Q & A: Donal Logue talks ‘Sons of Anarchy’, Preparation and Advice to Actors
Donal Logue is one of my favorite actors around. He makes every character interesting and immensely watchable and on top of all that, he’s just a great guy. As I told him in the interview below, I did an episode of Terriers with him a while back and he just made my time on-set so enjoyable, which isn’t always the case when you’re working with the star of a show.
One of my favorite things he told me in the conversation was that later that day, he was headed down to Santa Monica “to just be a homeless guy, and run around, and do some really weird experimental film thing with some friends of mine.” He could just be hanging out, waiting for the phone to ring but no, he’s out there creating and trying something new.
Donal joined the cast of FX’s Sons of Anarchy this past season in a major arc as former U.S. Marshal Lee Toric, a man who wants answers regarding his sister’s death. As usual, he’s fantastic in the part and I’m looking forward to seeing him on the show next season.
In this Q & A, Donal chats about working on Sons, getting nervous on set, preparing for roles and his advice to actors.
He’s got some great stories and you’ll love everything about this!
I did an episode of Terriers with you and I wanted to tell you that you were just the coolest, nicest guy on set.
Donal Logue: Which episode was it, Lance?
It was Episode 11. It was the flashback episode. You and Rockmond [Dunbar] arrested me and tossed me in jail.
Donal Logue: Right off the top?
Yes, good memory.
Donal Logue: When my friend Steve, who played…was like, “Alright, perv.” Or whatever he said.
Donal Logue: Cool, man. Great.
Are you ever, when you come in and do a guest spot your first day there, are you ever really nervous?
Donal Logue: It was so funny because someone asked me about that. I just feel like ─ I remember I was playing in this, there was…, but I played on this soccer team called Hollywood United. There’s a lot of old ex-international pro-players and stuff, and we played this benefit match before…played at the Rose Bowl. The crowd had streamed in for the big match. It’s so nerve-racking to go out into a stadium, and you just feel a billion eyes upon you when you mess up your touches just because it’s an overwhelming environment. I was talking to one of those guys about it and they were like, “Oh, yes, but it’s thrilling.” They’re used to it.
A college football star, by his senior year, he’s used to running out there with 110,000 people going nuts, and they feel comfortable in that environment. That feels homely to them. To me, a set feels like that. The one thing that I do know is that, as long as I’m prepared, I know this environment. I know this world. I think nerves show that you care a little bit. The game is never to let them overwhelm you to where you can’t operate because the whole thing is to kind of breathe and to listen.
I think that especially, and you were on the Terrier set and you would feel this way about Sons of Anarchy, it’s not a kind of a place where people are ─ it’s not the kind of environment that’s making people feel bad if they mess up. It’s kind of a welcoming, warm environment, which is what you try to create. It doesn’t help anybody, and it works that way a lot.
They say you can judge a country by the way it treats its prisoners or whatever. You can always kind of judge a show by the way it treats people coming on doing these guest shots, and sometimes they are very tricky things in the middle of a thing where people have been running really hard, and they’re in their groove. I have seen a couple of environments where it’s not very friendly to guys coming in. Just think of how this person must feel coming into this world.
I just love it when people are ─ I loved it when I was coming up when people were welcoming to me so I didn’t feel that pressure of not being the kind of new guy screwing up. I love the opportunity to play it that way now that I have more experience. I get nervous, but it’s been my sport for a long time. I feel comfortable in that environment.
What’s your advice to actors?
Donal Logue: Do plays and do it. It really does boggle the mind when people ─ when they think of acting as something other than a craft that you need to continue to do always. It’s a kind of growing, organic skill. I always thought, and I had an argument with a friend of mine who is kind of into it, but doesn’t really ─ a lot of people are like how do I get on a T.V. show, and make money or whatever.
I was like, dude, you are a guy who has the coolest leather jacket and jeans, and a really old Gibson Les Paul, and a cool haircut. And you’re like, okay, I want to be the lead guitar player in a famous rock band touring the country making lots of money. Okay, can you play guitar? No, but look at me. Do you know scales? Do you know chords? No, check me out. A lot of people feel that way about acting. You’ve got to pretend like you’re a guitar player, man, and you’ve got to know scales and ─ you can’t just look cool and do it. It’s about ─ and also, you deny yourself the joy of ─
When I started acting when I was in college, there was no theater department at Harvard. I went as this kind of do-gooder student government type who wanted to go into international relations and a quasi-academic kid. I got into acting, and there were so many people there doing plays in their dorm rooms and basements. It was a school full of people, at least they were type-A, and were getting stuff done and trying stuff. They were really self-motivated.
