The actor: Though he’s been (playfully) dogged for years about having a name a little too similar to another actor’s, Dermot Mulroney is a one-of-a-kind performer. He cut his teeth on serious dramas like Longtime Companion and Where The Day Takes You, embodied wanderlust in neo-Westerns like Bright Angel, starred in trailblazing indies like Living In Oblivion, and, in his foray into romantic comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Family Stone, became the one who got away from America’s sweetheart. TV comedies like Friends and New Girl have counted on Mulroney to be their silver fox; he even shows some of that charm in his latest turn as the big bad in Hanna season two, albeit with considerable more ruthlessness. Mulroney talked to The A.V. Club for a Random Roles interview that covered a multitude of highlights from his decades-long career.
Sin Of Innocence (1986)—“Tim McGary”
Longtime Companion (1989)—“John Deacon”
Staying Together (1989)—“Kit McDermott”
Where The Day Takes You (1992)—“King”
The A.V. Club: Some of your earliest films deal with some weighty subject matters, like the AIDS crisis and homelessness. Did you seek out that type of dramatic role from the start?
Dermot Mulroney: I did get a fast start—the first job I had was a family drama, Sin Of Innocence. I started shooting that in January of 1986. By 1990, I was doing Young Guns, then Longtime Companion followed that. I had definitely been used mostly for drama at that point. When I first starting auditioning for stuff, there was such a wide array of things—you know, after-school specials and Sunday night movies of the week, miniseries—a whole different type of product than we have now.
They cast me as a dramatic actor, but in college, I had been in an improv comedy troupe for two or three years. At Northwestern, I’d starred in the operetta which was made to be absurd and ridiculous. Then, suddenly, I’m the young leading man in family drama type of roles. That culminated with this incredible part of John Deacon in Longtime Companion, which was a groundbreaking movie. It still is breaking ground. We’re not just looking back at a movie that broke ground then—it’s still doing that and lives on beautifully as a testament to lives lost, and that first eight years of AIDS as it struck the heart of creative America. Where The Day Takes You remains a phenomenal movie with a cast that’s as long as my arm. That’s a really handmade film. I bet that thing rings truer than ever now in terms of America’s, even just Hollywood’s, housing issues. It was beautifully made—written by Mike Hitchcock, but really conceived by Marc Rocco.
Bright Angel (1990)—“George Russell”
Silver Tongue (1994)—“Reeves McCree”
August: Osage County (2013)—“Steve Huberbrecht”
AVC: You did a few non-traditional Westerns, which led to an ongoing collaboration with the late Sam Shepard, including starring together in Bright Angel and August: Osage County. When you first stepped on the set for Bright Angel, did you have any idea you’d get to work together as much as you did?
DM: It’s staggering to me. There’s even one more link in that chain—prior to Bright Angel, an agent from William Morris Agency signed me based on a Sam Shepard scene. It was the opening scene for Fool For Love. About four years later, I met with the producers and Sam for Bright Angel, which really is the first western I did. I don’t think there’s any riding in it, because it’s a modern-day tale. It’s based on Richard Ford’s short novel; he’s written some of the most complex character novels that I’ve read—modern American novels. He wrote that script and was friends with Sam Shepard. He asked Sam to do this pretty small part at the time, because the tale was really about my character and Lili Taylor and Benjamin Bratt’s characters. The three of us road-tripped through Wyoming and had the most bizarre postmodern series of experiences, many of which are taken from Richard Ford’s short stories.
That’s when I first met Sam, and we actually became friends. We crossed each other’s paths four or five more times. After he’d passed, I even performed a one-act play of his at the Odyssey Theater in West L.A. It’s called Killer’s Head, and it was first performed in 1968. Richard Gere, who was the kid at that time, originated the role, and I just did that as a side thing to honor Sam and say goodbye in my way. I don’t think more than just a couple dozen people saw it—that was just this year, in January.
My collaboration with him lives on. I’ll never forget a moment I spent with him. It’s just staggering that I even knew him. I never knew he was sick. I was never a social friend of his in that way. He’s such a complex person; sometimes when you’d see him again, you didn’t know quite whether he’d really remember who you were. I say that with a laugh, but I can tell you, I’ve thought about Sam Shepard a hell of a lot more than he ever thought about me, and I don’t mind one bit. I just loved him as a person and then, of course, worked with him late on August: Osage County. We did pal around a little bit—he had my wife and myself over to his place near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and cooked us a steak.
The Thing Called Love (1993)—“Kyle Davidson”
Kansas City (1996)—“Johnny O’Hara”
AVC: The Thing Called Love and Kansas City aren’t musicals exactly, but they’re very much steeped in genres of music: country and jazz. Were you able to work any of your own musical knowledge into those movies, or were they primarily learning experiences?
