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The actor: Christopher McDonald got his first big break by singing and dancing his way through Grease 2 as Goose McKenzie, but the actor has made a career out of playing slightly shady types in such films as Thelma And Louise, Happy Gilmore, and Requiem For A Dream. Currently, McDonald is doing double duty on the small screen, finding time for a few episodes of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire in the midst of his full-time gig on NBC’s Harry’s Law.
Harry’s Law (2011)—“Tommy Jefferson”
Christopher McDonald: Tommy J! Now that’s just one of the greatest parts. In my life—well, in any actor’s life—you get five good ones. I’m gonna have to bump one off my list and put Tommy Jefferson up there as one of my top five. I love it. He’s a blast, he’s mercurial, he can go anywhere, he’s got a heart of gold underneath all of that braggadocio. The character was initially brought on to do a quick arc, but David [E. Kelley] caught on it, got the voice, started writing it, and started tailoring it toward me, and… wow. I’m blessed. It’s one of the greatest parts I’ve played in a long time. And to have people stop me on the street and go, “Tommy J!” It used to be when I was going through airports, they’d usually just go, “Shooter!” Now they go, “It’s Tommy Jefferson! Tommy Big Boy!” [Laughs.] Too funny.
The A.V. Club: You haven’t had a regular series role in a few years. Is it nice to be able to get back into a regular routine?
CM: It is! My last big series was another law show, funnily enough, where I played Rex Weller on Family Law. So it was nice to be back in the world of television, and you never know where it’s going to come from. I started as recurring, now I’m a series regular, and I didn’t expect to be on a series. But the world works in strange ways, and in this case, it turned out to be wonderful, because I love working with Kathy Bates and the rest of the cast, and Bill D’Elia, our show runner. I mean, he’s the man. And it’s brilliant writing. So it’s all good.
AVC: Had you ever worked with David E. Kelley before this?
CM: I had known him. I had never worked with him. But I worked with his wife, Michelle [Pfeiffer], in Grease 2 back in the day, and I had seen her a couple of times when I was around Hollywood, but, you know, they live in Northern California, and you don’t really see ’em much. I saw them at the up-fronts maybe five, six, seven years ago, and we had a nice chat, and I guess when my name came up, he said, “McDonald? Oh, yeah, he’ll kill it. He’ll be great.” [Laughs.]
Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)—“Harry Daugherty”
CM: The other Harry in my life, yes. [Laughs.] That is another gift. What’s interesting about this is that they said, “They need to see you, but you’re in L.A., so you have to put yourself on tape.” I’d never done that before, but I took my little flip-camera out, put it on the table, and had to do all this stuff. I’d never done it before, and I haven’t done it a lot since, but to hit it out of the park the first time was great, because I put it on, stuck it on my computer, figured out how to get it to New York by 10:30 so Tim Van Patten and Terry Winter and the other producers could watch it. And then they called and said, “You got it! That was fantastic!” So I was really happy, but when I got to New York to do the part, it was, like, “Oh, Chris, we love him.” And then you saw me for two frames. [Laughs.] I worked all night long on this thing! I was basically just reading the lines in my head—’cause I was by myself in my office downtown—and listening to what the other character, Nucky Thompson, was saying, and I was responding. I’ve told actor friends this story, and they said, “You did what? You should’ve called me! I would’ve read with you!” “Yeah, but it was really late at night. You wouldn’t have gotten up anyway.” [Laughs.] But that’s turned into a really nice gig. I get to do another lawyer, this one in 1920s Prohibition. And now I’m in Washington. I’m the attorney general. Last season, I was campaign manager for—get this, another Ohioan—Warren Harding. Ohio is playing a big part in my lawyers’ lives these days, from Cincinnati to Columbus. [Laughs.] We got Warren Harding in by getting the New Jersey vote, guaranteed from Nucky Thompson for a couple of favors, and now it’s payback time in season two.
The Sopranos (2007)—“Eddie Dunne”
AVC: As far as getting the Boardwalk Empire gig goes, it’s probably not a coincidence that Terence Winter also wrote the one episode of The Sopranos that you did.
