Bonnie and Clyde: A&E Networks’ miniseries event shows darker vision of outlaw couple

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, known much better without their surnames, have become unlikely folk heroes thanks largely to the 1967 Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway film that featured the tagline “They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people.”

In that version, and subsequently in the public’s imagination, Bonnie and Clyde pulled off their violent crimes with the zeal of youth, and faced their notorious bullet-riddled deaths with smiles on their faces, the very embodiment of the philosophy of live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. It’s a tall order to think any retelling could overshadow what seems to be an indelible perception, but with an impressive cast and crew all its own, a new Bonnie & Clyde definitely has what it takes to make a name for itself.

Over two nights and across three networks, the ambitious miniseries will paint a more complete portrait of America’s most famous outlaw lovers, brought to life by Academy Award-nominated director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies).

Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) and Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) are electric in the title roles, and they share the screen with such luminaries as William Hurt, who plays the pair’s dogged pursuer (and eventual executioner), retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer; Holly Hunter as Bonnie’s beleaguered mother; Modern Family star Sarah Hyland as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche; and Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga) as an unscrupulous reporter tracking the gang.

Taking a much grittier and at times more somber approach, the miniseries includes all those pesky, unromantic details the film leaves out, including Bonnie’s pre-Clyde marriage, Clyde’s brutal stints in prison, and Bonnie’s injuries from a car crash during their spree.

“You see how Bonnie and Clyde become Bonnie and Clyde,” Hirsch says. “You see the economic reasons why both of them are the way they are. You see why Bonnie was attracted to Clyde, and it really answers … why Clyde was so murderous. Why did he kill so many people? How did he get that way? You see how much prison affects Clyde, and that’s something that really helps fill in the blanks for a lot of people, to how someone could get to the place where they could do these horrible things.”

Bonnie and Clyde; Emile Hirsch; Holliday Grainger

Meet “Clyde” — Emile Hirsch

Hirsch has played his share of real-life characters in films like Into the Wild, Milk and the upcoming Lone Survivor, but those were all stories of more recent vintage where access to friends, family members and sometimes even video footage was readily available. To play Clyde, he had to rely mainly on biographies, most notably Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together. One source he purposely did not consult was Beatty’s performance, which he didn’t watch till after production wrapped. When he finally did, he was shocked at its “jokey” nature, which stands in stark contrast to the character he created.

“My version of Clyde was so much more about him wrestling with demons,” Hirsch says. “At times Clyde was almost demonic, but I felt like he still felt bad at times. He made a lot of excuses as to why he did certain things, and I think he was probably a bit of a sociopath. He was definitely a very impulsive person, but he truly did love Bonnie, and that was the thing that was unshakable for him. He had no problem stealing. He would kill and usually not show all that much remorse. … He’s a murderer. But I think there’s something really tragic about him.”

Meet “Bonnie” — Holliday Grainger

For Grainger, the chance to put on Bonnie’s beret was a natural — and thrilling — progression in her streak of playing notorious women. She says her time as Lucrezia Borgia in Showtime’s The Borgias and as Estella in 2012’s Great Expectations felt like “training” for Bonnie. But there still was plenty she found intimidating about the role.

“That was terrifying, being British and having someone go, ‘For your first American role ever, play an American icon and do it well,’” Grainger says.

She had seen Dunaway’s portrayal but knew this was a different enough interpretation that she says she wasn’t worried about making it her own. Her research consisted largely of biographies, as well as Bonnie’s own words from diary entries and letters to Clyde while he was in prison.

“She was just so young!” Grainger says. “In her diaries, she came across like a real young, innocent-like mother’s girl, and that contrasts so much with the murderer that we know.

“But just coming from that time period where there was such a deep depression and no opportunities at all for women apart from maybe she can be a waitress or secretary if she was very lucky. … Her mom describes her as having this real maturity when she talked about death, like it was completely inevitable and that it was fine, that was what they had chosen. That short burst of life and excitement, she wanted that more than a humdrum, dull existence. It struck me.”

Bonnie & Clyde airs 9pm Dec. 8-9 on A&E, History and Lifetime.

Photo: © 2013 Credit: Joseph Viles