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Ralph Macchio aims to pull back curtain on 'American Gypsies'

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
July 17, 2012 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actor Ralph Macchio now wears an executive producer hat
  • The former "Karate Kid" star produces the new show "American Gypsies"
  • The series, which airs on National Geographic, follows a Romany family in New York
  • Macchio says the show peels back the curtain on a unique family and its culture

(CNN) -- With an acting career that spans three decades, Ralph Macchio is right at home in front of the camera.

But with the new National Geographic reality show "American Gypsies" premiering at 9 ET Tuesday night, the 50-year-old actor is going behind the lens as an executive producer.

With "American Gypsies," Macchio is training the spotlight on the New York-based Johns family, a Romany clan that's balancing holding on to its traditions while pursuing the American Dream, he said.

"American Gypsies" was a bit like chasing a dream for Macchio, who said that the show's development took nearly five years as he bounced the concept around various networks.

"You want to surrender and give up so many times, but it adds validity to the fact that if you never give up you have the chance of finally making it," he said.

Macchio spoke with CNN about the new show, what he's learned as an executive producer and why he isn't a big fan of reality TV.

CNN: What was the impetus to develop a show around this family?

Ralph Macchio: (The son of) a friend of mine and his film student partner, they were making a documentary on the Johns family. I saw some footage, and I was just immediately fascinated by this subculture that exists right in my city, right in New York. The characters and personalities were just popping off the screen, and I said this story needs to be told; this family could make entertaining television.

I brought it to Stick Figure Productions, who I was involved with developing something for MTV at the time, and it felt like the right match. From there, we shaped a trailer and started pitching to a bunch of networks. ... At the end of the day, after years of time, National Geographic stepped up and said, "We'll give you nine or 10 episodes on the air."

CNN: What can viewers expect to see?

Macchio: Over the first season they'll see the growth within the family as far as finding the balance between (having) one foot in the American Dream side and the other rooted in the Gypsy age-old traditions. ... There'll be no shortage of the Gypsy court hearings and the conflicts and the psychic shop dilemmas. There's a lot of stuff going on, but the human elements are what I'm hoping will make this a long run rather than a flash-in-the-pan idea.

CNN: What were the hurdles you were coming across when you were working to get this show to production?

Macchio: It's an unorthodox, for lack of a better description, lifestyle. I use the word subculture because it is that. I think once you pitch it up a ladder of the network, and it gets to the corporate end, there's some who might frown upon taking a peek inside this world where there are arranged marriages, the kids are homeschooled, some of them don't know how to read -- which is an element of our first episode.

This is one family that I just think is fascinating, and the characters are intriguing. Family comes first for them, and that's relatable to me.

CNN: Did you know anything about this culture before you watched that footage?

Macchio: No, and that's what was fascinating. A lot of the footage was about a wedding and also the whole psychic world. You're either a skeptic or a believer, and I fall way on the skeptic side, big time. But they claim they have a gift. It is an odd business, and not one that I would wholeheartedly invest in and embrace, but it's a belief. To me, it's just peeling back the curtain a little bit on this one unique family and what their culture is, whether you agree with it or not.

The stereotypes (about this culture) are so negative. So I think the Johnses want to be recognized as a minority group and not those stereotypes.

CNN: Why'd you use Gypsy in the title, and how (did) the Johns family feel about it?

Macchio: Why isn't it called American Romany? That's a marketing thing. ... People understand that more than they understand Romany.

I think the Johnses understand. Throughout the show, they speak of that and sort of educate about the misnomers of the "Gypsy" slang, but they get that's going to bring people to the table.

CNN: Did you have any concerns about misrepresenting this group? Representing an ethnic group in a reality show can get dicey.

Macchio: I agree with you. I have members of my family and friends who are from the old school who would never watch "The Sopranos" or "Jersey Shore." Now, "Jersey Shore" is a show that was cast; they went out and looked for those characters. But the Johns family is the Johns family; we did not cast them. This is not indicative of all Gypsy families nor do I endorse some of their choices.

The traditions, the elder Gypsy court, the psychic businesses -- that's not made up, that's part of the culture. But how they react, their personalities, how they deal with conflict -- that's the Johns family, not necessarily every family.

CNN: This is your first time as an executive producer for a reality program -- what were the biggest lessons you learned?

Macchio: (Laughs) I'm still learning them. But the lesson I'm learning, once you get into TV, because the goal is to make sure they don't reach for the remote in a minute and a half, stuff is cut for drama and sometimes it's cut for train wreck, which is my least favorite form of entertainment.

It's trying to stay true to story and character and integrity and still getting your audience to come to the table and having to deal with the buyers at the networks who control the end result of what comes on the air. That you struggle with in any form of it -- there's that old corny phrase, it ain't show art, it's show business.

Hopefully, at the end of the day the human elements of the Johns family is what makes the show last. The bells and whistles are short-lived I think. Having both makes it exciting and entertaining.

CNN: Did you watch any reality TV to prep for this?

Macchio: I am not a reality TV fan for the most part. I'm an actor who wants more opportunities to act, so reality programming drains the marketplace for opportunities. But it's like great news programming -- real is more fascinating than fiction if you can invest and connect with the characters and the stories, so I see the worth in it. I did relent to do "Dancing With the Stars" after passing on it twice, and it turned out to be a fantastic thing for me. I don't run to it, but I get the appeal for sure.

I just came off from the acting side. I just finished a film called "Hitchcock" with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson. I'm really excited about that.

CNN: Tell me more about that.

Macchio: I play the screenwriter of "Psycho" -- the film is about Hitchcock's mindset during the making of that film and what was going on in his life. It's very smart, humorous and heartfelt.

I'm also recurring as Fran Drescher's latest love interest on "Happily Divorced." I go back in October to shoot some more. We'll see how long that goes before they find out this isn't the right guy for her because you know what happens with couples on a sitcom. So I've been busy.

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