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By Christopher Stipp

The Archives, Right Here

I was able to sit down for a couple of years and pump out a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.

Check out my new column, This Week In Trailers, at SlashFilm.com and follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp


greenzoneposterYes, United 93 made me a little ill. With all that shaky-cam movements he’s known for Paul Greengrass has tempered his need to put his cameras on paint shakers. Thank the heavens for that as I was able to enjoy the last Bourne film with much more interest.

His latest, GREEN ZONE, looks like it will be a thriller in the most classical of ways. Immediate, visceral, fast-moving, and starring the acting stylings Matt Damon this will be a film that ought to satisfy the action jones any guy must have with the lack of action at the box office as of late. I have your tickets to a screening on March 9th, at Tempe Marketplace, at 7:00 p.m.

Shoot me an e-mail at Christopher_Stipp@yahoo.com and I’ll make sure you get entered to get a pair of tickets

A film description:

Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) re-team for their latest electrifying thriller in Green Zone, a film set in the chaotic early days of the Iraqi War when no one could be trusted and every decision could detonate unforeseen consequences.

During the U.S.-led occupation of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) and his team of Army inspectors were dispatched to find weapons of mass destruction believed to be stockpiled in the Iraqi desert. Rocketing from one booby-trapped and treacherous site to the next, the men search for deadly chemical agents but stumble instead upon an elaborate cover-up that inverts the purpose of their mission.

Spun by operatives with intersecting agendas, Miller must hunt through covert and faulty intelligence hidden on foreign soil for answers that will either clear a rogue regime or escalate a war in an unstable region. And at this blistering time and in this combustible place, he will find the most elusive weapon of all is the truth.

Christopher McDonald - Interview

It was Tappy Tibbons that really drew me into Christopher McDonald’s world. Sure, you could can talk all you like about the comedic life he pored into making Shooter McGavin such a despicable villain but it was Darren Aronofsky who saw something indelible in making McDonald a pivotal part of his dramatic fever dream.

McDonald has put in over thirty years making memorable roles that lesser actors would just as soon blend into the background playing. He’s made it his livelihood, his life’s work, playing parts that take on something special when he filters their essence through his sensibility. What that sensibility is, for the most part, are characters that you love to hate, but they are characters that make you feel something. I had a chance to talk to McDonald about his latest film, Splinterheads, which is now available to buy on DVD, but I was insanely curious to know more about the life of an actor that isn’t front and center with every production, how you make a life out of playing roles that people may or may not remember.

splintCHRISTOPHER STIPP:  In preparing for this interview I thought it was interesting of how, as you were coming through the ranks, you had a Timex that was set to go off on a set schedule as a reminder, to you, to think about where your career was going.

MCDONALD: Where did you find that?

CS:  It was in an interview you did but i thought the sentiment was genuinely resonant. Do you still have that Timex in your head? Do you always re-evaluate what you do?

MCDONALD: That’s a very good question and, to be honest with you, I think the ticking gets less loud once you reach a certain amount of success.

It’s not a complacency that you get, don’t get me wrong, I’m very focused on what I’m doing, but I know that I’m not that same guy that’s always looking for that reassurance from the business to make your way.  It’s more like…I’m part of the club now, it’s really lovely to be involved…it’s a mutual respect thing when you see people and say, “Hey…Hey, McDonald get over here.”  It’s all kind of great now, it’s more “How do you have more control so it gets in the world?” this year. I’m doing my first directorial project, I’ve got 4 or 5 movies coming out, I’m promoting this one which I loved shooting it and hope it makes a little bit of noise in the DVD and downloading world.  So it’s like that.  It’s something that beats not every hour but every day.  I look for something to be sure I’m headed in the right way.

CS:  You just directed your first feature?

MCDONALD: I’m in the process of casting it and directing it and won’t actually get under the cameras until this Fall so I’m leaving myself a lot of pre-production time.  Takes place in the Fall over about 8-10 years.

