For the past three years, Leila George has portrayed one of the most complicated mothers on television: the younger version of crime boss Janine "Smurf" Cody in the flashback storyline on TNT's "Animal Kingdom," which enters its sixth and final season on June 19. (Ellen Barkin portrayed an older version of the character in the present-day storyline on the first four seasons of the action-packed drama.)
Season 6 sees Janine in the early '90s facing arguably her greatest challenge yet: raising teenagers. The scenes she shares with her teen children — twins Pope and Julia and adopted son Baz — are intense, to say the least. But it's her exchanges with her daughter — whom she expertly manipulates — that are particularly difficult to watch.
Leila — the only child of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" alum Vincent D'Onofrio and Italian-Australian actress Greta Scacchi — drew inspiration from an unexpected source to bring the latest iteration of Janine to life: her own mother.
"Maybe I'm outing myself, but don't all mother-daughter relationships have darkness to them at times? I love my mom so much — she is my ride or die, she's my North Star. She's become one of my best friends. But when I was a teenager, we had fights like that," she told Wonderwall.com during a recent chat.
"It is kind of relatable. At a certain point, a daughter needs to fly the nest and there's a struggle for a couple of years. I feel like we can all relate to that," she added.
While Janine — who introduced her offspring to a life of crime before they hit puberty — makes motherhood look anything but easy, walking in her shoes hasn't deterred Leila from wanting her own big brood some day.
"I've always been someone who wants kids — lots of them. I envy that in her," said the 30-year-old beauty, who split from Sean Penn in October 2021 following just 14 months of marriage. "Take away all the crime and giving your kids alcohol, take away all the bad stuff, I love that [she has this] big family. I love that they have Sunday lunches and parties and, yes, they're dysfunctional, but it's a nice to see a family get-together, isn't it? I like that."
From what we've seen so far, the family get-togethers on season 6 of "Animal Kingdom" are particularly dysfunctional…
Leila had this to say about how her on-screen alter ego is handling parenthood after a significant time-jump following the conclusion of season 5: "She's trying to make it work with [her kids] and pulling jobs — they're in a flow," she said. "They don't have it as down pat as in the future, but they're getting there. They're learning, and she's working with young Baz — played by Darren Mann — and he's kind of slowly starting to get into a bit of a leadership role. But she's wrangling Julia and Pope — played by Jasper Polish and Kevin Csolak. The three of them are phenomenal and so great to work with and such lovely young actors. I say young, but they're pretty much my age, which is kind of daunting. But it's family dynamics. … And in true 'Animal Kingdom' style, s*** hits the fan. But that's where she's at: wrangling teenagers."
Leila has portrayed Janine at different ages over the course of nearly two decades — from her early 20s in the '70s to her late 30s or early 40s in the early '90s. It presents a unique challenge for the actress.
"It was fun figuring out what the look was gonna be each season," she said. "When I joined the show, I didn't know how long I was gonna be on it for — I started with a contract for six episodes. So I did not know this is where it was gonna go. It has been a really interesting thing to figure out how much of her to hold back. How much of her was already there when she was 20? How much did she slowly get like Ellen Barkin along the way? … But to be able to go full Smurf in season 6 was really freeing because I have been waiting to do that and hoping that I could do that. Also being able to work in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has been so fun — just doing all my wardrobe fittings has been one of the things I look forward to most. And listening to the music of the time and all of the sets of the time and the props of the time. It's been a really interesting challenge — one that I'm grateful to have gotten. I don't know if I'll get to do that again."
Like many "Animal Kingdom" fans, Leila couldn't help but wish she'd had more time with the role — her first on a TV series.
"I feel like each new season that I got to be a part of was a gift. Of course I was hungry for more because [the show] jumps 10 years, so there's so much that you miss seeing," she said. "Yes, there were some times when I found myself wishing that the whole thing — my whole part — had been done as a spinoff so that I did have a chance to go really deep into each decade. But isn't it better to leave something wanting more? It's nice that I'm leaving it wanting more of it as opposed to being like, 'Ugh, thank God!'"
"She was such a fun character to play. I just hope that the fans are left feeling good about the last season. That's all I really care about," she concluded.
The sixth and final season of "Animal Kingdom" debuts on TNT on Sunday, June 19.