Co-creator Jon Steinberg and executive producer Warren Littlefield don’t much care if you like the characters that populate “The Old Man,” FX’s new espionage thriller premiering Thursday, June 16. Well, that’s not entirely fair. They want audiences to find them compelling and for viewers to invest in their textured lives and the increasingly interwoven web of high-stakes political games they’re playing. But above all, Steinberg and Littlefield want viewers to question each and every major player as “The Old Man” is hell bent on steering clear of traditional hero and villain archetypes.
The new drama, starring Jeff Bridges as the titular old man, revolves around Dan Chase, who absconded from the CIA decades ago and now lives off the grid. When an assassin arrives to eliminate Chase after all these quiet years, the older operative learns that to ensure his future he now must reconcile his past.
Unlike standard action fare from recent years that sees actors add internet-breaking amounts of muscle to portray believable badasses in their prime, “The Old Man” is about “what happens when you were Jason Bourne 30 years ago,” Steinberg told TheWrap. The show is more interested in the damage these fights leave in their wake than the fights themselves.
In doing so, the creatives hope to craft a more grounded and lived-in world, even as the fate of this world may be decided by operatives well-versed in all manner of elite combat and lethal subterfuge. And by coloring this high-stakes back-and-forth with every shade of gray — including John Lithgow’s ethically ambiguous assistant FBI director tasked with tracking down his old frenemy — “The Old Man” cleverly reexamines morality as a matter of shifting perspective.
In our spoiler-free conversations with Steinberg and Littlefield, they break down the show’s central themes, the visual language filmmaker Jon Watts (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) helped to establish in the show’s brutal first two episodes and how “The Old Man” thrives in a murky gray area.
It’s less of a cat-and-mouse game between Lithgow’s Harold Harper and Bridges’ Dan Chase and more shark versus wold. How important was it to orchestrate a balanced dynamic between, not only in their abilities but in their characters so that audiences didn’t naturally align themselves with the rogue agent?
Steinberg: It was very important. What was interesting about this conceit is what happens when you were Jason Bourne 30 years ago? What are the stories you tell yourself to get through the experience of being an action hero? What is the fallout of that? Can you have a family after that? That immediately sets you down a path of whatever these people are in their jobs as heroic rogue spy, FBI spy hunter, whatever, they also need to have interior emotional lives that are interesting enough that this would be a show even without the spy story. Once you commit to that and structure the relationship between them, it really does become a story where it’s very hard to have a conversation about good guys and bad guys.
Littlefield: We wanted to just let go and honor that connection. The strength and power of that and enjoy that chess match. And you’re not sure who is the hero of the story. Jon took some wonderful departures from the book in order to make it a serious and even more murky look as to how heroic was Dan Chase.
The show, particularly in the first two episodes directed by Jon Watts, uses these extended uninterrupted takes for both dialogue-driven conversations and action. Was that a decision made in the writers room during development or something you cooked up with Watts?
Steinberg: Both, I think. When we started the director search, there was a sense of what we wanted it to feel like. We wanted it to feel like you were really inhabiting moments with these characters. I think that gets undercut when you’re trying to pace it up with cuts. The first meeting we had with Jon, it was clear instantly that we was feeling the same thing. It was one of the easiest director meetings I’ve ever had.
Littlefield: In the development of the material, we were very focused on character and story. Then we had a partner with FX who said, “We love it. We’re doing it.” Then we had lengthy sessions with Watts where we talked about what it should feel like. We all know we can access a lot of television that’s very cutting, cutting, cutting. In our heads, it was more operatic. The more you live in these shots, the more real it will feel. There’s stakes and the opera can be loud. Watts is an amazing partner and he lays out every shot before he starts production so you know what his vision is. He absolutely knows how to live in the moment, but there was also an agreed upon and articulated plan.
In many ways, “The Old Man” feels like it’s about protecting one’s legacy. What was it about that idea that sparked so much interest for you?
Steinberg: It’s a story that is really about these guys confronting their mortality, especially in the case of Dan Chase. He’s a person who has dodged mortality and felt immune to it in some respect to get through all of the things he’s gotten through and now it’s about what happens when you can’t dodge it anymore and your body is failing you and you’re living alone and your children are grown.
He feels like it’s over and it led to a conversation about what I think is conventionally referred to as a three-quarter life crisis. You are conditioned to feel like when you hit a certain age, you’re done. And the idea that I think a lot of people crash into unexpectedly is that they have time left. And I think the more the conversation about legacy became real, the more of this secret door into potentially something else that’s totally unexplored becomes important.
The show is also about the sense of self and identity, with a lot of characters wearing these metaphorical masks for several different reasons in different facets of their lives.
Littlefield: I think it’s fascinating to look below the surface and say things are not as they appear to be. And then what we’re able to do is raise the stakes of that. We have a guy who was a high-level operative for the government and at the time 30 years ago when he was out there, I think the government probably thought they were doing some really good things. And now we we go back and look at it, I think we have to say maybe sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t.
That knowledge and wisdom, it’s the gray that we’re all forced to live with today. God, it would be so much easier if it was more black and white, and it’s not. And so that became this wonderful through line for us to examine all these core characters and who they are. Are they the victim in the story? Are they the hero? Do we celebrate them? Should we run from them? In most of these characters, there’s so many dimensions.
This interview has been edited for clarity.