“Once you step in front of the camera, everything’s a lie. You got to find out a way to tell your truth” – John C. McGinley
John C McGinley has done it all in his long career. From TV, to film and Broadway, he’s done each at such high caliber that it’s no wonder that he continues to be a sought out character actor.
He’s currently in the film Benched, based on Richard Dressers play, Rounding Third, where he stars as Don, a little league coach who clashes with his new, inexperienced assistant coach, Michael (Garret Dillahunt). As the season progresses and the two begin to learn more about each other, their forge a reluctant friendship that helps both the team and themselves. It’s a sweet comedy about friendship and tolerance and both McGinley and Dillahunt are terrific.
In the interview, he talks about Benched, working on Broadway, how he’s managed to have such a long career and the worst job he’s ever done in a film.
I really liked the film!
John C. McGinley: I’m glad. I did too, I was really proud of it. I thought that the pairing of Garret’s sensibilities and mine, and then that magnificent ensemble of young boys who were the actors and nevermind that script which is bulletproof.
Remember, that was a play, a two person play, it’s called a two-hander. That was a two-hander that ran for about three years, and Richard Dresser who wrote it just kept tweaking it, and tweaking it, and tweaking it, and making it more and more streamlined. So, those two actors on stage… I did not see the play, nor have I done it, but those two actors on stage had to create all that baseball, and they had to create the conflict with the woman. So, when Richard opened it up and incorporated that magnificent ensemble of the young boys and Mrs. Timmy, it just felt so fresh to me.
And for Garret’s character and mine to be able to toy with some of the sensibilities of Glengarry Glen Ross, in other words, the positioning men do to each other and inadequacy and fear and the way we manipulate each other. And to put that in the backdrop of Bad News Bears… that combination just was unbelievably intoxicating to me.
Yeah, it’s a film that kind of snuck up on me, where, by the end I wanted to spend more time with you guys.
John C. McGinley: Yes, and me too. You have to give Don a second because he’s so tortured and so flawed, and then we find out that he’s just as scared as the rest of us. And that magnificent monologue that he has with Garret at the gymnasium, when he talks about not being able to cut off the bat because Billy Nathan got kicked off third, well I worked backwards from that. I make him a protector of these kids, and either metaphorically or literally, I was going to get them their ‘at bats’. I was gonna make sure that they didn’t experience the sense of powerlessness that I did, and that was just, to have that blueprint as a backstory that Richard put on the page was one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever come across.
Now I want to go back and re-watch it just for that little bit of information.
John C. McGinley: Yeah, there’s that page and a half, two page, single space monologue where Don goes off about what happened. He has all the statistics in his hand, and, oh God, it’s just one of my favorite pieces. We deconstructed that thing.
You got to remember, I had this script, and they cast me first, and then they cast everybody else around me. While I was down in Bogota shooting The Belko Experiment in Columbia, I kidnapped three or four actors from that ensemble down in Bogota, whenever anybody had free time. I rented some rehearsal space, just this raw space down in Bogota, and I made these actors come and work with me on Benched. And it was more than a little obsessive-compulsive, welcome to my world, so that by the time I got to… I wrapped on a Friday in Bogota. I traveled to Miami for a layover and then to Nashville. I did wardrobe on Sunday, we did a read through on Sunday, and we started shooting Monday.
And so I was dialed when they called action on Monday. I was dialed, and so was Garret, and the camera can see all that, and that’s why we were able to do it in 18 days. It didn’t suffer. The film does not suffer from the compressed schedule. It’s so rich and it’s so emotional and it’s so funny, and those little kids are so magical. The film doesn’t suffer from the 18 day shooting schedule.
Each scene peels off a layer and another layer to where we get to see each of you both in a different light, especially towards the end.
John C. McGinley: Yeah, I just think that coach Don, the character I get to play, is so flawed and so scared and so damaged. We find out about his home life, and we find out, in that monologue I was talking about, about his past. He’s dealing with an enormous amount of loss, and when men deal with loss, or don’t deal with loss, that’s very rich, that’s a rich landscape to roam around on. That’s where Richard, the writer, that’s where Richard set Coach Don. I couldn’t wait to do it. It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.
