by Matthew Vasiliauskas
An interview with Lance Reddick and Michael McGlone
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It’s no secret that Abraham Lincoln was an avid theater-goer, and especially admired the works of William Shakespeare. What is more of an unknown fact though, is a chance encounter President Lincoln had with John Wilkes Booth prior to the infamous assassination incident.
On November 9, 1863, President Lincoln saw Booth playing Raphael in Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. At one point during the performance, Booth shook his finger in Lincoln’s direction as he delivered a line of dialogue. Later, Lincoln requested to meet the actor after the play, but Booth refused.
Ironically, Lincoln sat in the same presidential box he would later be killed in.
The relationship between actor and audience member is sort of an emotional conundrum. Depending on the mood and attitude of both the performer and the spectator, the piece being presented can either be lifted on a pedestal or crack and shatter into a million pieces.
It’s all about interpretation. What was it about Booth’s finger shaking that intrigued Lincoln so much? It is gestures such as these, great or small, that allow the imagination to run rampant.
Every performance is a risk, and whether it’s the sweat dripping from the heroine’s forehead, or the spec of saliva resting on a child’s lips, the tension and unexpectedness of a piece can scarcely be matched by even the most exhilarating of activities.
Lance Reddick: “I played Marc Antony at the Guthrie about six years ago. One night somebody asked me how do you feel? And I said, I’m scared. They said really? And I thought about it, and I said I’m scared every night. I’m not saying I’m always scared when I go on stage, It’s really easy. It’s not like, I can’t wait to get out there and feel the crowd. It’s like, oh fuck the crowd.”
Currently shacked up in a cozy suite at the Hotel Burnham, a nostalgic time warp to the early twentieth century, I sit across from Lance Reddick and Michael McGlone, stars of the upcoming film Dirty Work.
Taking place in Chicago, the film revolves around several characters connected through political, domestic and professional relationships with the mob.
Reddick plays Detective Manning. A single parent whose gambling addiction has made him in debt to a crime boss, and forced him to choose between self gratification and the overall well-being of his clients and love ones.
McGlone on the other hand plays Assistant State Attorney Frank Sullivan. With pressure mounting from his current political campaign, as well as a substantial marital crisis, Sullivan soon finds himself submersed in the world he fought so hard to demolish.
As we lounge calmly in our chairs, the two men talk excitedly about their experiences working on the project, including its origins and eventually production.
LR: “Actually we shot this film in February of 2004, and that January I was in Sundance with a film I had done. I met a woman there and we became friends, and we were on the phone a few weeks after the festival and she said a friend of mine is producing this movie and do you want to take a look at it? The lead in this script. So I said, well, sure. So they sent me the script, I read it and I liked it.”
Michael McGlone: “Lance was already involved when it came to me. I received a script through my agent. They had the role of this emerging politician of Irish dissent in Chicago. And I looked at the script, and found it exceptionally written. The storylines all were fully fleshed and realized, and I said okay, let’s do it.”
The essence and spirit of a character is certainly vital to the performance. In Dirty Work, both characters suffer significant emotional and physical strains. It is through the actor’s participation and dedication to the exploration of the individual’s psyche, that a meaningful rendering of that character can be captured.
MM: “Any character that is written well is going to be attractive to me. As far as playing Frank Sullivan, a young Irish-American, that is a culture I’m very much in touch with. I’m a young Irish-American from the Northeast. And his process of advancing his career, while at the same time repressing his truer personal impulses I found to be a marvelous contradiction. That was very compelling to play. Because he has this emerging success in one area, and this gathering failure in the personal area. And I thought that was a very compelling combination of qualities.”
LR: “Well with my character it was once again the complexity of the character. That’s what always makes a character interesting. And that’s always what makes it interesting to play, and what makes it a challenge to play. So the fact that he’s a single father, and at the same time, just being a single father is hard enough, being a single father and a homicide detective, because homicide detectives, I’ve played so many cops that I have some idea of what that lifestyle is like. And the hours are horrendous. So you put those two things together and that’s hard enough, but then you’re dealing with someone who is a single parent, a homicide detective, and he’s got a gambling addiction and is in debt to the mob.”
“Usually what I find most interesting about people is the dark side. But with this guy, I found what was most interesting was the light trying to get out.”
Besides the actors themselves, it is also the job of the director to utilize certain framing and photographic devices to help illustrate either the progression or declination of both the protagonist and the antagonist. In Dirty Work, the constant motif of mirrors allows for the audience to witness an often distorted and unrealistic view of the characters. It is through these physical objects, that a window into the player’s subconscious can be opened.
LR: “It’s really great to work with a director who has a duel capability of knowing how to work with actors and frame something visually. My experience with human beings is that we tend to favor a modality the way we take in information and the way we create. And so to have someone who actually has a sense of drama, which is kind of a kinesthetic thing. And at the same time knows how to frame it, so it looks dramatic as well. And he really was an actor’s director.”
