Gangland Undercover debuted last year to rave reviews for its gritty portrayal of a former undercover informant who had successfully infiltrated an outlaw biker gang. The show was written and created by the same undercover informant turned writer, Charles Falco, who based the story on his actual experiences. Renewed for a second season, the History Channel series is back with another round of high stakes biker culture docudrama.
The second season will follow the events of the first season and see Charles Falco (played by Damon Runyan in the show), living a new life in an unfamiliar town in Virginia. It’s now two years since his undercover infiltration of the Vagos biker gang forced him to disappear into witness protection. But can such a man of action settle down for a quiet, uneventful life? Restless and directionless, he signs up for a new and more dangerous undercover operation that will put him on the front line of a violent war between several biker gangs.
We recently caught up with Damon and his Gangland Undercover co-star, Ian Matthews, who were in Singapore recently for HISTORY Asia Original Productions Press Event and in Manila for History Con. They share with us the bikes they like to ride, how true the show is compared with real life and the response from biker community to their series.
GANGLAND UNDERCOVER S2 airs on HISTORY (StarHub TV Ch. 401), Fridays at 10pm.
TT: HOW WAS HISTORY CON LIKE FOR BOTH OF YOU? HOW DID YOU FIND ASIA SO FAR?
DAMON: History Con was surreal, we had no idea that it’s going to be so big and popular and that the crowds would turn up like they did. Just the collective sort of enthusiasm behind the HISTORY shows, it was surreal. We had no idea what to expect.
IAN: It was big, like a walk in kind of dreamscape or some kind you know, it’s been great! I mean people have been really fantastic to us here and it’s my first time in this part of the world, so it’s very eye-opening.
TT: HOW WAS SEASON 1 RECEIVED BY THE GANG MEMBERS? ARE THERE THREATS MADE TO ANY OF THE CAST AND CREW?
DAMON: The irony of that was that was my major concern. It is when I was cast for the show, I asked my agent, like do they have clearance from the gang to portray them in this light? And I still don’t have any answers to that.
IAN: Yeah it was pretty wishy-washy, there were moments especially when we were doing the riding sequences down in Arizona where we had solo riding shots right, where you are just on a bike, you’re in your biker cuts. This is a known gang still operative in the area and it’s just rife with gang members everywhere and you’re just ripping around on this bike with your cuts on by yourself. At that time, you’re still thinking to yourself, just look over your shoulders a little bit.
DAMON: You know, I had one Twitter dude make reference to the fact that he was in jail and there was a price or a bounty on my head. But you know it’s that whole social media universe kind of thing. It’s funny, though, where I live in Toronto, my neighbour was in a diner, like a greasy spoon kind of thing, that’s known to be inhabited by Hells Angels. Apparently, they were all sitting next to the counter top, at like 8 in the morning, probably coming in from a late night and they were talking about the show. They were like “you know what, Falco’s not a bad guy”. My neighbour was all like “alright! You’re not a bad guy!” *Damon and Ian laugh*.
TT: WHAT IS IT LIKE PLAYING THE CHARACTERS CHARLES FALCO AND DARKO IN THE GANGLAND UNDERCOVER? HOW DID YOU PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE ROLE?
DAMON: Well, with gang culture, I had no history with gangs whatsoever or motorcycles, or drug dealing, or cooking, or any of that. The real Falco was available to us so we’re able to discuss what it was like living this life but when you get on set, you’ve just got to throw that by the wayside and go with your imagination and your given circumstances.
IAN: For me, it was pretty straightforward, more or less what he just said. The riding was a special emphasis. I think a lot of the whole, you know, ethos comes from understanding the bike culture. You have to ride the bike and make it look like you’ve been on one before and things start to sort of unfolding from there.
DAMON: Even pulling in and pulling out on a bike, that was where we went to get schooled in motor cross riding and the focus of the whole thing was to essentially make you comfortable on the bike and realise that even if the ground shifts underneath you, that you’re able to ride through it. We’re riding over logs and what not but then there is a focus for two, three hours in the afternoon, pulling in stopping, and then dismounting of the bike. So that you didn’t look like a novice.
IAN: Turning off everything, putting down the kickstand, and getting off the bike, taking off your helmet and then doing it in reverse, starting it up and taking off and then stop and get off. We kind of take it for granted. Next time you see a motorcycle rider, see how they get on and dismount. It’s very telling.
