John C. McGinley has been involved with some spectacular films and television shows; from Platoon to Scrubs. He was classically trained in theater with a range of talent from dramatic to eccentrically comedic and is now involved in the final season of the hit NBC comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
John joins the cast playing the NYPD union head, Frank O’Sullivan, who has a penchant for the beat cops in blue. McGinley was brought in to handle some very tough issues as the comic foil for Diaz, Peralta and Holt in the nine nine.
TME: Thank you so much for making time today. I absolutely loved watching you. Four years of big and small screens. Of course, when I think back on Scrubs, I mostly think of Dr. Cox and the heart of the show, walking an amazing line of drama and comedy. I feel Scrubs walked that and showed a depth of writing and a trust, plus a solidness of the ensemble. Brooklyn Nine-Nine carries that same kind of thing forward. Can you talk a little bit about joining such a tight cast? Do you feel when you would watch guest stars like Michael J. Fox come aboard Scrubs and think, well, you better bring your A game, buddy?
JCM: Well, I think both shows are so well drawn on the page. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dan Goor is the executive producer and he’s responsible for the words on the page… with Scrubs, it was Billy Lawrence, who now has another hit for Ted Lasso.
And with TV, because there’s so little time and everything is is such a 10000 pounds of pressure on your back, if it’s not on the page at the beginning of the day, it’s not going to work out, because if you presuppose that someone’s going to walk on the set and be able to pull rabbits out of the hat like Jonathan Winters or or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, those people don’t exist. They’re those three people. So unless there’s a road map every morning that that can be provided to the actors, which is the script, you don’t have a ghost of a chance.
And so what Billy and Dan did respectively with their shows is they put that mix of heart and comedy on the page, which is so rare and so impossible. And when it comes across your desk, you just want to jump on it.
That’s what happened with me with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Not that my character has even a shred of heart, but will show does my dignity. Frank Sullivan, who’s the head of the policemen’s union in in Brooklyn, nine nine.
And in this in this time of BLM and George Floyd’s horrible, horrible travesty, I think Dan had to straddle a tricky line. So much so that I think that prior to my coming on for the eighth season, I think they shot a bunch of shows and then threw them out because I I could only speculate that something must have been a little slippery and I wouldn’t pretend to know what it was. So when this was sent to me in the middle of February, when we were shoulder deep in the pandemic, I was thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled. But Dan was so concerned with straddling and being sensitive to the different challenges and awareness that are present today. I think he re-shot about four episodes, and that’s the only reason I was brought on. I think they were going on a certain track that certainly didn’t include me. And when they retooled, I was provided with an opportunity to participate.
TME: If Dr. Cox was harsh, but with a heart of gold, Frank is harsh with the heart of symmetrically weird.
JCM: No, he’s he’s harsh with a heart of blue, always blue. And the way Dan wrote him; he doesn’t see men or women, black or white. He doesn’t see any religion. He sees blue as in the police union in New York, as specifically the rank and file, which are cops, not detectives.
When someone like Andre’s character or Andy’s character or any of them in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they’re all detectives… they’re fair game. That’s where that conflict starts to pay dividends, because I’m looking out for blue. And they’re in pursuit of other things. And I could care less what they’re in pursuit of. All I care about is delivering for blue.
TME: You’ve famously played a corrupt cop over on Chicago PD.
JCM: Yeah. Kelton was very different. Kelton was an exercise in ambition. And I don’t know if that’s Frank O’Sullivan’s thing, because I talked to my friend Kevin McCabe, who was a deputy mayor under David Dinkins and is an unbelievable resource for all things New York cops and politics. When you’ve become the head of the the PBA, the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, or the policemen’s union, you’ve reached the peak years.
That’s as good as it gets. No one has gone on to become mayor. No one. This is it. You’ve reached it. Whatever your ambition was, you’ve achieved it. Now, with Kelton on on Chicago PD, I think this was a guy who obviously on the page, he had set his sights on being mayor and then had to set his sights on probably being governor, maybe senator. This was a this was an exercise in ambition. That goalpost was going to move.
So many times actors are trained to look for what is the redemption in the character… what grounds, the character and some good. And with Kelton, it was about ambition. It wasn’t reconciling those which gave us license to just go… just an ambition driven political beast. And he was grounded in that with no apologies. O’Sullivan is a totally different character, totally different and grounded in comedy.
TME: So in going from from reading him on the page in February to to working out the real physical man in front of the camera, can you talk a little bit about the growth; the back and forth of that?
JCM: Well, I worked with Dan Goor a lot, and he allowed me to provide most of the input I just shared with you in shaping this character.
