Interview: John C. McGinley on ‘Stan Against Evil’, “Panic Acting” and His Time on Broadway
Fifteen minutes is not enough time to chat with John C. McGinley. The actor was at Comic-Con to talk about the new season of Stan Against Evil, Dana Gould‘s comedy-horror show about Stan (McGinley), a disgraced former sheriff who forms an unlikely partnership with his replacement (Janet Verney) to battle monsters in a small-town in New Hampshire.
In the interview, McGinley talks about Stan and the tiny moment that anchored last season, his time on Broadway and more!
Stan Against Evil Season 2 premieres November 1st on IFC.
What’s your favorite thing about playing Stan?
John C. McGinley: Just he’s the least full of shit person I’ve ever met. Whereas Dr. Cox is a little full of himself and full of shit, Stan’s not. Stan’s a damaged guy. He’s ruined. His wife just died. He got fired from his job of 27 years. The two things that grounded him on the planet are gone and so he’s injured. It’s fun to explore injured men, for me.
It’s like you have these great moments where he comes home and he reaches for his wife’s keys. Those little moments ground the show I think.
John C. McGinley: I couldn’t agree more. The New York Times said the same thing you did and, as one of the producers, I’m trying to fight for stuff that is important to me. Everybody kept saying, “It’s too sad in the first act.” I’m like, “No, you’re wrong. It’s the most important thing in the whole show. It’ll ground …”
Look, the only reason we forgive Archie Bunker and his quasi racism and his sexism is because of Edith, because Edith’s love validates Archie. And Stan needs … His forgiveness is because A, he’s injured and B, he loves his wife more than oxygen. I said, “He has to reach for that thing. She’s gone. There’s an absence. This is a wounded guy.”
So season two Stan tries to get his wife back who’s been dead a year. So if the uber objective for Stan last year was to always be in that recliner watching The History Channel and drinking beer … So anytime he wasn’t in that recliner he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words he doesn’t know his ass from his elbow fighting witches. Probably doesn’t believe in them and so when he takes a pipe to a witch’s head what else is he going to do? He didn’t know what else to do, it’s a fucking witch.
This year the uber objective is to get whole and the only way he can get whole is to get Claire back but she’s been dead. So now some super-secret shit comes in and that’s pretty delicious. We get more of an emotional arc for him.
So your question about touching the key … Her missing key chain, to me … It’s a great observation. To me it anchored the whole season.
Are those moments written in the script or were they on the fly?
John C. McGinley: Absolutely written in the script. But in post-production where everybody is Orson Welles, you have to protect stuff. You have to come up with two or three things that we’re not going to compromise on. Maybe we’ll compromise on … Maybe the walk into the house was really important at that pace. Well, the show is 21 minutes and 35 second, you got to chop the walk a little bit. I mean hypothetical. But there’s a couple of things you got to just hold on to.
That’s why I wanted to be … I didn’t want to be, I insisted on being one of the producers on this just because I had a post-production company in New York in the Pearl Building for about 10 years. I’ve produced five movies and I want to be able to participate in post and in shaping the scripts. During this thing I’m just going to be the actor but in pre-game and in post you want me involved because I’m going to make your life easier. Plus I have a photographic memory for everything that happened on the set, for stuff maybe the editor missed and go, “You should go to the end of the fourth take. There’s this really, really special little thing. Just humor me and go to the end of that fourth take.” He’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” I’m like, “Of course you didn’t see it.” Then I’m making you, the editor’s life, 5% easier.
It’s preposterous that Stan is shot eight episodes in five weeks. That’s preposterous.
John C. McGinley: It’s insane.
How much method acting is involved in hanging out in the lounge chair and drinking beer?
John C. McGinley: It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with. It would be a rocking chair for me but I’m not unfamiliar with that. I think I’m a little more physically active than Stan is. I think Stan is … He’s tired. He’s tired. Been a cop for New England for 27 years. He’s tired and he didn’t go out on his terms. He went out being fired and all of a … I can’t say that but some of us have been fired from different jobs whether it was a high school summer job or whatever, most of us have been fired from something and it sucks. There’s no way you can’t look at the man in mirror every morning and go, “Fuck. I suck. I can’t believe I got fired.”
One of my favorite parts about season one was the dynamic between Stan and his daughter. It was a lot of You get to have some fun with that relationship returning to that in season two?
John C. McGinley: Yes, but I think one of the learning curves for the producers and the writers from season one is to … And this is the ultimate compliment. Almost like Jonathan Winters or Don Rickles, to give Deborah’s, the actor, to give Deborah as much rope as she wants and to not confine her, the actor, in too tight of parameters in the construct of the expository part of the story. She doesn’t have to do the who, what, where, when, how. Let her do the Jonathan Winters stuff because she’s so gifted. You don’t want to call cut on her but because the show is 21 minutes and 35 seconds some of Deborah’s stuff, which is genius, gets cuts. So to not do that this year we kept her … We catered to her strengths and she steals every scene she’s in because she’s amazing.
What’s it like balancing the producer role with being the lead actor and the leader on-set? How do you go through balancing that?