TT: ARE YOU BOTH BIKERS BEFORE YOU JOIN THE SHOW? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE BIKES?
IAN: Well, no, I’m not a biker. The favourite bike question is a difficult one because I still don’t know what my favourite bike is you know. We have been wandering around on this tour wearing matching t-shirts that say “I want to ride all of the motorcycles” and I think that’s pretty accurate. I do want to ride all the motorcycles except the ones that are less than three hundred cc. *Ian laughs*
DAMON: I didn’t ride. I basically got into a big argument with my wife about if I get the show, that I’m getting a motorcycle. And it was always a point of contention. So after the war ended, I went out and purchased a bike. I tried a bunch of different bikes but the problem is if you’re over six feet like me, there’s not a lot of bikes that fit you. So I ended up getting a Triumph Thruxton and Ian was just riding on a Scrambler in Manila that I was kind of like “I think I would like to upgrade to that”. But I tried a Ducati Monster in Manila and that was the bike I’ve always wanted, but when I got on it, at the dealership, I’m like “it’s too small”, physically too small. It’s a fantastic bike.
TT: HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THE BIKER CULTURE AFTER 2 SEASONS OF FILMING?
DAMON: The thing about that culture, or that club life, is that once you, like all our background performers who are in gangs generally, and all clubs, they call it motorcycle clubs, gangs are like a, it’s a negative term right? It implies that you are doing the nefarious activities which are not necessarily the case. The guys in the background on the show, they’re human beings, they have families, they have histories and they subscribe to a way of life that not everyone does but they’re people and now have become friends.
IAN: It’s a different set of values and I mean, there are criminal psychopathic elements in all walks of society I mean you know. Very famously, people talk about the psychopathic element within the ranks of the corporate world etc. Just because there are some people who obviously take it too far and their moral compasses are a little sort of askew, I think that the entire culture sometimes gets unfairly painted. Now, of course, we are representing that psychopathic element to a large degree because it’s drama. Most of the guys involved in this life, it is a dedication, it is a philosophy and a way of life. They’re dedicated to it and they make sacrifices to be able to adhere to that life.
DAMON: Another thing too is that it’s easy to stereotype or classify someone based on how they look and they have an image right but just like racism , it’s very similar in that typecasting.
TT: HOW TRUE IS THIS SHOW TO REAL LIFE?
DAMON: Hard to say because we never lived it but we talked to Falco and I would say that it’s actually a lesser version. Its light, it’s definitely light. Lighter on the sex, lighter on the violence, lighter on the drugs. It’s biker life light. You can read the book. His book portrays it in a much darker light. There are qualifying things that you have to do to get into the gang or when you’re in the gang, that are much dirtier, darker than what we actually portray on the show. But the events that transpired in Season One were pulled from the book and Season Two, it evolves into more fictionalised story. So after I believe it’s around like episode two, they start veering off from the book and the characters that evolved are fictionalised.
DAMON: For Season One they put us in a vehicle, like a giant limo. All the cast, all the time. So whether you like people or not, you were forced to live with them for two and a half months. So certain bonds were stronger than others, but then they separated us, to see if that social experiment worked and apparently it did.
IAN: It’s really lovely. It’s been fantastic, and people we haven’t been talking about enough are the crew and the fellow cast. But the crew is largely the same from the first season, and they’re beautiful people really. We work on a lot of things and the crew, they’ve been so lovely when it comes to accommodating.
TT: MOST MEMORABLE THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU ON THE GANGLAND UNDERCOVER SET
DAMON: So the end of Season Two, it was our last day of shooting, and we wrapped up one scene before some other actors were done. Then we went back and we’re all going to hang out and have drinks or what not, and we’re supposed to go to a bar but we ended up hanging out in a make-up trailer and we missed the last call. Then the other actors came into the make-up trailer and I just, I don’t know, I was struck by this impulse to say “hey, let me take your make-up off”. It was basically like relieving the make-up artist of her job, letting her have some fun.
And so this one actor, Shaun Benson who is a friend of mine, but it’s also like in that male environment, especially in this like egoist environment of acting. You really just share a little bit of yourself outside but you kind of, I personally save the connection for onscreen and so I offered to take his make-up off and then you realise the importance of that job and the proximity of that job. How’s it’s like in all honesty, it’s a special thing to look someone in the eye and like take care of them and then put their make-up on and take it off.
