“It’s always different. I can’t really get set on liking one way of doing it, but I love running scenes over and over.” – Dermot Mulroney on Rehearsing
If spy thrillers are your go to movies, the new film, Agent Game starring Dermot Mulroney and Jason Isaacs should be high on your list. Mulroney stars as Harris, a CIA interrogator who finds himself a target after being scapegoated for a deadly operation. The film has twists and turns inside of its twists and turns and as Mulroney told me, “I think it really skillfully uses everything that the thriller genre offers.”
In this interview, Mulroney chats about Agent Game, working with Jason Isaacs, career changes, the first SAG role he ever booked and his worst audition ever. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
I love CIA Secret Agent stories like this and Hanna.
Dermot Mulroney: Me too.
With Harris, your character in Agent Game, there seems to be a lot going on with him, backstory-wise, before we get to actually see him in the film.
Dermot Mulroney: Yeah, well, one of the cool things about this movie is that it jumps around a little bit in its timeframes; all within recent history. But you go from somewhere in the DC metropolitan area to a black site in Kosovo and everywhere in between. And it keeps you guessing.
When I come into a role like this, believe me, this is a script I have to read a couple times so that I track not really the writer’s intended throughline for your character, but the real one; in other words, they mix up the character, they mix up the time, there’s a couple of twists and a reveal or two. So, that’s what makes it fun to watch.
But it’s a puzzler for sure, and Harris is really squarely right in the middle of that.
Do you create your own backstory for a guy like this?
Dermot Mulroney: Well, some of it plays in the story, so you’ll learn it a little bit later, his older associations. You definitely have a feel that Harris works well and for a long time with his sidekick and partner that Jason Isaacs plays. So, does that even garner some sympathy that these guys get along pretty well while they’re, you know, violently interrogating a prisoner? I don’t know, but the movie definitely plays on not knowing who the bad guy is, and in this case, these bad guys have been bad guys for so long that they’re good at it, so, they may not even know that they’re treading into moral boundaries.
As you said there are a couple twists; really cool twists, I might add, that I didn’t even see coming. Is that one of the reasons you wanted to do this?
Dermot Mulroney: Yeah, I think it really skillfully uses everything that the thriller genre offers, right down to the way it’s photographed, and the sensation, and the closed photography, and the closed spaces… shadows and fog. And again, in reading it, I just knew that it had all those great qualities of films like this in spades. I think by the time I was reading it, I knew that they had Mel Gibson in. Jason came in right after that. But one of the great storylines in the movie is carried by the three other lead actors, which are Katie Cassidy, Adan Canto, and Rhys Coiro. They’re that small unit crew that is brought together for the first time, in the first timeframe of this movie.
Do you try and find little easter eggs or something to put into your performance so like when somebody goes back to rewatch, they’re like, “I should have caught that?”
Dermot Mulroney: On this one, they had one and kinda bailed out on it, but it was a scheduling thing because they were on a certain location, where a certain character is to step into the frame obscured and maybe in the shadows… I mean, that’s all intended, it’s in the script. You can’t quite make out who the shadowy figure is. They shot a version of it with a stand-in; a body double in the wardrobe. And so, that would have been a great easter egg, that it isn’t even the actor, me, who wasn’t in town yet to shoot it. But we did end up re-shooting it, so that’s also a little spoiler, that that guy that you can’t quite tell who it is in that first turnaround in the story, that is indeed Harris, the part I play. But, were you not to know that, it’s just what you said; it plays in that murky area that’s quite intended in Agent Game, that you have to kinda get through there to find out what’s going on.
You’ve also mentioned Jason Isaacs. I talked to him a couple times, and I think he’s great. Watching you two, your back and forth together, man, it kind of made the film for me.
Dermot Mulroney: Oh, hey, thank you. Well, we had a great time. It happened instantly. I think he’s just an old hand too, and knows that you can spot another one, so we just kinda lasered in on how to play that sort of… That friction of doing something that you know is not right, but doing it with somebody you trust and that you’ve relied on. As much as they’re friendly and have kind of a verbal shorthand that I really have to attribute as much to the script as to us, but that camaraderie seemed to come naturally to us, and that puts a little more bend on those scenes, because it makes them seem like likeable guys, because you know, they’re chums, so it throws you off of, really, what they’re doing, which is to manipulate one of their prisoners in order to further the cause of the government, which turns out to be at the cost of human life. They feel that they’re doing the right thing.
How did you guys’ work? Did you rehearse at all because you guys are just so on top of each other, dialogue-wise.
Dermot Mulroney: It’s incredible. A lot of that too, I’ll credit the editor, and Grant S. Johnson, the director. He really had that energy, bringing it into the room, that we’re shooting in this really cool location. But I have to credit Jason for some of that, because all of us together, we had just such incredible energy joking around in between and heightening our humor. I think he really brought that overlapping, that gave a familiarity, but also added to the urgency. I just thought he had a great energy and tapped into that, and that helps to really propel those scenes in a suspenseful way.
How do you like to work? Do you like to rehearse, or do you just want to do and see what happens?
Dermot Mulroney: Well, I don’t know, it’s always different. I can’t really get set on liking one way of doing it, but gosh, I love running scenes over and over.
