Monday, May 6, 2013

Full Interview with Christopher McDonald

Christopher McDonald and I in New York City
Last September, I dedicated one of my In Character posts to the remarkably versatile character actor Christopher McDonald (read that post here). As luck would have it, McDonald’s publicist found my article, and we developed a nice rapport, which resulted in me being given the opportunity to interview McDonald in person.

I met McDonald (or Chris, as he warmly asked me to call him) on West 44th Street in New York City, minutes after the conclusion of the evening performance of Lucky Guy, the Broadway show penned by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks and McDonald. Lucky Guy tells the true story of Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Daily News columnist Mike McAlary. In the show, McDonald plays a fast talking lawyer who negotiates McAlary’s contract for several years. It’s the kind of scenery-chewing Christopher McDonald character I absolutely love, one that immediately evokes applause as McDonald takes the stage.

So, with people shouting “Shooter” at him in the street, Chris and I ducked into a nearby restaurant to discuss his acting process, the roles he holds most dear, and the importance of chasing after what you want most.

How do you feel after a live performance like that? Are you pumped?
Very pumped. You have to wind down. But it’s funny, during the matinĂ©e show today, the audience was 10 times more responsive than this recent audience. That’s the beautiful thing about the stage: it’s always different. This afternoon they laughed, you guys listened. And the first time we had an attentive crowd like yours, I asked the director, “What’s that about?” because this is a funny show. And he explained that some audiences wait until someone else laughs before they laugh. Everyone in your audience was afraid to laugh first, and that’s very interesting. It’s a weird dichotomy: I love the attentiveness of an audience like yours, but I love when we get all the laughs as well.

You’re accomplished in theater, film, and television. Do you approach various art forms differently?
Oh yes. The attraction of film is that it takes you to exotic locales. Unless you’re doing an independent film, which is usually a bunch of kids running around without any money, which can be great. Bigger movies take you places, and independent films allow you to play something you haven’t played before, and I love that. For television, the number of people who see you on a hit show like Harry’s Law can be 10 million strong, and that is extraordinary. It may take 30 years for 10 million people to see you on the stage, but the audience that comes to see you on the stage really wants to be here. And that is a huge difference from someone sitting in their living room flipping channels. So the attention to theater is fantastic, that immediate feedback you get from a theater audience is one of the great highs. It really is.

McDonald in the Purple Hearts episode of Harrys Law
For my money, Harry’s Law contains some of the best work you’ve ever done.
That was really a go-for-broke, do-or-die kind of role.
Absolutely. I’m specifically drawn to the “Purple Hearts” episode.
It just rips your heart out, doesn’t it?
Oh definitely. What you did on that show is really something. Hysterical, but often very earnest. What did that show mean to you?
Well that was one of the great breakouts for me. People kept telling me, “Dude, that is an award-winning role right there.” Now, that’s not what I do this for – though I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be nice [laughs] – but seriously, what a great role that was. After I was cast, the director told me they had a hard time deciding who to play the part. “Who the hell is going to play this Tommy Jefferson guy. I mean this guy is out there.” And then they called me and asked if I was interested, and I asked them whose idea it was, and they said it was all David Kelley. He was a fan. So… wow. Just… wow. I would’ve done anything for him.

I loved that material. Kathy Bates, she’s authentic as the day is long, one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, I love her to death. She has a great work ethic. She’d show up on set and say, “Okay, let’s do great work. Let’s focus and get this in the can.” And I love that. Sometimes people just goof around, and I hate wasting time. It’s about the work, and that’s what Kathy is all about. So the show was a joy, and I really miss it. There are a lot of politics in network television. We were one of their highest rated dramas, but a new regime came in, who said we reached for too old of an audience, as if there is no money in people over 50. What’s that about? But they want that 18-49.

But I really think that’s all going to change shortly. There is an audience for shows who hit the baby boomer demographic. Everyday I’m in New York, when the play is done I come out and sign a few autographs, people tell me they loved that show. They miss that show. And it feels great, but it’s a bittersweet thing, because it’s gone. And I don’t know if I’ll ever find a role like that again, but I do know that I can do it, which is good.

