Interview Date: 02/16/2010
Run Date: 02/25/2010
More people may know Christopher McDonald for his role as the villainous Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore,” but given that his IMDb listing credits him with having appeared in 83 films and making 58 television appearances as an actor, he can take comfort in the knowledge that plenty of people recognize him for a lot of other projects, too. One of McDonald’s most recent films is the independent comedy “Splinterheads,” and Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with him in connection with its recent DVD release. Naturally, we also asked him about as many of his other past gigs as we possibly could, tackling everything from “Grease 2” to “Requiem for a Dream.” And, boy, is that a lot of territory…
Christopher McDonald: Hey, Will, how are you?
Bullz-Eye: I’m good, sir.
CM: Look, I’m awfully sorry about the mix-up on Friday and not being able to talk to you then, but I’m glad we were able to work something out for today.
BE: No problem at all. So how did you find your way into the cast of “Splinterheads”?
CM: Well, like with a lot of my films, it was a case of where I had the window of opportunity, they came to me, and I thought, “This is a fun movie, and I’d like to give this guy a shot.” And, also, I saw this guy who’s the lead, Thomas Middleditch, and he was just great. A really funny guy.
BE: I thought it was interesting how, in the film, you go from being a crazy ex-boyfriend to being a sympathetic character. It happens when you encounter Lea Thompson.
CM: My old friend Lea Thompson! (Laughs) But, yes, you’re exactly right. His craziness comes out of his passion for this woman, and the frustration that he can’t seem to understand. I’ve been through that in life. A girl who I was madly in love with just broke it off, and I never knew why. All I wanted to know was, “Why? Why?” So that was my whole driving force. I’ve since married and long escaped that pain, but it was still something I could call upon.
BE: Yeah, it was a case where I was thinking, “Well, if he was really crazy, he would have followed her, but…he just seems sad.”
CM: Yeah, he became sad. I respected her wanting to shut me down, but I was going to find out the reason, and I knew deep down inside it was the kid. And, later, I was vindicated. I was right! (Laughs)
BE: Mind you, he does get scary again later when he’s carving up the roast beef.
CM: (Laughs) Yeah, that was a fun day. Doesn’t that look delicious? People actually groaned when I saw the screening in New York. “Ew, you’re not really gonna eat that, are you? That’s so freaking wrong! It’s disgusting!”
BE: Now, be honest: did you enjoy banging Dean Winters’ head into the police car toward the end of the film?
CM: Uh, I did that accidentally on purpose. (Laughs) Sorry, Dean. Sorry, man, but you deserved it. Nah, he’s a really good guy, and… (Laughs) …it was an accident. It really was. It was something I was going for, but the take that it’s in the movie…I think it was the third take…was the one time I actually did bang his head into the car. That was kind of funny. (Laughs)
BE: I know you’ve referred to Lea Thompson as an old friend, but was there anyone else in the cast who you’d worked with before, or were they all new faces for you?
CM: Actually, I worked together with Frankie Faison years ago on…what was that movie called? “The Rich Man’s Wife”? And we had a few scenes together on this, too, so that was nice. I’m a big fan of independent film. It shows what you can do even with a lot of challenges. I mean, they must’ve pulled in every favor in the world in this town. Everybody wants to be in show business, as you know, so people were even donating meals. There was a very nice Italian family down there that took care of us for a couple of nights. It was really good food, and…it makes a big difference when you’re getting fed well. Nobody’s making any big money when they’re doing these things, so it’s basically a labor of love, and you see how people in the community embraced us. It was really nice.
BE: So do young filmmakers regularly approach you and ask you to be in their films?
CM: Yeah, I would have to say it’s… (Hesitates) On the list right now, I’ve got letters of intent for probably four films out there that are just looking to get their financing, and they need a name like me to get the movie going. And if I respond to the material, then that’s one I’ll do. I think actors should act, and if it’s something I haven’t done before, something I can do a new spin on, or something that intrigues me about it… (Trails off) In this case, with the location and the people involved and the part, I thought, “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!”
BE: You’re one of those actors who can flip between comedy and drama. Do you have a preference?
CM: My only preference is not to do too many of the same ones in a row, so if I do a couple of comedies back to back, then it’s time to look really heavily for my next drama. Both of ‘em feed on each other, though, and there’s that happy medium, too. Dramadies can be very effective, because…it’s like life. There’s a lot of humor in life, and if you’re playing it super-real and comedy comes out of that…? That’s a gift.
BE: It’s ironic that, on Friday, when we were originally supposed to have talked, I ended up putting in the first disc of the “Stargate Universe” DVD set to review…and there you were!