John C. McGinley: I think the number one thing I can do for the actors on the set is get the scripts, eight scripts in five weeks, a month ahead of time. I can encourage Dana to wrap things up a little bit and give the actors a chance at consuming all these words so that they can own them. So we get down to Georgia we don’t have to pull a rabbit out of a hat every waking second of everyday. That’s what I can do the most for the actors is I can get them the texts early.
In other words, on Scrubs I’d be handed a two-page single space rant for Dr. Cox on the way to the set and it just became panic acting, which you can do but it’s really emotionally expensive and it’s a panic. Most of us don’t like to be in a panic and so … And Billy Lawrence who is one of my dearest friends, he just likes to write late and you get the scripts and they’re so good and I’m so competitive that I wasn’t going to let him write two-page single space for anybody else. I guess you can sharpen up that memory muscle somehow and so on Scrubs the actors got the words at the last second and it just became an exercise in pulling out of your ass something when someone called, “Action.” It was very desperate. Stan doesn’t have the same sense of desperation in Atlanta. It’s too hard. It beats the living shit out of you.
Were most of those rants pre-written and not improvised at all? No?
John C. McGinley: All I improvise is maybe the suffix to something. Maybe just the out. But you got to remember on Scrubs, before that writer’s strike, you had 14 writers and they would be in two different rooms. There’d be seven in one room and seven in the other and Billy would … And they’d leap frog episodes so the first one would write episode 401 for a season and then they’d leap frog and Billy would go back and forth. To be in one of those writers rooms you probably were one of the editors of the Lampoon at Harvard and you were this wildly over-qualified, really smart person, man or woman, and the output that was flowing from those two rooms … You’d damn sure better say what’s on the page because it wasn’t some random collection of syllables. People killed themselves to hand you this and so it became clear to me that, “You say what’s written.” And then if you have some flavor …
It’s the same way with Oliver Stone, say what’s written and if you want to bring some flavor to it fine, but say what’s on the god damn page. And I loved it because it takes this huge burden off your back because not everybody’s Jim Carrey. Jim and Robin could do what they could do, nobody else can. Most of us really rely on what somebody spent an enormous amount of time putting on the page and if it’s good, it’s heaven.
What Dana puts on the page is insanely good. You want to say it. And when Billy Lawrence starts putting something about Dr. Cox railing against Zack about attending a cotillion, you want to be able to say, “Cotillion,” in front of 11 million people on Thursday nights. It’s great.
Before you came onto this you were in The Belko Experiment which was a darker. You’ve done other work like, Intensity is one of my favorite films.
John C. McGinley: Same here.
Loved that performance. 20 year anniversary coming too. Do you enjoy-
John C. McGinley: And I never do this but Molly Parker who’s gone on to have this great career, I didn’t talk to her for eight weeks because I didn’t want to have coffee with her and her to be comfortable, and it worked.
That comes across really well.
John C. McGinley: Yeah, and I love Molly but I just … I got some bat shit crazy idea in my head not to be mean to Molly but just not to get to know her so that in any point on the set she just might think I was going to put a stick in her artery, and then lens picks that up and now we got something going. I would never hurt another actor ever and I never have and I never will but I wanted the lens to suffer some kind of tension between action and cut.
Now you’re on set where you’re doing more dark stuff but you’re on the other side of it. You’re the good guy. Do you enjoy spending time in these world’s where there’s blood flying or there’s more discomfort?
John C. McGinley: I don’t know. I got one coming out at the beginning of September with Danny Glover about a bunch of priests and so you go where the good scripts are. Then I get a little league one coming out after that. You go where the words are on the page. I’m 57, I don’t want to pour it out of my ass, it’s too fucking hard. I want you to put something on the god damn page, otherwise you go to the meeting and the first thing in the meeting is, “John, we really look forward to finding this character on the day.” I’m like, “You know what’s going to happen on the day? The 10k lamp’s going to go out and then you’re going to be fucking worried about that. We’re not going to find this relationship between me and Danny Glover. You know what you’re going to do, the makeup artist have a heart attack. Now we got a fucking … The actors doing their own makeup. You’re not going to find the character.”
How was your time on Broadway?
John C. McGinley: It was the greatest experience of my life.
I saw it by the way. You were great.
John C. McGinley: You just made my whole day. I did Requiem for a Heavyweight 25 years earlier with John Lithgow and Davie Proval and almost all the Italian-American actors who go on to populate The Sopranos. We opened on a Thursday and closed on a Saturday. Broke my heart and so when I got the call to go do Glengarry with Al [Pacino] and Bobby [Canavale] and all these great actors it felt like as stone cold a lock as I’ve ever heard.
Glengarry’s the greatest play written for men in our lifetime. I functioned on fear for the first month of rehearsal so I set up this theater bootcamp in Malibu and I had my coach come out and I hired this kid from Pepperdine to just come and run lines. I told him, “I don’t want your input.” I gave him $20 dollars an hour. For three hours a day he would run the lines. I got a metronome and we ran it at different paces. I did everything that I could that I thought might go wrong except for these things in the theater. I didn’t anticipate those and those were just disconcerting but it was the greatest experience of my life by far. Kids aside!