I didn’t know if I could make Tommy Jefferson believable. And that’s kind of what I do. I love taking things to the very edge and slipping off – one leg on, one leg off. It’s a really fun place to be. Dangerous, but fun. I’ve had more success in that area than completely falling off the cliff.

To mention another of your edge-of-the-cliff roles: Darryl in Thelma & Louise. On Ridley Scott’s DVD commentary for that film, he mentions that he didn’t quite know what to do with Darryl. And then you showed up. From scene one, take one, Scott says you came in and were this guy. How did you know how to play him in that very specific way?
You know, it was a bit of a lucky accident. My very first scene of that movie, I’m in a brand new wardrobe, wearing these slick shoes I haven’t walked three feet in, I’m wearing this pompadour hairdo, I grew this moustache… I just kind of felt it. So my first scene, I had to go out of the house, get in my car, and drive away. That was the scene. Take one: I fall and hit my head on some cement thing, but a little guy on my shoulder said, “Keep going. Don’t stop. Keep it real.” And that’s what I love as an actor. You’re in that moment, so real, so focused – and it’s magic. Happy accidents. Ridley laughed so hard, he said, “We can do it again, and we probably will for safety, but that’s in the movie.” So from scene one, I was already way out there. And I knew [Thelma] had to drive off a cliff rather than come back to me, so that informed my character as well [laughs]. I had a great freedom in Darryl. Working with Harvey [Keitel], that’s all real.
You actually made Harvey laugh, didn’t you? Not his character, but the actor?
Yeah, that’s actually Harvey laughing. I kept taking Darryl further, and Harvey would let out those giant laughs, and it’s all in the movie. The whole stepping in the pizza stuff, [Does a perfect Darryl impression] “What? Huh? What the—.”

And that movie was bigger than any of us could’ve imagined. Cover of Time Magazine. It started a whole new shift toward women-dominated films. Ridley was way out on something different for him, it was all just great. A tremendous experience that really kick started my career.

McDonald’s final scene as Darryl in Thelma & Louise
What do you want from a film director? Time for rehearsal? A lot of takes? Room for improvisation?
What you want from a director is support. And with Ridley specifically, he just kept saying, “Yes, more.” Ridley is great at catching lightning in a bottle. If you get those two or three moments in a performance, those moments that really work, then it’s just gold. There’s a scene in the movie when all the detectives are sitting in my home, waiting to get a call from the girls so they can trace it. And they’re all sitting there watching some soap opera, and I turn it to a football game, and all the detectives look over at me like, “Hey, buddy, we’re watching that.” You strive for moments like that.

Oh and the scene where I’m chasing Brad Pitt in the police station. He improvised that, “I like your wife,” line and I went after him like a Tasmanian devil. They had to get three big extras to hold me back, because I would’ve killed him. It was a rage moment, but I felt supported to go there. Another example is the scene, which I improvised, where I’m just sitting there, staring off, because she’s gone. She’s gone from my life, and that’s a big hole. And I’m just sitting there by the phone going, “Wow, this is for real.” I just love Ridley for leaving things like that in the movie.
That’s your last shot of the film. It’s really powerful.
It really bookends the character. At once a jerk, and now you just see the loss in this guy.

You have an immediate command of the screen, and the stage. Whether in one scene of one episode of The Sopranos, or a boozing doctor in Awake, or a bleach-blond badass in Terminal Velocity – when you come on, I say, “Okay, I’m going to pay attention to this guy.” So, for lack of better phrasing, how do you do that? How do you come on and own it right away?
So you want to know all my secrets? [Laughs.] But honestly, it’s just the way I see it. I’ve done it the other way, the way they want it – or, even worse, the way they think I think they want it – which is the most boring, safe choice you could have. So I decide to throw that out the window and not make safe choices. I try to make everything urgent and specific and high stake, so that when I come in, you know I can only go one way, which is more. The danger is, if you come in too high, you have no place to go but down. So I’ve learned to temper it, and know where I can go in a scene. And everyone seems to jump on board. That’s what actors do, they have to lift the material up to the highest it can be. I don’t like being bored, I like challenging myself with active choices. And that comes from my studying. You study the craft, you create a technique, and my technique came from the great Stella Adler.

