younger Baz (played by Darren Mann) for the very first time.
Mann, who proudly hails from East Vancouver—hence the actor’s oft-used social media hashtag, #TheEastVanKid—previously starred in the coming-of-age drama Giant Little Ones, and Embattled as a MMA fighter. On the docket now are two thrillers: Breakwater, playing an ex-con charged with tracking down the estranged daughter of a fellow inmate played by Dermot Mulroney, and The Minute You Wake Up Dead, in which he stars opposite Morgan Freeman.
The final season of Animal Kingdom kicks off on June 19th on TNT.
Hi, Darren. How was jiu jitsu this morning?
It was good! Being the white belt that I am, I just try and see if I can last a couple minutes without dying in each class. [laughs] I’m not doing too much submitting yet, but I’m lasting a little longer each roll session. Small bits of progress is all I need. I’ve dabbled in jiu jitsu in the past—just had never given it the full-time commitment before. Now I’m really determined to see it through.
I did wonder if you might’ve picked that up after Embattled. Sounds like it was rekindled.
That was a huge factor, for sure. I’d been practicing boxing for five years or so when I did Embattled, and a little bit of Muay Thai. But jiu jitsu is still very new to me even though I had to learn a bunch of advanced moves for the film. Learning from the great guys at the gym, Chris Connelly and his team at SBG Alabama, got me hooked and wanting to keep going.
One thing I noticed about you early on is how active you are, with jiu jitsu, boxing, MMA, snowboarding, horseback riding… You’re also a big sports fan. Were you always this way?
Yeah. My mom got me into so much stuff when I was a kid. She was a very active lady and she definitely made sure that me and my brother were active, too. It just so happened that we took a big liking to sports and outdoor activities. And because I practiced hockey for so many years—I’ve taken a bit of a break from that in recent years—the itch to wanna get better at something physical and learn a new skill is always there though. Even when it comes to my acting, because of my athletic background, if I’m ever having difficulty with it, I know that I probably need to look at the physical aspect first in trying to help fix it.
I’m always fascinated by the link between sports and acting. It comes up so often in conversation, and almost exclusively with the guys. There seems to be a connective tissue. Maybe it’s what you’re talking about: the constant learning. Maybe the competitive aspect adds something to it. And there’s obviously the showmanship component as well.
The biggest link for me would be: what it takes to achieve something that’s really difficult to attain. And it’s probably going to be painful, maybe emotional, to get there. For a guy like me who was considered small in hockey, that was a whole other challenge, too. I think that added extra drive and a chip on my shoulder to succeed—a will to succeed at all costs.
I admire that.
You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, too, when you take up a sport and really go for it. It’s not easy, just like in acting where the road to the top is difficult—the auditions, meeting people, becoming new characters. It can be quite rocky, strange, and foreign. A sports background gave me the will to succeed, and that drive gives you a great roadmap to work off of. I can take these transferable skills, like discipline, that I learned through hockey and apply that to my acting. Taking it day by day, I’ll eventually get there. This is something we hear all the time, but I truly believe that you can do anything you want in this life. It really just comes down to how badly you want it. Whatever you need to do in order to get there, do it, if it means the world to you.
You’ve spoken about your competitiveness in the past. We’re so often told, especially growing up, how it’s unbecoming. I think it’s a huge asset. Why not be competitive?
Absolutely. Life’s too short not to be extremely competitive and going for what you want—you can’t be worrying that you might hurt a few people’s feelings along the way. There’s a quote that I believe was from Michael Jordan that I always love to remember: “It’s okay to be selfish on the way up, as long as you help others once you get there.” Any time you’re trying to achieve something really fucking hard, you’re gonna end up needing to be a little bit selfish. And you sometimes have to have this unrealistic belief in yourself, too, because if I don’t believe in it, why the hell would anybody else who’s hiring me believe that I can do it? I think my competitiveness is something that’s changed since my hockey days, too—I’m the only person I have to compete with. I don’t care what anyone else does around me.
And the simple fact that there is always somebody above you and below you.
I only want myself to blame. The thing I hate most is when it’s out of my hands, which is harder to accept. I’d rather be able to go, “That didn’t go so well. What can I do differently?” It’s a great thing to be able to critique and hold yourself to a standard, but also not be so hard on yourself—to take a risk trying for something and for it to not work out. That’s alright. That’s how you learn.
Was acting scary when you first started?
Yeah! [laughs] I think it was scary for years.
Is it true that your mother introduced you to acting as well, to combat your shyness?
It’s true. My mom got me into it because I was super shy. She signed me up for a class at Tarlington Training in downtown Vancouver. I think I was around 7 or 8. It was definitely scary. But it also really helped me get out of my shell, and it turned out that I really loved performing. It was a great thing for me, a young kid, putting myself out there and taking some risks. And I’ve come to find that you have to rediscover all this once you get older because we put up roadblocks.
I like the proactive approach: throwing yourself into the deep end. It’s a crippling concept to work around, but if you’re able to do it, there’s potential to thrive.
Definitely. It works for me. I’m not afraid to sink. It’ll be alright, you know? What’s the worst that could happen? Probably nothing too bad. No one’s gonna kill me at the audition or the studio.
Not yet anyway!
[laughs] At the end of the day, just go out there and have some fun. It’s all practice, too—throwing yourself into the deep end. Less planning. Practice, practice, practice. Keep going. Keep moving.
Was it difficult putting hockey on the back burner? It sounds like you were heavy into it.