CM: Yeah, that didn’t hurt. [Laughs.] It was great. He was in the room when David Chase… boy, I tell ya, getting onto that show was pretty difficult. And I’ve been around a long time, but, you know, it’s very cliquey. If you’re in New York, you’ll be seen, but you live in L.A... [Trails off.] So I flew myself to New York, Georgianne Walken—Chris Walken’s wife—she’s casting the show, and she comes out and does this whole thing, like, “Can you play it like this?” And I’m, like, “Uh, okay, I know how to act, I can make my own choices, but…okay, I get it, yeah, you’ve seen this stuff.” It’s a pretty big and important part, and they take great pains to make the show really well cast, so I went in the room and I did it, and David Chase says, “That was terrific! But can you play it this way?” ’Cause I was playing Chris’ AA counselor, ’cause the other guy was, uh, rubbed out. [Laughs.] And this was gonna be a nice little arc. So Chase says, “Now play it like you want a drink so bad. I mean, you’re talking to him almost like you’re talking to yourself.” And I went, “Oh, that’s brilliant.” And I did it that way, and he said, “I have never seen an actor take direction as well as you just did and just completely turn and deliver just what I asked you to do. That was great.” So I felt pretty good when I left, and then the phone call came: “You’re gonna do it.” And it was gonna be a big thing, but we ran out of time. But they never forget those things, so it’s still good.
Grease 2 (1982)—“Goose McKenzie”
CM: Goose McKenzie! That was one of the happiest times I ever had on a set, ’cause you never forget your first. This was my first biggie, and all the singing and dancing and… boy, just the five auditions to get that part! I was trying to get Johnny Nogerelli, but you couldn’t wash the Irish off of my face. [Laughs.] So by the time I got turned down on the fourth, they said, “Why don’t you come in tomorrow and meet Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr and all these people? We’re gonna put the T-Birds together and mix and match.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got nothing else to do tomorrow.” I was really down when I didn’t get it, but then I went in as Goose McKenzie, I’d lifted all the pressure off of myself, and I was completely relaxed. And I had a brilliant time. That kind of auditioning has helped me ever since. I got the part, I had a blast. They would give us time to ride our motorcycles around, and none of the other T-Birds rode motorcycles, but I had been riding since I was 10, so it was free time for me to just ride around the school hallways. That’s something you never get to do in life—especially since my father was the principal of my high school! [Laughs.] Yeah, that never would’ve happened. So that was a blast. That was just a really, really fun movie. And I met a lot of lifelong friends from it. And, strangely enough, people who are now in their early 30s are going, “Oh my God, I loved you in Grease 2!” They’ll see me and go, “Oh my God, it’s Goose!” “What were you, 9?”
AVC: So, if pressed, could you still do the songs and choreography?
CM: [Sings.] “Where does the pollen go?” [Laughs.] Yeah. That was one of my solos. So, yeah, I could still do it. It was just too much fun. I mean, it didn’t make $380 billion, so they consider it a failure, but it’s not for the fans. There are people who really love it, some even more than the first one.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990)—“Lt. Richard Castillo”
CM: Yeah, I was doing a play at the time—I was playing Biff in Death Of A Salesman in downtown Los Angeles—and they sent me over the script for a Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I occasionally watch. I was a fan. And the character came in as… I think it was, like, Roberto Castillo. And I said, “How the hell am I going to play Roberto Castillo? That’s so… ethnic. I can’t do that. That’s a Spanish guy.” But I decided I was going to go. I said, “I’m going, and I’m gonna give it my best.” ’Cause it was on my favorite lot: Paramount. I went in, sat down, and everybody else in the room was, of course, Hispanic. [Laughs.] So I waited in the waiting room, then I went in and had at it, auditioning with the director, David Carson, who later went on to a really big future with the show. And they changed the name to Richard Castillo. So, you know, it was a chance to sit in the captain’s chair on the Enterprise-C and say, “Take us to warp speed!” It was definitely “pinch me” time. [Laughs.] It was really, really great. And I think I’ve had more letters from that one episode, from people who are just dying for me to go and sign these very rare pictures for their collections. They’re avid fans. Trekkies, I guess. But I haven’t accepted a convention yet. But one day, when I have nothing else on my schedule, I’ll be like, “Hey, time to go to a convention!” [Laughs.]
Leave It To Beaver (1997)—“Ward Cleaver”
CM: Yeah, I was walking in a piazza d’artista—I guess that’s what it called—in Italy, and my cell phone rings, and it’s from the States. And I usually don’t answer it, ’cause it’s gonna cost me, like, four bucks a minute, but it was a producer that I’d just done Happy Gilmore with, and he said, “We’re doing Leave It To Beaver, and we want you to play Ward.” I said, “Ward Cleaver…? Talk about iconic. Hugh Beaumont? Fantastic! Uh, you don’t have any idea where I am, though, do you?” He goes, “Nah. What are you, in the valley?” “I’m in Italy.” [Laughs.] It was one of those phone calls you never forget. So of course I said, “Yes,” got the script and worked on it with the cast. They searched the country to find a little Beaver, found him, and the kid, Cameron, was great. I just had a really great time. It was a lovely family film, and there’s one scene in it, the teacup scene, which is probably one of my favorites for two reasons. One, it was the scene that had all the heart. It’s where he forgave his son for screwing up—that’s what happens in life—and it was a really good father-and-son talk. But most importantly, that was the day that my daughter Rosie was born. So I missed her birth to be in the teacup scene. [Laughs.]
