By Deborah Wilker
MIAMI – On the set of Magic City, it doesn’t take much to get the show’s star, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in the right mood.
“You just kinda walk around here and the attention to detail is such that I put on my tie, and my awesome suits, I step onto my set – and I can practically hear Frank Sinatra singing in the background.”
The sumptuous1959 mob drama, now in its second season on STARZ, follows the romance and action at the glamorous Miramar Playa Hotel – a setting based loosely on the mid-century glory days of The Fontainebleau, Eden Roc and other Miami Beach destinations.
Morgan (Supernatural, P.S. I Love You, Grey’s Anatomy) plays a kind of timeless movie hero on the show– a family man forced to deal with the devil. “He’s definitely straddling that line,” Morgan says of his character, Miramar hotel owner Ike Evans. “I definitely want him to stay on that hero side. But it’s hard.”
Marked by ardent late-’50s detail, Magic City also features an eye-popping mix of sex and danger, all set (deceptively of course) against calming waves and blue skies. In the hotel’s Atlantis Lounge, naked women frolic in an aquarium behind the bar. The men get naked on this show, too – among them Golden Globe nominee Danny Huston, who plays evil, skinny-dipping mob boss Ben “The Butcher” Diamond.
Beyond the gorgeous people, and their predilections for chancy entanglements, Magic City distances itself from just about everything on television, with cinematography, set design and a mood so exquisite the show seems almost out of place airing anywhere other than HBO. Has any film or series ever made Miami look this good? Probably not.
The sophistication, time-period, locale and subject matter have drawn inevitable comparisons to Mad Men, The Godfather trilogy and even Miami Vice. Yet Magic City doesn’t really borrow much from them. The show is based on longtime screenwriter and Beach High graduate Mitch Glazer’s childhood recollections of the celebrity-and-mob-studded Miami Beach of the ’50s and ’60s. Through his father, an engineer who worked at the Eden Roc, Glazer got a close-up view of Rat Pack entertainers, parties and East Coast culture that defined the early Kennedy era.
Says Morgan, “I’d love to say that I immersed myself in all sorts of research for this part, but the truth is these scripts are so well written, the characters so fleshed out – Mitch has done such extensive research on the period, he can tell me anything I need to know. We really show Miami as the place it was.”
That it is all filmed on location in Miami, Miami Beach and on local soundstages has been a costly endeavor for STARZ, which has worked mightily in recent years to elevate its status on the cable dial. Despite a substantial initial investment in the series, however, the network hasn’t announced if it will make a further commitment after these eight new episodes airing through summer.
It would be a shame if it doesn’t. A recent tour of the show’s sets – constructed inside the former Bertram Yacht space near MIA – reveals a 1950s world so real you can almost smell the Aqua Net and cigarettes in the mock hallways. A crewmember points out that not a single prop “isn’t period-specific.” Artists and decorators stalked antique sales and storage units for classic beauty-parlor hair dryers, brushes, wallpaper, sconces, vintage gowns, cigarette machines, matchboxes and ashtrays. A jukebox inside the bar is stocked with hit-records from the 1950s. A rotary phone and a hallway ice machine look like they’d work if plugged in.
“There’s no other way that I know of than to show it through the detail,” said architect Carlos Barbosa, the show’s designer, who immersed himself in the work of Fontainebleau and Eden Roc architect Morris Lapidus to get every last touch just right. “If your detail falls apart, then the whole illusion falls apart. I was fixated on creating a reality that made the actors feel like they were in a time machine.”
As the storyline picks up this summer Ike’s determination to regain sole control of his hotel forces him into more intense dealings with an even bigger mob boss – Sy Berman, played by guest star James Caan.
But if Morgan has his way there are lines Ike won’t cross, among them, cheating on TV wife Vera, (Olga Kurylenko).
“Even when things get very dark and Ike pushes away many of the people he loves, the one thing we can count on is that he loves his wife,” he says. “But I really need that Season 3 from STARZ to see how this story plays out!”
Morgan – who hit it big in 2006 as dying cardiac patient Denny Duquette on Grey’s Anatomy – lives with his longtime girlfriend, actress Hilarie Burton (herself now a co-star on Grey’s) and their young son. Living in Miami for months at a time over the past two years, Morgan said, “my memories here are all kid-involved. We lived right on Pinetree Drive – I have fond memories of taking my kid trick-or-treating on the block. We love the beach. We went to the zoo. We love Lincoln Road and the farmer’s markets. And I love the Cuban Coffee.
“There’s nothing about Miami I don’t like,” he says. “OK – except maybe the House music. Way too much House music. I wish they’d go back to some rock. That’s my only complaint.”
On TV: Magic City – starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olga Kurylenko, Steven Strait, Jessica Marais, Christian Cooke, Elena Satine and Danny Huston – airs Fridays at 9 on STARZ, through Aug. 9.