When I get into that scene, I really do feel like if you want to do it you can do it anytime, anywhere. Especially now. Today, actually, I’m going down to Santa Monica to just be a homeless guy, and run around, and do some really weird experimental film thing with some friends of mine. It feels like the joy of college again in a weird way.
If you’re an actor, you need to get involved. Even if you get five cool friends together. People will go, “Well, I can’t get into those fancy schools.” Or, “I can’t join, it’s expensive.” It doesn’t take anything to find five or six cool people, and go choose a play, and put it up in someone’s back yard if you have too. Learn how to act, and show a passion for it. You can’t tell people how you are going to get an agent and all this kind of stuff. Your chances increase if you’re working and people see you doing something interesting. That’s the million dollar question for all of us starting out, and they’re two different things.
People get bad professional advice. I don’t think that they should go to all these ─ there are all these schools in different little cities that say this guy is good because he has deep Hollywood connections. None of that stuff is really necessarily true, and it doesn’t really help. The thing that will help you the most is to have a passion for it, and to actually engage in it. Whether you’re a kid coming up in Portland, Oregon and you’re doing plays, or you’re thinking about moving to New York, or you want to go study. I know Michael Raymond-James was a member of the Actors’ Studio. I think those kinds of things ─ because those guys ─ a lot of people are big stars or whatever and they go back on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and they work out scenes with other people just to keep the ─ like athletes ─ just to keep the machine sharp.
I know that that’s not the best, people don’t really want to hear the advice. I started truck driving a couple of years ago, and I went to truck driving college. I got my license, and we started this little trucking company. Trucking is one of those things that I guess I’m licensed to do, I am licensed to do, and I have done. Compared to ─ I’ll tell you in a truck stop, and my partner, this guy named Bud Williams, he’s been driving big rigs since he was eight, and the difference in skill between me and him is like the difference between five and ninety-nine on a scale from one to one-hundred.
That is just because this guy has been doing it forever and loves it. You need to treat acting, you can’t think of acting as being something about looking cool and feeling inspired. It’s about doing it, if that makes any sense.
I need to keep driving. I will never get as good as Bud, but I’ll be as good as I could or should be. The coolest thing about acting is that anyone can do it, anywhere, anytime, at any age, and you don’t have to look a certain way. Only you can have the right to tell your story the way you’re supposed to, and that’s what I think is amazing about acting as an art form. Everybody can fit into the world.
Can you first just talk about how you got this part? How did it all come about?
Donal Logue: I’ve been kind of talking to Kurt [Sutter] about doing something on the show for the last three years. What had happened was invariably he would always have a conversation with me like 42 seconds after I had committed to doing another pilot. Two years ago it was Hallelujah, this thing for ABC. Then last year I had done a western called Tin Star for TNT, neither of which ended up going.
I was like, oh my God, I really, I would love to join the show. I’m not going to know until—they let you know. I jusbasically couldn’t join, and not for lack of Kurt trying to get me on. Then this year finally we had a meeting, and he was like I think I have an idea for this guy. It has been something we have been trying to do for a while.
Is it everything you hoped it would be?
Donal Logue: My sister obviously had worked on the show for the couple of episodes prior, and a lot of the crew on the show were people I had worked with before on both Terriers and … and different shows. What Karina said to me when she started working was, “Oh my God, everybody is just so nice and so cool.”
I’d have to say my favorite thing about working on the show, and something that might be intriguing to other people is that even though the world is so ─ it’s just such an amazingly welcoming environment to work on that set. You know, it’s not too cool for school and alienating. It’s totally the opposite. I think my favorite thing has been to have known all those guys a little bit. We kind of see each other around the block over the years, but to finally get to jump in there and work with them has been like a complete and utter treat.
I just think the show is really good. I’m a fan of the show. It’s really the first time I’ve jumped on something that I was kind of actively engaged, and just following myself so I could get excited about it in that way. I’d have to say overall just, I don’t know, just from cast to crew, and certainly from Kurt and Paris Barclay and on down like everybody has just been so great that it was just a really, I don’t know, it sounds so absurd to go with such a kind of fun experience, but you know what I mean.
They’re serious about the work. Look, I have a small, small thumbprint on a big moving mural that’s been in play for years and years. It was just kind of a really thrilling little ride on this big world of Sons of Anarchy.
Were cast before your sister or if it was at the same time, and if one had anything to do with the other?
