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"I've always been inspired to represent the region where I'm from in a way that is authentic to me."
"'Independent spirit' is telling a story for all reasons except commercial ones."
"I was completely engrossed and pulling for this complicated, contrary, fierce, closed off old Southern man that I recognized from my own life."
"We didn't want to feel like actors within an artificial place but rather, real people within a real world."
"Sometimes we poo poo sentiment in film, but there's sentiment in life and film should reflect that."
"I've always been interested in agriculture and food production."
"I finally understood the feeling people get when they're about to throw up from adrenaline."
"The film was a stepping-stone for me to continue to make films and continue to be paid as a writer."
"To see Holbrook in his 80's and continue to be passionate and continue to learn is very inspiring."
"I just try to be nice to young talented people so that they will hire me one day."
Ray McKinnon  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
January 2010

Whether as an actor, writer, or producer, Ray McKinnon does it all with a certain Southern flair. A native of Adel, Georgia, McKinnon made his mark with a variety of character roles in films like The Net, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Apollo 13. In 2002, he earned an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short for his quirky look at the corporatization of the farming industry in The Accountant. Says McKinnon: "I've always been inspired to represent the region where I'm from in a way that is authentic to me."

On the Atlanta stage, McKinnon launched his acting career. A graduate of Valdosta State College, he landed his first roll opposite Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Then, went on to star in Stephen King's Needful Things, vie for Holly Hunter's affection in O Brother, and made sure failure was not an option in Apollo 13. Along the way, he made dozens of television appearances in shows like In the Heat of the Night, Designing Women, and Comanche Moon. Most significantly, a starring role in the HBO hit series, Deadwood, as Reverend H.W. Smith, an earnest man trying to do right in the wrong kind of town.

Staying true to his roots, Ray McKinnon continues to shine as an actor. This year, he's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his antagonistic neighbor opposite Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun. And he plays a pivotal role as Coach Cotton in The Blind Side, a film that not only achieved box office success, but Academy Award recognition as well. Laughs McKinnon, "It's almost like I have an acting career now!" No doubt. Ray McKinnon is flourishing, delivering his own brand of Southern comfort.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Congratulations on your Independent Sprit Nomination. That's pretty exciting.

Well, thank you. It's such a subjective process. I've been a part of the independent film world for the past fifteen years, pretty much to the detriment of the rest of my career. But I think I've finally worn them down (laughs). They probably said "Oh, heck, let's nominate him for something! Maybe he'll start doing more commercial films?"

Having spent most of your career in independent film, what do you feel "independent spirit" is all about?

Apart from the name of the awards, the true "independent spirit" is telling a story for all reasons except commercial ones. Whatever those reasons might be, whether it's telling a very personal story to you or you have to make a movie and nobody is letting you make it in the system.

I tried to make movies for years and years and tried to raise money for a number of feature films that I've written and couldn't do it. So, I eventually decided I would write a short film so I could make a movie and see if I had a knack for it. Even more so, see if I liked doing it...which, I think, is a very big part of independent spirit.

Talk to me a little bit about your background; specifically, where you were born, where you went to school, and how you got into acting.

I grew up in a really, really small town in Georgia of about 4,000 people. And now, there are probably around 4,200 people (laughs). Unregulated growth, I guess. But my mother and my sisters had been in the theater. My mother had acted with Dorothy Maguire years ago, who went on to become a relatively well-known film actress in her day. So, I knew about the theater growing up. And eventually, I stumbled into it in college after getting the nerve to do it. But once I did it, I was lost in it.

The whole time I wanted to be a writer. So, I continued to write in the closet and pursued acting while I tried to figure out exactly how to do it. I always had the goal of wanting to make my own movies. And I've always been inspired to represent the region where I'm from in a way that is authentic to me. Because I've seen so many different reflections of the culture done in a very two-dimensional, artificial way that I didn't recognize.

I think part of my fascination with Sling Blade is that whatever flaws the film might have, there is an authenticity to it that was so inspiring to all of us. And now, there is a whole generation of Southern indie filmmakers that have sprung forth from David Gordon Green to Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories, and now Scott Teems has come on board. And every region, every culture, and every ethnic group should do that. It's kind of been the evolution of my story. I was one of the first of that generation. And Billy Bob was probably the leader of it.

In addition to starring in That Evening Sun, you also produced the film. What part of Scott's script got to you and what made you pursue the film on and off the screen?

Well, like I said, I'd written and directed a number of my own independent films and wasn't really looking to do another one because even if you have a script, it doesn't mean you're going to go out and find the money (laughs). You have all those plates spinning and at some point, a minor miracle allows it to happen. I think that's why younger people go off and do it because they don't know any better. But I already had that knowledge.

Anyway, Scott and Terrence Berry, his producing partner, sent me a letter and asked if I would read it along with Walton Goggins, who is my producing partner. But I kept putting them off. Then one day Terrence walked up to me in a Mexican restaurant and promised he wasn't stalking me. He just happened to be in the same restaurant (laughs). And I said, "I'm sorry, I'm terrible about reading things, but I'll read it."