Stella Adler
Stella taught imaginary circumstances of the character, which is limitless. She spoke to me in a way I had never heard, and it changed my life. I followed her from coast to coast while she did these classes, and I was so broke that I offered her my services as a chauffeur or a bartender or whatever. I couldn’t afford her classes, but I couldn’t afford to not take them. And she said she saw my passion and she believed in me, which made for a really special thing. I would drive her to get her hair done and she’d asked me questions about [Clifford] Odets or [Buddy] Ebsen or [George Bernard] Shaw, and I’d have to think on it for the 45 minutes she was in there. And there was no Internet back then to help me, this was like, “All right, you know the play, break it down so you can speak intelligently about it.” Really, if you can get through a scene study class with Stella Adler and have her say, “Hey, that is what it’s about. Everyone, did you see that? Did you see why?” That happened three times with me and it was… wow.

You put a lot of drama and comedy into each of your characters, how important is that to you?
Well, that’s real life. You seem like a very funny guy, but I’m sure you also have deep emotional connections to things. That’s life. It’s my job as an actor to find the humanity in the bad guy. I don’t see him as a bad guy, I see him as a guy who’s made some very strong choices and he has his back up against the wall. Most every story has a bad guy, and a lot of people are afraid to play them. You really have to not judge the character, and make him as full as you can. You can’t make him a stereotype. You have to add the pathos, you have to add the emotion, the drive. Yes, you’re the “bad guy,” but you can never see it that way as an actor. You have to see the motivation of why he does what he does, then make that super urgent. Now, often, once you do one of those guys well, they want you to do one every time and repeat yourself. And I do love to work, so when I get a guy like that, I have to color him differently. I have to make them all different. And you have to have a great director who allows you to do that.

Marlon Brando used to say that he’d give a director three choices. One where he would just sleep walk through it, but look good. One where he’d make some mediocre but passable “what they want” choices. And one where he was in the zone, in the moment, so connected to it, and then he’d see which one the director liked. If the director liked the safe versions, Brando would go, “Okay, this guy’s an idiot, I’m just gonna walk through this thing.”

So, to some degree, that’s what I do. I give a director some choices and hope they get what’s best for the material. But sometimes you have to protect yourself, because I know that if I give them the safe version, they may just use that. It’s all about making choices and having reserves when necessary. It’s about knowing you can go there if need be.

McDonald as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore
For my generation and I’m sure many others, you are idolized as Shooter McGavin.
Who knew? [Laughs.]
Ten people yelled out the name in the time it took us to walk half a block from the theater exit to this restaurant. So, Shooter McGavin: curse, or blessing?
Blessing. And I’ll tell you why. I nearly didn’t do the movie.
You passed on it twice, right?
That’s right. I was tired, I wanted to see more of my family. But then I played a round of golf in Seattle, and we won. And that high was something else. So, with my golf shoes still on, I went in the locker room, called my agent and said, “Is that golf movie still available, because I just won this tournament and I’m feeling a little bit, well, Shooterish. So I met Adam, because I didn’t know if the guy who did “Opera Man” was going to be any good. I laughed the entire time I spoke with him, and I knew that this kid was really smart.

The very first scene I shot for that movie is the one everyone wants me to quote. They want me to leave it as the voicemail prompt on their cell phones. [In a perfect Shooter voice] “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast,” I mean, again, who knew?

He’s such an arrogant prick in everyone’s eyes, and I had to make choices. Instead of playing him as a guy with smoke coming out of his ears, I laughed it up, “Yeah, okay, he’s beating me… son of a bitch.” It made him more human. The director, Dennis Dugan, thank God he let me do that stuff, because he didn’t want to see the Bad Guy 101 again. I remember thinking, “Shooter… why Shooter? Everytime I make a putt [does the Shooter McGavin gun shot motion with his hand] bam, Shooter!” That became the thing. That became the move. And I was given the freedom to do a lot of improv. Hitting the beach ball with the club, “Damn you people, go back to your shanties,” we really had fun with that one. And the fact that that movie is still on people’s minds is great.