On this, I don’t know that we had that… I can picture the both of us sort of revving up to it, so in its own way, it wouldn’t be days of rehearsal, it would be an hour. And then marking it on the set for how they’ll shoot it, and then just bringing it to life. So, not really intensive rehearsal beforehand for this. Both of us, I think, were running through on a schedule to make it with that kind of energy.
You’ve got a couple of very cool action scenes. Do you love doing that kind of stuff?
Dermot Mulroney: Some of this is so well-conceived and shot and edited that there’s bits of it that when you watch it, they’re a little bit off-camera, you know what I mean? So, I’m like, “Ah!”
These scenes were really highly choreographed. One of the big set pieces is a shootout in a warehouse, so, that becomes so clamorous and so claustrophobic and “right around the next corner” kind of suspense that they really nail it. But then you know, Lance, it gets down to, sometimes, your little piece is just a little piece. You’re not supposed to be in the room when they’re blowing up the stuff, even though you’re right there, so that when you get back in, you’re just maybe crawling into a close-up with some smoke blowing by, as if the thing just blew up.
But that’s what’s kind of ingenious about these movies and about Agent Game that sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s gonna be that full of action, because it’s just bits and pieces, but they’ve already figured out how they’re gonna cut it. It’s such a fascinating process, and I worked with a great stunt crew on this.
Looking at the projects that you’ve done in the past couple years, man, you’ve been busy.
Dermot Mulroney: Yeah, well, that’s the way I love it, and I’ve had the opportunity, so, no reason not to, I think. For me, I just love where it’s at right now, and get to do what I love doing, and in a way that I’d always hope to set out to do, which is as just a wide and wild variety of different parts.
To come visit in the action thriller suspense genre, even recently, I think you mentioned Hanna, has been a thrill, because up until now, I haven’t done too much of that. So, I get to sorta check another box and it’s just a thrill. I can’t help myself.
I’ve been so blessed with so many incredible opportunities. Other people giving, you know, writing parts and bestowing me with these different roles and stuff, so that’s where it comes from, you know?
Was that like a conscious effort to move your career kind of in that direction as well?
Dermot Mulroney: That’s not a very original idea; I’ve just been very blessed to be able to do it. And a lotta times, that’s the lifeline to just keep acting. So, if I wasn’t striking it as the romantic lead all of a sudden, which happened many times, I’d have to go take something else, you know, and so it caused itself.
But it was always one of my notions to be a man of a thousand faces. I mean, I had to drag this one around. Didn’t get to put on a whole lotta fake noses or prosthetic stuff. But I’m thrilled and blessed to have so many varied opportunities.
I’ve got some early career questions for you. What was the very first SAG job that you got?
Dermot Mulroney: Wow. The first SAG job I got was a lead in a TV movie that was called Sin of Innocence. The story leading up to that is incredible; the people that reached out, saw a young talent, and stuck their neck out on my behalf. Renée Valente was the producer of that. She pushed a quarter across the table when I auditioned and said, “I’m gonna bet you a quarter that you’re gonna be a star.” And Arthur Allan Seidelmann, who’s nearing 90 now… I’ve been in touch with recently, directed that and it was with Bill Bixby, Dee Wallace, who were huge stars at the time, and are huge stars in my heart. And Megan Follows played the young lead, and it was a teenage movie of the week.
I started as a lead in a TV movie when millions of people watched those. It was a super high level in. And I’ve had lots and lots of dips since then, but so many pinnacle moments, I almost can’t count ’em. Incredible. Thanks for asking that, though, to remember those times, great people.
How did they find you?
Dermot Mulroney: Well, I was a student at Northwestern, and a Los Angeles agent went on a talent scout, which is a lost art. You know, I think there’s still just a few breeding grounds, the comedy houses and stuff, you know? But I think American talent people forgot to go find American talent. They were still doing it in the ’80s. Chicago had its bloom, John Hughes… Risky Business. Ferris Bueller. It was right in those years, so, they came and were finding kids. Suddenly, Hollywood wanted young male… White male leads. And they came and cleaned up some of the crumbs in Chicago, and I was one of ’em, so, I stuck around.
What’s been your worst audition ever?
Dermot Mulroney: Oh, I still have bad auditions. My worst one ever… I don’t know. But you know, what that taps into is all the regret I have of not being quite prepared enough for a bunch of different times, a bunch of different times. Christopher Nolan, I remember reading for and having to look down at the page and bumbling the lines… That was a bad addition. Maybe I’ll just leave it at that. Would that have been Inception maybe? Imagine not being ready for that filmmaker that day. I’ve had plenty of those, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
Now, it’s just if I audition, they really don’t want me.
Are you kidding me?
Dermot Mulroney: Well, think about it. I get so many parts that just come to me, you know, because they want someone just like me, and either the other guys aren’t available or all the other reasons. But those would be the ones that come in my direction.
But other than that, if they’re auditioning people and they’re auditioning me, that means they probably need to be convinced. That’s my thinking. That doesn’t mean, “Hey, anyone out there, I’m available to audition anytime.” I still rigorously prepare more than I did in the past. But, yeah, auditions suck. But you gotta do ’em, and you can’t do it half-a**ed.
Agent Game is available now on all streaming platforms, including Amazon.