Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mississippi character actor Johnny McPhail takes a quantum leap from the cotton patch to HBO's "True Detective"


(Johnny McPhail)

Quentin Tarantino opens the door of his New Orleans penthouse with a big smile, open arms, a string of compliments. Johnny McPhail steps inside.

The famous Hollywood director leads McPhail to a long table in the room, telling him along the way how much he loved him in Ballast. Tarantino proves it by reciting McPhail’s lines from the movie.

The 70-year-old actor from Oxford, Mississippi, grins under his mustache. He’s proud of Ballast. It won the directing and cinematography awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It’s why he’s in this penthouse, why he got the call.

They sit down at the table and read from a script Tarantino provides. After a while, Tarantino stops and stares at McPhail, the mustache, the bushy eyebrows, the shoulder-length hair, the big presence at 6’4”, 215 pounds, the screen-friendly eyes that can range from pixie to world-weary.

Still, McPhail is missing something. Tarantino is making a movie about sadistic slave traders, bounty hunters, and decadent plantation owners. He’s going to call it Django Unchained, and he needs bad, the sinister element, at least a whiff of foreboding.

What the director of Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, and Reservoir Dogs wants is evil, and he’s not sure McPhail has it. “You are too kind of a character to play any of these parts,” Tarantino tells him. “These are bad men.”

McPhail is remembering the call, the casting director telling him on the phone, “Mr. Tarantino would like to meet with you in his penthouse in New Orleans. Can you make it?”

“Oh, heck, yeah, I can make it,” McPhail told the casting director.

Now his big break is slipping away because he's insufficiently evil. He leans toward Tarantino, using all six feet and four inches and 215 pounds to make his point. “Quentin,” he says, “I can play bad.”

Tarantino reaches over and grabs the actor’s face with both hands, a Hollywood pope blessing an up-and-coming, if aging, seminarian of the Big Screen. He promises McPhail he’ll write him a part in Django Unchained.

And he delivers. McPhail’s part is a records keeper in Greenville, Mississippi, where the characters played by stars Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz go in search of information about Foxx’s wife, the slave Broomhilde.

The scene winds up on the cutting room floor.

“Everybody said he’ll make it up to me,” McPhail recalled recently as he sat with me in a coffee shop called the High Point here in downtown Oxford, Mississippi, “but I’m not worried. Got to move on.”

McPhail has moved on.

After a 20-year career that began with bit parts and local theater productions, McPhail is now playing a bar owner opposite star Matthew McConaughey in the hit HBO series True Detective. His other film credits include The Chamber, A Time to Kill, People Vs. Larry Flint, Cookie’s Fortune, and Big Bad Love.

McPhail acted in seven of the films shown during the recently concluded Oxford Film Festival, including his role as a zombie killer in Last Call. McPhail’s wife Susan, a rising actress herself, co-starred.

“He’s got this great character ability,” said Oxford Film Festival development director Melanie Addington, who has directed and written roles for McPhail. “See Ballast. His scenes were remarkable.”

The north Mississippi farm boy-turned-actor actually has something in common with Lana Turner, the Hollywood sex siren of yesteryear.

Both got discovered in a café.

Turner was 17, skipping school and enjoying a soda in a Hollywood ice cream parlor. Soon she had a movie contract and was a rising star. McPhail was turning 50 and enjoying a cup of coffee at Smitty’s in downtown Oxford when the casting director for the movie The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (which was filmed in Oxford) spotted him.

“You’ve got an interesting face,” the casting director said. “You ever thought about being in the movies? Come by and see me.”

“And I did,” McPhail recalled. “I come from a small farm in Bruce (near Oxford), never had any idea I could ever do this. Anybody wants to be in films. I have always wanted to try different things, so when I turned fifty I decided to see what the film industry is all about.”

After picking cotton as a youth, working in factories and saw mills, and serving a stint as a labor organizer, McPhail decided he liked acting. Through his work on The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, a 1993 movie starring Penelope Ann Miller, Julianne Moore and Alfre Woodard, McPhail met Elvis Presley buddy and “Memphis Mafia” charter member Red West, who also had a role in the movie. West befriended McPhail and gave him acting lessons.

McPhail’s acting philosophy is simple: Be natural. “When I went down to New Orleans for True Detective, (writer/creator) Nic Pizzolatto said, `Johnny, one rule is nobody does any fake accents.’ … They are looking for everyday people. … It’s hard enough to act without putting on a fake accent. One of the first rules I learned was, `Don’t let them catch you acting.’”

McPhail did lots of stage work in his early acting years, including a production of Larry Brown’s novel Joe at Oxford’s legendary Hoka Theater. He later got a part in the movie version of Brown’s Big Bad Love with Debra Winger. He has been frequently cast as “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

He prefers film to the stage, however. “That’s your epitaph, man. Your great-grandchildren are going to see you.”

A film actor no longer has to be in Hollywood to get roles, McPhail said. “We do it all through the Internet now. I can be auditioning with someone in L.A. in a matter of minutes. I do it from home. I’ve got the lighting to make it look good.”

Besides, he said, Oxford is an ideal place for an actor. “Oxford, Mississippi, is one of the best. We are equidistant from Shreveport—they make a lot of movies there—Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Atlanta, then we are closer to Nashville.”

Looking back, McPhail said his acting life still seems like a dream. “Another quantum leap from a cotton patch in north Mississippi.”

A much different version of this feature column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

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