CM: Oh, yeah, there I am getting killed! (Laughs) I put that whole thing through Congress, I got all the money for the project, and what happens? We blow up! (Laughs) That’s a very classy production. I’m very, very happy to have been part of that. They asked me to come up and, again, it was good timing. I’ve been a big fan of “Battlestar Galactica,” but I hadn’t really watched the other series. I knew “Stargate” was pretty successful, but I was always just more of a “Battlestar Galactica” guy, and I was amazed at the production values they pulled off in this one. I hope it’s doing well. Do you follow it? Is it doing well?
BE: You know, I know a lot of “Stargate” fans didn’t know what to make of it, because it’s very different from the other series in the franchise.
CM: It is.
BE: But, personally, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s much more of a psychological drama than an action series.
CM: Yeah, it is. And there’s wonderful actors on that. I was really impressed. The girl who plays my daughter (Elyse Levesque) is terrific, and Robert Carlisle is fantastic, so it was really, really lovely to have them pull this together, and how they weren’t sparing any expense and that they were going to make sure it was different but done really well. When I first saw the finished product, I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.
BE: Between “Stargate” and “Star Trek,” you can pretty much coast on the sci-fi convention circuit for the rest of your days.
CM: Exactly. I just have to get on one of those junket things where you go in there, get a few bucks in my pocket, and sign some autographs.
BE: One of my Facebook friends, when I mentioned that I was going to be talking to you, said that you’d always have her love, no matter what you do, simply because you’d been in that one episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”).
CM: Oh, that’s funny. (Laughs) That was a pretty interesting part. I was doing a play at the time. I was doing Biff and Happy in Arthur Miller’s famous play, “Death of a Salesman,” we’d been a big hit and been extended, but I get a call about this one night. And this part…the guy was originally called, like, Manuel Castillo. And I’m, like, “Oh, yeah, sure, send me in for Manuel Castillo. You can’t wipe the Irish off my face, but I’m gonna go in there and do it, anyway…” And I did, and I had a great time. The director (David Carson) went on to be one of the most successful directors on the series, and the episode itself went on to become one of the highest ranked among the fans because there was so much stuff involved. There was the Enterprise-C, Tasha Yar came back…it was a gas.
BE: I wanted to ask you about some other stuff you’ve done, the first being the role of Tappy Tibbons in “Requiem for a Dream.”
CM: Yeah. That was a trippy thing.
BE: My understanding is that your part was predominantly improvised. Is that true?
CM: Yeah. I was only on the movie for three days, and I walked around the city with (director) Darren Aronofsky, and we shot on a rooftop. It was fantastic. We were shooting in Hell’s Kitchen, and then we’d walk on the street, and there was a recognizability factor, but we used it as Tappy, because they didn’t really know my name, but they knew my face. They had good connections with that, so we used that stuff, and we carried that right into the soundstage, where he just cut me loose to play these games. It was really interesting. The stuff that was scripted was being interrupted by the Sarah character, played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn, and then we just kind of kept on playing, walking around, ripping her apart, and doing that stuff. It was a very fun process, and, boy, am I a fan of this guy. He makes great movies.
BE: Were you just astonished when you finally saw the film in its finished version?
CM: Yeah. I saw it at Cannes, in a midnight screening, and I was just blown away. There was an eight-minute standing ovation…at least. Chills went down my spine. I mean, eight minutes is a long time to be standing and clapping. But I looked over at Darren, he was sitting two seats away, and I kept asking, “Are you kidding me?” And he’s going, “Yeah!” And, man, just the look of little-boy glee on his face…
BE: Do you remember any of your choreography from “Grease 2”?
CM: As a matter of fact, I do. (Laughs) That was such a hard part for me to get. I was down to the wire to play Johnny Nogerelli, but Adrian Zmed was so much more…he had that Greek / Italian look. They weren’t gonna cast me. I’m not Italian. So I went to five auditions and came back with nothing. And then they called me that night, after I was crying in my apartment, going, “You think you’re such a tough town, I’ll show you…” And they said, “Come on in tomorrow, we’re gonna do a big thing and we’d like to see you do Goose.” I said, “Great!” I had nothing to do, so I just let ‘er rip. I loved it, ‘cause we danced for…we had probably three and a half weeks of rehearsal, dancing every day. It’s like “Dancing with the Stars,” keeping up with these little athletes who dance all the time. But it was terrific, actually. And, yeah, I bust those moves out from time to time. Gotta show my kids, you know? (Laughs)
BE: Well, as partial as I am to Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore,” I also really loved you as Travis Cole in “Dirty Work.”