The Iron Giant (1999)—“Kent Mansley”
CM: “Kent Mansley: I work for the government… and all that that implies.” [Laughs.] You never forget these lines. Brad Bird, God bless him. This was before he was Brad “Oscar” Bird. They officially change your name when you get those trophies, I think. What happened on that one was that he said, “I really want Chris McDonald,” and they said, [Uncertainly] “Oh, yeah, he’s good, yeah, but… uh, he’s not sexy enough. We need somebody like Johnny Depp.” And he goes, “No, I really, really want to fight for Chris, ’cause he’s got the right sensibility, the smarminess of this guy who thinks he’s gonna find this thing and help his career.” [Sighs.] “Okay. ’Cause we got Jennifer Aniston and we got Harry Connick and all these other great people, okay.” I had a complete blast. See, it’s hard work. You go into these booths, and I didn’t work with Jennifer, I didn’t work with anybody, really. You’re by yourself, basically, and you go in, you’re feeling great, you work for three hours. It was told to me at the première that everybody, all the animators, wanted to animate Kent Mansley because he was just so much fun, a self-important blowhard. I had some tough lines in it, like, “Screw our country, I wanna live!” [Laughs.]
Just fantastic. But the movie was an instant classic. When I sat at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, arguably the most famous theater on Hollywood Boulevard, for the première, I’m sitting two rows in front of Pete Townshend, who owned the rights to the story. I had a great experience watching my small children watch what daddy does. Even when it’s voice work, just seeing them laugh and big dollops of tears flowing down their face at the end… It was a very strong message movie about being your own person and doing what’s right, knowing that one person can change the world. It was just a beautiful movie that was not very well marketed at Warner Brothers. They basically fired the whole releasing crew. But the movie lives on, and people stop me all the time and say how much they love that movie.
Family Law (1999-2002)—“Rex Weller”
CM: Boy, that was a blast. I went in to meet Paul Haggis, and I wasn’t cast ’cause what happens in television—and this is why I became a film actor out of necessity—is that if you don’t look a certain way, you don’t get the part. I could act it, but, nope, you gotta have that twinkle and the pearly white Chiclet teeth and all that stuff. I’m, like, “That’s not me, I’m sorry, I don’t do that.” So I went away and did a play in New York, and a phone call came in saying, “Do you remember this show called Family Law?” I went, “Yeah, I read for it during pilot season.” “They’re making the pilot right now, they’re in Vancouver, and they’re firing the guy. Would you go and do it?” “Uh…yeah, I guess so. I don’t know where the script is, but, yeah, okay.” They gave me a script, I got on a plane and flew to Vancouver, and there wasn’t a lot to do in the pilot, anyway, so it was a no-brainer. I won’t mention the actor’s name, because he’s a very good guy, and because it’s happened to me before where I was replaced for something, and I’ll tell you that story in a minute. [Laughs.]
So I replaced this actor, we ended up doing the show for four seasons, and there were some deliciously lovely actors that I got to work with: Kathleen Quinlan, Dixie Carter, and Julie Warner. And then I think it was in season three that they brought on Tony Danza. It was just a really crazy mix of people, but I had a lot of fun doing that, and I learned a lot, too. I was basically the gives-lawyers-a-bad-name kind of lawyer. I had my face on the bench ads, and on the buses driving by. “Need an attorney? Rex Weller got me $2.5 million!” [Laughs.] I was an ambulance-chaser. And for the first two seasons, I was the only male voice on Family Law. When they brought on Tony, he became the alpha male, and I just kind of would do different cases on the side and stuff like that. But it was a very good experience, and it helped me buy my house. I thank Paul Haggis for helping me buy my house.
At Ease (1983)—“All American”
AVC: Okay, give it up: What was the role where you ended up getting replaced?
