Interview: J.C. Mackenzie on ‘The Irishman’, Auditioning and the Importance of “Listening”

J.C. MacKenzie talks about working with Scorsese and his role in The Irishman, preparing for auditions and self-tapes and much, much more.

“I forget about listening sometimes, which is so important. I see pros not doing it all the time. Just listen, it’s pretty simple stuff, but it’s actually pretty hard when nerves are involved.” – J.C. MacKenzie

To say that J.C. MacKenzie is prolific might be an understatement. Throughout his over 30-year career, MacKenzie has appeared in over 150 movies and TV shows, including Aaron Sorkin‘s Molly’s Game and the TV show’s Dark Angel, Dexter and The Shield. He’s also a favorite of director Martin Scorsese, appearing in The Aviator, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and HBO’s Vinyl.

He’s currently starring in HBO’s Share and the upcoming series October Fraction along with the films, The Hunt and Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, opposite Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Mackenzie is absolutely one of the best character actors working today and he’s got the chops to prove it.

In this interview, he talks about working with Scorsese and his role in The Irishman, preparing for auditions and self-tapes and much, much more.

The Irishman, I can’t wait to see this film. Can you tell me about your part in that?

J.C. Mackenzie: I play Jimmy Neal, who is the prosecuting attorney who goes after Hoffa in two separate cases in ’64 and ’68. He’s based on a real guy, died I think about five, six years ago. Kind of a real character. He was from Tennessee, so he had this wildly broad accent. And he was from the country in Tennessee so he kind of played that up. Luckily, there was a lot of tape on him so I could really try to nail it down. I generally find that pretty difficult to do, especially when you’re doing it in front of Martin Scorsese. You better have your shit together or you’re going to be in trouble. But he was totally cool and fine.

I got to work with Pacino and De Niro and that was being in an altered state. Both very nice, very approachable and kind and worked in completely different ways. So it was interesting to observe.

You’ve worked with Scorsese a bunch of times now. That’s gotta make you feel good that he loves your work enough to keep on wanting to hire you.

J.C. Mackenzie: Hey man, he’s the only one. Yeah, no, it’s great. I mean, I’ve worked with him five or six times now and having said that, I have to audition. I didn’t have to audition for this role, but normally I have to audition. Like I auditioned for Vinyl, I auditioned for The Aviator, I auditioned for Wolf of Wall Street. It was just The Departed and The Irishman I didn’t audition for.

Which, hey, listen, I’m happy to do it. I love Ellen Lewis, his casting director. And to get in front of him… To work with him, it’s daunting at first when you think you’re going to be working with him. But then you get there and by far the best actor’s director I’ve ever worked with.

First of all, when I’m working, I look up every director I work with to see if they’re into improvisation. Because I love to improvise. And usually there’s something on them if they’ve done any work at all, even if they haven’t, there’s usually something on them in terms of improv. And then I go in there and if they love the improvisation, I go in there and go nuts. And I never ask them ahead of time, I just go ahead and do it.

But that’s what Scorsese’s totally into. You can see it in his films. That’s why his sets are so loose and the acting it’s kind of free. And then he does his own thing with the camera. So he’s got it all covered. So he expects you to come in and add to the stuff.

Some people like doing it. And some people get put off by doing it. And I sense some tension from some actors, when I’m doing it or if I’m doing it too much, I guess.

I saw that you did a self-tape for Vinyl where you did a bunch of improv and that helped you get that role as well.

J.C. Mackenzie: Yeah, because I know he loves it. And I don’t know why students don’t just follow this guy around with a camera. I guess he does his own thing. So to replicate Martin Scorsese’s working method is going to be difficult.

But yeah, it’s great, man, I just feel totally at home. The stuff I’ve done, I’ve worked with Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon and all these big stars, Leonardo DiCaprio. I never feel nervous working with them because we’re all weirdly on the same playing field. We’re not, those guys are much better actors than I’ll ever be. But that’s the way you feel when we’re working on a set with him.

When was the last time you actually were really nervous on a set? Or even before an audition?

J.C. Mackenzie: I’m generally pretty nervous with everything I do.

Oh, yeah?

J.C. Mackenzie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But again, it depends on the director. I like to be sort of left alone. And the intuitive, smart directors know that almost immediately. They have to be psychologists. They’re working with all sorts of different personalities with all sorts of different needs. And personally, I like to be left alone.

I just worked on The Hunt with Craig Zobel. Man, Oh man, what a great guy. Great director, really cool, really laid back. And I had like an eight, nine page scene with Hilary Swank. I understand it’s been put off for a period of time.

I saw that, yeah.

J.C. Mackenzie: I think it’ll probably be released eventually when a lot of this stuff dies down. I mean it’s a smart satirical film. That’s it. Nobody has seen the film so I don’t know what they’re going by. Maybe the trailer, I don’t know. But anyway, I wasn’t nervous with Craig and I did this film for HBO, Pippa Bianco wrote and directed it. Same way, great director.

So, a lot of it depends on the director. And you know within the first conversation how free, open and loose it’s gonna be. And conversely, I know pretty soon if it’s going to be tight. But even if it is tight and they expect you to be word perfect and they’re micromanaging with direction, you take it and you go with it. You never complain. You try to give them what they want while doing your own thing at the same time. It’s challenging sometimes because they’re opposite ends occasionally.

How have you managed to stay a working actor for so long? I mean you’re great, you’re obviously versatile. But a lot of actors who started out almost at the same time you did, they’ve kind of faded away.

