Interview: Neal McDonough on “Greater”
Posted on August 24, 2016 at 12:39 pm
Neal McDonough (“Arrow”) stars in “Greater,” the true story of Brandon Burlsworth, the greatest walk-on in the history of college football. He plays Burlsworth’s brother Marty, who inspired and supported Brandon’s dream of playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks, and who made it through sheer determination and persistence. McDonough, who has played supervillain Damien Darhk in “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow” and superhero good guy Dum Dum Dugan in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” answered my question about playing a real-life character and why we love movies about sports.
How did growing up in a big Irish family help prepare you for working on movies and television?
I joke sometimes that it was great training for working in ensembles, because you’re so accustomed to having to do something to make yourself stand out when you grow up one of six kids. I suppose the real help it’s been is that it teaches you to be comfortable in crowds and chaos – and movie and TV sets are certainly that.
Your character in “Greater” was more than an older brother to Brandon Burlsworth. Why was that relationship so vital and how is it portrayed in the film?
Marty is so much older than Brandon that he is often mistaken for his dad – which is a running joke in the film and was a running joke in the lives of the real Marty and Brandon. And since their father is troubled and absent for both of most of their lives, Marty is very much a surrogate dad to Brandon. So he has almost two concurrent relationships running with Brandon – the jovial, joking brother side and the more caring and protective parental side. It makes for a very rich and complex character to play.
You’ve been working on some heightened, genre projects based on comic books. How do you recalibrate for returning to a more realistic, fact-based drama?
It’s why they pay us to act, right? Actually, for me, a role like Damien Darhk in “Arrow,” who is such a true comic-book, over-the-top villain, is far easier to play than Marty. There’s less deep characterization in a villain like Darhk – lots of broad brush strokes of villainy – how truly bad can you be, you know? But it’s a lot more rewarding, and more of an exercise in the craft of acting, to take on a character with as many emotions and layers as Marty.
What are some of your favorite football movies? Why are we so drawn to sports stories?
Favorite football movies? Well, “Greater,” of course. (laughs). Sports movies, when done right, spotlight the best about the human spirit and character: doing your best, overcoming the odds, matching your skills with another person’s, developing camaraderie and teamwork and achieving a goal – whether as a team or an individual. Sports are where we test our limits, face our fears, make our dreams come true. That’s what audiences will see in “Greater” – excitement and emotion.
What was the first acting job you got paid for?
I played the pivotal role of “Dockworker No. 2” in Darkman, which I hadn’t thought about until right now, is interesting because it was a superhero movie and, well, had a character with “dark” in his name at the center. Interesting, isn’t it, how you notice all these “coincidences” when you look back over your life and your career – when you’ve tried to follow the path God has laid out for you. Fascinating, and humbling.
What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?
Steven Spielberg told me, “Every good actor is no further than 50 feet from the camera, even in-between rehearsals, between takes.” That’s great advice because If you’re in the orbit of the camera, no further than 50 feet away, if they need you, boom, you’re right there. They don’t have to call to get you out of your trailer. If you’re always right there; that’s a great actor. You learn so much because you see how they do certain lighting; you see how other actors act. For young actors, the more you can stand around or sit there—-even when you’re not shooting-—just sit there on the set and shut up for three hours, you’ll learn more in one day than you’ll ever learn in film school.
What do you want people to learn from the story of Marty and Brandon?
First and foremost, I hope they’re truly entertained. This is a movie of very big ideas and themes but also great fun and humor. There is some excellent, exciting football action in this movie, along with lots of solid family drama. And there’s plenty of humor, too, in Marty’s relationship with Brandon but also as we see Brandon expanding his social skills as he gets more and more accomplished at football.
But I also hope audiences leave encouraged – reminded that when hard times do come, and they will, that God has a purpose in them. And we can actually be blessed through the pain if we follow Him through it.