CM: Oh, I did a series way before… well, it was right after I did Grease 2. It was pilot season, and I was up for and then got this series. It was great. I was playing a football star, and I had been a football player—if not a huge star—in college. And he was right out of West Point, and they wanted him to play really badly for this team so that they would beat the other team, that kind of thing. The show was called At Ease, and I ended up calling it A Tease. [Pauses.] Did you see what I did there? [Laughs.] Anyway, right around the same time, there was a commercial for Dr Pepper, where the guy sang, “I’m a Pepper / You’re a Pepper / Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” Do you remember that guy’s name?
AVC: That would be David Naughton.
CM: That would be David Naughton. Very good. David Naughton replaced me because he was a Pepper. And wouldn’t I have liked to have been a Pepper, too? [Laughs.] So the show came on, they ended up doing something like nine episodes, and it died. But I was very angry. The producer took me to lunch, and this is my big shot, you know? I’m the lead of a series! And I was good in the series. They still played that episode, called it “The All-American Hero” or something, Jimmie Walker was in it, too. It was really fun. But, anyway, they said, “It’s not you, Chris. It’s the network. They want the guy ’cause he’s on the Pepper thing.” And I was, like, “Are you kidding me?” It got me a little bit jaded. I had to turn it around, or else I would’ve gotten into bitter mode, and I’ve seen too many bitter-mode people in Hollywood. So it was at that point that I started to think about living out of town. Because if you live there, you’re making those circles, you see more and more, and it just permeates your skin. So I live about an hour and a half out of town. I drive into L.A. when I work, and I get out of there as much as I can.
You’ve Reached The Elliotts (2006)—“Phil”
CM: Oh, wow. That was a pretty funny pilot that didn’t get picked up, unfortunately. It was the Chris Elliott show, basically. It was about his family, and he had a beautiful daughter, a sister, and his sister was married to Phil. And Phil was the brother-in-law nobody likes to have. [Laughs.] He was the quintessential blowhard, basically. He was a know-it-all, and he would just at every opportunity try to bring Chris down. We got huge laughs from the thing, but you know how it is with pilot season. They just go, “Ah, well, you didn’t get picked up.” But it was at the same network, CBS, where I did Family Law, so I saw some old pals when we made it. I really wanted it to go, because that’s probably the easiest job in show business, sitcoms. Like, we’re working right now next to Two And A Half Men, and I swear to God, they get there at 10 in the morning on Monday and they’re out of there at 11:30. Tuesday they’re there from 10 ’til about 1:30, but right after lunch, it’s, “Bye-bye, see ya!” Wednesday, it’s kind of the same thing, and then one day they put on make-up, they do two shows, they have a party, and then they start again on Monday. [Laughs.] Pretty easy, right? Whereas we’re putting in 60, 70-hour weeks, we’re getting up at 5:30 for our first call and leaving sometimes at 7:30, 8:30 at night. And we’re doing legalese on top of it! But when you look back at the quality of the work? I’m delighted to have that.
Happy Gilmore (1996)—“Shooter McGavin”
CM: Uh, yeah, I turned that movie down twice. [Laughs.] I had seen Adam [Sandler] in a movie called Billy Madison, and I’d seen him on Saturday Night Live, and I thought he was funny. Opera Man wasn’t exactly my favorite. [Screeching] “I am Opera Man! I think this is funny!” [Laughs.] But I turned it down because I was really tired. I’d just done two movies back-to-back in Vancouver. But they said, “They’d really like for you to play this Shooter McGavin guy.” And I’m, like, “Ugh, it’s another bad guy. I don’t wanna do that.” “Yeah, but at least it’s a funny movie.” And it did look pretty funny. So that weekend, I played a golf tournament in Seattle, and I won. And I thought, “You know, it would be fun to do that golf movie, maybe.” So I drove back up to Vancouver when I heard that they were still looking, and I said, “I want to meet Adam.” And within 15 minutes, I knew I had to do this movie, ’cause this man was absolutely sick and funny and very smart—very, very smart. And that’s when I decided it would be a really good idea to do it. I haven’t worked with him since, though. I don’t know what that means. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding, I have. He’s hired me for a couple of little giveaway parts. But I’m, like, “Adam, you’re always hiring your boys to play the big parts.” And he goes, “Oh, McDonald, you’re working all the time, anyway. But still, you’re always gonna be Shooter.” I’m, like, “Yeah, but I can do a hundred different...oh, whatever.” [Laughs.] But I had a lot of fun doing that part as a villain who was in on the joke. I liked that part about it, that I could play it that way, and they let me do it. Also, my golf game got sick. I was playing golf five hours a day for six days a week. It was nutty. I was pretty good at that time. And now I basically get to play golf for free for the rest of my life, which is pretty good, too. [Laughs.]
