“My father came over from Ireland, went straight to the army recruiting office and said:
” I want to be an American”. Soon after that he was posted to Greenland and then on to Germany. I draw most of my performances from my family, and my father’s friends. I like playing them because I know them.”
Speaking by phone on the way to the airport, Irish -American actor Neil McDonough spoke about his Irish background, his career and his experience working on epic World War II film Flags Of Our Fathers. With his shock of white hair, McDonough is instantly recognizable from another similar WWII television mini series “Band Of Brothers”, which was based on the Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan and saw him playing 1st Lieutenant “Buck” Compton.
He also scored big at the box office in 2004’s Walking Tall, taking on wrestler-turned -actor The Rock as the sneering Jay Hamilton. “I love playing villains!” he said, before a woman interrupted to compliment him on his performance in that very movie, and ask what The Rock is “really like”.
A first generation Irish-American, McDonough was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts to parents who owned a small hotel. His late mother Kitty was from Clonmel, County Tipperary and his father Frank from Clifton in Connemara, where his sister Ellen still lives and works on the local newspaper. He’s lived in Los Angeles for 15 years now, but he vividly remembers the strong Irish influences in his childhood home:
“We have tons of family, and all my parents’ friends were Irish – it was just the way we were brought up. In Ireland it doesn’t matter whether you make money or not, you live the same as the guy next door, and get treated the same. Los Angeles is completely different though. They want a better house, a better car – always trying to keep up with the Jones’s. It’s a transitory city, and people come here looking to hit the jackpot and then leave.”
Due to work and family commitments – he has a 10-month-old son Morgan and another on the way – he hasn’t been back to Ireland for several years, although his family is wildly supportive of everything he does:
“When I’m in a movie they all go crazy. When I got my first movie role in Darkman, my brother Bob, who owns a sign company, put a poster from the movie up on one of his trucks with the slogan “Darkman starring Neil McDonough as Trucker No.2″ and drove it all around town! And I was only in the movie for 30 seconds! I was dead before the credits had even finished! A load of us went to see the movie, then walked straight out after I had been killed that and went to the pub!”
The youngest of six children with four older brothers, he realized at a young age that he had two options to survive life in his family: he could either get up on the table and dance and sing and make everyone laugh, or get beaten up by his brothers. He chose the former: “From a very young age, I was this ham.”
McDonough played Snoopy in a High School production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and that was the time he “knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life”. A self-confessed “sports nut” he turned down several college baseball scholarships, choosing instead to attend Syracuse University to take a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree: “My dad thought I was nuts.”
Her went further afield, moving to England to study at the famous London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, and on the night he arrived he met Ruvé Robertson, a 6-foot-3-former model from South Africa. Asked whether he has hit the jackpot in Los Angeles yet, he said: “Jackpot? You should see my wife!”
They were married on in a Beverly Hills church on December 1, 2003 and she is expecting their second child: “He or she is due in May next year, but I’m stopping at seven. That’s it”.
Unsurprisingly, McDonough loves a drop of Guinness and regularly visits Tom Bergin’s Tavern, the oldest Irish bar in Los Angeles -“Just give me a pint, some stew and a chunk of bread, and I’m happy” – and after confirming that there really are differences between the Guinness in America and Ireland, he talked about the lengths he goes to for a decent pint:
“I always fly through London if I’m taking a connecting flight, because then I can have a pint or two in the pub at the airport. But it goes in stages. England is better than Los Angeles, but it’s nothing compared to the Guinness in Ireland. When I was working with Liam Neeson on Darkman, he had kegs of it flown in from his local pub!”
Talking as he tried to find the check-in desk for his flight to Vancouver, Canada, he talked about what he’s doing next, and it seems like he’s definitely going to become a more familiar face. This trip was to the set of a new TV series called “Traveler”, which is due on ABC in February next year and again sees him playing the villain – “I’m the face of evil in US politics!” – while on the big screen, he’s going several big movies on the way.
He was in recent lifeguard actioner The Guardian alongside Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, and has three films on the slate including 88 Minutes with Al Pacino – “I’m the possibly innocent inmate on Death Row and he’s trying to save me. Pacino is awesome in it”, and a big budget remake from director of cult 80’s movie The Hitcher, produced by Michael Bay (director of Armageddon and The Rock). No villain role for him there though – he’s playing the cop trying to stop the killer.
There are also three smaller, independent movies: The Last Time, a comedy drama with Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser, American Gothic with Patrick Wilson – “we play brothers” – and Forever Strong directed by Ryan Little: “It’s about rugby, which is much better than American football. Did I just say that?”
Discussing other Irish actors in movies and on television, McDonough was quick to name his favorite movie:
“I have probably only ever bought about 10 DVDs, and the very first one I bought was Miller’s Crossing. Fantastic. Can you imagine anyone but Gabriel Byrne in that movie? And Albert Finney? I could happily retire if I ever worked on a movie where he played my dad; he is an unbelievable actor”.
With that he was off to check-in for his flight: “It’s a great place, a big melting pot like London or Los Angeles. It’s just a shame that it’s as cold as Ireland!”