I talked to Garret the other day, and he said you were a good guy to have in your corner.
John C. McGinley: Yes, I am, and Garret was like… Well, I’m a teacher, and I love actors, and I love acting, so Garret was a gift. Garret was an absolute gift. His sensibilities and his rhythms are very different than mine, but we found the same bandwidth to kind of drive in. That was a really magical 18 days for me.
You mentioned about how you kidnapped some actors and had them going over the script with you. You also did that for Glengarry Glenn Ross, didn’t you?
John C. McGinley: Yeah, Glengarry, I used my acting teacher more, but I was on the road, so I couldn’t. What I do when there’s an enormous amount of text, like in Glengarry is I get these kids, these young actors, and I give them $25 an hour, and I tell them, “You’re not allowed to say anything but the words, because I don’t want to hear your input. And I’m not being a jackass, I’ll do that with my acting teacher, but from you, I just want us to do the words.”
And I set up these acting boot camps. I keep a rehearsal space in Malibu, and we just go over the words. Whatever the time span is. For Scrubs, and for Stan against Evil, there is no time. You just go. But for Glengarry, I had about two months to get ready for rehearsal, and for Benched I had the two and a half months I was down in Bogota. I relished that time, and so I know how to structure it. Repetition is your best friend with dialogue.
I saw you in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway.
John C. McGinley: Get out of here!
I did! For me, it was character actor heaven. I mean, you were terrific, the cast was terrific. How was your time doing that show?
John C. McGinley: It was the best couple of months of my life.
I can imagine.
John C. McGinley: I was so ready to do that play, and I’m so right for Moss, and Richard Schiff and I became very dear friends. Al [Pacino] and I had already been friends from Oliver [Stone’s] football movie, from Any Given Sunday. I’m pretty sure that’s why I got put in the play, because Al and I became quite close down in Miami shooting Any Given Sunday. Then they called up and they said, “Do you want to play Moss?” And my knees buckled.
I knew what kind of opportunity it could be. It was kind of a once in a lifetime thing, and it proved to be just that, between being with Bobby [Cannavale], and being with Richard, and David Harbour, who’s now on Stranger Things… I guess it was the best collection of actors I’ve ever gotten to spend an extended period of time with. And in my brain, that’s what I thought it was going to be, but of course, we all construct our own things in our brain. Then I got to New York, and that’s what it became.
Everyone agreed to do 100 performances, and that’s what we did. You got to just leave it all out on the field. There was no saving anything. We did it 100 times. I guess with previews, we did it maybe 120 times. But that’s it. That’s it, and that first act, when Richard and I are on stage, and I just get to drive that first 18 minute scene in the Chinese restaurant… That’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and it empowered me to do other things.
Yeah, you were terrific in that show. What do you mean, empowered to do other things?
John C. McGinley: It validated the process that I came up with. It validated everything that I’d done prior to that. I couldn’t have done Glengarry before that, and I needed the other things that came before Glengarry to be able to come out and drive that 18 minutes with Richard was a real leap. It was a real leap.
You easily float from comedy to drama, really just… effortlessly. How do you choose what you want to do? Like Stan Against Evil, which is great, by the way, how did you say, “I want to take on this?”
John C. McGinley: I thought the script Dana [Gould] wrote was really good, and I thought what he missed, and he wrote it on the page, but when he came out to Malibu, and we met, I told him, I said, “I think this is great. I want to do it, but we have to explore this guy’s loss.” In the first three minutes of the pilot, he’s lost his wife, and he’s lost his job of 27 years. He has no bearings. I said, “You’re the one who wrote this. You put it on the page, but I want to dig. I want to excavate some of this, because you’re missing what grounds this guy. And what grounds him is loss, and I want to explore his loss and his damages.” And I wasn’t kidding, and Dana promised me he would, and I’ll be goddamn if he wasn’t good to his word, and that’s why the show is as rich as it is.
Because I can turn a joke, and Dana can do all the scary shit. I’m like, “I want to find out how this guy gets up in the morning after he lost his wife and his job. Why should he get up in the morning?” That’s what we’ve been exploring for three years. Sprinkled in with jokes and horror, but … There needs to be some balance, and that’s what Dana promised me he’d explore, and he did.
