A lifelong baseball fan, beloved actor John C. McGinley was already extremely familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson before signing on to appear in the big screen version of his life story 42 (in cinemas this Friday). One of the greatest baseball players of all time, Robinson wasn’t only the first black man to crack through the race barrier of major league American baseball (after a brief stint with the Brooklyn Dodger farm club in Montreal, that is), but he remains to this day the only person to run the bases that has seen his number retired across the league.
McGinley is probably best known for his character work in numerous outings with his favourite director Oliver Stone, such films as Office Space, Seven, and The Rock, or as the cantankerous but big hearted Dr. Cox from TV’s Scrubs, but when given the role of real life announcer for The Bums, Red Barber, it was a chance he could pass up. Given the iconography behind one of the most famous sports announcers of all time, it was a small, challenging, and pivotal role in shaping the history of a true American legend. The fact that the film comes courtesy of Oscar winning writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) was simply icing on the cake. He finds himself surrounded by a lot of other heavy hitters in significant roles, like Harrison Ford as Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni as team manager Leo Durocher, Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia Phillies skipper Ben Chapman, Lucas Black as shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and, of course, Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.
In a Yorkville hotel room in Toronto – on the day of the home opener for the Blue Jays, no less – we talked to McGinley about the complexities of playing a sports announcer, the difference between a performance and an impression, and the lengths that his director went to in order to aid his performance.
Dork Shelf: It’s interesting that you’re playing someone like Red Barber because I’ve read that you’re someone who when they get a script likes to go over lines again and again to make sure you know the script inside and out. But this is a person that’s so iconic in his industry and who has had their entire life’s work recorded and chronicled since he started. There’s such a wealth of things that you could dive into and he’s come up with some of the most iconic catchphrases in all of sports. Where, as someone who likes baseball and who gets a role that he likes as much as this one, do you start?
John C. McGinley: First of all, like anything , it starts with what’s on the page. What Brian put on the page was really fleshed out and whole. It was already there. The day that you get offered the role – after auditioning for it, not handed to you because a lot of people wanted to play Red Barber because it’s such a delicious character that comes in during the third act – you also get handed by a guy who won an Academy Award for L.A. Confidential the script and he says “Here are three CDs of three different World Series that Red and Mel Allen did. I don’t have the time to go through them and cherry pick anything you can out of there and his autobiography and bring all your homework to me and we’ll out it in the film.”
Most actors want to feel a sense of collaboration when they’re doing a play or a film. It’s not always the case. Sometimes you just have to hit your mark, say your lines, and go home. And that’s fine, but when someone like Brian Helgeland, or Oliver Stone, or Roland Joffe, or Kathryn Bigelow gives you a sense that you’re collaborating on something, it makes you want to run through a wall for them. So for Brian Helgeland, who has a statue for writing these things, says “Please help me to bring this character off the page into real life and let’s keep it real and not do any improvisation,” – which I can do in my sleep – “but let’s remember that it’s a real character and not a work of fiction.” The Brooklyn faithful and the Dodger fans – and not the Los Angeles Dodger fans – who are still alive hold Red Barber so dearly to their hearts that to not elevate to Red Barber and not respect him and capture his cadence and his rhythms would be a huge mistake. It would be a huge hole in the film, and I wanted to be the antithesis of that. I wanted you to not necessarily close your eyes and think I’m Red Barber because that’s impossible, but I wanted him to be so integrated into the fabric of the film that Red Barber was doing the game and that it was just a shrug to him.
DS: That was one of the things I noticed immediately about the film and that I found most interesting about your work in it because I think when a lot of people get offered a role like this there would be a temptation to do a straight impression of the person you’re playing. You keep the cadence, which is the biggest part of Red, but you never make the mistake of aping him outright.