DM: Those are great movies to correlate with one another. It was incredible to work with those men: River [Phoenix] and Peter Bogdanovich and T-Bone Burnett on The Thing Called Love, and Robert Altman and Harry Belafonte on Kansas City. Unbelievable that I was invited to be a part of real, like you say, musical movies. The first time I met Altman, he sits me down in the office first and says, “So, what do you think of our movie?” He asked me. “Our movie.” That was an unbelievable moment when I thought, does he really mean “our movie”? Doesn’t he mean “his/this movie?”
That guy tucked me under his wing in an indescribable way. Those who know Bob know what I mean. I’m one of those. But he kind of tricked me on Kansas City; he goes, “We’re going to need you to be dragged through the Kit Kat Club. There’s a chance we’re going to get to the shot,” and just made me kind of wait around. But he never shot it. [Laughs.] He just wanted somebody around. What we gained was a lifelong friendship; I sat next to him and I watched him shoot all those jazz sequences live. That’s one of the few movies that has an entirely live recorded score, recorded in real time to the picture in the movie. The music you see on film becomes the score of the movie. I still listen to it to this day. That wasn’t pre-recorded or studio. Those guys played every day for 12 days in that bar, sang all that, played all of that live. He deliberately subjected me to one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life, and that’s because Bob knew somebody like me ought to see that. He and his wife, Kathryn, were jazz lovers and were always wired into that scene. This was a tribute to that music. They collected all the best young jazz players of the 1990s to play all the best jazz players of the 1930s.
As far as The Thing Called Love, I had just done my second movie with Sam Shepard; he asked me to appear in Silent Tongue opposite River, Alan Bates, Richard Harris, and Tantoo Cardinal. That was the beginning of my friendship with River, which led to him urging Bogdanovich to cast me in The Thing Called Love, because we were already running buddies from spending two and a half months in Roswell, New Mexico, where we shot Silent Tongue. That was an indelible experience. And he told Bogdanovich, “if you want good chemistry in your movie, look at me and Dermot—that’s a chemistry set.” Here’s a kid, six, seven years younger than me, telling the director that we had good chemistry. [Laughs.] That’s how I got the part, as Peter has since told me. Peter’s still around, bless him, so we got to honor him before he makes his final bow. He is a treasure.
Living In Oblivion (1995)—“Wolf”
Box Of Moonlight (1996)—“Wik”
DM: Those movies mean so much to all of us that came up through that independent film world, because they really honor something that’s a much different creature. Making smaller movies is just different now. My 21-year-old son watched Living In Oblivion recently, and just loved it.
AVC: My Best Friend’s Wedding definitely subverts our expectations of a romantic comedy. Julia Roberts was the queen of the genre at the time, and this is the movie where her character doesn’t get the guy. Did it feel like you were turning the whole thing upside down at the time?
DM: There’s a lot we can say about the perspective of that movie and its intent. My job was to go in there and be a guy that is deeply and irrevocably in love with Kimmy [Cameron Diaz]. I wasn’t supposed to be on the fence in that movie. That’s what makes it good. It was an insurmountable obstacle for Julia; she’s this terribly, terribly sad clown in that movie. That’s what people love about it. It’s that downturn smile frown that she wore. You could put her in Emmett Kelly makeup, if you wanted to, in that movie, because she tried and even America’s prettiest person couldn’t get some guy for some random reason. It was awful for her. [Laughs.] It’s still awful. It drives people to distraction.
AVC: Having gone to Northwestern, you were probably the only person in the cast who was familiar with Chicago. Did you take them around town?
DM: Well, yes—to Double Door, of course. We had some hangs there, as that runs in the family. Yeah, I knew Chicago really well. That movie just, it painted every corner of that mid-part of the city: Comiskey Park [Ed.: now Guaranteed Rate Field], the tour boat under the bridge. Remarkable. Obviously, I hold a place for Chicago in my heart. I went back there for Shameless somewhat, and for Crisis. I got nothing but big love and deep gratitude to Chicago, that’s for sure. My relationship to Chicago is just as strong as Chicago’s relationship to me. I love the place.
About Schmidt (2002)—“Randall Hertzel”
DM: That’s a phenomenal, one-of-a-kind movie, really. I don’t know what other movie you can quite compare it to. Deeply heartbreaking, hilarious. I got to work with Jack [Nicholson] and Hope Davis and Kathy Bates. Incredible group. I wish I had a different word than “incredible” today, but.
I thought it was such a long shot, because [Randall] was written as a guy who had a mullet with no hair on top and a ponytail in the back. That was written specifically into the script. I thought I didn’t have a shot, my hair’s too good. [Laughs.] But seven weeks after I auditioned for it, I got that role. That was a real nail biter.