Donal Logue: Well, it was interesting because in the case of Terriers, when Karina did Terriers, Shawn Ryan had already worked with Karina, my sister. He knew her before he knew me. We sat down at the beginning of the season and he said, “What do you think about this?” Ted [Griffin] and Shawn sat me down. “You’re going to have a crazy sister.” I said, “That’s great. I’ve got three.” You know, because I have three sisters. He goes, “No, yeah, we’d really like ‘Hank’ to have a schizophrenic sister. I think Karina would be awesome.”
On this one it was different in that Kurt knew that he wanted to have me as this guy, but then he told Wendy O’Brien, the casting director, “I need someone who looks like the female Donal Logue.” She was like, “Well, you know his sister Karina is a really great actress?” He said, “No, I didn’t know that at all.” So it was funny. That’s how that went down.
Do you still think about what a Season 2 of Terriers might have been?
Donal Logue: Oh, yes. All the time. In fact, I had a really a really good hang with Michael Raymond-James yesterday, and we muse about it. We muse about shooting our own little Indie film version of Season 2. I have to say that it was a thrilling kind of ride to be on Terriers, and of course it was really this kind of odd circumstance where it was really loved by the people it was loved by, but it didn’t really do well. In fairness to FX, they were just so generous in keeping it on the air the whole year.
There is something about it, especially I talked to some people in Europe who had seen it, and it really played to them like a BBC mini-series. It ended on this kind of really kind of beautiful existentialist kind of moment, and so to me it felt like a complete document. I miss it, of course, but I felt like however that all 13 tied up I felt like at least we have that, and it feels kind of ─ Michael and I joked about what if it just started going downhill after that and becoming absurd? At least it has this tight little package that’s really nice. I’m kind of having fun moving on and doing all these other things.
You said you were at the table-read obviously, and then at filming. Is there anything you can say about the atmosphere, without spoiling anything, just what was the atmosphere like at the table-read?
Donal Logue: It’s great. You know, it’s just a really good group of people. I will have to say, though, that I’m not sure if it was for the finale, but I remember at some point it was very sobering. At some point at one of the table reads, it basically was the morning that the news had come out about their former cast mate, Johnny [Lewis], you know, because these were filmed a few months back.
You know, it was pretty somber, and there was a kind of a bit of discussion about that and stuff. It’s been a really interesting journey.
I knew Tommy [Flanagan] barely and Mark Boone Junior. I’m really good friends with Danny Trejo. I’ve known…the show Life, and so I kind of know—and Kim [Coates]. I knew people, but not well, and so it was just really fun to kind of get to know these people in the last few months, and work with them.
It’s interesting because I always felt when I did ER, I was kind of like a recurring guy for a little while on ER, similar thing—this is a big, mega-hit in mid-run, and you’re coming in for a tiny thumbprint. It always surprised me that the most successful and really amazing shows were also the happiest kind of environments, and welcoming. They’re not like, “Hey, we’re ER, so don’t you show up and come rolling in with a gurney and blow your lines.”
What I love about it, too, is when they discover at the read-through some heavy kind of ─ I remember for two episodes back when my character is introduced at the read-through. I have those scenes with ‘Otto.’ At the end they’re just reading the narrative, the action that ‘Tara’ walks down the hall, and then this guy, this ‘Lee Toric’ guy gets up and starts following her and the kids. I just remember all the guys who were sitting at one table all look up like, “What? You’re going after the kids?” People are deeply involved and invested in the stuff that is happening in the show. It has been very interesting, I have to say.
Did you do anything interesting to prepare for the role? Playing sort of this ─ we saw the pill bottles ─ I don’t think he’s crazy, but definitely an intense character. What did you do to sort of get in that mindset?
Donal Logue: He’s not crazy. You know it’s so interesting, I don’t know the full story. He might be dealing with some kind of pain and stuff.
I don’t think he’s crazy, and I don’t think that he’s ─ I had this interesting conversation with David Kelley years ago because I was on The Practice for a little bit. I was mad at their law firm because I was an assistant district attorney, and this guy that we had been chasing for a long time that had $300,000 worth of cocaine on him was basically successfully defended by their law firm, and sent back into public. Everyone kept referring to my character as “the dick” because it was my name, but it was a joke that I’m a dick. I was like, hold on. They wanted me to go to a party dressed as a penis from Ally McBeal or something because they had this prop. I’m like, look, I’m just an attorney who’s trying to keep cocaine off the streets.
You guys, I get it; you’re slimy. You’re good defense lawyers. The country needs it, and I respect it, but I’m not a jerk. I’m not a jerk for being intense about someone smuggling a murder weapon in to kill my sister. I would probably be a jerk if I was nonplussed about it.