Into Thin Air: Death On Everest (1997)—“Jon Krakauer”
CM: Done by one of my favorite directors, Bob Markowitz, who I’d worked with before. One of the nicest, most brilliant men. He really fought for me to play this part. It was on ABC, it was topical, and I don’t look a damned thing like Jon Krakauer. [Laughs.] I started growing a beard immediately when I knew I was on the hunt for it. I got to meet Jon, I read the book and the screenplay, and I said, “Okay, I’m the man!” Now, we’re working at a base camp at 10,000 feet in Austria, and we got up to 16,000 feet. We’d take this things we called rat tracks—they looked like Caterpillars, but they were people-movers—and they moved the whole crew up to the mountain to shoot. The wind was blowing, and when it wasn’t blowing enough, these Russians—well, it was an international crew—had big riggers up there, and they would throw ice chips in front of the fan that would shoot right at you. And you couldn’t wear your goggles, because then the audience wouldn’t know who you were as a character. So I was, like, “I’m gonna go blind doing In Thin Air!” [Laughs.] But it worked out okay.
My biggest concern was well, of course, telling the story the right way, and working with a director that I was very comfortable with, I think I did some really good work in it. And I would not complain once. Yes, it was cold. Yes, it was late. Yes, we shot at night, and, yes, it was bitter. Two people went home ’cause they couldn’t cut it, so they had to recast in Europe. Actually, I think maybe one girl came from New York. But you had to be tough. I mean, this was mountain-climbing! And I loved it. You know, I live at 6,000 feet, so I was already a little bit acclimatized, but when you’re shooting at 16,000 feet, you take three steps and you’re huffing and puffing and going, “Where’s the oxygen?” So I basically led the way with a very good cast, and I think we told the story really well. Jon Krakauer came and was fascinated with the filmmaking, and we were fascinated by his story. It was a great experience. I’ve been back to the area since then to see the people there. I mean, we stayed in that hotel for eight weeks. So I brought my family there, too. It was really nice.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)—“Tappy Tibbons”
CM: Yeah, that was a very interesting movie. Talk about great filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky is arguably in a league of his own. He’s terrific. It’s an insane movie. The first time I saw the movie, it was in Cannes with the whole group—we’d rented a house together—and it was the midnight screening. Everybody’s in tuxes, we go in, and it was an eight-minute standing ovation afterwards. I looked over at Darren Aronofsky at one point in the film—he’s two seats away—and I’m going, “Are you kidding me?” He goes, “Oh, no, it gets better!” Or worse, however you look at it. [Laughs.] It’s a dark movie with a very, very strong anti-drug message. It had more edits in it than any film before or after. They just went to down on it. Beautifully shot by Matty Libatique. Just very groundbreaking. I did all my stuff in New York in about six days, maybe four days. A lot of my stuff was ad-libbed. I met Darren Aronofsky in his little walk-up apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and we shot these interviews up on the roof, and we’d shoot interviews of me walking down the street talking, and people would recognize me from one of my past films, and I’d go right into Tappy Tibbons. [Laughs.] He had three things: no meat, no sugar, and the third one you never really know. But he started a website, and people were gonna go in and be like, “What’s the third one?” I think it’s “no orgasms,” personally. Makes sense, right? [Laughs.] So, yeah, that was a great experience. I still see Darren from time to time. He’s just getting better and better and better. The Wrestler was absolutely spectacular, and Black Swan? Come on. Just great stuff.
Spy Kids 2: Island Of Lost Dreams (2002)—“President of the USA”
The Faculty (1998)—“Mr. Frank Connor”
CM: Spy Kids 2 was the second time I worked with the great Robert Rodriguez. I knew his story. He goes to give blood so he can make his movie. “What are you gonna do with your blood?” “I’m gonna take my money and buy a Trans-Am. What are you gonna do?” “I’m gonna make movies. I’m gonna be a movie director.” “Yeah, whatever.” [Laughs.] And then cut to later, and look at the guy. He lives in Austin, he works in Austin, he turns his castle of his house, the whole garage, into this editing bay. Unbelievable. The guy’s got it made. He was really one of the first to embrace digital technology, and he just kind of keeps the cameras rolling. He does it partly for his kids. He’s got five kids, and all their names start with an “R.” [Laughs.] But he’s a very fun guy. I did The Faculty with him as well, and we just had a blast. He’s just a very, very nice guy. I’d love to work with him again in a minute.