The shoot itself took on its own feel in Omaha, really on the ground. No camera tricks, no nothing. Just incredible scenes and this incredible character, Randall Hertzel, who works at a waterbed outlet, and is madly in love with Jack Nicholson’s daughter. There’s no describing that movie. The experience was its own bubble of time with those actors, Jack and Kathy and Hope.
The Family Stone (2005)—“Everett Stone”
The Wedding Date (2005)—“Nick Mercer”
Must Love Dogs (2005)—“Bob Connor”
AVC: In 2005, you made three movies that all have a rom-com element: The Wedding Date, Must Love Dogs, and The Family Stone. Talk about a movie that drives people to distraction—I feel like I argue with people over The Family Stone every holiday season.
DM: It’s funny, I didn’t see The Family Stone as a romantic comedy. All along, I’ve said I’ve done two romantic comedies, My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Wedding Date, but you know what, it’s not true. You got Must Love Dogs, too, obviously. And certainly, The Family Stone is that, but that movie is so deep, and it impacts people in a way that is unique to that movie.
AVC: You’re right that The Family Stone is a family drama for a lot of its run, but it’s also a story where you bring your girlfriend home to meet your family, and—whoops—you fall in love with her family.
DM: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s a really devious movie, and it has uproarious scenes in it. That’s really what puts it over the top. Sarah Jessica Parker’s character cares so deeply about impressing the family with this egg dish and they wind up slapping each other under the table. That one, it rivals any tooth-grinding family dinner scene in any movie ever. It’s excruciating and hilarious, and so much of that movie works because of that cast. Craig T. Nelson in that scene is remarkable, and Luke Wilson is dynamite. I love him dearly, like a brother. We’re both very brotherly guys. Diane [Keaton] is a treasure, of course. The depth of that emotion in those scenes, that’s all Keaton’s work there showing on my face. Incredible. I’ve said incredible a lot today. Feel free to edit all of that. Maybe leave one, so it has some impact. [Laughs.] But I do have wonder at it all. I am in awe of how things have gone. I can’t pretend. I don’t know how else to be about it.
Friends (2003)—“Gavin Mitchell”
New Girl (2012-2018)—“Russell Shiller”
Arrested Development (2018)—“Dusty”
Station 19 (2018-2019)—“Greg Tanner”
AVC: I don’t mean to typecast you, but you have a fair amount of TV work where you’re like the silver fox. We see that on Friends, New Girl, Arrested Development, among others. Is that just in the script notes for your characters at this point?
DM: [Laughs.] It is. It was in Station 19, I know that. I remember reading it in the script thinking, “that’s overt.” How as a culture do we feel about calling men or women “foxes” anymore? No, to be serious, it is in there. It’s how I got New Girl, which was an interesting turning point for me. It was my first sitcom since Friends, but it all kind of lined up for me there. You touched on it earlier, but let me honor The Wedding Date and the people who love that movie, because they really are tried and true fans of that little delicacy. It’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you how it all connects together: Dana Fox wrote it—I don’t think it’s script doctored, so all those wonderful lines, “Six thousand dollars, that’s like a down payment on a Ford Focus,” are all hers, and she was on the writing staff of New Girl. They said “You know, we want somebody like Dermot Mulroney for this role,” and Dana Fox says “Well, why don’t we just call Dermot Mulroney?” That’s how I got that part. I don’t even know her, honestly. That’s just anecdotal, but that’s two bingos from that Dana Fox out there, so thank her for me. [Laughs.]
With Arrested Development, I tried to pin it down with Mitch Hurwitz—why on God’s green earth did you pick me to play that part? I mean, he was right, but I still can’t get to the bottom of why he would think I would be that guy. That part was written as a shaggy, white-haired guy who was much younger than Lucille. I’m supposed to be a beach bum mistaken for the son of the famous attorney. [Laughs.] Hurwitz is a maniac. I shot two days with that wig on, and then as I’m walking on set for the courtroom scenes, I finally meet mister maestro Mitch Hurwitz, and he stops in his tracks, and he says, “Okay, we’re going to lose the wig. We’re going to write in a haircut for you. We’re not shooting you today. Go home, and I’ll figure out how to change your hair. This isn’t going to work at all.”
Mozart In The Jungle (2015-2016)—“Andrew Walsh”
AVC: You’ve played cello on a lot of original film scores, including Rogue One, but Mozart In The Jungle was the first time you were really able to tap into your musical background on screen.
