In nearly all of his roles, John C. McGinley seems deadly serious. From Platoon to Office Space to his most famous character, Dr. Cox on Scrubs, McGinley may need to play the no-nonsense type. The “you’re fired” type. The “don’t F with me” type. And it’s probably because of how serious he is on camera that he’s always been able to get some of the biggest laughs.
Quite unexpected from a career in the ‘80s and ‘90s that included numerous Oliver Stone films, Point Break, Se7en, and The Rock, McGinley is also going to go down as “the comedic type” thanks to his ongoing pursuit of projects that deal with hilarity almost as much as they deal with pain. In his latest serious-guy-in-a-comedy chapter, McGinley plays the titular Stanley Miller in Stan Against Evil, a show written and created by Dana Gould about a sheriff battling witches and demons in New Hampshire. McGinley also serves as a producer on the show, which premieres its second season on IFC tonight.
You’re heavily involved with the production process on Stan Against Evil, a show where the tone is so distinct, so when you were going into season 2 of the show did you want to try and make any changes to that tone or make sure it stayed just as it was?
Keep the tone exactly the same. One of the takeaways from season 1 was that we were gonna start flying in the actors even though the budget didn’t allow it. We’d somehow wring water out of a stone to fly in the guest stars we want, instead of compromising. The talent pool in Atlanta is good but it ain’t New York or Los Angeles, man. There were three different opportunities – one was David Koechner, then Jeffrey Combs, and then Steven Ogg. It just yielded profound dividends. Because Dana (Gould) writes these stories, but unless the actors can play his notes – which are really sophisticated notes, glib and sardonic, hard notes to play – the scene’s gonna fall flat and then we’ll cut the scene out and that would be a shame. And lesson two from season 1 was Deborah Baker Jr., where she flourishes as the female Jonathan Winters of her generation – let her flourish. If you just wanna give her two forks in the kitchen then let her be alone and create a whole scene with two forks on a counter. Let her do it and it’ll be the funniest scene in the show. Those were two central things integrated into the landscape of the show this season, and the show is better for it.
You’ve done exceptionally varied types of projects in terms of genre and tone. Do you change your approach at all if it’s a comedy or a drama?
The first thing that I asked Dana when he came and brought this piece out here two years ago was I wanted to explore Stan’s loss. I wanted to explore the damages of this guy’s injuries. His wife of 27 years has died and he just got fired from his job. So my question is, “What’s grounding this guy? Why doesn’t he just disappear?” Just like how with Archie Bunker we forgive his transgressions because of Edith, I wanted to know how we reconcile Stan. For me it was through Claire, his now-dead wife, and that sparked with Dana, and I knew we were off to the races. Without sounding arrogant, I can do the comedy stuff. If you put it on the page, I can turn a joke. I did it for 182 episodes of Scrubs and Office Space, and I have the equipment to do that. So what? What’s the hook for me to relocate to Atlanta and go do your piece? And the answer is to explore this Stan’s wounds. That’s more interesting to me.
Is loss something that you have to dig for and create when doing this role or is it readily available?
Oh no, that’s from the John McGinley library. I don’t have to dig for that. That’s immediately accessible.
You seem to me like an actor who knows exactly who he is and is hyper self-aware, which really helps when choosing roles and projects. How important is it for an actor to know themselves and their persona?
I read this interview with John Malkovich once where he said he was distinguishing his school of acting from what was then a relevant and vibrant sort of Robert De Niro school of acting. Whereas De Niro and that group wanted to submerse themselves in the character and become the character, John distinguished his approach as letting the characters become him. There’s nobody he knows better and there’s a compressed period of time that’s all about compromise. Whether the 10k light goes out that day or an actor isn’t ready in makeup, whatever the casualty of the schedule is, he can reference the pool of himself and what he’s familiar with. I’m from John’s school. I invite the characters to become me, and it’s a huge difference. I’m not saying one is better than the other, it’s just that if you have the spine to go, “Yeah, you become me,” then the camera will suffer the lie and it won’t expose the lie. If everything is a lie in front of the camera, you want to reduce the depth of the lie. How can we reduce how egregious that lie is? How can we make it a fib? And the way we can do that is that Stan is me.