AVC: How was The Faculty? That had quite an ensemble.
CM: It was a great ensemble. All those kids went off and had nice, long careers: Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster, they’re all still at it. Again, I was in my father mode, and it wasn’t a huge part, but it was a really fun part. It was the first time they ever lent [“Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2”] to a movie, so that was a pretty big deal. It did pretty well, and I made a lot of friends from that, too.
Dirty Work (1998)—“Travis Cole”
CM: There you go. That was part of my trifecta of films with the guy who did Happy Gilmore. He produces Happy Gilmore, then he asked me to play Ward Cleaver, and then said, “Come on and do Dirty Work!” [Laughs.] A lot of people stop me, and I can see it happening. If they’re, like, “I loved you in Happy Gilmore,” then it’ll be, “Dude, Dirty Work was sick!” I had a Chihuahua peeing in my mouth.
CM: Yeah, good times. [Laughs.] Of course, that was CGI—all I had to do was hold him up—but the way they pushed the envelope for a comedy cracks me up. That was the wonderful Norm MacDonald and the very talented Artie Lange—very funny guy. First time I worked with Chevy Chase was in that movie. He was not happy, but we’ve become pals since then. We went to Europe together. And, you know, John Goodman was in it. Really good cast, and the great Bob Saget directing! What a great guy.
AVC: Why wasn’t Chevy happy?
CM: Oh, I just don’t think he was happy to be there. It was a bad time in his life. We’ve laughed about it since then, thankfully, because he’s kind of reinvented himself.
Quiz Show (1994)—“Jack Barry”
CM: That’s in my top five of the best, most great films I’ve done. Robert Redford was an absolute blast to work with—a very smart, very charismatic man. Shooting in New York City was on my bucket list. Did it! [Laughs.] Period pieces, I always love doing those, and playing someone who was a real guy, I studied hard to find him without mimicking him. I just wanted to bring his voice, his qualities to the piece. People who actually knew him said that I was really spot-on, so that was a good feeling. It was good to hear that. And the movie still holds up. It’s a classy story about the end of… innocence, really. The boob tube could lead people by the nose, and this is what really happened. “He was cheating.” “No, no, he can’t possibly be cheating!” All for ratings, all for money. That’s what the business of show has become, in a lot of ways, and that was a very good social comment that Redford made with his movie. And Paul Attanasio, what brilliant writing. He’s still doing House, actually.
Thelma And Louise (1991)—“Darryl”
CM: Yeah, that’s what started the whole bad-guy thing. [Laughs.] Darryl was, yeah, he was a pretty bad guy. But, I mean, I know a lot of guys like that. You see governors and other politicians who are, like, “Yeah, we’re a happy family, everything’s great… and this is my call girl, and this is me getting caught with my call girl!” That kind of stuff. I’m sure Darryl was doing that kind of stuff on the side. Ultimately, he loved Thelma, but at the same time, the movie says the girls go, “I’ve got a choice: go back to my husband, or we drive off a cliff together.” “Hey, why not?” [Laughs.] So you figure the guy’s got to be pretty bad.
Opening week, the movie’s out, it’s getting a lot of buzz, and I’m driving my dad’s Cadillac that he’d lent me for a while. The top’s down, I’m feeling pretty good about myself, it’s been a pretty good week, and these two girls pull up next to me. The one in the passenger seat says, “Oh, my God, it’s the guy from Thelma And Louise!” The driver looks over at me, and all she says is, “Shoot him.” [Laughs.] True story. Oh, my God, that made me laugh. But I was not very likable, that’s for sure.
But I had a really, really fun time doing it. Ridley Scott was a tremendous director and a tremendous audience. He gave me the confidence to keep going, so I kept going, and he loved it. It was a lot of fun. That’s what really blew a lot of doors open in Hollywood for me. I think my biggest film in Hollywood before that was Chances Are, which was a year or two before. So it was a big thrill to work with these great actors and actresses, and the wonderful visual brilliance of Ridley Scott and Adrian Biddle, the cinematographer. Beautiful locations, great music, and the cover of Time. Who knew? Also, there was some guy in it. Pitt. I wanna say Bruce Pitt…? [Laughs.] Yeah, that guy. He was in it, too. [Laughs.] He wasn’t supposed to be, though. It was supposed to be Billy Baldwin. But he pulled out at the last minute because he wanted to go work with Ron Howard on Backdraft. So Brad Pitt came in, and out of nowhere he just became the ab king. [Laughs.] I mean, he was very good in the movie. He was great. But what most people remember is that scene with Geena [Davis] in the bedroom where he’s telling her how to rob a store. He flashes his abs, and all of the girls melted. I mean, what the hell? I’ve got an ab, too, you know!
