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Exclusive interview: John C. McGinley on Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Frank O’Sullivan

John C. McGinley is starring in the last season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Pic credit: NBC

The last season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins Thursday this week on NBC. The cast of characters in this beloved comedy are joined by John C. McGinley, the acting lion and theater legend who eats scenery and comedically can effortlessly lay to waste any fool caught in his path.

McGinley is cast as Frank O’Sullivan. In an exclusive interview, and if you were wondering tonally what John C. was going to be serving up fans of this long-running comedy, he tells Monsters & Critics that Frank is “Archie Bunker meets Yosemite Sam.”

O’Sullivan is the Head of the Patrolman’s Union, and he will be a comic-foil for almost every member of the Precinct — especially in scenes with Andre Braugher’s Captain Ray Holt. The 10-episode 8th and final season begins on Thursday, August 12.

McGinley is no stranger to cop roles, but he won’t be a heavy like his corrupt political climber Chicago P.D. Season 6 character, Brian Kelton. His strength lies in the way directors use this MVP actor to fill in roles that need the weight and the talent he fills a hard-to-cast character. His role as Brooklyn Dodger’s announcer Red Barber in the film 42 is still one of the greatest underrated performances of all time.

His roles and his presence are memorable, and over time, have proven to be fortuitous in friendships and business deals for McGinley, who exclusively shares with M&C he has a new deal struck with Doozer’s (Ted Lasso) Bill Lawrence, a man who created, shaped and guided McGinley’s breakout medic, Dr. Perry Cox, years ago in the hit NBC series, Scrubs.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur for Fox, later airing on NBC. They have woven the thespian 800-lb gorilla that McGinley is into their existing ensemble this final season. McGinley rose to the challenge of bringing O’Sullivan to blustery life, all with an ear to the sensitivities that viewers may have in the wake of police reform protests.

As we interviewed McGinley previously for his critically acclaimed Stan Against Evil for IFC, we learned how McGinley is completely attuned to language and the power of words and intentions.

Exclusive interview with John C. McGinley

Monsters & Critics: Let’s talk Frank O’Sullivan, this character. What do you know of him for this last season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

John C. McGinley: I think he functions as a primary foil structurally for Andy and Andre’s characters. But he’s the head of the patrolman’s union, and he is Archie bunker meets Yosemite Sam. So that’s all I needed.

Frank is a guy who still runs this super powerful union, yet he still lives at home with his mother. He’s a completely dysfunctional Billy Joel fanatic. He has an Islanders talk show podcast [laughs], and he’s kind of a collection of all the characters the writers must have had in their back pocket for the first seven seasons and didn’t get the exercise.

And so they poured all of those into this guy, Frank O’Sullivan. And I was like, bring it on,

M&C: Do they allow you to ever go off the reservation of the script if you’re in a comedic improv moment?

John C. McGinley: I was pretty respectful with the writers because they crafted this guy so meticulously. I had a couple of throwaways that I brought with me to the set. And, after you get it right, two or three times, then I think it’s appropriate for actors to bring whatever extra flavor they want.

But I think it’s really important, especially on TV, and when we were shooting this in February, the first two hours daily were dedicated to [on set] COVID protocols.

And so there was even less time on the set, and I was hyper-aware of that, and I wanted to respect the kind of genius they already put down on the page.

So it didn’t need me to do a whole lot of improv-heavy lifting, which I liked to do. But the writers kind of backed up the dump truck of foibles and eccentricities and poured it into this guy [Frank].

M&C: Something you can relate to with the longevity of Scrubs. What’s it like being on the set of a long-running comedy that’s basically in its final season as a guest star?

John C. McGinley: I became good friends with [showrunner] Dan Goor. This thing’s a well-oiled machine. And so it’s a real treat to be able to go into a set like that. I mean, so many sets are so dysfunctional, and there are too many chefs in the kitchen, and you can’t get an answer about anything. And this set was just lickety-split. It was just watertight.

That ensemble is bulletproof. It reminded me of [TV series] Scrubs in that everybody, especially the writers, plays to each actor’s strengths instead of giving them a reach. All the time, they’re playing to their strengths, especially in the last season when you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

And so, me fitting into that ensemble was just a matter of understanding the piece’s tone. I have a really, really good ear for tone and the style that Dan was writing. And that, that gave me carte blanche to come and just crush.

And the other actors in that ensemble want you to because you’re lightening their load, and they have been at this for eight years. And I know what that’s like, to have somebody come in and bring some fresh energy is a total gift. And that’s what I tried to do.

Frank is very much ‘Archie Bunker meets Yosemite Sam.’ I told him [Dan} that was my takeaway when I read the first script that he had sent me. So he goes, ‘Yeah, bring that to the set, Archie Bunker meets Yosemite Sam. Let me see that.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, careful what you ask for there, Dan boy.’

M&C: Was there a discussion about skirting the elephant in the room, talking about newsmaking police issues, or just playing to the natural workplace comedy that happens in something like this?

John C. McGinley: I think it was the latter. Dan obviously is a really bright guy, and they had their ear to the ground. None of the George Floyd travesty was lost on them. And so they had to straddle that with great elan and with grace, and I was keenly aware of it.

They saddled that one with meticulous care now because this guy, Frank O’Sullivan, is an advocate, and he does want to deliver for us as a union. And that is a slippery slope given that we were shooting this in February when all, when the trial was going down and, I think they straddled it with, as I said, with all the elan that they could.

M&C: I did some snooping on you just to see what was up in the John C world. I saw you had a McGinley diaspora t-shirt, and that made me laugh. What was the story on that?

John C. McGinley: We started when my father wanted to take the three brothers, Jerry, Mark, and myself, to Ireland in 1999. And so we went, and it was great to have dad all to ourselves. He has since passed, but he was a very successful money manager. So it was very rare to have him all to ourselves.