Platoon is certainly a film with a lot of great actors in it, including yourself, but was filmed during a very tense and dangerous time in the Philippines. Did you guys keep the comic relief going somehow or was it very serious on set?
There’s a Platoon documentary coming out that my friend Paul Sanchez, who played the medic in it, has been working on for two years. It’s just interviews with everybody and when you see it you’re gonna die. It was a lot of gallows humor over in the Philippines, because it was kind of us against the world. Fuck, there was a revolution that happened a couple of weeks before we got there. We were postponed for six months because Marcos wouldn’t leave. There were 11-year-olds walking around with AK-47s. It was an incredibly dangerous place. Manila was really dangerous. Little kids with AKs, and I do mean little kids. Yeah, Johnny Depp and I better take care of each other.
That sounds intense.
It was intense and that’s what I mean. The camera, because you carried that, when somebody called “action” that intensity was all over you, then you reduced the depth of the lie. Those soldiers were in desperate straits in Oliver’s film. The actors felt the same way. They weren’t lying, it was their truth.
That was so early in your career. How did those experiences set the tone for how you approach every project since?
Well, I said this in the documentary and I’ll say it to you. A lot of people don’t get to be a part of greatness, and in that ensemble, for those four months, we got to be a part of something that was great. You don’t know if that’s ever going to come up again, and you can say Office Space is great or other things were great, but Platoon was great. So if you can clock that and put it in your memory bank and reference greatness from time to time, I think it’ll give you a map on how to avoid mediocrity. If you’re lucky enough to have been exposed to greatness or been a part of it, that’s a gift. I think it should be used as a reference tool, and I have, a lot.
Speaking of Office Space, that was also a project, like with Stan Against Evil and giving Deborah Baker and Janet Varney plenty of room to improvise and create their characters, in which you were given a lot of creative freedom with “the Bobs,” right?
Absolutely. On the page the Bobs were glorified extras. But Mike Judge assured me – and he was good to his word – that we’d be able to explore that as much as we wanted once we got down to Austin. So I rolled the dice and it came out great. But if you read the script, the Bobs were hardly on the page. Hardly. There’s a couple of interviews and that’s it. Then we go to Austin and Mike was like “Okay, let’s explore.” Which is never the case, ever. Everybody tells you that and you get to the set and nothing happens. Mike was good to his word and it totally works all these years later. Also, Jennifer Aniston is great in that film. Underrated. Completely leaves herself alone and she’s absolutely fabulous in it. I don’t even know her, but she’s great in that film.
You were in another comedy this year, Battle of the Sexes. What was that like, and what drew you to that project?
I just thought that the directors of that and Steve Carell were people I wanted to be with, so that felt like wanting to participate in a process. I didn’t do much in that film other than support Steve, who I think is a profoundly underrated actor, and I wanted to be part of that film. You gotta check your ego at the door and go play a little bit. I know a lot of my friends who’d say, “That’s too small a part.” Who cares? What, you got something better to do than that? You gotta watch SportsCenter? Who cares?
Finally, and this is way off the beaten path, but what memories do you have of being on American Gladiators in the ‘90s?
Rehearsal was a Friday, and that Friday was the same day that O.J.’s white Bronco was driving around Los Angeles. So you were allowed to go to Universal and rehearse all day Friday, and then I couldn’t fucking get home to watch the Knicks-Rockets finals where the Knicks lost because Johnny Starks couldn’t hit a three, and I couldn’t frickin’ get home. Because everything was all “white Bronco.” Then the next day I went, and I beat somebody, but Dean Cain kicked my ass because he was an All-American defensive back at Princeton. A great athlete and an even better guy. But I got $15,000 and I needed $15,000, I was fucking broke. That $15k was sweet, man.
Photo by Kim Simms/IFC.