AVC: And in the end, you still got to work with Billy Baldwin, albeit in Fair Game.
CM: I did. He’s a great guy, actually. I see Billy a little bit from time to time. I don’t see Brad, though. We’re with the same management group, but I don’t see him. He’s in a different world.
The Perfect Storm (2000)—“Todd Gross”
AVC: For my money, one of your greatest acting accomplishments is in The Perfect Storm, when you kept a straight face while delivering the line that features the film’s title.
CM: [Deadpan] “This could be…the perfect storm.” [Laughs.] I actually had to do some additional dialogue recording on that, so yeah, I’m gonna guess I probably said it 25 times, all told. And while [director Wolfgang Petersen] was there, because he had to have it delivered just right. I mean, I thought I said it pretty good on the day I originally did it, but, you know, I came back and I gave it all I was worth. And, man, they made the most of it. But, hey, I was one of the few people in that film who didn’t get completely soaked, so it could’ve been worse. [Laughs.]
Fatal Instinct (1993)—“Frank Kelbo”
CM: I’ve really only done two spoofs—the other one is Superhero Movie—but the first of them was that one, working with Carl Reiner. It was originally called Triple Indemnity, which I thought was a really funny title. But it was a thrill, because, I mean, this character was crazy funny but played super straight. The money they spent on this movie… I mean, Kate Nelligan, Armand Assante—you don’t expect Armand Assante to be funny, but he was really funny in that movie. That was the first time I’d worked at Warner Hollywood Studios, which was right down the street from my apartment, so that made it really simple. The movie didn’t really resonate, but it was a really fun movie to do, and I still see and talk to Carl Reiner. He’s the nicest man in show business. He’s just nothing but great. And the reason I got the part… this is very funny. I go into audition, there’s 10 or so other guys in the movie, and I thought I went pretty well. But as I was leaving, I asked, “Is there any other way you want me to do? I can play this guy any kind of way.” And to prove it, I grabbed my crotch. And Carl started laughing so hard. He goes, “That guy’s funny.” So that’s what he told me afterward. I thought, “Oh, God, that’s great.” It was also the first time I worked with Sherilyn Fenn, who… oh, my God, she’s beautiful. And I ended up working with her again a few years later.
The Dukes Of Hazzard: The Beginning (2007)—“Jefferson Davis ‘Boss’ Hogg”
CM: The director, Bob Berlinger, was an old friend of mine. This was “The Beginning,” so he said, “You wanna play a young Burt Reynolds?” So I said, “Nothing wrong with that!” I think I was ultimately a little bit more Sorrell Booke. [Laughs.] I put the two of them together, actually. I thought that’d be funny to do. It was 105 degrees in the valley—that’s where we shot it—so thank God I was in ice-cream-colored clothes, but it was still a suit. It was so hot that I just couldn’t believe it. But, again, I had a blast. Good group. A silly movie, but sometimes you do those for the paycheck. [Laughs.]
Lemonade Mouth (2011)—“Principal Brenigan”
AVC: You continue to bring the bad-guy roles, but now you’re going after the next generation, playing the principal in Lemonade Mouth.
CM: Exactly! That was something where they said, “Hey, we need somebody who’s gonna make these kids scared, it’s gonna be good, would you consider doing it?” So I said, “Well, let me read it.” And I thought, “You know, I’ve gotta do stuff now and then that my kids will watch.” [Laughs.] So when their friends say, “What does your dad do?” they can say, “This is what my dad does. He’s away a lot, but here’s why.” And I wanna tell ya, Lemonade Mouth was an unbridled hit. It was just off to the races. All the PR that Disney does, that machine was in full force. So my kids sort of got a little cool quotient going on in their high school. [Laughs.] “That’s your dad? Oh my God!” So they would wear the Lemonade Mouth stuff, and they’d be, like, “Where’d you get that?” [Smugly] “From my dad’s movie.” So every now and then you do one for the kids, and it’s fun—and it was so successful that we’re gonna do another one, so that’s good.