What happened was, it’s kind of Outlaw Josie Wales’ style. You picked the wrong person. You just weren’t aware of who you messed with when you ─ if you mess with someone you’re always taking that risk that they have a family, and that they have people who are vengefully minded. My characters are always utterly sympathetic to me, if that makes any sense.
I think he’s a bright guy. I just think that he’s ─ what’s interesting is, we had talked about this before even with Kurt, that a lot of times you’ll either have existing law enforcement types who are maybe antagonistic, but start to shift the longer they are around the club. This is the first time someone comes in from a satellite, from beyond, and is very skilled and is very experienced, and also has from the get-go a super particular ax to grind. I like the idea that it’s kind of, and I think that people have mentioned this to me; it just feels to them like a threat of a different level.
That’s fun to play.
What was it like working with Peter Weller?
Donal Logue: Peter Weller is fantastic. Peter I had met years ago. When I met him on the set here I said, “Look, I met you years ago. You’re not going to remember. Of course, I do.”
We have a really good mutual friend named Corey Brennan who was truly this Renaissance genius guy who was a great punk rock guitar player. He was in the Lemonheads and Bullet LaVolta, but he also won this huge American Academy in Rome prize for this piece of scholarship he did on ─ he’s a classic scholar. Then he went to Bryn Mawr and Princeton.
When Corey was in Rome 20 some years ago he was like, “Man, you won’t believe it. I’m hanging out with Buckaroo Bonzai, with Peter Weller. He’s awesome.” We’ve always had this kind of mutual friend. That’s kind of all we talked about was Corey Brennan when we were hanging out on the set.
I actually don’t care because it’s fine either way, but I really like it when a really good actor is directing you. I just, I kind of just love the notes that Peter Weller gave me. The same goes for Paris Barclay and for Kurt. I think Kurt is a really good actor also, by the way. It was a particular personal circle time thrill to work with Peter Weller.
When you were meeting with Kurt about doing the show and this character, did you guys come up with the character together? Did he have it, and he was like here do your own thing, or was it kind of scripted as to what he exactly wanted from you?
Donal Logue: He just knows me pretty well. It was all Kurt. It’s basically like he knew me well enough to go, “Don’t worry. When you come back I think I have the perfect suit that will fit you well.” It feels like a custom-made role.
It’s interesting because I had been talking to him for a couple of years about joining the show in different capacities. I’d have to say that this is ─ it just kind of worked out for the best that this is the way it went down because I love this character. I love this kind of foreboding; he’s a pretty fascinating guy. Even when I read it, I was kind of like, “Wow, that’s interesting. How does he have free reign in prison? How does it turn out that he’s not even actively involved in law enforcement anymore?”
You also have Silent Night coming out here at the end of this week. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in that?
Donal Logue: I had a really fun experience on Silent Night, but I wasn’t there that long. I hadn’t seen the original. This young director named Stephen Miller from Florida, who did some kind of really cool, wild, super low-budget, Indie stuff, has really made this mark for himself in that genre world.
He asked me to do this thing, and I had a choice of a couple of parts. There was this one ─ I don’t know ─ it’s another spoiler kind of weird thing. He’s a weird kind of Santa that you ─ he’s a drifter. What I liked about this drifter was that he went off on these rants that were really kind of interesting, and funny, and kind of heart-breaking. I thought ─ I like that kind of stuff. I like doing speeches in a weird way. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of characters over the years who literally are the guys that ─ even on this Viking show that I just did ─ they’ll do this three or four page speech, and everyone is like, “We haven’t had that much dialogue in the show so far.”
I’m fine with whatever, but sometimes it’s just fun to do those little ─ it’s kind of like acting stunt driving. I think that Silent Night is going to be kind of a fun ─ it felt like one of those ‘70s ─ it felt like the kind of golden era of that genre.
I have had long talks with a lot of my friends about this, but I always feel about ─ first of all, it’s always feels best to do work on something real that’s good. It feels very comfortable doing stuff on Sons of Anarchy. The writing is great and the level of acting chops around you is always very high. It’s very easy to go in there and take your place. You’re in a good environment that is being supported from all sides.
It is fun as an actor because after Terriers I was really bummed out. I actually went to truck driving school. I’m not trying to be overly crazy dramatic about it, but I just was kind of like I feel grounded out by the ─ I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, and I kind of lost the joy. I ended up doing this really goofy, but really fun experience in this other horror-type film.
