Thomas McDonell Does It All

Published January 3, 2012

ABOVE: THOMAS MCDONELL. PHOTO COURTESY OF THEO WENNER

Interview has long been a fan of artist-turned-artist/actor/musician, Thomas McDonell—sorry, 10-year-old fans of McDonell’s Disney film Prom, we beat you to him. When we last spoke with McDonell in 2009, he had just appeared in his first film, an experience he described as his “best odd job.” These days, however, it seems as though acting is less of an “odd job” and more of a “day job.” Last April, McDonell made the unusual transition from visual artist to tween (or pre-tween) pin-up when he starred as the innocuous bad-boy in the aforementioned prom-glorifying Disney film. When we heard that McDonell had landed a role playing the younger version of Johnny Depp’s character in Tim Burton’s new film, Dark Shadows, and would be guest-starring on ABC’s Suburgatory, we thought it was time for a catch-up.

We spent an hour with McDonell chatting and embarrassing ourselves on his newly purchased piano. Topics ranged from his upcoming group show at the 7Eleven Gallery to Best Buy, how there is more to Disney than Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and McDonell’s not-so-closeted passion for Ben Affleck movies.

EMMA BROWN: You’ve said that working on your first film, 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom, changed the way you looked at things, and that’s why you wanted to continue acting.

THOMAS MCDONELL: Totally. But that’s because it was the first time I was on a big movie set and it was impressive, especially this huge Chinese kung fu movie set… whoa, man. So I thought that I could work on movies more.

BROWN: Has this change in perspective continued to be true?

MCDONELL: Yeah! It really has, [laughs] in different ways. The cliché about young actors is that they want to diversify the work that they do to show [their] range, but it’s true. Or at least, for me, I want to keep doing different stuff; doing different work, you see different things. So I went and worked on this ABC television show [Suburgatory] and I spent all day, for the week that I worked, on a soundstage in a warehouse, which is way different than a kung fu movie set outside of Shanghai. But interesting also, to see how a half-hour comedy television show is shot. I wanted to [work on Suburgatory] because I didn’t know anything about that kind of work and because Jane Levy [who plays the protagonist, Tessa] is cool. We filmed a movie together over the summer [Fun Size] and we had this idea that I could work on her show. I play the guy next door; it’s no big deal. [laughs]

BROWN: Have you always been interested in acting, or was it entirely through The Forbidden Kingdom?

MCDONELL: Yeah, I was interested in acting secretly. [It was] the first real job that I did was while I was still in school. I’ve always been interested in acting. I guess because I like movies a lot. I think the last one I saw was The Future, it’s a Miranda July movie. A cat narrates the film, which sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. I [also] love The Town. I really want to work with Ben Affleck, I love Ben Affleck… Are you going to pick [an answer] between Miranda July and Ben Affleck [when you write up the interview]?

BROWN: I’ll probably include your fondness for both so that you seem like a layered person. You can pick a third person if you’d like.

MCDONELL: I can? [laughs] that’s very generous of you. My mind is drawing a blank. That’s it, I guess, that’s the whole universe, the two of them.

BROWN: I’m glad they are still producing work then. You just finished filming Tim Burton’s new film, Dark Shadows, how was that?

MCDONELL: Yeah, I went to Pinewood Studios to work on that. It was quite interesting.

BROWN: Was it intimidating?

MCDONELL: No.

BROWN: There are a lot of exciting people in that movie: Christopher Lee, Eva Green, and, obviously Johnny Depp, although I think I’ve watched too much 21 Jump Street to take him seriously.

MCDONELL: That stuff made you not take him seriously? What about the videos of him reading Hunter S. Thompson letters online? They’re pretty goofy.

BROWN: Is that what you opened with: “Hi, Mr. Depp, you’re kind of goofy”?

MCDONELL: No.

BROWN: “Nice to meet you?”

MCDONELL: [laughs] No, not that either. I’m not telling you what I said.

BROWN: Your last movie, the Disney film Prom, was quite a commercial role for you. Do people recognize you on the street now?

MCDONELL: Sometimes, infrequently though. The target demographic [for that movie] ended up being quite young, little kids. One woman stopped me on the street one time, she said “Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Hold on,” she went on for quite a long time trying to figure out how she knew me. It turned out she had watched Prom with her girlfriends. People recognize me less frequently now that I no longer have long hair.

BROWN: What attracted you to your role that role—the semi-delinquent teenager, Jesse Richter?

MCDONELL: I had never done anything like that before; that’s what was most attractive about it. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t, “I’ve always wanted to play a high-school senior who rides a motorcycle,” it wasn’t that kind of thing. It was more that I wanted to learn about how that kind of movies is made.

BROWN: Did you watch live-action Disney movies while you were growing up?

MCDONELL: No, I don’t even know if there were live-action Disney movies.

BROWN: Jonathan Taylor Thomas!