CM: [Sighs, then laughs.] Yeah. Here’s a movie that I would’ve… you know, if somebody had said, “Can you ride a unicycle up a mountain?” I would’ve said, “You bet,” and I would’ve learned that weekend how to do it. I was doing commercials at that time, and I was really dying to get into movies—preferably something good, but... [Laughs.] It was a silly story, but a guy who was from Israel was directing who knew precisely nothing about break-dancing. They had a very egotistical guy who was actually a very good dancer that they fired because he wanted to take the whole movie over. We ended up with Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp, who were actually very cool people, and it was really just a dance movie, with Cannon Films jumping onto the bandwagon and saying, “Hey, if we can get this made within a month and a half and then turn it around and get it out within eight weeks…” [Starts to laugh.] They were cutting it as they were shooting it just to get it out and make a quick dollar, because, you know, who knew how long break-dancing was going to be a hit? And it’s still out there even now, of course, but this was right at the top of it. They made a lot of money, so they were very happy. Playing James, though, was, like [Scornfully.] “Breakdancing? Street dancing? You can’t be serious! You’re a girl heading to the theater!” That kind of guy, but I come around in the end. And there’s a scene where they’re dancing on the beach, and Jean-Claude Van Damme is in the background. As an extra. Swear to God. Somebody told me that, and I looked it up, and I was, like, “Oh my God, that is Jean-Claude Van Damme.” So, yeah, I shot a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme. So I got that goin’ for me.
AVC: Of course, the most important question about this project is, why weren’t you in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo?
CM: Uh, yeah, I turned that down. [Laughs.] I was a little busy. Plus, I mean, once is enough, you know?
AVC: That’s going to be everyone’s big takeaway from this interview: “Chris McDonald: The Man Who Turned Down Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo.”
CM: Oh, well, that’s just insinuating that I’d take anything else, which is probably somewhat true. [Laughs.] No, I’m a bit discerning. I mean, I’ve turned a lot of stuff down. You’d be surprised. As much as I work, I do turn a lot of stuff down. And some of it I’ve really regretted. Like, I turned down The Hand That Rocks The Cradle—turned out to be nearly a $100 million film for Curtis Hanson. When I saw that, I said, “Holy shit!” But I said, “If you’d just change this one thing, I’d love to do this part.” I don’t know if you remember, but at the time, there was this commercial where the old woman said, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” And that was a line the guy had to say in the movie—Matt McCoy ended up playing the part—and when he said it, the audience laughed their asses off for two solid minutes. I was, like “Vindication!” [Laughs.] Of course, if you gave me that part now, I’d do it, because nobody really knows that reference except us older guys, but at the time, I was, like, “Could you just change that?” I would’ve changed it on the set, but you know, I was holding to my principles. That was dumb. [Laughs.]
The Bronx Is Burning (2007)—“Joe DiMaggio”
CM: It was during DiMaggio’s Mr. Coffee years, so I got a head full of gray hair dye. I think they might’ve done more to make me look like him, but they blew most of the budget on John Turturro’s ears. [Laughs.] I was doing Chicago on Broadway at the time, playing Billy Flynn, and I took a few days off to do my scenes, but then the director—Jeremiah Chechik, great guy—calls and says, “Okay, we saw the dailies, and whatever it is you did, you did it so well that we want you do to a few more scenes.” And that’s when they added the locker room stuff. I think the most interesting thing about that was… well, you know, playing DiMaggio, that’s a thrill right there, but just getting to find out more about the man. I mean, everybody loved and admired him, but he was kind of an old curmudgeon. You know, he was really pissed about the line in “Mrs. Robinson.” “‘Where have you gone?’ I’m not dead!” [Laughs.]
Balls To The Wall (2011)—“Mr. Matthews”
CM: Man, Mimi Rogers is always playing my wife. [Laughs.] She was my wife in a couple of episodes of My Boys, and she was my wife way back in Monkey Trouble. She’s an old pal, a great lady. I helped her get the part in Balls To The Wall, ’cause they said, “Who can we get?” I said, “How about Mimi Rogers? She’d be perfect!” “Oh, yeah, and she looks just like Jenna [Dewan]!” So that was kind of perfect. It’s an extremely funny movie. We went and shot it right down the street from me about a year and a half ago, and then Penelope [Spheeris, director] and I tried to find the right guy for the lead, and we found this guy named Joe Hursley, who was perfect. We showed it at the Newport Film Festival, and it got amazing response. I mean, Penelope said, “Not since Wayne’s World have I seen that kind of response.” So she bought the movie from the producers, and she and her producing partner are platform releasing it. So that’s terrific.
AVC: So do you still prefer mixing it up between comedy and drama whenever you can?
CM: Every time I get the chance to do it. Because it just keeps the variety going, and that’s the spice of life, baby! [Laughs.]