The first thing I sent him was a picture on one page of of my notebooks of Archie Bunker and Yosemite Sam. I use these notebooks for my homework. Every film I’ve ever done down in the rehearsal space.There’s about eight of these four movies and about 400 episodes of TV. And they function as both work tablets and as diaries. And in that one, the first thing I sent him was Archie Bunker meets Yosemite Sam, and he fell off his chair on the zoom call. We went from there and it was just a very classically drawn comic foil for Andy’s character and Andre’s character. Remember, they weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. In a in a newly found picked up Season eight. The show was canceled. Billy did the opposite with Scrubs. He did reinvent the wheel. And it didn’t quite yield the dividends he was looking for, but it was a brave attempt. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, what Dan did, I thought, brilliantly played to the ensemble’s strength.
So he did not try to exorcise any ghosts or demons that had been in the background, out of frame for seven seasons. He went solidly into each character strength and wrote to those strengths and to bring me in to get in the way of those strengths, at least for Andre.
And Andy’s character was just so solid. It was like a metronome. It was great on rhythm. That’s what I got ready to do. I’m very much a rhythm player. Billy Lawrence and Oliver Stone have written the best for my for my mouth, and Dan wrote beautifully for the way I approach the script. When somebody called action, I was fully loaded and ready to go. Plus, I haven’t had that much time to get ready for something in forever. I mean, I had about a month to get ready for this thing.
Because my episodes were spread out, I got all these genius rewrites. And if you give me time, I can pretty much do the phone book. I then get rid of it. But I had time on this to just create an enormous amount of chaos.
TME: So often you embody a character so completely that they just become iconic for me and I can never tell when something was written for you or when, you know, there’s something written fo another guy that could have been it. Was this an audition process or did Dan have your voice in mind to start with?
JCM: (laugs) There was no audition. This was just sent to me and it was a straight offer. When I read it, I didn’t want to play a not fun role. O’Sullivan is the exact opposite. He’s a banquet of eccentricities. I feel like with O’Sullivan, the writers had a closet on a in the writers room at a Brooklyn Nine-Nine with all the different eccentricities that that they’d never been able to imbue with, with different characters in the ensemble and guest stars over the years. They took it out and they shook it into a glass and it was Frank O’Sullivan. How do you get a Billy Joel fanatic when you see what a fanatic is? You’re not going to believe it. It’s genius… who lives in his mother’s basement, who hosts an NHL podcast about the islanders, global islanders talk and only serves one thing.
He serves the men and women of his union… And he’s good at it, which is really fun. The worst thing that happens is he gets in his own way, which is always genius. But there are times when you’re paying ping pong or tennis and it’s all just volleys right at the net. There are scenes with Andre and myself and Andy or just with Andre and I, where it’s just volleys at the net. And it’s that syncopation that someone as skilled as Andre can execute without verbal static like “ummm” or a’s and “I mean”, or a “you know”, or the things that drive me insane.
Just the clean text and… that’s thrilling. On most sets, it’s hard to find a thrill. And when you can just volley at net, just that syncopation of of really choppy balls and everyone’s talking as fast as Marty Scorsese… it’s just flying. And you already know you’re going to see how the editors are going to cut it. To be able to do that with Andre and Andy, to some extent, that was thrilling.
TME: I loved the comeback on the steps with Diaz and Peralta when Frank says my mom, lives with me in her house and just moves right at it kind of quickness back and forth is brilliant. And the projects that you’ve picked, you can see that love of language.
JCM: I mean, getting to do Mamet on stage, a greatest experience of my life.
TME:When when you look at things you’re enjoying right now, I always feel like you have a great year for projects and talent. I remember seeing the the Jack Bull or so. I remember watching that on HBO at the time and just falling in love with it. When you’re looking around at things now, you’d said you liked Brooklyn. Is there anything else that that just really catches? Anybody else writing right now that’s just blowing you away?
JCM: I think what Billy’s doing with Ted Lasso is fantastic. I’m a TV junkie and of course, now I’m not to remember anything. Fauda !
In Fauda, you found out about cops and robbers in Israel and Palestine with that Israeli ensemble. I can’t recommend it highly enough to you. Lior Raz is abulldog of a of an actor who’s just fantastic… Which is a heck of a thing to say. Brooklyn Nine Nine just feels like the rock stars of of comedy right now, getting to watch them take a victory lap eighth season. To wonder for a year how they were going to handle things and now get to be so involved in it is just absolutely wonderful. I can’t wait to see the season unfold.
I thought the second episode, which I had not seen… I haven’t seen a frame of the thing. So I only saw what I saw last week because I didn’t do any looping. It was thrilling to watch it last Thursday. And then to see those guys go out to that cabin, the second episode of that ensemble, so watertight.
TME: I had a similar feeling in Ted Lasso. Every time I get to watch a little bit more Brooklyn Nine-Nine you’re just glad to see these players be in a room together. And I agree. You’re an absolutely brilliant choice to add as a foil for this. Thank you so much for making time to talk about it with me.
Brooklyn Nine Nine airs Thursdays on NBC 8pm/7 central
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