Actor, director and writer Ed Burns' first feature film, "The Brothers McMullen," launched his career as a multitasking talent. He went on to star along with Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" and last year in "Alex Cross" with Tyler Perry. The 45-year-old comes from a long line of New York City police officers, but he will be playing the infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel in "Mob City." He lives in New York City with his wife, model Christy Turlington, and their two children. "Mob City" premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on TNT.
So you are playing the infamous Bugsy Siegel in "Mob City." What was the worst kind of trouble you ever got into?
My old man was a cop in New York City for, I think, 29 years, so I never got into any trouble with the law. Well, I shouldn't say that. I got in plenty of trouble with the law, but the law lived under my roof!
You seem equally adept at acting and writing. Did both talents come naturally to you?
You'd better be working on both of them constantly. I went to school thinking I was going to become a novelist. After taking a film appreciation class, I decided I wanted to write screenplays. After I wrote my first screenplay, I said, "I think I want to be a filmmaker, too."
After taking my first film directing class, the professor asked, "Who here wants to be a director?" Everybody raised their hand.
Then he asked, "Who here has any acting experience?" No one raised their hand. He said, "Well, how do you expect to work with actors if you have never spent a second in their shoes?"
What we did over the course of that semester was pick four students, and one would be the writer, one the director and the other two would have to be the actors. We would put on a five-minute play in front of our classmates. The first time I got picked was as an actor and in doing that I got the acting bug. So I've been working hard at both, hopefully to get decent enough at it to make a living.
Did you find growing up in a big Irish family helped develop some the skills needed to get and hold someone's attention?
Yeah, generally as a storyteller and probably a little bit of being a performer. It was a competitive environment for floor time. If you wanted to be the guy telling a funny story at the dinner table, you better be able to hold that crowd. So, sure, a bit of it came from that.
I was lucky in that I had two older cousins -- Jerry and Barry -- who were two of the funniest, greatest storytellers ever. My brother is also a writer. He writes for that show "Blue Bloods." We were the two little kids of the extended clan. We would sit there at the table listening to these two hold court. I am sure a lot of what we developed we learned listening to them.
So how did the family handle your fame once you made it?
I mean, you can imagine, everybody loved it. Certainly there were bragging rights at work. More importantly, they were just sort of happy for my success. Then when you get to do something like "Saving Private Ryan," you can't imagine what their reaction is. A lot of my aunts and uncles, my cousins came to visit me on that set. It's a blast for people when someone in their family sort of achieves that kind of success. It's a fun thing to share.
Are you at all impressed by your own success?
I wouldn't say impressed, but there are certainly times where I have to pinch myself. I can't believe, you know, the success especially of that first film [and] the doors that opened for me, just the people that you get to meet. For the most part, every hero that I ever had I have gotten to meet. You know, those that are still with us. That's pretty exciting stuff. If anything, it's more a please-don't-let-me-wake-up-from-this-dream kind of feeling.
What about the other side of it, being recognized on the street, tabloids and all that?
I am very lucky in that my level of fame, I guess. I get most of the good and very little of the bad. I can get tickets to see my beloved New York Knicks whenever I want, and a gang of paparazzi never chased me out of my apartment and down the street. I live in New York City, so people are pretty cool with celebrities. All I get is, "Hey Ed, how ya doin? or "Hey, can I get a picture?" Very rarely do you run into a situation that's uncomfortable or a problem.
How do you judge the success of one of your projects? Is it when it is a financial success or just the fact that you could bring a character to life or a story to the screen?
It's the latter. Early in my career, because you are new to the game, you think it all hangs on what kind of reviews did we get and what kind of box office did we get. I have been in the business almost 20 years now, and you soon recognize -- or learn if you are lucky -- that stuff is meaningless.
It isn't meaningless if your movie is a big hit and you are going to get your next movie made and you are going to make more money. But for me it's never been about that. I love making movies so much. I have done the full range from big-budget movies as an actor to little tiny, micro indie movies as a filmmaker.
I just love the process. I have always approached it more like this is my trade or my craft that I love to do. So you do the best you can. You send it out into the world, and they either like it or hate it, but you'd better be working on the next one.
Do you consider yourself a workaholic or a perfectionist?
I would say probably a workaholic but not a perfectionist. That is not to say that you don't strive to make the thing as good as it can be, whether it is a screenplay, a finished film or my work as an actor. At the same time, I am also a realist. I know there is no such thing as perfection. So you push it as far as you can, but then at a certain point you have to walk away.
The other amazing thing you learn is there are those projects that you kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and you thought, "OK, this one is perfect." It comes out, and it gets terrible reviews and it disappears. Then there are the other ones where you thought, "It was so much fun and I bet it was pretty good," and that is the one they love. Personally, I try to remember I love doing it, and I try to remind myself that it is a gift that I get to do it.
In the past you mentioned your Catholic guilt and Catholic school. I am wondering if you have exorcised yourself of it or is it still there?
The great line I heard is there is no escaping your Catholic upbringing or Catholic childhood [laughing]. I'm handling it a little better than I used to, but it still rears its ugly head from time to time.
I look forward to watching you in "Mob City."
It was fun, so much fun. It was the most fun I have had acting since "Saving Private Ryan," easily. When you get to play a character like Bugsy Siegel, every day on set you are either beating the [expletive] out of somebody or whacking somebody. All the girls think you're the greatest thing, so it's a fun character to play.