CS:  Why did it take you this long to say, “You know what, why don’t I make one of these things”?

MCDONALD: I think what it took me – there was just so much love for me out there in the acting world I hope that never goes away and have been offered so many great things and almost too busy to do it.  But now when you think about it, it’s kind of like writing also, I’m also afraid to do it.

Not that I think I won’t be good at it but I think anything that detracts from what we were just talking about – what am I doing with my career as an actor in Hollywood, this guy who came from nothing out in the boonies in New York, to this town of broken dreams on Hollywood Blvd.  It was a big step and everyone thought I’d be back in 8 months with my tail between my legs and, by hook or by crook, you keep going so I wanted to dance only with the girl I came with.

But then I thought how many times have I seen my work and the work of other people that I know been cut out because, when the baby is coming down the birth canal, and it’s just too long, the director has to make that decision so I wanted to make sure I was good enough to do the math in my head to say I know how long this movie’s going to be, I know what I need to shoot because I already edited it in my head so I won’t be wasting money, wasting time, and breaking some hearts down the line saying, “I hated to do it, I’m sorry, we cut those 2 to 3 scenes out so, sorry.”  That’s a horrible thing.  It’s happened to me, it’s happened to friends and it’s not fun but I wanted to be prepared.

CS:  And now with Splinterheads, this is Brant Sersen’s first film writing and directing.

MCDONALD: Correct.

CS:   Describe for me what it’s like with a first time director/writer on a film like this.

MCDONALD: I’ve had great success with first time director/writers.  The smartest thing one can do, I have learned, is surround yourself with the best possible people.  There are a couple of missteps, and are, in every movie, but other ones I’ve seen there have been bigger missteps where people were let go and another group hired to come in and save the day.  Your right arm is your DP, because that’s where the time, and actual total and pictures of the movie take place.  So you want to be with the guy who can deliver that and I thought that Brant did a brilliant job.  Was a great DP and very smooth.  There were a couple days where things went too long but for the most part it was very well run, it was run not on a dime but it was a cheaper production and all the money went up on the screen.  And it was great to see Patchogue, Long Island really embrace this movie and stepped up and donated food and time and lots of good extras and didn’t cry that we were shutting down the streets, as some towns do but they really welcomed us with open arms and it was terrific.

CS:  What did you see in the script?  I read that you are always looking for reasons to say yes to a project.  What made you say yes to this one?

MCDONALD: I have to say on this one it was particularly interesting because he rewrote it for me with the idea that I might be doing it.  So when they offered me the part I was a) flattered and b) it was perfect timing.  I always wanted to work in a town where… I was born in Long Island and had my formative years there.  Lea Thompson was involved and she’s a terrific old pal of mine and Frankie Faison.  The only question mark was the director. I already loved the script and this Thomas Middleditch. This guy I never heard of.  So they sent me a couple links to go find his work and I just found out immediately the guy is very funny and uniquely talented.  And Rachel Taylor was a big boon when we got her to sign on because she is truly spectacularly beautiful and played the part really well I thought and she really embraced the material.  But there are a lot of different things, if it’s not the director which I usually say yes to if it’s the director.  It’s ultimately the material, director, co-stars…little things like money helps.


Location helps as well.  And you don’t want to keep repeating yourself all the time but you want to give it a different slant or flavor or an attack on a part that you haven’t done before and that’s what I got a chance to do with this Bruce Mancuso, the only cop in town.

christopher1CS:  One of the things I was reminded of when I saw the film was that I’m constantly amazed at what you are able to do. You’re definitely a working man’s actor and you are not comfortable doing one thing here and one thing there – you constantly surround yourself with different projects.  One of the most famous character, at least in my eyes, was Tappy Tibbons from Requiem For A Dream. What you did with Darren utterly blew me away.  How do you find ways to reinvent a character or try to look at a character a different way and  give it a life you haven’t before given because obviously looking your resume it’s filled up with all parts but they each feel different.

