Mark O’Brien and Kevin Bacon Are Directing Themselves
Mark O’Brien is coming into his own. Already a household name in Canada’s entertainment industry, O’Brien broke through in 2019 with his portrayal of the impetuous Jimmy Ryan on City on a Hill. Just three years later, the 37-year-old actor has received two Canadian Screen Award nominations for his directorial debut, The Righteous; will guest star on season two of Perry Mason; and is part of the stacked cast of AMC’s new Chicago crime drama 61st Street. This week, as the show kicked off its first season, O’Brien caught up with his City on a Hill costar, Kevin Bacon, for a chat about life as a midwest transplant, mastering regional accents, and the eerie feeling of directing yourself.
MARK O’BRIEN: How are you?
KEVIN BACON: It’s good to hear your voice.
O’BRIEN: Are you done with the season?
BACON: Yeah. It was great, but we missed you.
O’BRIEN: That’s all I need to hear.
BACON: 61st Street is really hard hitting, and you’re fantastic in it, as usual. What did you think of Chicago?
O’BRIEN: First of all, thanks. I’d never been to Chicago. It’s funny when people ask how you prepare for something. I normally say it’s different for everybody. We all got our own ways of doing it. You never know when it’s gonna hit you, but for me, I always have to get to the location early. Chicago is just such a cool city.
BACON: I do that same thing. Even if it’s not necessarily “research,” it is its own kind of research. Because you’re gonna be rubbing elbows with the people that you’re there to play. We spent so much time in Chicago specifically. It’s definitely not New York or L.A. There’s something about that strong hold of the Midwest that is so specific.
O’BRIEN: The identity of a major city is also the identity of the surrounding area. I haven’t spent any time in the Midwest. It’s a different vibe. I love going to a place where the feeling is palpable.
BACON: So what was the feeling of shooting? Was it similar to making City on a Hill, or did you have a whole bunch of different directors?
O’BRIEN: We did two-episode blocks. It was nice to have that consistency for a long period.
BACON: As long as you like who you’re working with, and I’ve been really lucky. A lot of people don’t realize that a television show has a new director for every episode. It’s a little bit of a mindfuck. But doing two or more episodes each lets them breathe and have the gig for a while, which I think is good.
O’BRIEN: I agree. It’s such a hard thing for a director to come in and be the newbie on set. It’s a confidence thing, too. Most directors are quite confident, because you have to be to do that job. But when you only have 10 days, you can’t really feel that confidence, because you just met everybody. Even if you don’t get along with them, they at least have time to get a bit more comfortable throughout the process.
O’BRIEN: But 61st Street was really dark material. It was similar to City on a Hill in that it’s compromised characters. The last thing we as actors wanna do is be the character who says, “Here’s the file, sir,” or “He went left.” You want there to be a lot bubbling underneath the surface of everything that you do. You mentioned that City on a Hill reminded you of those gritty ‘70s movies, and those are my favorites. They don’t rely on anything but tough storytelling. 61st Street was to my taste completely, like City on a Hill. You like those kinds of things too, right?
BACON: I really do. You make a good point. It’s what I call going home with the character. The solving of the crime is second to the journey of the person that you’re watching. And that’s what it feels like your show has. That’s the same kind of thing that the City on a Hill has, you have good shit to play. How many episodes did you shoot?
O’BRIEN: We did 16. It’s a limited series, with two eight-episode seasons. When you started City on a Hill, did you guys talk about where and how it would end? Are you aware of that at the start?
BACON: Television is hard—most people would be surprised to learn that a lot of actors don’t know where the show they’re in is going. It’s frustrating, but I get an episode-by-episode breakdown, I’m sort of an exception. In a movie, you know all of your scenes. So you can say to yourself, “I don’t want to yell too much in this scene since I have that big yelling scene coming up.” In some ways it kind of makes sense that you wouldn’t know because you’re living that life. But you really killed that part on City on a Hill. You’re from Newfoundland, right?
BACON: A lot of people say to me, “I had no idea that Mark wasn’t from Boston.” That goes beyond accents. You really were able to embody that culture, and now you’re doing it again in Chicago. Do you have a specific way of finding a regional accent?
O’BRIEN: I think with character stuff the accent does matter, but it’s more an actual voice that always clicks with me. With Chicago, I picked up the accent, but I didn’t wanna do it too thick because I don’t think he’s that extroverted of a character. The thing I really liked about the role is that he doesn’t talk much, and I definitely have no problem talking.
BACON: I feel the same way—it’s not the accent, it’s the character’s voice, it’s the way he moves. How is The Righteous going? Did you have the time of your life doing that?
O’BRIEN: First of all, thank you for watching it. I sent it to you because I was excited to share it with people I admire, and you said such nice things about going out there and getting things made, and that was the struggle. But now I’m seeing it on the screen and it’s being released in June.
BACON: That’s great news.
O’BRIEN: I always wanted to direct, as much as I wanted to act, but it’s not always easy to do both at the same time. What made you say, “I want to direct now?”
BACON: I ever think I was gonna direct. I went into this business loving movies, and thinking that I was gonna be an actor. Animal House was the first movie that I ever did. I walked onto the set and I was like, “This is fucking insane!” It was a crowd scene with a crane shot and all this shit flying around. I was like, “This is madness.” It was completely overwhelming. The second day I walked on the set and I said, “I wonder what that does?” On the third day, I wondered, “Why did they change the lens on that camera?” And so on. I started enjoying the process of filmmaking, and I still do. It’s just cool. I love gear. After a while you go, “Well, maybe I’ll take the reins here. But you and I both know having done it, that it’s really all about answering questions. All day long. Did you direct any episodes on 61st Street?
O’BRIEN: No. I directed my first series in Canada called Republic of Doyle years ago. So I had directed myself a bunch. I’m always asked what it was like to direct myself. How do you find it?
BACON: I haven’t done all that much. I gave myself a part in a movie that I directed called Loverboy. It was a flashback scene, so it was very meta. I was playing Kyra’s [Sedgewick, Bacon’s wife] father and my daughter Sosie was playing Kyra as a little girl. And Marisa Tomei was playing her mother. Sosie had never acted before. We didn’t have any playback because we couldn’t afford it, so we shot everything blind. I was in this scene with Marisa, a fucking Academy Award winning hilarious actress, and after we finish the scene, she goes, “Did we get it?” And I go, “I have no fucking idea.”
BACON: I was doing what I should be doing as an actor, which is staying in the scene and not stepping outside of it. It was good for me to figure out how to do both things. When I did City on a Hill, I didn’t direct until the second season. At that point I knew my character, I didn’t even have to read the script to be him. That it made it a lot easier to direct. So I guess I would say that for me to direct myself, I need to be even more prepared and grounded in my character. What are you doing next?
O’BRIEN: I’m doing Perry Mason right now. I loved the first season so much.
BACON: Oh, that’s great.
O’BRIEN: What are you working on?
BACON: Uh, I’ll text you.
O’BRIEN: [Laughs] That sounds exciting.