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Interview: John C. McGinley Channels Red Barber in ‘42’

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CHICAGO – John C. McGinley will probably always be known for the classic TV character Dr. Perry Cox on the long-running “Scrubs.” But through his character actor career, he has taken on a variety of roles, including the portrayal of Red Barber, the play-by-play man for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the recent film “42.”

McGinley plays an integral part in that Jackie Robinson story, as Red Barber was the man announcing the history as it happened in 1947, the year that Robinson broke the color line in baseball. McGinley took meticulous care in recreating “The Ol’ Redhead” (as Barber was nicknamed), inflecting the character with a perfect imitation of the announcer’s unique style, which was both nostalgic and in the present context of the Robinson story.

John C. McGinley
Calling History: John C. McGinley as Red Barber in ’42’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

John C. McGinley has proved time and again that he is much more than Dr. Cox of “Scrubs,” even as his portrayal of that role was so indelible. He was born in New York City, and eventually studied acting at Syracuse and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 1984, he was working as an understudy to John Turturro on stage in New York, when a casting scout for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” put him in that film. McGinley went on to do supporting character parts in films such as “Wall Street” (1987), “Point Break” (1991), “Wagon’s East” (1994), “The Rock” (1996) and “Office Space” (1999), before taking on “Scrubs” in 2001.

HollywoodChicago.com had the opportunity to speak with John C. McGinley on his role in “42,” and the wealth of his experience in show business, including his recent turn on the Broadway stage opposite Al Pacino in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you are also portraying a Hall of Famer in ’42,’ what did you – in collaboration with writer/director Brian Helgeland – want to get right about how Red Barber called a game?

John C. McGinley: His rhythm and cadence was very strange. This was a guy who was born in Mississippi, grew up in Florida, is hired by the Cincinnati Reds to go call their games for five years, and then goes to Brooklyn to announce their games. In a similar way when a friend moves to London for about five years and they have that phony-baloney London accent, our ear is imprinted in the regions we’re submersed in, and so it was with Red Barber. There is a little Mississippi in his cadence, but not the country bumpkin type. There is a little Florida in there, and even Cincinnati imprinted him in some way.

When in Brooklyn, he wasn’t a ‘dem’s and dose’ guy, but all those combined accents yielded a very strange rhythm and cadence, and I couldn’t get it at first. So I just lived with these disks of Barber calling the games that Brian Helgeland had given me, and I stayed with them for four or five weeks, and started to talk back to Red in his voice while he was doing those broadcasts. When I got him in my ear, and then in my speech, I could do what Brian had written.

HollywoodChicago.com: Were you able to bring anything to Barber that wasn’t in the script?

McGinley: As I was doing my homework, Brian told me if I could find anything in Red’s autobiography, or in the disks of his broadcasts, and bring it to the film. There isn’t one syllable from the film that wasn’t originally from Red’s mouth, which was liberating in a way, because I’d never played a historically real person before. The mandate there was for the Brooklyn fanatics – they are an aging demographic – and they hold Barber’s sound so dear, that to trespass upon it in a way that doesn’t elevate it to their recollection would have been a profound mistake.

HollywoodChicago.com: In your research of Barber’s unique style, which game call was your favorite? Was it specific to a situation or just a general regular ball game?

McGinley: I listened to about a dozen World Series games that he broadcast, so I didn’t have a favorite. I started reading his autobiography out loud in his voice. I just wanted to be able to be so nimble that whatever Brian brought me, I could go right into it.

HollywoodChicago.com: The legacy of Jackie Robinson, and the complexity of the situation, was told with more forthright honesty than previous biographies. Do you think it helps race relations to expose blatant scenes of bigotry, as was emphasized by the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman?

John C. McGinley
McGinley as Dr. Perry Cox in ‘Scrubs’
Photo credit: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

McGinley: Of course, and if the film had been rated ‘R,’ it would have been even harsher and more astonishing. But I think where the film distinguishes itself is what Brian did with Chadwick [Boseman, who portrayed Robinson], and what Chadwick did with Jackie – in showing Jackie’s response to the conflict thrust upon him, which was restraint.

Most adult males, when confronted with conflict, restraint is not our go-to reaction. It’s just not. There is a gesture, or physicality, or a verbal response, there are a myriad of different options which usually involves our hands, or creating separation, or engaging. Those are all active-aggressive verbs. Jackie had to restraint himself, and that was the mandate that we saw Branch Rickey [Brooklyn Dodger general manager, portrayed by Harrison Ford] give him. By all accounts, that was opposite to who Jackie was, yet he did it. How did he do it? I don’t know.

HollywoodChicago.com: What element of living in 1947 do you personally think you would have enjoyed the most?

McGinley: I remember reading David Halberstam’s book about the Yankees, ‘Summer of ’49,’ which happened a few years after the Robinson breakthrough. They played mostly day games in New York then, and at night everyone went to Toots Shor’s Restaurant and the 21 Club. It just seems like Manhattan, and what was going on there, must have been a gas. It was just spawning so much stuff, with guys coming back from a war they won, and everything was popping creatively and financially. I would have loved to be there in 1947.

HollywoodChicago.com: What irritated the young actors the most while you were on set of ‘Platoon,’ regarding Oliver Stone’s obsession with authenticity in that circumstance?