Tell me about the day-to-day process of being a character actor. You’re on Broadway now, if the Coen brothers called you tomorrow and said, “Hey, we need you for two days on our film,” would you jet off and do it?
It has happened before. I was doing a Broadway play once and I got a call that they wanted me to play Joe DiMaggio in The Bronx is Burning. I mean, Joe D, one of my heroes. So I had to go to the production and say, “I need that Sunday matinĂ©e off, so I can go and shoot this.” And they worked it out where I could shoot on Monday, but they liked me so much, they brought me back the following two Mondays and I did two more scenes. So that does happen, and it’s wonderful. But for the most part, I’m married to whatever I’m in. I have done two movies at the same time. I would fly to Vancouver and shoot this Unforgettable movie, then come back to L.A. and shoot the other movie. Back and forth.

But day-to-day is different. It is the biggest variety you can imagine. It’s why I love acting. It’s why I love becoming other people. It’s so exciting, it’s freeing. I learn on every job I do. I do great research; I love research. For Lucky Guy, I love learning about the newspapers, I love learning about the law, I love learning about the early ‘80s through 1998 in New York. What was going on politically, what was going on socially, who was the hot band – I feed on all these things. I get to spend my life learning. When Lucky Guy was in previews, I really wanted to see this movie, The Central Park Five, but I couldn’t find it. So I went to the New York Public Library, and there it was. And wow, am I glad I watched it.
That was an amazing documentary.
That was New York at that time. I was living here then and you put your wallet in your front pocket, walked fast, didn’t make eye contact, kept your wits about you – it was exciting. And dangerous. And in my research I discovered that these New York tabloid rags really were the paper of the people. Sure, they may have put “My Mother is an Alien,” on the cover to sell copies, but there was good writing in there.

Tom Hanks and McDonald in Lucky Guy
So my day is whatever the research is. I keep very busy. I have a real need to act. I also have a very understanding wife who allows me to go and chase my dream. And my kids understand as well. I miss them desperately. Taking this play was a huge decision, because they live in L.A. and they’re still in high school. Back in the day when I was doing a film in Italy, I’d say, “Hey, come on over,” and it was great, because they were kids. But now they’re older and they have soccer and they go to school, so it’s hard to be away from them.

The variety of my day changes. But the staples are: work out, connect with the family, research, and chase. Chase whatever new project I want. What does it mean to be a “lucky guy?” It means knowing what you want and going after it. I wanted this play badly because this is Broadway. It’s Nora. Ephron. It’s Tom Hanks, George C. Wolfe.

You know what a lot of people said to me when I told them I was going to Hollywood? “Oh yeah… see you in three months with your tail between your legs.” I went out to L.A. to do nothing else but act. I was working in a restaurant and soon realized, “Wait a minute, why am I wasting my time here? I didn’t drive 3,000 miles to work in a restaurant.” So I decided to either act or starve. And there were some hungry times. [Laughs.] But that was some tremendous motivation. And I always had a great work ethic. I was out there, doing it. I had a manager who said, “Go to the beach, get some sun, we’ll talk soon.” He was talking to the wrong guy. First of all, I sun burn. [Laughs.] Second of all, I don’t sit and wait. I believe it’s very important to chase after what you want.

Any role you’d like to play that you haven’t yet?
Any role Tom Hanks doesn’t want anymore. [Laughs.] I’d like to have a role where someone wrote it for me, like Tom’s connection with Nora, God love her. I wish she was here to share this play as it’s happening. I’m sure she would’ve tweaked it here and there and made the whole thing even more exciting. I’ve always loved her writing.

But other roles… I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to do a franchise. The closest I got was the television version of Midnight Run, where I played the Jack Walsh character, which was played by De Niro in the original movie. But because we were on cable, I couldn’t use any of the character’s colorful F-bombs, so I had to find a different way to do it. And it was very successful and a lot of fun to do. But any role where I could have a great connection with a writer. Where I could produce it, so I could control it. That’ll all come in my second act.


  1. If I could ever the crowd from the WWE Monday Night RAW on the day after this year's Wrestlemania to chant your name. That's how I would praise this interview because YOU ARE AWESOME!!! clap-clap-clap YOU ARE AWESOME!!!! clap-clap-clap

    1. Ha, damn man, thanks a lot for that. Really glad you dig the interview, it was a truly amazing experience!

  2. Dude, that must have been awesome interviewing him. So jealous.

    1. It was surreal. I admitted up front that I was interviewing him as a fan, not a journalist. Very, very cool guy.

  3. That is amazing, i am so happy and EXCITED for you. Have you been able to take a step back yet and let the significance of that interview sink in? PS- i nearly teared up as he reminisced on Happy Gilmore. Congrats again!