MM: “The final scene with my character, he is gazing out a window on Chicago, with his success of being elected, is in a sense his new field of conquest. And this future as vivified by this city out the window sees also in it this somewhat distorted and darkened reflection of Frank Sullivan.”
In order to obtain a gratifying portrayal, an actor must immerse themselves in some activity which allows them to feel the pains and triumphs of the character. The roles of Detective Manning and Frank Sullivan are no exception. And with the decisions and actions of the individuals encountering obstacles, the actors behind the roles resort to a variety of means in order to accomplish the needed performance.
MM: “For me it has varied. In the past when I have played a detective, there was one film when I actually met other detectives, went into a precinct to see what their routine was like, what the actual job entailed; personally and professionally. And even crossed paths with some emergency unit officers. And really fleshed out an idea and feeling for what that was. As far as Frank Sullivan, the experience I’ve had with municipal and state politicians has been somewhat objective. Not in the trenches, but for what encounters I’ve had with them, for what I’ve witnessed in both real life and the fictional portrayals assisted a great deal of what later became realized.”
LR: “For me, it usually boils down to the script. I have done some research sometimes, and I hate to say it, but usually the way my life is. Because I’m divorced, I’m also a single parent. So, I don’t have time to do a lot of research. So, I really immerse myself in the script, and if I have questions about the character or how something needs to be done then I will do it. With this because I’ve played so many cops and talked to so many cops, I didn’t have to do that much research as far as being a police officer. The other thing about this particular character, the story was about him being a cop. I felt his being a cop was more incidental to the story. It was really about him just trying to survive. I feel like he’s always trying to make a choice between do I do what is expedient and just survive, or do I do what is right? And you never know which choice he’s going to make.”
(To Mike) “Because I feel with your character it’s almost the opposite. You’re basically do the right thing, until suddenly it doesn’t’.”
MM: “Which is a wonderful symbiosis for the film. You see that Lance’s character is of that one disposition, where he’s constantly confronting the fact that okay I’ve made these compromise decisions in the past, am I going to do it again? And the other character, my character, I’ve always tried to live this upright and very legal citizenship in the society, and something happens which explodes within him all of this desire to not think so much about the right and wrong, and just express oneself. And it’s marvelous to see that one being challenged in one way is a reflection in the opposite of how the other comes to the same conflict.”
“So much of that, and it wasn’t even an illegal issue, but rather a situation of personal repression. The choice of am I going to express myself or not? I’m going to listen to this person, and though it is potentially painful to me or against my own instinct, I am going to be malleable to their will. And this is all semi-conscious. When people are making all these decisions that are so emotional, it no longer becomes this conscious operation, but this semi-conscious and sometimes even unconscious expression of obedience and potentially rebellion against the same.”
Besides acting, both Lance and Mike are very much involved with recording and performing music. One has to wonder what it is about performance that motivates people, and what is the real attraction to putting oneself in the center of the stage?
LR: “Well it’s funny, because actually I’m not crazy about performing. I’m at the tail end of finishing my first album now. It really started as a song-writing demo. Ironically, many years ago when I was a musician before I became an actor, I wanted to be a rock star. And now I don’t really care. I just want to write music and make money. But I felt that the best way for me to get into it was to perform, and use my acting as a way of helping my recording career and then from my recording career develop a song-writing career. And the other thing is that, I feel like as a stage actor, even though I haven’t done it in years, that was my training, so I’m very good at it. “
MM: “For me I will tell you that, from the time of my earliest consciousness my earliest exposure to the world it was clear I desired a great deal of attention. All children do of course, but myself at times to an unreasonable degree. And that has colored my life throughout. And I have applied it to numerous outlets that are all very natural to me: in performing on stage with my music, in performing on stage with a musical, in performing on stage in a straight play or in a film. And while I do crave it and love it, at the same time another fashion of expression which for me is very private and solitary, my song writing and my prose writing, my short stories and novels. That is a very solitary process. And I crave and love that as much. In the end, I will always want to express and bring it to the world. But there is something that is my fashion dichotomous in the sense that well that will always be the end result that I will look forward to, the process of creation the solitude is cherished as well.”
It is as well through the inspiration of other artists and mediums that a performer can absorb the needed qualities to unleash upon the expectant audience. Like a sower in a field, the actor takes in the seeds of insight and intrigue, and distributes them back into the form. Creating in turn a new growth of sorts.
MM: “Anything that I have found good, has inspired and influenced me. Because you take it from everywhere. And someone expresses themselves in a certain way that touches you, or with a certain excellence even if it’s not something you personally associate with, they’ve expressed it so profoundly and so well that you have this process of enjoyment and learning in the same event.”
“But to particularize, I would say they are numerous actors and writers. Some from the old school, Richard Burton, I love. And more contemporarily Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, you know these are marvelous talents. And writers as well. William Kennedy is a marvelous Irish-American author; John Irving; we were just talking about how William Manchester is a marvelous historian. Lance and I have similar interests in literature. And music.”
