‘American Gigolo’ EP on How the Jon Bernthal Series Reimagines Paul Schrader’s 1980 Erotic Drama

“The movie is a great L.A. noir, but we knew nothing about Julian. You had no idea how he got where he was, how he became a gigolo,” Jonathan Littman tells TheWrap

Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye in AMERICAN GIGOLO. Photo Credit: Warrick Page/SHOWTIME.
Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye in AMERICAN GIGOLO. Photo Credit: Warrick Page/SHOWTIME.

In Paul Schrader’s 1980 erotic drama feature film “American Gigolo,” Julian Kaye (played by Richard Gere) is a cocky playboy-for-hire who is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Showtime’s TV adaptation opens with the image of a very different man; 15 years removed and in prison for the crime, Julian (played by Jon Bernthal) is beaten down and broken. There are still remnants of the swanky persona he donned for clients and glossy Los Angeles life he lived — after all, the title theme is set to Blondie’s “Call Me” and features an easy riding Julian in his retro convertible — but Bernthal’s take on the character aims to undress his motivations and psyche, shedding the escort’s designer suits to uncover who Julian is and how he came to be.

“The movie is a great L.A. noir, but we knew nothing about Julian,” executive producer Jonathan Littman told TheWrap. “You had no idea how he got where he was, how he became a gigolo. It was just, ‘He’s a gigolo, he’s framed for a crime and a great story unfolds, and it was sexy, great and cool.’ We thought the perfect invert to this is to [explore] how he [became] this as a way to re-look at the movie. ‘What was the journey?’ So that was the first impetus of not just remaking it, but how do you reimagine what you couldn’t do in the constraints of a feature back then when you’re trying to hit a two-hour runtime?”

Littman produced the Showtime series while president of Jerry Bruckheimer Television, a post he held for 25 years, but recently left to start his own company. In fact, some years ago, when joining Jerry Bruckheimer Television, he asked Bruckheimer (who produced the original film and also serves as EP for the show) if he could adapt “American Gigolo.” Due to network constraints, Bruckheimer declined. It wasn’t until the streaming boom that the two were able to revisit the project — one which Littman describes as having had the “longest journey from pitch to air.”

Finding Bernthal for the role of Julian, though, was key.

“It’s someone who’s in search of his more authentic life,” Littman said. “Jon has so many levels of depth. He’s an incredible actor. He can bring both things: He can bring the swagger when you want the swagger, but also the real hurt that always underlined the story the way we imagined it to be.”

Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye in AMERICAN GIGOLO, “Pilot”. Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME.

Finding the ensemble cast was a relatively “easy process,” Littman said, and the executive producer gives credit to Hollander for the “inspired” decision to cast Rosie O’Donnell for the gender-swapped role of Det. Sunday (first originated by Hector Elizondo). 

Plot-wise, the series offers a certain continuation based on the film’s ending — where Lauren Hutton’s Michelle Stratton, the wife of a prominent politician, sacrifices her reputation and marriage to provide Julian with an alibi — which Littman said provided “natural jumping off points as opposed to just remaking it.” He added, “In a way, [Julian] is coming out knowing he was one kind of person and not wanting to be that anymore.”

The upcoming series will follow Julian as he attempts to move on with his life following his exoneration. However, his past and the questions surrounding his set-up linger and he is once more entangled in an elite world full of high-powered figures looking to exploit or betray him. As he attempts to regain his footing, he must distinguish who he can trust, including his lost love Michelle (Gretchen Mol), mentor and friend Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) and Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré), the heiress to a sex work empire. 

“Paul Schrader created an incredible world and 40 years later, Julian comes out almost like Rip Van Winkle, into a world that’s completely changed, but gets a rare second chance,” Littman said.

In unraveling Julian’s interiority, the series also traces his origin story with flashbacks. “What [we] ended up doing is layering each episode with a little bit more of the depth of his journey,” Littman said. “And so at first, it seems jarring, and any new narrative spin will always seem that way. But we get very quickly what creatively we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Part of building out Julian’s backstory is solidifying the “real love” that existed between him and Michelle. “It was a great romance interrupted,” Littman said. “It is a slow burn, and [it] builds and builds and builds.”

Despite the series differences, Littman added that it was important for “American Gigolo” to pay homage to its roots. “A movie like this is so iconic that even people who haven’t necessarily seen the movie still know the movie, and the first trigger is ‘Call Me.’ It will always be associated with the movie. The Jaguar will always be associated with the movie,” he said. “So it’s so rooted itself in pop culture, that we knew we had to keep certain touch points. If you don’t do that, you don’t honor it. I think you disrespect those who do remember the movie and do love the movie.”

“American Gigolo” premieres Sept. 9 on streaming and on demand for all Showtime subscribers, before its linear premiere Sept. 11.