It was very difficult. I definitely put all my eggs into one basket around the age of 11. It was hockey or nothing. I didn’t care much about school—only cared enough to get by. All I wanted to do was play hockey. But I started getting the idea halfway through my junior career, when I was around 18 or 19, that maybe the NHL thing isn’t going to work out. I started thinking about what my life after hockey might look like. It was pretty confusing and murky, but I did know that, when I was a little kid, I seemed to enjoy acting. So I started going to some classes in the off-seasons. I think hockey actually prepped me for acting because, as a small guy, undersized, no dad, I had to create a character, trying to make it to the top. I had to show up, essentially, in character to the rink. That’s where it all started with the practicing. I would go there acting like what I thought I needed to be in order to fit in and make it in that world. The long and short of it is, I ended up at a full-time acting school. It was between acting or either the Air Force or the Army at that point.
This is terribly clichéd, but conceivably, you can do it all now. There’s no other profession where you get to explore so many different interests—and in a truly meaningful context.
That is the biggest draw for me. I’m constantly changing, but also, while I’m changing, I’m not just trivially going from one thing to the other. I love going all in on something and fully immersing myself in whatever that character requires. Getting to sign up for surfing lessons or horseback riding lessons to learn a character? What a neat thing to get to do for a profession. I feel so blessed.
You also played a swimmer in Giant Little Ones.
I did, I did.
Let me guess—you were a swimmer, too?
I took a few swimming lessons as a kid, and I definitely took a couple lessons for the movie to make sure that I could do the proper strokes if I’m supposed to be a swim team captain. I was supposed to be the best there—that was the hard part. I had to compete in these races and they had found some extras who were actually really good swimmers. They had to hold up for me so that I could win. It was very hard. I don’t think I have the blessed stature to be winning swimming races.
But you sold it. That’s what’s important, right?
That’s what we want!
Giant Little Ones was the first time I’d seen you in anything and I immediately put you on my radar. Deadline also called it your breakout role. Did it feel that way to you?
I don’t like to call it my breakout because I have larger aspirations. I think I have a big road ahead of me. But I guess in some ways it was a bit of a breakout for me. Giant Little Ones was definitely the first thing I did that was substantial, as one of the leads of a film—a great film. I had such a good time working on it. It was a dream set to work on. I still stay in touch with everyone that was involved. I hope that one day, people will look back and watch that movie and go, “Wow. This is great. I didn’t even know about it.” Movies like Giant Little Ones share amazing stories that can actually touch people’s lives. It has the potential to change people for the better. But so often, they’re also not the most mainstream so they don’t get seen as much as you’d hope.
I say this as a compliment to you: you still look so much younger than you are. I’d imagine that can be a double-edged sword where roles are concerned. It complicates things a bit.
For sure, although I think it ultimately has been a blessing. It has prolonged my career, giving me a longer runaway to explore these younger roles and compete with the younger crowd. But I’d be lying to you if I said that I wanted to continue playing teenage roles where the characters are trying to figure themselves out. Lost young people, whether that means figuring out their sexuality, what they want to do with their lives, and what kind of a person they think they are. I look forward to playing that next age bracket of characters with a new set of challenges.
Playing an ex-con in Breakwater seems like a logical progression. That one sounds dark.
I’d say it has dark elements, but it’s not too dark. It’s a thriller.
I told you how much I dig Dermot Mulroney. He’s a real sweetheart. I wanna see this one.
It’s been a whole year since I first heard about your casting announcement on Animal Kingdom. This is a fairly long running show with a lot to cover. How did you prepare for it?
I watched seasons one and two initially, trying to find any clues that might be useful, whether it’s dialogue or just watching Scott [Speedman] and his portrayal of Baz.
That’s right—Baz died in the season three premiere. You play young Baz in flashbacks?
Yeah. It’s an interesting thing when somebody’s already established the character for you. This was a new challenge for me. Essentially, there are a set of rules. I’m playing him in the past so I can change things a little bit—the assumption being that he learned things along the way—but other things not so much, like his movements, his tics, and how his mind works. So you’re really trying to pay attention and math out the different characteristics you notice about him that have been set in stone, and then going about your normal process, too. I had a lot of fun, dude. Wicked set. The way [executive producer] John Wells runs his sets is just awesome. It was a great experience.
Have you seen anything from it?
I did two ADR scenes, but that’s it. So I’ll be hunkering down and watching it just like you.
I remember Joel Edgerton also played Baz in the original film. That’s pretty badass.
Did it help to have Jasper [Polish] and Kevin [Csolak] going into this existing show with you? Sometimes actors make the comparison to being the new kid in school. That’s tough.
It definitely can be in the television world. I was super lucky to get blessed with those two coming along with me. I couldn’t ask for better castmates. We had so much fun, both on and off-set.
You guys hit it off right away?
We did, we did.
That’s the best.
It really is. It makes the job so much more enjoyable and memorable.
Did anything surprise you?
There were a couple things that kind of surprised me, and they surprised me in good ways. They do a lot of handheld. I love handheld. I also remember John’s “no sides” rule. At first I was like, “No sides? I don’t know about this.” But I quickly realized it’s totally correct. Every actor on set should know their shit—you shouldn’t have to be looking at your stuff. They gave us the material in adequate time so we didn’t have any excuse to have our sides on us. I actually love that rule.
So what do they have planned for the premiere?
I don’t know what they have planned. I haven’t heard anything at least. Maybe I’ll hop on Zoom with Kevin and Jasper, see if Leila’s [George] around, and we’ll have a beer and watch the opener!