MCDONELL Yeah, I guess. I didn’t watch those. I loved their old animated movies, Snow White… One of the things that interested me [in Prom] was the history of [Disney], there’s a lot to it. The school that I went to at NYU was meant to be an interdisciplinary kind of arts school. The woman who was running the department at the time, Nancy Barton, who is no longer the chair of that department, she’s an artist, she went to Cal Arts in the ’80s and she wanted to model the school after Cal Arts in the 80s, which was sort of a hotbed for that kind of artwork. A lot of really great artists were both going to school there and coming through to talk to students. I had [also] worked for [artist] Ashley Bickerton in Indonesia when I was a teenager; he went to Cal Arts too. One of the things that was interesting to me was the relationship between Cal Arts and Disney: Disney started Cal Arts, there’s a whole story to it. Walt created the school so that he could create people who were right for the job; it was supposed to be more than just technical drawing. BROWN: So you’ve done this Disney movie, a kung fu movie and a TV sitcom; what do you want to try next?

MCDONELL: There’s a lot of stuff to try and make. It’s cool to work with other people as an actor, but one thing I would like to try is to make my own stuff … I’ve always tried to enjoy the waiting around. One of the reasons I started really liking working as an actor, was the other stuff, going to auditions and not getting parts and not working on films. Going to the office of some stranger and waiting in a line, in a hallway, with five other guys who look just like you, waiting your turn to go in and embarrass yourself, and then waiting around for feedback, which never comes. I really like that. For a young artist, it seems like the perfect thing to be doing, humiliation, over and over and over and over. Which I’m sure can’t be the way that some people look at it, but I thought that was so great. The point of it is if you make your own stuff you don’t have to deal with other people’s bullshit. [I’d like to] write, direct, produce, act. I directed a music video, when I was working on the Disney film, they found out that I was in a band [Moon] and they wanted to do an integrated music : I would make a song and they would put it on the soundtrack, so we got a cinematographer that I really liked and got everyone together and shot this video [“Time Stand“].

BROWN: Do you feel that people take you less seriously as an artist, actor, or musician when they find out that you do all three?

MCDONELL: I was just talking to a friend of mine about that, about dilution. I had a really excellent professor when I was in school, Haley Mellin, who’s an artist and a curator. I told her a little bit about what I was working on with music and acting, and she was like “No, now is the time to focus and your art and just do that.” But you’re talking about the way people perceive actors, artists, musicians, whomever. That’s a good question, I don’t know. I hope not. What do you think?

BROWN: With some people—for example, James Franco.

MCDONELL: James, it seems like he’s really an actor, and because he’s so good at that, he has access to other things and other worlds of art have become available to him in extreme ways. The thing I like most about him is that he’s so curious. You really see [that] the art world bends over for Hollywood sometimes, in this way that is really grotesque, and the other way around doesn’t happen, which is too bad, especially if you consider yourself an artist, and that’s what you care about, to see the people you admire and think about the most acting weird.

BROWN: But people can be very protective of visual art as a more “intellectual” art form than Hollywood films.

MCDONELL: Yeah, there’s a high-mindedness about it, but when it actually comes down to brass tacks and what’s actually happening, all that stuff goes away sometimes.

BROWN: Do you think that being a visual artist, actor and musician—doing three things, if not simultaneously, within a very short space of time—does dilute your ability to invest yourself in each individual art form?

MCDONELL: Three things, five things, two. The time is a thing; you don’t have so much time. A good trick is to try and think about a way to use material from one for the other. It’s like going through working a day job, this is so dumb to say, but you know how Julian Schnabel made those crockery paintings [while he was working as a short-order cook]? It’s like that, using what is around, transforming that to create meaning and make art. Trying to take nothing and make… something.

BROWN: So you are still continuing with art, you haven’t left it in favor of acting?

MCDONELL: Definitely not. Right now I’m painting, and I’m going to work as an actor. I just did a small show in September [at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts]. It has to do with language, mostly. I’m putting this piece in a show that opens in January; it’s a group show, but none of the stuff in here or any of the stuff in my studio is going in. [The piece I’m putting in is] a TV with all the channels, every channel. That’s a lot of channels. Is it really all the channels? Can you get more channels? I don’t know. This is all the Time Warner channels. Do you know how cable works? I don’t even know how it works, but the guy who came over to install my first TV explained cable. I didn’t have a TV for a long time. When I got one, I got all the channels and when I put it on, I got the idea for [the piece].

BROWN: Have you perused all of the channels?

MCDONELL: No, I just like the idea of having them. That’s sort of the point of the sculpture.

BROWN: Did you get it at Best Buy?

MCDONELL Strangely, I did. Do you go to Best Buy sometimes? I love that place.

YOU CAN WATCH THOMAS MCDONELL ON ABC’S SUBURGATORY STARTING TOMORROW, JANUARY 4. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HIS ARTWORK, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.