CM: Oh, my God. “Dirty Work.” That was pretty funny. They pushed the envelope. Someone who to this day is still a good pal of mine, Bob Saget, directed that, and he goes crazy. “Yeah, have the dog pee in your mouth.” I went, “Really? Seriously?” He says, “Yeah! It’ll be great!” So, y’know, the dog didn’t actually do it. They put it in afterwards. But it was… (Laughs) …it was pretty suggestive.
BE: Another friend of mine, when I mentioned you, said, “Oh, right, he played Thelma’s repulsive hubby in ‘Thelma and Louise.’”
CM: Exactly. Yes, that’s when America first started to love to hate me.
BE: So how does it feel to have a reputation like that?
CM: Well, it’s so different from who I am. I mean, everybody has those facets in them, but… (Laughs) …it’s fun. My favorite thing was when I was driving down the street in my convertible Cadillac, the movie’s just out, and these two girls looked over at me from another car right next to me. And one of them said, “Omigod, it’s that guy from ‘Thelma and Louise’! Omigod!” And the other girl looks over and says, ‘Shoot him!’” (Laughs) And I’m, like, “Oh, great. Super.” Yeah, that movie empowered women all over the world…
BE: One of our editors wanted me to ask you about “The Perfect Storm.” Specifically, he wanted me to ask you how you were able to keep a straight face when you had to deliver the title line, “It could be…the perfect storm.”
CM: “The perfect storm.” (Laughs) That was something I actually had to come in and do additional dialogue recording on, and I must’ve said it…oh, 25 times. While the director was there. Because he wanted to hear it just the right way. So, yeah, that was interesting. I thought I’d said it pretty good on the day when I did it, but I came in and really worked it…and they used the heck out of it, didn’t they? “It could be…the perfect storm.” It was pretty funny. But I was one of the only people in that movie who didn’t really get wet, so that was kind of great.
BE: You were in “The Bronx is Burning” and “61*.” Are you a baseball fan yourself?
CM: Always been a Yankees fan, yeah, so it was thrilling to be able to join “61*” as the voice of the Yankees, Mel Allen, and work with Billy Crystal and his passion for that great team back in the day…and to this day, they’re our reigning champions. And, y’know, it’s always a thrill. Being from New York, it’s either Mets or Yankees, and I always was a Yankees fan, so… (Laughs) …you already have a division line right down the middle. “Oh, you’re one of those, huh?” So it’s kind of funny. Same thing with football. Are you a Jets fan or a Giants fan? I choose the Giants. But, worse yet, I choose the Bills, ‘cause I moved to upstate New York. It’s hard to be a Bills fan right now. It takes true loyalty.
BE: Was it surreal playing DiMaggio?
CM: Well, it was, but in a way…I mean, it was the Mr. Coffee years, so they put all that great gray-hair dye on me. They blew all the budget on John Turturro’s ears, playing Billy Martin. (Laughs) So I thought, “Ah, can’t do the nose, can’t do the space in the teeth…” I was doing Broadway at the time, and I took a couple of days off from playing Billy Flynn in the musical “Chicago” and came up and did the first version. And the director, Jeremiah S. Chechik, is such a great guy. He says, “I don’t know what you do, but it just worked out so well. We saw the dailies. Come on up and do a couple more scenes.” So they added the locker room stuff for me, so that was cool. It was a thrill to play Joe D, to find out more about this man that we all admired. He was a curmudgeonly old man, which was very interesting. “Now, the greatest living ballplayer ever…” That’s how you had to introduce Joe DiMaggio. You can’t just say “Joe DiMaggio, great ballplayer.” No, it has to be “the greatest living ballplayer ever, Joe DiMaggio.” And he stuck to it, which is kind of amazing. And he was really pissed at the “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio” lyric from the Simon & Garfunkel song (“Mrs. Robinson”). (Affects grumpy old man voice) “I’m not dead! What are you talking about?” Joe, Joe, lighten up…
BE: Is it intimidating when you’re playing real people? Because you also did it in “Quiz Show.”
CM: Well, both of them had already passed, so you basically…when you’re doing those things, you’re not going for an impersonation. You do it as close as you can, and then you have to really play the essence of the guy. There’s no way I’m going to look like either of those characters, really. You try, and it helps you at it, but at the end of the day, you have to try and find the essence of the character. And I think it worked pretty well. People who knew Jack Barry, from “Quiz Show,” said, “God, you just got the guy!” He was sort of narcissistic, in a way. He was on the biggest thing at the time. He wanted to be an actor, he was doing these plays on the side, but then this little thing called television became iconic, in a way, and he loved it. The vanity took over. “Yeah, I am pretty cool. All right, that’s pretty interesting.”