MCDONALD: Well, thank you for saying that, first of all.  I think in that particular case with Darren Aronofsky a lot of it was improvisational where we actually worked around the streets of New York City.  He had a camera in his hand and people would recognize me and I would respond to them as Tappy Tibbons.  So that kind of got the juices flowing.  They knew me but didn’t know my name or the ones who did know my name new me from Shooter McGavin or something like that.  They wouldn’t use that in the coverage and would move on to someone else but would use the reactions and it was quite interesting.  Or shooting on the rooftop of his little 5 floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, which I think has changed now for some reason.


But I think all that kind of improvisation helped me get on the sound stage that day at Tappy and just kind of let it rip.  He just kind of let me go and play this game and get the audience going and then bring on Sara played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn and it was something I was never really on sure ground so I knew it was sort of out there and I was pushing the envelope each time.  Because I was sort of a drug.  I was putting a drug in her mind.  So how much is it really me and how much is it her interpretation of me?  So I thought that was an interesting challenge and I’m glad it turned out as well as it did.

CS:  Absolutely. Now, you’ve mentioned at one time that you are comfortable with being pigeonholed because that means you get to work…

MCDONALD: Yeah, pigeonhole me.  It’s better working than not working.

CS: Obviously, pigeonholing connotes some bad things but how did you become so comfortable it or was it just as simple as, “You know what, I’m working. So who cares what other people think?”

MCDONALD: The whole thing in pigeonholing is when I see a movie I like to see someone like Daniel Day Lewis who is never the same in any part.  That, to me, is tremendous chameleon character lead acting.  Yes, when he has to play something that is close to himself, we’ve seen that before, but there is always a different spin on it.  I thought there are other actors the audience won’t embrace in a different role.  They wouldn’t embrace John Belushi, God rest his soul, as a guy that was trying to make a serious movie at times and no one went.  So in my particular situation I try to do what I know the part calls for and if it’s left to me to add to it I am going to try something different or I’ll just try something more amped up if I think the scene needs it, or the movie needs it or the character needs it.

People seem to respond to that much more than playing it straight ahead – like Kevin Costner straight-ahead leading man guy you love, the movies that Gary Cooper and Clark Gable cut their teeth on.  I’m much more of a character lead and I love dancing around the exterior ledge with one foot playing super real and another foot where you are going I can dance out here a little bit to make it more memorable, but it’s all dependent on the character.

CS:  Right.  And have you been offered roles where you are the lead and have to carry the film?

MCDONALD: Yes.  I’ve had some success at things but they haven’t made the noise or, should I say, have the following that the other parts, the colorful parts, have.  I did a wonderful movie written by the guy who wrote the Omen called the 18th Angel.  We shot it in Italy.  It was a terrific experience to play the lead guy who’s daughter had the devil come through her.  Long story short, it was wonderful. Maximilian Schell was in the movie but it just was not promoted.  When it’s out there in cable land it does quite well but I see something like that I just say, “I could have done it and kept on doing it.”  I loved it.  I was in almost every frame of the movie but parts like that don’t come my way that often.  If it had become a big success it would have been a turn in my career but it wasn’t.  I’ve done a couple other things like that on television shows.  But people and ultimately employers really respond to how the audience responds to my character work.

chris_mcdonaldCS:  I find it very curious that you are out here stumping for a film that is now available on DVD.  Why are you out here, again, stumping for a movie that has played and that now people might get the chance to see in the secondary market?

MCDONALD: I want more eyes on the prize.  I think the movie is very funny and at the same time very true to life.  There are kids like this – Thomas Middleditch who plays Justin – kids have no direction and takes this angel that comes to town to really kind of just kick him in gear. You see this guy in the formative time of his life.

I want people to see it. It’s just a fun movie.  It’s won awards and accolades as far as audience awards and stuff like that.  The reason I’m stumping for it is because I want more eyes on the prize.  I would like people to check it out because I think they would have a good time.