At almost the beginning of your career, you were in Platoon. And you pretty much haven’t stopped working since. What’s the secret to a long career as an actor?
John C. McGinley: Being a slave to the words. Because whenever you think you’re better than the words, you’re dead meat. I know actors all the time want to rewrite this, or rewrite that. I guess maybe if you’re some really skilled writer, actor, maybe like Ed Burns or somebody, but most of us you got to hew to the words. You got to hew to what’s on the page. And if you sprinkle in some of your sensibilities, that’s great and all that, but I love being a soldier of the words. That’s my thing. It always has been. Whether it’s David Mamet, or Billy Lawrence, or Oliver Stone, or Richard Dresser in Benched, I think you’ve got to commit to the words.
Someone asked you in an interview a little while back, “How important is it for an actor to know themselves?” And you gave a really interesting answer. You referenced an interview with John Malkovich.
John C. McGinley: Yeah. When I was growing up, it seemed like there were two desperately important schools of acting. One was De Niro’s, which was you become the character, and you go do volumes of research, and you go get a job… go be a doctor. And that didn’t appeal to me. I read in an interview, what John said was that he lets the character become him. And just because his point was that he knows John Malkovich, and John Malkovich’s college of eccentricities better than any research is going to ever yield, and it takes some spine to let the character become you. I’ve always done that as well. You go and you trail with doctors, or you’re going to be a plumber, you go trail with a plumber. You do a little bit so you know how to hold the wrench right or hold the scalpel right, but after that, you got to… The lens is an x-ray machine, man. If you’re making pretend you’re some other motherfucker, that lens is going to go, “No, you’re not. No, you’re not. You’re not. You’re John McGinley. You’re some broke dick Irish guy from New York. Stop pretending and just tell us the truth.”
And so I let Dr. Cox be me, and I let coach Don be me. When I’m talking to those kids, I’m talking to my son. Then the camera doesn’t suffer the lie as egregiously. Once you step in front of the camera, everything’s a lie. You got to find out a way to tell your truth. Otherwise, you’re a big fat liar, and the camera’s going to treat you like a piece of shit.
What’s been the worst audition that you’ve ever been on?
John C. McGinley: Well, it’s not the worst audition. I can tell you the worst job I ever did in a film. I can’t remember bad auditions. I kind of just let them go. Otherwise, your skin gets too thick, and you lose your loveliness. And so I always tell actors just to let them go. If somebody gets out a cell phone or some bullshit, you got to let it go. Otherwise, you get too tough, and you lose the magic shit that you had to begin with.
So, the worst job I’ve ever done in a film… I got Highlander number two, which was a sequel to Highlander, down in Buenos Aires with Sean Connery and Chris Lambert, and all these great actors. I was having kind of an actor man crush on the then much older Orson Welles. His body of work in the 30s and the 40s, and the 50s and his voice.
So, I got this gig to be the assistant bad guy with Michael Ironside, and I had this voice teacher in New York. I wanted to lower my voice about two octaves, like Orson Welles. And nowhere in the script does it… it doesn’t support this eccentricity. Anyway, this is just a jackass actor move made by McGinley. So, I hired this great voice teacher, Nora Dunfee, and Nora and I worked tirelessly to lower and lower and lower my voice. I get down to Buenos Aires, and I sound like fucking James Earl Jones.
And then I see the movie, and the voice is completely disconnected from my body. It looks fake. It looks like bad looping. And I’m horrible in the movie because all I’m doing is trying to be Orson Welles’ voice, which has nothing to do with the movie at all. And so I’m terrible in the movie. I’m terrible. It doesn’t make any sense. So, that’s the worst I’ve ever been in a movie because the man crush on Orson Welles.
Well, now I’m going to have to watch Highlander 2.
John C. McGinley: Take some NoDoz and get a mug of coffee because it’s horrible. Well, I’m horrible. Chris and Sean are great. I’m horrible.
Benched is in theaters and VOD/streaming beginning August 17th.