J.C. Mackenzie: I really don’t allow shit to get to me, whether it’s negative or positive. Listen, I’ve read all sorts of negative shit about me. I’ve had people say negative shit about me. I just don’t allow it to affect me. I just continue to keep my nose to the grindstone, trust my instincts, and do my own work. And people get it or they don’t get it.

I’ll tell you what I do now that I didn’t do when I first started. I used to let the rejection get to me a little more than I do now. I don’t care now, I don’t care. I really don’t care. I have enough affirmation from people that I trust and respect to know that I’m in the ballpark. And I hope it doesn’t sound ego-maniacal, but I don’t think I’d be hired if I really sucked. You can get away with it a couple of times.

I mean all the small stuff matters. Working with Scorsese, I don’t do a lot of his stuff. I’m a series regular on Vinyl, I guess I did pretty good there. But the films, I don’t do a lot. Most I’ll have is a week, week and a half, two weeks maybe.

So all that stuff, it’s cumulative. You build up a body of work whether you know it or not. And so it’s good to play it micro, what they call micro-interaction. Just to make sure you pay attention to all the small stuff. Be polite. I’ve worked with some assholes on sets, and that word gets around pretty quick, so you don’t want to do that. Especially if you’re a character actor. I don’t think I’ve met too many assholes that are character actors.

You did the national tour of Biloxi Blues. When was the last time you actually did some theater work?

J.C. Mackenzie: It’s been a long time. If I’m being honest, about 15 years ago, I guess? That’s what I trained in. I went to university in Montreal for English and then I auditioned for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Got in and then after I graduated from there, I organized a cross-Canada audition tour where I set up appointments with artistic directors throughout every province in Canada. And I booked my first job doing that. And then I didn’t stop.

But I was doing theater right from the get go. I did 6 to 7 plays at the Shaw Festival and then I did a bunch of plays in Toronto. And then I got flown down to New York to audition for Neil Simon for the national tour of Biloxi Blues. And I got it. And then I stayed in the United States, I’ve never gone back to Canada, unless it was for work. I mean I’ve been back there a lot of times to work, and my family’s still there.

But yeah, theater was my thing and I never entertained the idea of doing TV and film. But now I love it, man. I don’t understand people that dis it. I mean, listen, I’ve seen lots of shitty acting on Broadway and I’ve seen a lot better actors on TV and film, so I don’t make that distinction. Maybe that’s an old paradigm that people followed.

And I have a fifteen-year-old now that I wanted to be home for. I didn’t want to be at the theater nights. And so that was largely a decision dictated by that. But I definitely would do a play again if it was at a smaller theater.

For an audition, what are the first things you do when you get the sides?

J.C. Mackenzie: First thing I do is I try to get some information about the director. That’s the first thing I do. I go online, I Google the director’s name and find out if he’s into improvisation or not.

Then it depends. If I’ve worked with them before, I’ll have some sort of idea of how they work and that’s been my bread and butter, actually. Working with these guys once and then having them rehire me, that happens a lot of the time particularly in film. And now it’s happening with these guys that were junior writers on television shows that I was on in the past that have now become the showrunners themselves. I get rehired from those guys, that’s at least 50% of my business right now, which is great.

But so anyway, I look them up online. I see if they’re into improvisation, if they are, generally in TV there’s gonna be less improvisation than film. And then I go in there, and as I said before, if I’m going to improvise, I don’t warn them I’m going to improvise. Because I think it sort of gets them a little on edge in a bad way. Because if you do it and you execute and you make the material better, well they’re going to dig it and like it. And you might get hired for the role.

I never pay attention to stage directions, I do my own thing. I don’t pay attention to pausing for that matter. Unless it’s like… I did a film, Molly’s Game for Aaron Sorkin. And I did my own thing, he’s not into improvisation, I knew that. But I was a little loose with the lines and I got word from his casting director that you must say his lines exactly and pay attention to the pausing. But that’s unusual and he’s a genius and his writing is so good, I didn’t think twice about questioning that. And it all went swimmingly.

But anyway, I get in there and do my own thing. And then hopefully you encounter something somewhat similar on set. It’s going to be different depending on the actor you work with. I’ve had a couple of bigger actors take me aside and say, “Don’t do that.” Which I always think is weird, I would never say that to another actor. If you want to say that, tell the director that and maybe he’ll give me the note, but don’t take me aside and tell me how to act or whatever. Just react to what I’m giving you and I’ll do the same. And maybe that’s the game we’ll play. But you can’t control situations like that on set.

What has been your worst audition?

J.C. Mackenzie: Oh, I have so many of them, man. I’m my own worst critic. So, I think every audition I don’t get the job, it sucks. And I may be right about that. I may be. I often think, well, I could have done it better. I could have listened a little bit more. That’s the key when auditioning, particularly if you’re auditioning in a room, which I never do anymore, I always put myself on tape, which I kind of like, because you can just continue to do it several different ways for several different hours. Providing, of course, you’ve got somebody working with you that can give you that time.

I forget about listening sometimes, which is so important. I see pros not doing it all the time. Just listen, it’s pretty simple stuff, but it’s actually pretty hard when nerves are involved. A lot of the times I’m not there and nerves get the better of me and I haven’t meditated, or read all my silly self-help books in order to center me. And I go in there and I’m a little jittery and not on my game. And it’s horrific, it really is horrific. It’s not a good feeling. Well, you know, you’re an actor.

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