“Marvin Gaye was playing in the hotel room when I came in last night. And I’m listening to that, the bellman standing there with me, I’m saying I come into a room with Marvin playing, this is dynamite. This is a welcome mat of a marvelous kind.”
LR: “Musically speaking, the person who’s had the most profound affect on me has been Sting as a songwriter. And I feel I’ve really learned to write lyrics by studying his songs.
“And the weird thing is, is that I’ve never really been much of a visual person, but it seems as if almost every girlfriend I’ve had has been an artist. And recently I’ve been getting into art. So I’ve been looking at Picasso, Da Vinci, Michelangelo. I think the thing that really amazes me about great artists is the way they’re able to cross-pollinate ideas. So, just as an example, unfortunately this is an example of myself. I’m not trying to say I’m a genius, but I grew up studying classical music and that’s what I trained as in college. The way I learned to approach practicing the piano, I used when I learned my lines. My first year in drama school, at the end of our first semester, my class was directed by our drama teacher. And one of the things he said when he was directing us was that he made a distinction between rhythm and pace. And I never forgot that. And it was very easy for me to get because I’m a musician. And I became very aware of it my second year when we began studying Shakespeare. Now in film work I’m really aware of it. Especially because earlier in my career, when I was learning to act on film, because I have a tendency to obsessively learn lines, I had a tendency to talk too fast. So being a piano player and having been an athlete, really factored and aided in the acting process.”
MM: “Music could potentially be more central than any other art form. With no dishonor towards any other art form. But because it bridges potentially all barriers of language and sight. Anyone can access the music, despite the barrier of language or actually being in a place to see something more physically. And it crosses so many boundaries. “
Besides the inspiration of particular individuals, there is also the connection shared within past projects and performances. Lance and Mike have been involved in a substantial amount of roles, which have allowed them to take their past experiences and apply them to their current being.
LR: “For me there were two. One was a role and the other was an experience. The first was where I did this episode of Law and Order where I played this guy from Sierra Leone. On screen it may have been the favorite role I’ve had. I auditioned on Thursday, they started shooting the following Wednesday and I didn’t hear anything until Monday afternoon, because they kept trying to cast someone African. And they couldn’t find what they were looking for. So they cast me a day and a half before they’re supposed to start shooting. So I’m running downtown to the Sierra Leone mission with my tape recorder trying to tape someone for their accent. In some ways I feel that it’s my best work. It’s a kind of dream role. The other was, I got the opportunity to work with Jon Voight, who is one of my top five favorite actors of all time. And it was in this obscure, little Showtime movie. He was the lead, and I had one scene. It was a long scene. It was almost five minutes long. And the scene’s a pivotal one because his character is an attorney who’s basically an intricate part of the core politics of Chicago. And it’s in the scene with me where he decides to do the right thing. I got spend a whole day with Jon Voight. And just a star that great, but an artist that great as well. To talk to him about the work, and about family, marriage and kids was great.”
MM: “One is the experience of discovering what would become my first film, which was The Brothers McMullen. I was a young actor starting out in New York, I had just left college and here I was getting fired from restaurants and looking backstage which is the most substantial trades for actors in New York. And throwing headshots this way and that to see if something would stick, and I could find myself an opportunity. And one day I saw an ad in the backstage for a low-budget feature film that was the story of three Irish-American brothers. I come from a family of three Irish-American brothers. And so I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking god, I have to submit a photograph. And it is something very fortunate that I looked in the paper that day, because I had gone through a period in the past month where I was just focused on my writing and not submitting the headshots and taking a relative break from that. And for some reason I pick up the paper this week and there is this opportunity. So I send in the picture, and don’t here for about a month and a half and I thought all right, that’s that. Then I did hear, and I sat down to read three or four scenes of the youngest of the three Irish-American brothers. His name is Patrick. My younger brother who is the third born Irish boy in the family is named Patrick. And I’m looking at this the youngest of three, with this very typical Irish, Catholic guilt and conflict, and I’m thinking this is like going home. And it was well written. And Eddie Burns, the writer/director, sitting across from me reminds me of my older brother Joe. So this just felt so real, so natural that you thank God for an opportunity like that. And we made this film on such a low budget, and it later went to Sundance and won Sundance and ended up being this career starter.”
Lance and Mike continue to work hard not only in their professional life, but in their personal lives as well. And though they have all ready accomplished so many admirable endeavors, they continue to pursue their goals full force, and hope to achieve the wants and desires which tug at their heart and mind.
LR: “As an actor, I want to hit it as a movie star before I get out. And I’d like to make a lot of money. I’d like to be an accomplished songwriter. But my dream with that, is that I want to write a musical. I want to write a hit Broadway musical.
“And this sounds crazy, but I feel like I’m running out of time, but someday I’d like to quit all this and go back to school and teach. Teach high school.”
MM: “For me, it is to continue doing everything I’m doing now. To greater exposure and greater volume all the time in songwriting, prose writing and performing. What motivates me is that. The continuum of my expression. It is what I am. And the vital central motivation in my life.”
Matthew Vasiliauskas is a critic and writer living in Chicago.
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