And we said we have got to make a tradition out of this. And it’s very hard to get people to travel. I don’t know, 6000-7,000 miles, to meet for seven days. Meanwhile, babies get born, and christenings happened, and divorces happen, life happens. And so we missed 2000, then we missed 2001, and on 9/11, when my brother Mark was in the second building on that Tuesday, he was missing for about 15 hours. And obviously, we presumed he was dead.

He had pulled up FDR drive into East Harlem, and all the phones were down. So he couldn’t contact Shelly, his wife. When Mark finally surfaced, one of the takeaways was that when we decided to do something together as a family, we’re damn sure going to do it. And we haven’t missed a year since,

Our dad has since passed, and now our cousin goes with us. So we haven’t missed a year, and this year, obviously, they just went to level four in Ireland yesterday, which really bummed me out. But this year, we’re going to start in Galway, and then we’ll make our way back to Dublin, which is kind of our home base.

We’ve been going down to Kinsale for the last couple of years because we met a boat captain there, and we wanted to go out towards the RMS Lusitania, but it’s 11 miles off the coast. And that North Atlantic is too much.

We fell in love with Kinsale, and so we’ve been going there and to Dublin, but we’ve been to most of the islands. We’re very happy in Dublin. It is so beautiful there. I don’t know whether or not to… I can’t believe you’re asking me this [question]; we are wrestling with this right now.

A cancellation with your hotels and your airlines, you can do any time. But for tee times, it’s four weeks. So we have until the end of August to decide whether or not we’re going to pull the trigger on this thing because the only thing is if you travel halfway around the world and Dublin’s not what you signed up for, in other words, the pubs are half empty. The restaurants are only on the street. So are you better served to wait until the spring so that the Dublin that you love is there instead of Dublin kind of COVID-ed down?

I think my brothers will vote to postpone The gal who runs my fan club, Angie Quidim, who’s the greatest, got me those t-shirts, and I sent one to Mark. I sent one to Jerry. So we were all swagged up in McGinley swag. And then yesterday or Monday, Ireland went up to level four, which I guess in the world of COVID, it’s not good news.

I even came up away that to monetize the trip. I was going to go to Scotland on Sunday we were finished. I was going to go straight to the Comic-con there. But if we’re not going to know, I’m not going to fly to Edinburgh just for that. I could have flown from Dublin to Edinburgh, plus that would pay for the whole trip, which is fantastic.

But we haven’t pulled out yet because I have boots on the ground in Edinburgh, a friend of mine. And he was telling me yesterday that he said, ‘You guys gotta wait three weeks before you start canceling things, just wait three weeks.’ And so that’s what I’m going to tell Jerry and Mark.

M&C: You mentioned your dad was quite successful in the financial world. Did he give you notes before you did your role in Wall Street?

John C. McGinley: No, he thought this whole thing [acting] was alchemy. Before he passed, he got to see me in the Glengarry [Glen Ross], revival we did with Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale in New York.

He didn’t micromanage anything that ever had anything to do with acting. And he just thought the whole thing was magical and left it alone.

And Oliver’s [Stone] father also worked in finance. So part of that film was a love letter to his father. He had Charlie [Sheen], and I dialed in with a group. There was a guy named Liam Dalton, a tech advisor. He was a version of the Charlie character in the movie. And we got to hang with Liam at either Bear Stearns—or a place that’s no longer in business— for three weeks before the film. We had submersion rehearsal for that, so we were just dialed [in]. And it yielded huge dividends.

M&C: Comic-con Scotland. Have you done that before? Were you planning to be there?

John C. McGinley: I am still planning to be there. No, I’ve never done it before. I couldn’t be the only Comic-cons I ever did were when we were doing Stan Against Evil, and they were just kind of a hedge. None of the actors got paid to go to those because IFC was just sending us there to promote the show.

And so it will be a distinctly different experience to go and take part in the meet and greets, which I love, but we didn’t get to do them on Stan. We were down in San Diego three years in a row, and we were doing those Q and A’s in the rooms and people who were just fanatical about that show. So, I can’t get into it because it’ll break my heart talking about how it’s not on [TV] anymore.

But it was thrilling when you got a room filled [with vested fans]. You bust your a** on these things. Then if you get into a room and people are asking really salient and specific questions because they watched it and thought about it, and then they come to this thing, I think it’s great! I think it’s thrilling. But, look, if I can go, I will, but I don’t want to put Jerry, Mark, or myself in a position to get COVID. But if we can go to Ireland and Edinburgh, I’m going.

M&C: Tell me about McGinley Entertainment, Inc. Your independent film production company. Any interesting projects?

John C. McGinley: Well, it’s funny to ask that. We sold a pilot called Bear With Me to Bill Lawrence last week, who obviously invented Scrubs and now Ted Lasso. His company is called Doozer, and they are about to go out with Bear With Me.

And we attached Kim Bassinger, Angela Johnson and Mo Gaffney, and all these great actors. So I sent Billy the pilot, and they said yes, they want to do it. And so now they will find an exhibitor, and with any luck, the next thing we’ll be doing is Bear with Me.

That’s my very tidy answer to your question, which I’m thrilled to be able to say because if Billy passed on it, I wouldn’t have been able to say that. And Billy passed on many things I’ve brought him, trust me. The whole friendship thing is great, but when it comes to business, if it doesn’t resonate for Billy, he doesn’t [jump]. So Sarah [Chalke] brought him stuff. Zach [braff] brought him stuff. I brought him half a dozen things. And finally, he responded to Bear With Me.

And because Ted Lasso gives him so much latitude to be able to bring content to these different people. Because they all want to be creatively in bed with Doozer. We feel like the glass is half full.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.

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