Usually, you can tell within ten pages whether it's a compelling enough story for you to give up or commit three years of your life to. So, I started reading it and after ten pages I was like, "My God, this is really good!" They call it a rural page turner, which sounds like an oxymoron, but it was so well written that I was completely engrossed and pulling for this complicated, contrary, fierce, closed off old Southern man that I recognized from my own life.

I kept reading and after about page 60, I was like "Okay, now don't screw this up, Scott. You've raised the bar too high." And he didn't. It was just a beautiful story. And I called Walt and said, "Buddy, I'm afraid we have a script we have to be a part of." And he read it and felt the same way. So, we told Scott and Scott brought us on. He was a first time feature filmmaker, admired all of our films, and wanted us to come on as creative producers. So that's what we did and we've been with it ever since.

What makes your character (Lonzo) different from other characters you have played?

I've certainly played a man of his class and stature before. Usually, as it relates to pure screen time, those archetypes don't have enough time to really see beyond the two dimensionality of them. And I think this character is a very weak man, a flawed man, a bully, a scared man with very low self esteem. All of those things cause his behavior to be the way it is. And there was enough screen time to allow people to see beyond that first layer of this rough guy.

It allows you to see some of his humanity. Because he's not a psychopath. He's not a sociopath. He's just a weak man and you get to see him struggle to overcome his environmental issues that he grew up with. I mean, I always felt like he was a guy who was probably abused as a child. That class of person is often told that they would amount to nothing, aka 'Don't try to be better than you are.' It's a kind of pressure that's not too dissimilar from a ghetto pressure - 'Don't get too big for the hood.'

So, that's a long winded answer. But essentially, it was a character that was written in such a way that had enough time on screen to let us see beyond the obvious.

Hal Holbrook, Barry Corbin, Carrie Preston, and Mia Wasikowska. Talk to me a little bit about the ensemble performance and what stood out most to you?

As we talked about this world that William Gay first created from his short story and Scott had expanded upon, as filmmakers, we didn't want to feel like actors within an artificial place but rather, real people within a real world. It was a very closed off world, so casting was crucial to that. And we had to believe that everybody felt of that place in their own way.

We've all been fans of Barry Corbin for a long time. So, we knew what he was capable of. With Mia, we were fans of hers from the HBO show, In Treatment. We knew she had a great range as an actress and she came in and gave us this beautiful audition that incorporated the dialect from Coal Miner's Daughter. And Carrie Preston, who I didn't know, was so good. I thought she was some rustic actress that the casting director had found from the sticks because she was so authentic. I thought she had to be from the South because you can't have an accent that good and be from somewhere else. And sure enough, she was from the South. But she also went to Julliard and was a very gifted actor.

So, everyone got to come to the set a little early and we all got to hang out a little bit, which is important. When I watch the movie and see us all together - Carrie, Mia, and myself. We are a family. And it feels like Barry and Hal have been friends for fifty years. They've gone on that porch and had two generations worth of conversations. All that chemistry is so important to the success of the film, especially seeing Hal and Barry together. We pinched ourselves every time we saw that.

What do you hope audiences take away from watching That Evening Sun?

We started out in the festival world and we felt like we had a good film and a really solid film. But it's hard to know if you're being subjective or not. We definitely felt like it was a film that could win an occasional jury award here or there, but what surprised us most was that it won numerous audience awards. And it's not an audience pleasing type of movie.

Going to these festivals all over the country from Sarasota to Austin, we witnessed different regions of people reacting to this issue that we're all faced with - what to do with aging parents. People wanted to testify with their own personal experiences. And that was definitely one of the most surprising but fulfilling aspects of being able to show this film to people.

So, I want them to become emotionally engaged. The film doesn't work unless you're emotionally engaged or visually engaged on a certain level. You know, it takes a character or characters that we've all seen but takes them to different places and illuminates them in a new way. I hope that's what they take away from it. I hope it surprises them in a way they didn't expect. So, if any, or all of those things were to happen, it would be a great way to spend seven bucks.

You're also starring in another critically acclaimed movie, The Blind Side. Why is this an important story and what can you tell me about your involvement in the film?

I live in Little Rock, Arkansas right now and I was there minding my own business and I got a call from John Lee Hancock who I've known over the years, who admires my films or so he claims, and wanted to work with me. My agent said that he wanted me to play the coach and so I started reading the script. And there's this great role as the coach and I thought there has to be another coach because this is too good. At first, I was like, "Wow, a fairly decent budgeted movie and I'll have my insurance for the year!" It's a tremendously fun character to play and it will be great because I won't have to be the parent. I can be the child and at the end of the day, I can go home and let them worry about the rest of it.

Beyond that, I just got caught up in the story. I think sometimes we poo poo sentiment in film, but there's sentiment in life and film should sometimes reflect that just like it reflects everything else. So, I think it did that very well without going too far and I think it reflected a culture that oftentimes is reflected negatively. And it's not that there aren't negative aspects of that particular world. There certainly are and they should be reflected. But there's also great, positive aspects of that culture and this film reflected that. And I think that's part of the reason why it became such a big success. I'm very proud of John Lee. It wasn't easy for him to get this film made. But it's been a great boost. It's almost like I have an acting career now!