DM: Yeah, I played my own cello on both seasons. First season, I got to play a concerto by Édouard Lalo; the second season was supposed to be a modern piece, so it was original also a piece of Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie. The cello performances are pre-recorded, and they can shoot multiple cameras at different times and edit so that the music all matches. Then you basically finger-sync back to playing your own track on cello. And we got to film at these beautiful locations in Venice, Italy. It was a really animated series in terms of its tone, but it was all in this kind of small package. It was in that first round of these high-budget half-hour shows coming out of the streamers.
DM: I did not take that job lightly. There, too, they’re making a really crack series. It’s just a half-hour, and it’s incredibly visually arresting, directed beautifully, of course, by Sam Esmail. My little job was to come in for two or three days, sit across from Julia [Roberts], a woman who I love and admire just like the rest of America, but who I’m also best friends with and is one of the best actors in the world. If I didn’t already love and admire her, I would from that vantage point. What you get are these really intense, long scenes where, I won’t say all the rest, but much of the rest of the show is people on phones. It’s edited, chopped between timeframes and locations. Those two scenes we’re in together bizarrely become major signposts in that series. Sometimes, especially when you start doing more television, it’s nice to get an eight-page scene and just sit down and act it. Sometimes it’s on the fly and just these little bits, but those were nice, full-meal-sized scenes.
You know, Esmail wanted me to be kind of like Marc Maron for the first batch of scenes. But when we see Anthony again and has his shit together a little more, you can tell he has like a workout facility or whatever. That was the character designed by the director.
LA To Vegas (2018)—“Captain Steve”
AVC: This was your first time working with your celebrity doppelgänger, Dylan McDermott. I read that you guys had the same agent or manager at one point, but the connection goes even further back. You co-starred with Kelli Williams in There Goes My Baby, and she went on to be in The Practice with Dylan McDermott. It’s like your own game of Six Degrees Of Separation!
DM: I’ll go back one more than that. Staying Together, which was originally Boy’s Life, was the third movie I did. I played a character in the McDermott family. This is already after Dylan McDermott’s career had started—Dylan probably auditioned for that part—and I got it, and I’m playing Kit McDermott. [Laughs.] So, it was already chasing me by that time. But this is just half-time. Catch me and Dylan for an interview in another 10 or 20 years, and then we’ll really compare notes. We’ll empty our pockets, and we’ll see who won.
AVC: If you could pitch a movie—not necessarily an autobiographical one— starring the two of you, what would the concept be?
DM: The one I pitched to Dylan was for both of us to get into one suit with two necks in it and do it like Godzilla, and the monster would be called Dylder, and we’d each have one hand and one head. We’d try to take over the world, go marauding. [Laughs.] I didn’t get more than crickets out of him, either. I’m still going to try and push Dylder The Terrible right up the hill, though. We’ll see. They got this newfangled thing called computer animation. I don’t know if you heard about it.
AVC: Animation does seem to be the one area that doesn’t seem to be on hold.
DM: Yeah, that’s true. Wish I had me one of them jobs, but no, me, I’m on hold. Turns out actors are nonessential. We knew it all along. A luxury item.
AVC: This is probably your most unambiguously villainous character. What was it like to dig into your dark side?
DM: Yeah, there really isn’t that question of “is he a bad guy or a good guy?” We’re already in business. We know who’s who when Hanna season two starts. The program that my character has developed doesn’t pull any punches, and it concerns him and his wellbeing. Here’s a man who is the architect of this program that imploded after year one, when we dispatched the other babies and Hanna got lose. John Carmichael started Utrax 2, and has brought these charges up from infancy, trained them, inculcated them. He’s forced them to do this, wear that, think this. Now, he sits behind his powerful computers calling all the shots. That’s how I saw it, really as a mastermind who’s proud of his work. It’s at its final phase. They’re about to unleash his military product, deploy them to… you got to watch the whole show to find out to what. But that’s the deal. The fun part for Carmichael is he didn’t know Hanna survives. She’s a revelation to him, an enigma because she was so successful even without his training. Little does he know.
AVC: If you could pick the last role, something that you feel was underseen or underappreciated, what would it be?
DM: Honestly, I’ve gotten tons of appreciation. There’s roles in films, even stuff you mentioned, where I know I could do better if I had a second shot. That’s the trick, though. But yeah, Sin Of Innocence is one—it was the very first thing I did. Working with Bill Bixby was really moving for me, because he really teed me up and was one of those guys, I’ve mentioned another couple, who really took me under his wing.
I hope you hear as much gratitude as you’ve heard self-congratulation, because really, that’s what I mean—all the people I mention are gods to me. A couple of them, I really miss, too. Terrible losses in my life. If you’re thinking ’94 and ’95, on film, I see me still grieving River. Some of those things take on deeper reverberations just because of the path of life that I was on, outside of what movie came next.