JCM: I know what you mean, and while you were saying that, and the best case of when I saw what you were getting at was what Anthony Hopkins did with Oliver’s film Nixon. You know, you could have made the same track. Not that Dick Nixon and Red Barber are the same, but in certain populations they are iconic, and both have eccentricities that can be blown out of proportion, and so I thought what Hopkins did was interesting because he was Nixon. He didn’t do any of the goofy stuff that impressionists did when we were growing up. He played Richard Nixon, he didn’t play AT him. And I wanted to play Red Barber. So given the volumes, as you were suggesting because his life is recorded for the world to pour over and enjoy in their own way even outside of research and historical purposes, even just of these three CDs of about 16 games that I had and you add a bit of OCD on the part of the actor and about a month of time to prepare for it, that was heaven for me. That’s nirvana.
DS: It’s also not the first time that you’re played a sports reporter before because you played one in Any Given Sunday, which is a very different role and energy from Red Barber, and I found it interesting that even with the sports reporters that I know in my life they all have a particular air and energy about them that sets them apart. Is there something special about these characters where you think about the obsessive side of someone in a profession that has to know what they are talking about inside and out on a daily basis?
JCM: I don’t know. With Any Given Sunday, Oliver really let me paint with a watercolour paintbrush on that one. I decided I was going to bring a little Lenny Bruce into that, and I borrowed quite liberally from Jim Rome, and then I brought in a healthy dose of Oliver himself, and we just shook that all up and that’s how we got that character.
This was Red Barber. I don’t say a syllable or a consonant that wasn’t uttered by him that I didn’t see or read. That’s very different. That’s a different charge and mandate going in than bringing this cavalcade of eccentricities that I brought to Any Given Sunday. Neither is better than the other, but they feel like two different disciplines for me, and I’m really proud of where we ended up in 42.
DS: I think what I was kind of trying to get at there was that both of these roles really speak to who you are as an actor and that same kind of discipline that you yourself like to know something front to back as well as possible, and both Red and Jack Rose from Any Given Sunday are also people that have to always be on top of their game all the time. These are people who have to know their job inside and out regardless of their level of intensity, whether it’s the mania of Rose or the subdued dignity of Red Barber.
JCM: Yeah. I would buy that. Definitely. It wasn’t something that I had really thought about until you mentioned it, but there’s definitely a parallel between those disciplines and these crafts that can’t be denied.
DS: I know it’s not really possible for a production like this to recreate baseball games while you are in a press box just so you can call the game as it happens, so what was it like trying to recreate Red without the actual game there?
JCM: I was brought in after the company was wrapped, and we were in a huge soundstage down in Atlanta. They had shot out everything else and I had two and a half days on the shoot and we saw him in three different booths. We saw him in Cincinatti, in Pennsylvania, and we saw him at Ebbets. Those were the three sets I was on and the set itself was elevated about two stories up, so for some of those POV shots we could have them from a believable perspective. We could see almost the length of this couch that we’re on and from that point on it was the booth, but if you looked around any further it was all green screen. That was a whole different challenge to be told that Jackie was chasing a fly ball and coming up with eyelines that would be in concert with what we would them turn around and see, but I loved it. It was very indulgent to have two and a half, fourteen hour days in a row playing just Red.
Really the closest thing I could compare it to is Office Space. I was only on that movie for three days, but there was nothing else to do for those three days. I’m only in two interior scenes in the whole film, I think. I’m in the interview room and I’m out on the floor and I think that’s it. But there was nothing to do but to be one of the Bob’s for those three days. Down in Atlanta I got to be Red with an even bigger film crew of about 130 people and we were doing the Red Barber Show for those two days. There was never any confusion to me as to what the film was really about, but for those days it was all me, and what a luxury. How great of Brian to just structure it that way where you just get in that rhythm and groove and you just stay in there and stay in there and we’re just going to keep shooting until you’re blue in the face.
I actually lost my voice on the third day. (laughs) It was when I was calling that shot that gets the Dodgers into the World Series – (does Red’s voice) “It was way up here!” – and it was for all the right reasons! (laughs) That’s where I WANT to blow my voice out. I wanted to sell blowing my voice out at exactly the right time.