I went and did a comedy improv show in San Francisco. I was at a theater and I saw this ─ it was one of those old theaters that hadn’t played since the ‘30s and ‘40s ─ and I looked around at these pictures of Burgess Meredith and Ernest Borgnine and stuff, and all the different shows they did. I realized guys like Burgess Meredith when you read their obituary; it was like he appeared in over 300 movies and 7,000 episodes of television and 1,400 productions on Broadway. It was so insane. That’s what you do. You just go from part to part to part to part and you embrace what is different about all the different parts. I had a particularly good time getting to hang out with Malcolm McDowell and Jaime King.
They are fantastic people, but God he is a great guy. It’s weird when you’re around one of those guys that ─ when I was a younger kid coming up and Clockwork Orange of course ─ he was that connective tissue. I am such a huge fan of all of the kind of ─ Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole; that school of great English actors. Malcolm is this piece of connective tissue historically that was connected. He never tired, and he was so generous, telling me anything that I needed to know about anything. Malcolm is a great guy.
What kind of discussions did you have about the character leading up to playing it, just philosophically and just in sort of discussing where the guy was coming from and how to play him.
Donal Logue: What was interesting was we had conversations about it, and I think philosophically about who he is was determined by Kurt, and actually kind of touched upon a long time ago when we first discussed it. What took me by surprise, because I wasn’t around for the kinds of bits and pieces leading up to it, was how he’s introduced through the death of the sister.
What I love about the show, in a weird way, too, is that a lot of people have come in to their world from my world even though I’m not maybe active law enforcement anymore. When they have the old ATF investigation and stuff is that people come in because their job is to go after different organized criminal groups. It’s just their job. We’re doing it in this town in Northern California. We might be doing it South Carolina next. It’s kind of like a competitive sport.
I even remember years ago talking to Kurt about that, and there’s almost kind of a respect, too, in this regard. Your job is to be the cop, and my job is to be the robber. In this case, this guy is coming into their world like The Outlaw Josey Wales. He is motivated by perhaps the basic and most primal of human ─ look, I got a big kick, a big jumpstart on everything in my world with them because of just straight-up vengeance. Charles Bronson-style you murdered my sister.
Going off topic for a second, if you could just talk about when you worked on The X Files
Donal Logue: Oh, yes. Okay, is that 1992 or so?
Is that twenty-two years ago, twenty-one or more? I worked on The X Files before it came out, before it aired on television. It was just ─ how wild was it to be around when I look back. Gillian [Anderson] and David [Duchovny] are both really good people, and I think Chris Carter is a really nice guy. It was so fun to be on something where people didn’t really know, they were just making this show, they didn’t know what a phenomenon it would become.
The X Files, I think a few years later I was in a pretty remote place in the South Pacific like an island near Fiji, and people were like X Files … . I was like, oh my God, the reach of this show is so bizarre, and people are so into it. It was fun to have kind of been around that before it became what it became.
Do you have any dream role that you haven’t played yet? Either a kind of role, or a character, or something like that?
Donal Logue: I’d have to say that this last run of the last few months, I jumped on Sons of Anarchy, and I kind of saw it to the conclusion of the season. There are some heavy duty question marks about what’s up for next season.
I jumped in on this show about the Vikings that Michael Hirst wrote, who I’d always been a huge fan of. He wrote Elizabeth, and wrote The Tudors, and The Borgias, and stuff like that. I went to Ireland to film in Ireland, and I played this king. I play this guy named King Horik, who is an actual historical king of the Vikings. When the Vikings first started doing their raids outside of what is Scandinavia, when they started going to England and terrorizing the hell out of everybody.
In between these two parts, and it’s not big stuff, and you’re not in every scene, but there was something really ─ doing ‘Lee Toric’ into…was probably my favorite. The last few months have been my favorite kind of months as an actor.
I would say that Terriers ─ I feel like if someone had to say what do you do? How would you describe your work or your style? I would say watch the whole season of Terriers, and if you think it’s good, that’s great. If you don’t like it, I respect that. That’s kind of what I do.
I’ve been having fun, and then I’m doing this kind of weird ─ I’m specking out. I have this little thing going with bad robots because I’m friends with J.J. Abrams. I’m doing this thing that could be kind of interesting. It’s really experimental.
I’m just kind of having fun as an actor right now. What I do miss, and this sounds so bogus, but I would love to, at some point maybe when my kids are in college, just go do a whole season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or something, and do a year of plays. Just do stage work. I think that most actors miss that, the days of live theater. My buddy is the artistic director up there, a guy named Bill Rauch. That would be fun.