CS:  Being in the business for over three decades what’s the biggest change you see right now in terms of where you are right now versus where you started?  Has the business changed from your perspective?

MCDONALD: The business has changed tremendously.  There’s not as much work on television because of – even with all the new channels and things like that, the prime time gets all the attention – there are so many reality shows on.

They are cheap to make but it dumbs down the American people.  If I want to watch the Kardashians who have all this money and watch people make all these dippy choices in their life, then a lot of it isn’t reality.  “Would you be really angry at her please?  Just try it out.”  Kinda like walking on the Jerry Springer Show.  You have to start a fight within a minute.  That kind of stuff is manipulative and brings down the whole intelligence level of what defines entertainment.  All the wonderful hours we used to do and comedies we used to do – there are so few left because of all the hours taken up by reality television.  That said, it’s the most wonderful time in the world.  If I was starting out now it would be completely different because of the ease of technology that makes everything – if I had a story to tell I would have started 13 years ago but back in my day videotape hadn’t really started yet.

christopherNow you have a camcorder, tell a story, and cut it on your Mac and put music on it and you have a showcase.  Fantastic.  So that technology part is fantastic.  The cable world is where I live when I watch television because I think they are breaking new ground.

Some of the greatest writing that’s done for television now is on cable and networks that are fighting for their hours.  You pull Jay Leno down and that takes away 5 hours a night a week of programming?  That’s massive.  So it’s a very interesting time.  A very scary time.  Everything is going to be streaming – people will be going to their Blockbuster stores – saying, “What was that movie?”  And boom, it’s on your phone right there.  It’s movies now wherever you are which is fantastic because we’re always going to need good product and I would just love to ride the next wave which is going to be that whole streaming thing.  I go to Sundance every year and watch the new developments in 3D – that’s what people are going to go to theaters for because they aren’t going to have 3D things in their house.  It’s the whole communal thing of going to a movie and being blown away by 3D, Avatar, going, “Oh my god, that was an experience.”  That stuff is exciting as hell.  But for the most part I think it’s changed tremendously and I hope to grow with the process because I hope to be doing this until the day I die.

CS:  If I could ask just one more question… I read that your family means a lot to you and the roles you choose are predicated on how close you can be to them. When you look at your career, is there any sort of hope that your family will think one way or the other about what you’ve done, your oeuvre of work?  Any conscious choice to always put that at the forefront or is there sacrifice?

MCDONALD: There is always sacrifice.  There are a lot of films that I don’t want my kids to see, Requiem for a Dream being one, until they are 21, and a lot of times I made the choice to do Disney movies.  I would go after them so my kids could see what Daddy does.

And a lot of actors do this but the family becomes the most important thing once you hit a level of success.  That’s what you really want.  Want to share the whole thing.  There are a lot of movies that take you away from that and when the kids were young the whole family went with me, like to Italy.  It was a blessing.  You can’t pull them out of soccer.  You can’t pull them out of school.  It’s pretty hard as they get older.  But the best thing about technology is just Skype them or if you have a Mac, just iChat them and there you are sitting at the kitchen table.  It’s a gift to look in their eyes that the generation before us just didn’t have.  So as things change and life goes on you take the movies you really want to do and then sometimes take them because you need to pay the rent.  But for the most part I’ve turned plenty of stuff down that I wouldn’t want my family to see but for the most part I try to find a way to make it palatable but you never know.  Sometimes if it’s not on the page it’s not going to be on the stage.


One Response to “Trailer Park: Christopher McDonald Interview”

  1. Ray Schillaci Says:

    Chris - thanks so much for the opportunity to get to know better one of the most underrated actors of our time. Christopher McDonald is as adept at playing drama as he is comedy. He also has a classic look that is hard to forget. Few actors (men and women)are fortunate to have that. It’s kind of a throwback to the days of Bogart and Cagney. I’m looking forward to his directing venture and hope that he is utilized as an actor with good material so that he gets the accolades he deserves.

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