BE: You’re in one of my favorite animated films of all time: “The Iron Giant.”
CM: Yes! I knew instantly it was going to be something special when, at the premiere, I was watching my kids, and they were laughing and laughing…and then they would cry! Just these dollops of tears flowing down their faces. And I’m, like, “What movie does that? This is a classic! This is wonderful!” Great message, and really well executed by the brilliant Brad Bird. Everybody was good in that movie.
BE: I know I’m in the home stretch here, but…what’s your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
CM: Wow. Well, I’ve got a few of those. (Laughs) I’d have to say that “The Iron Giant” is one of them. It didn’t get the love at the time, though in hindsight it has. It’s received a lot of attention. I had a couple of really fun series gigs that I loved. The last one I did was called “Cracking Up.” It was me and Molly Shannon, and we were this dysfunctional, seemingly fantastically together family with three perfect kids, but behind closed doors, you find out how crazy their life is. It was created by a brilliant guy named Mike White, and it wasn’t given enough love because of the regime changes. The head of Fox at the time left to become the Master of the Universe over at Paramount for a year, so the new guy that comes on goes, “Uh, yeah, no. Uh-uh. I’m not gonna keep that thing going.” It’s like…things changed so much during the years that one of my favorite shows that Imagine Entertainment did at Fox. The Ron Howard show that I loved so much. “Arrested Development”! Oh, they tried and they tried and they tried, but…I guess ultimately the love wasn’t being found by the audience with that one, so the studio does try once in awhile. But whenever they don’t try, that’s when you feel let down, and this was a great show. But I loved that character, and I loved doing that show. We had all of these terrific guest directors, because Mike White was so connected, so we had Jay Chandrasekhar and Jake Kasdan, all these great guys, and we were just going, like, “Wow, this is fun!” So that’s one of them. And there are a couple of movies that I wish had gotten a little bit more attention, because…I’ve been blessed with really terrific parts, but you think, “One more!” I feel like I’ve been one part away from some kind of real notoriety, award consideration and things like that, for awhile now. Not that it’s anything I really think about it, but I do think about doing the best job I can on a movie and hoping that the movie carries some momentum and kind of takes off. But it’s like dust in the wind. You just never know. Still, I do feel like I’m just one part away from making big noise, so I just keep making ‘em.
BE: Is there a role you’re particularly proud of that you’d like most people to remember you for?
CM: Well, it depends. People like me a lot for “Thelma and Louise,” even though they love to hate me. They like me a lot for my little romantic part that I did in the first 28 pages of “Chances Are,” where I’m opposite Cybill Shepherd and Ryan O’Neal. That was a lot of fun. And there have been a couple of things on cable where I’ve played some interesting sicko characters. But I’ve gotten a lot of people who stop me on the street, and the most verbal thing to this day, even 13 or 14 years later, is “Happy Gilmore.” People love to hate the Shooter. (Laughs) So I’ve either got to do another golf film, which is in the works, or something else that’ll take that one away. But, you know, it’s something that’s going to be there for the rest of my life, I’m sure, because people have watched that movie 60 or 70 times, with their kids, and they all laugh. So that’s cool.
BE: I have to ask about this one little thing I noticed on your IMDb page. You were in “Breakin’.” You were not, however, in “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
CM: Yeah, I’d kinda had enough with the “Breakin’ 1.” (Laughs) So I made myself unavailable for the second one. I feel like I dodged a bullet there, because…it was crazy. They made it for something like 12 cents, and it came out something like two weeks after we finished it, and they made a lot of money. It put Cannon on the map. And it was a fun gig at the time, but I look back it and I think, “Gosh, I wish I could do that over again…”
BE: And, lastly, I just want to let you know that I’m letting you have a full pass for doing “The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning” because if I’d had a chance to be married to Sherilyn Fenn, I would’ve done it, too.
CM: Exactly. (Laughs) She is such a doll. I did a movie with her called “Fatal Instinct,” and what a funny movie that was. And that reminds me of another one that didn’t get enough love: “Superhero Movie.” The Weinstein Brothers tried a different thing with that one: “Let’s not promote it and see what happens!” Uh, yeah, that seemed to not work too well. But I just had too much fun doing that one. It was a crazy spoof. But, yeah, Sherilyn Fenn is a doll, no question about it.
BE: All right, well, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Chris. I’ve been a fan for many years.CM: Thank you, Will, I appreciate it. Take care!