You've worked with Sandra Bullock in the past. And many critics are calling this one of greatest performances of her career. What do you think makes this performance so special and what is different from the Sandra Bullock of today versus the one you saw fifteen years ago on The Net?

Well, she has fifteen more years of life. None of us go through life without pain and sorrow and joy and all of that registers in us as human beings. I'm sure she drew on that.

But she's always been very talented. She's so facile, she can do a type of comedy that frankly, most actors can't. And it doesn't surprise me at all that she can draw on things and have a more dramatic facility. It's opportunity and her desire to do it. She's very talented. Very well prepared. And she understood this character and the tone of the movie perfectly.

In 2002, you won an Oscar for your short film The Accountant. Where did the inspiration for the film come from?

A number of places. I'm sure subconsciously, a lot of the literature that I read in my youth by some of the great southern writers and the archetypes that they created. But a large part of it has to deal with the fact that I grew up in a small, farming community. And I've always been interested in agriculture and food production. I knew people who lost their farms. When I wrote it at the time in 1999 it was a little passe, but it was the ongoing loss of the small farms and the corporatization of farming in the country. So, I was interested in that and how to put that into a fictional story.

I used to be a night auditor at a hotel and knew how numbers could allow you to figure things out. So, that was in there as well as my research into the world of PBR and other things that people said would come to no good. Turns out, I was able to use those things for a positive effect.

And then I remember I would drive back home to my small town along the interstate and would see this old farm house. Next to it was this doublewide trailer. And I could see that it was occupied. But it looked like the family had moved out of the old drafty, expensive to heat, farmhouse and into this more comfortable doublewide. They didn't care about aesthetics, but more of the practicality of it. I would've thought, "That's an attractive farmhouse, are you kidding?" But it got me thinking about who they were and what they were all about.

When you won the Oscar, what do you remember from that particular moment? Or was it all a blur?

It was for the first three hours of the show, especially when we realized our category would not be until three hours into it. They've changed that now. But I finally understood the feeling people get when they're about to throw up from adrenaline.

For the longest time, I didn't know if I could even get up there. Then, ten minutes before they announced the winner, I felt calm. And when we heard our names, I thought, "I'm going to take our twenty-five seconds while we've got it and enjoy it." And that was the experience of it.

I can tell you that the award itself got me into some after parties that normally, I would never have gotten into. It was a great calling card that evening. And Elton John wouldn't have let me come to his party otherwise!

How has Oscar impacted your career?

In some ways, I think the film has impacted my career more than the award. I think it opened some curiosity doors. But, it's not the Best Acting Award or Supporting Award for a feature film. That really does change your career. I think the film was a stepping-stone for me to continue to make films and continue to be paid as a writer.

Who or what motivates you as an actor today?

There is certainly work that I continue to see as an actor that I get surprised by and moved by. Not to be too obvious, but when you think of Hal Holbrook, I've gotten to know him as a human being and witness his desire as an artist to illuminate the human condition. He continues to be driven by that.

In fact, he was talking to me recently of how he had found some old writing of Mark Twain that he was going to incorporate into his show because it had such a conception of the human condition. Mark Twain was so great at doing it in the way that he did. And to see Holbrook in his 80's and continue to be passionate about that and continue to learn is very inspiring.

There's also been some great television over the last decade or so from a storytelling and acting perspective that's been inspiring: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Shield, etc. So inspiring, it propelled me to write a pilot that AMC bought. And hopefully, we'll get to make and tell that story. But there's so many great actors out there. I'll watch anything Ralph Fiennes does. Or Christopher Plumber in The Last Station. He is such a wonderful actor and I have watched him work over the years, but I almost didn't recognize him! It was another side of him that I had never seen on film.

Out of all the amazing performances you've had from Apollo 13 to O Brother to Deadwood, is there a particular role or genre that you would like to tackle? What are some of your aspirations going forward?

The reverend in "Deadwood" was outside of all the things that I've been involved with. But I guess it gave me another kind of credibility. David Milch (creator) kept challenging me with the material and what a gift that was for me. Like "The Accountant," I love drama. I love straighter comedy. But I also love kind of absurdist comedy. And I would like to find the right vehicle to tell a story with more of that depth because I think absurdism can put a prism on a story to reflect truth in a different way from any other kind of drama. So, if I could make a feature version that was tonally similar to "The Accountant," that would be pretty cool.

So, what kind of things do you have coming up in the pipeline?

I've had this story line in my head for a couple of years that I thought could better be served as a television series. Part of that was from my experience on "Deadwood" and seeing how you can take the time to explore a character in a different way than you do in film. It's not two hours. It's thirteen hours. So, I wrote this story that is very personal to me and AMC bought it and is going to let us know in the next couple of months if we're going to shoot the pilot. I'm also adapting a book for HBO for a possible television series. So, all of a sudden, I'm a television writer.

I don't have any great plans yet, but I just love helping create and tell stories, whether I'm the actor or the writer. I just try to be nice to young talented people so that they will hire me one day.

Great words of wisdom!

(Laughs) Yes. Be nice to everyone because they could be your boss next week.

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