IAN: People are like getting wardrobe changes all the time, and it’s all happening quite quick, so often it’s happening right there on the spot, people in various stages of dress or undress etc. You just get to the point where it just all becomes one sort of, I don’t know. Quite clearly, the rest of the world doesn’t work like that, right? I mean there are elements and other jobs of course, that have similar kinds of caregivers and things like that which you know, obviously have a level of personal connection that is way harder than even what we’re doing certainly. It’s been lovely and wonderful in this particular set and the group of people has been exceptional relative to the massive amount of work we do.
DAMON: You know what’s nice to be that we’ve witnessed people go from being juniors, or assistants to taking over the job. I mean, that’s kind of like when you come on as an actor, the ideology behind this is that you know what you’re doing but in reality, every job is like every first day on set is like your first day at school you know, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know where your status is, you don’t know how you’re being perceived, whether they like you or don’t like you. So there is like do that collectively and move into the second season and grow together, it’s a special opportunity.
TT: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING PART OF GANGLAND UNDERCOVER? WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO BRING TO THE AUDIENCE?
DAMON: Authenticity. Definitely want to shed light on the fact that it’s a grey area, it’s not black or white, it’s not good guys and bad guys. We all have our crosses to bear and the journey of life is a long journey. Hopefully, they’re many seasons of Charles Falco left but I want to show people that there’s hope, there’s optimism in the darkest depths of despair and even if life bottom’s out, there’s always the opportunity to spark a fire and restart your life in some way.
IAN: And, we would like to portray lots of sex, and violence, drug culture, big bikes racing down the roads. I’m serious, it’s an entertainment for the screen right, and we are also at the end of the day, working to provide entertainment for the viewing audience and that is part of what we are attempting to do.
TT: HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH THE REAL CHARLES FALCO?
DAMON: Well, it’s a fictionalised name, number one. The relationship is interesting because you don’t know how much to share and I speak from personal experience that it was. He will impart some truth or whatever his life is to you, and it feels like it’s meant to be kept secret. Then someone asks you a question like “what’s your relationship like?” and you instantly want to share a little bit more than you probably should and so that’s a bit of weird burden to carry.
The relationship is all, I mean it’s essentially glamourizing someone’s life right? And so we’ve become friends and he’s also available for any type of information that we need on the show but he resides on another coast so our connection is mostly texting. It’s interesting ‘cos it’s a weird kind of relationship to portray someone and speak to them. You kind of want to bring yourself to it but then you have this voice or this image of what that actual person is like and that’s weird. You want to mesh the two but not imitate the other person, you know what I mean?
IAN: Well, he has far more dealings with them than I do but when we were shooting the riding sequences, he was my riding partner. Our riding formation, two by two. My first impression is my lasting impression of Charles Falco. I certainly mean no insult to him at all but I met the guy that brought me over like “here’s Charles Falco, this is the guy” and I stopped and looked at him, I’m like “no way, what? No, you did this? You, did this-this?” and as you get to know him more and you start to understand how he managed to do this and what his real set of skills are in this respect. But the first impression and a part of that is that he does have a benign first impression. I think that’s absolutely necessary for what he achieves because you kind of have to get off the radar a little bit.
DAMON: He’s not intimidating or whatsoever, you know. His presence is not intimidating. He actually blends in. We were on set, there were all these bikers and what not, and that introduction, when I first met him, like it was funny because he’s like walking through the desert and then I’m sitting, drinking coconut water provided by my friend here. He comes out of this desert with like the heat behind him and he seems like he is important but then we start talking to him. There’s no real defining characteristic that you go “yeah, that guy. It’s that guy” you know it’s almost like you meet him and then he blends in with everybody else and so I think that’s a true side.
TT: ANY MESSAGE FOR GANGLAND UNDERCOVER FANS?
DAMON: Number one, watch the show, not just the second season, like go back and watch the first season. And the other thing too is like if this bike culture or biker culture is not your thing, don’t just judge a book by its cover because it goes deeper than what it may appear on the surface.
IAN it’s a platform in which we can tell universal stories about human life right? And that’s really what it comes down to, having some imagination brought to bear on it. You realise there’s a lot going on here, it’s not just about what I said before, sex and drugs and violence and big bikes etc.