    1. Thanks so much man! Ha, you know me well... in the days since the interview, I've had to try and convince myself that it wasn't a dream, and let it all sink in. It's just crazy how it all worked out!

      He spoke very fondly about Happy Gilmore. It was great to hear him embrace the role, rather than down talk down about it. He's really proud of what Shooter has become.

  4. Superb questions with articulate answers. Bravo!

  5. First of all, Alex, this whole happening is just awesome. So happy to see you presented with this opportunity. Second, I'm sending vibes out to the universe for you to do more of these because you're a great question-asker. Those are loose-feeling answers he's giving to everything, it READS like you're having a conversation, you know? Really great stuff. (I also didn't know he trained with Stella Adler.)

    1. Damn man, thanks for all of that. Right when we sat down, I told him I preferred to have a conversation as opposed to a stuffy, formal interview. He said that was a refreshing take, so we just went with it. So basically, I'm really happy it reads like a convo and not an overly formal Q&A.

      I had no idea he studied with Stella either, let alone drove her around and became good friends with her. She really pushed him to do great work. So awesome.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Nick!

  6. I know this meant a lot to you and it's a fine write up my friend!

    1. Thanks man!

      (Excuse me, gentlemen. Excuse him, gentlemen.)

  7. Chris McDonald? Damn, man! That's a fine bit of blogging right there. I absolutely loved him in Thelma & Louise. Such a brilliant performance. Nice work here buddy and good on Chris for being a good sport.

    1. Thanks Mark! He was definitely a great sport, all the way. Just a genuinely cool, down to earth guy. His work in Thelma & Louise is my favorite performance of his. Dude is hilarious.

  8. Great interview, Alex! It sounds like it was a fun conversation and he was interested enough to give you strong answers. I'm kicking myself for not telling you to ask him about Stargate Universe. That does seem fairly trivial given all his excellent work, though.

    1. Thanks Dan! He really was open to discuss anything and everything, which was really great. Ah, I didn't even think to ask him about Stargate Universe... maybe next time!!

      Thanks for reading and commenting here buddy!

  9. How awesome is this! Love that your In Character segment on him got recognized and then the interview. Bookmarked to read later. Awesome :)

    1. Thanks Alex! It's really bizarre that this all came together so well. One of the highlights of my movie-freaked life. Hope you enjoy reading it!

  10. Excellent interview man! Great flow and very articulate answers on Chris' part.

    1. Thanks dude! I loved that he was open to talk at great length about anything. Such a cool guy.

  11. Great interview man, it must have been a real blast to have that one on one with McDonald.

    1. Thanks dude. It was a complete blast... still so surreal that it actually happened.

  12. Wow Alex, that was a great interview- real, with good questions and a wonderful interviewee, if I can call him that! Great job, you should do this more often :)

    1. Thanks so much, D! Glad you liked the questions and his very detailed, articulate answers. I certainly hope I get to do more of these :)

  13. This is an awesome interview, Alex! Love how conversational it feels, and you asked some great questions. I always wondered how he felt about probably being best known as Shooter MacGavin -- glad you asked him about that. So cool that you got to do this, man.

    1. Thanks so much man! The fact that I even got to do this interview is so surreal. Glad you enjoyed my questions and his answers. I had a blast putting this together!

  14. Man, David Strathairn, David Morse now Chris McDonald, some people have all the luck. If you ever get a hold of McDonald's and Martindale's agent again, tell them that Margo was outstanding in the surprising 'The Americans' as 'Granny.' McDonald always struck me as one of those 'good guy' actors, professional character actors that are generally good, intelligent and articulate people and this interview seems to prove that. Good interview and read, Alex.

    1. Thanks Jeff! It's crazy that I've actually met some of these people, isn't it? All really cool, normal guys.

      I've heard nothing but good things about The Americans, I really need to check that out.

      McDonald was a hell of a good guy, let me tell you. I'll forever cherish the fact that I got to interview him.