McGinley: Because Oliver had to be so facile on the day of shooting, because everything was happening in the jungles where we were, he called all 27 actors to the set every day. It was two hour bus ride each way. So all 27 of us were out there, but we a lot a times we just sat there all day.

And so finally Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp and I went up to Oliver and asked him if we could have a call sheet that would tell us the days we absolutely needed to be there, so if we’re not used we don’t have to be there. This was about half way through the shoot. Oliver said yes, he’d do that for us.

HollywoodChicago.com: So how did you guys react to that turn of events?

McGinley: Cut to two weeks later, all three of us were sitting poolside at a resort that ex-Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had built for visiting dignitaries. We were sitting there, and we all had the same epiphany at the same time. It was nice having a Mai Tai and hanging out, but we’re halfway around the world – lonely, grumpy and wildly underpaid – and we were not in the film, we’re at the pool. If we were on set, Oliver might pluck us out and put us in the scene. But he wouldn’t do that if we were at the pool. So we went back to the set. Whatever demands Oliver was putting on us didn’t matter, we still wanted to be in the movie.

HollywoodChicago.com: You were on the set of the infamous ‘Wagon’s East.’ Can you describe the moment the cast found out that John Candy had died, and what was the general atmosphere around the set regarding what the movie would be?

McGinley: John Candy is one of the great people I’ve ever met in my life, and we worked until 2am the night it happened. In a case like that, actors are given twelve hours until they have to be on set again, which is the ‘turnaround.’ If you’re brought back in less than 12 hours, that’s a ‘forced call.’ So the next morning, there was a forced call about 8am. I arrived at the set, and word started trickling out, through everybody there, that John had passed away.

We shut down for a couple days, because everyone was just destroyed. John was only 44 years old, and he was a stunning human being. What did we think the film would be? The film was a bit cursed with John’s passing, and then the Northridge (California) earthquake happened – this is where most of us lived – while we were filming in Durango, Mexico.

HollywoodChicago.com: So you were stuck there?

McGinley: Durango, Mexico, is where I lived for four months doing ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’ and four months for ‘Wagon’s East.’ Durango is to Mexico what the Mos Eisely space station is to ‘Star Wars.’ It is the epicenter of vim and villainy, [laughs] and I had to be there for eight months of my life.

The first time I was there for ‘Fat Man and Little Boy,’ the hotel was a converted prison called the ‘El Presidente.’ When I got there to do ‘Wagon’s East,’ it had been demoted to the ‘El Gubernador.’ That was a indicator of things to come.

HollywoodChicago.com: You had the privilege of being on that long running TV series. In what season, in your opinion, does the law of diminishing returns begin to apply to a long-running series, and how do you think ‘Scrubs’ either capitulated to it or avoided it?

John C. McGinley
John C. McGinley in Chicago, April 16, 2013
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

McGinley: I thought around Season Six the writers got a bit off track, and they lost the voices of a couple of characters. But then, Season Seven was astonishing, they recommitted to the creative vision and the authentic arc of the characters on the show. These were all skilled actors on that show, and all the writers came from the Harvard Lampoon, just studs in comedy – both men and women. They got back on track. I wanted the show to continue, even when we changed formats in the last season. I wish we were still doing it. I loved playing that character so much.

HollywoodChicago.com: You just ended a run in the stage play ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ on Broadway. What did you learn about the craft of acting, your fellow performers and yourself while doing a run with that play?

McGinley: Doing Glengarry was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life. Because I was so scared, I got the play last August, and went to New York City the second week of September to start rehearsal. I hired a kid from Chicago, a young actor, to spend six days a week – two times during the day – just running the play before rehearsal started. It was born out of fear, but it yielded huge dividends.

The director in a Broadway play is not unlike the mythical story of the Danish boy putting his fingers in the dyke, plugging the holes. Unless you’re a problem, or the play is bleeding, you just don’t get much attention. The attention in the rehearsal process of Glengarry was elsewhere, and if I hadn’t been that ready to go it would have been terrifying.

HollywoodChicago.com: What was the result of all that?

McGinley: I was with the great actor Richard Schiff in that first act, and he was from heaven. Richard and I would go on every night, and our scene was seventeen minutes. It was as good as a net volley at Wimbleton, in which the ball can’t touch the ground, and the impetus is just on the volley. When you elevate David Mamet’s writing like Richard did, and I tried to, the play itself does all the heavy lifting. And that’s what was really interesting, to see how from the rehearsal process through getting in front of 1200 people a night, how Mamet’s words does much of the work for you, once you elevate to the text. I will do the play again.

HollywoodChicago.com: We were born 8 months apart. What do you think our generation, born in the early 1960s, has as its greatest challenge?

McGinley: I think our challenge is not to be too cynical. Events like 9/11 and what happened in Boston shakes our cynicism to the core. It’s the trap of feeling like we’ve been there, done it and seen it. Well, we haven’t. We need to continue to exercise compassion, because everything is going so fast that we lose that sense of compassion. Whether it’s about the special needs community, gay people who want to get married or the immigration issue, when we lose our sense of compassion, we’ve completely lost our way.

“42” is still in theaters. Featuring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk and John C. McGinley. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2013 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Mr. Leland's picture

Juicy

Love the inside stuff, very informative. It would be great to see Glengarry, especially with Pacino.

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