Exclusive: John C. McGinley on Stan Against Evil, Brothers in Arms doc and the importance of language

In Stan Against Evil, McGinley is the titular Stan who is coping with loss amidst mayhem in his town. Pic credit: IFC
In Stan Against Evil, McGinley is the titular Stan who is coping with loss amidst mayhem in his town. Pic credit: IFC

Loss, love, personal hell, and redemption themes within a backdrop of clever parodies of classic horror films are what’s cooking for John C. McGinley, the star of Stan Against Evil on IFC.

Showrunner Dana Gould’s critical darling creepy comedic TV baby is into season three, and McGinley’s gruff Archie Bunker-esque Stan is taking his rapid-fire repartee and big-brained wit to the ninth inning with bases loaded.

The eight-episode new season of Stan Against Evil will pick up where season two left off with Stan and Evie (Janet Varney) accidentally opening a portal into the past, allowing the 17th-century demons to enter Willard’s Mill.

McGinley is a recognizable face in so many great TV and films. From film roles in Wall Street to Platoon, and masterful characters in TV series like Scrubs to his retired New Hampshire police sheriff Stan Miller, these are but a few of the many roles he has done that fans eat up.

For the big screen, John C. will soon be seen in writer/director Paul Sanchez’ documentary Brothers in Arms, about the making of the Oliver Stone film, Platoon.

When he’s not in front of the camera, John C. is a warrior for social change, advocating for Down syndrome awareness and acceptance.

As the father of Max, his 21-year-old son with Down syndrome, John C. is the Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) and is a board member of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation.

He is also one of the original creators, in conjunction with Special Olympics, of the Spread the Word to End the Word national campaign to eradicate the “R” word.

We spoke to John about all of this recently:

Monsters and Critics: I grew up in the Boston area and I recognize Stan so very well. Coincidence?

John C McGinley: [laughs] Yeah, I grew up every summer in New Hampshire and I recognize him too.

M&C:  Dana Gould is from Massachusetts as well and, being from that region, the sly stuff that’s inserted into your very funny, noir comedy resonates. I was wondering this third season, the portal’s open, Maria Bamford was shown in the teaser as a crazy nurse, what’s going on?

Stan has hell to pay, or at the very least get out of in Stan Against Evil. Pic credit: IFC
Stan has hell to pay, or at the very least get out of in Stan Against Evil. Pic credit: IFC

John C McGinley: I thought what Dana did was really brave because… I don’t know how old you are or how far your TV history goes back, but when a principal dies or when the defecation hits the oscillation, like in [the original TV series] Dallas, when Bobby just woke up and he had a bad dream about J.R. dying. Well, Dana could’ve used one of those arcane TV conventions, but he didn’t.

What he did was this really esoteric approach where our two heroes are in hell, and the only way for them to get back is to embrace their own personal hells and chart that really tricky landscape, and that is how they can come back.

Unless they can do that, they’re out. Which I thought took so much spine for a writer to do instead of just going like, “Oh it was a bad dream, or I made a mistake and we go from there”.

Dana took this 21 minute and 35 seconds per episode comedy, sitcom, horror show and made the principals own their past. I got that script and I was like, “Really?”

That’s the first episode of the third season. I thought it had a lot of spine and it’s indicative of how ambitious the third season is.

M&C:  I saw Maria Bamford in the teaser. I love her comedy and I want to know if you had a part in getting her to read for that role of the nurse?

John C McGinley: Dana wrote it for her.  So that was a Dana get. Maria and I did a cartoon together called “Word Girl” for PBS for almost seven or eight years. I don’t know how long we did it. So I’ve known Maria a long time.

But I had no idea what she was gonna bring to Atlanta and man it turned … she’s in [episode] 307, and 307 is gonna blow the back of your head off.

M&C: There are so many great scenes. One of the things about your iconic role as Dr. Perry Cox in Scrubs, that show had a million brilliant comedic writers. I don’t know how you guys organized it or kept it from being chaotic but what’s the writer’s room like for “Stan Against Evil”? I know that you ad lib a lot of your own lines. It’ll just come out of nowhere and it works.

Dr. Cox in Scrubs, a comedy that ran on NBC and ABC. Pic credit: NBC
Dr. Cox in Scrubs, a comedy that ran on NBC and ABC. Pic credit: NBC

John C McGinley: The writers’ room for “Stan Against Evil” is Dana Gould. He’ll rotate in three or four of his friends, they’ll write an outline, and then they’ll punch it up together but it’s Dana’s baby, man. It’s Dana.

You need a singular creative vision.

Whether it’s Oliver [Stone] on Platoon or Wall Street or Talk Radio or any of those, or [showrunner] Billy Lawrence on Scrubs, we’re on a set, or Kathryn Bigelow on Point Break, you need one vision.

It doesn’t work…everyone wants to collaborate, and that’s fine, but you need one vision. It’s Dana’s vision and I collaborate with him.

We’re both obsessed with the tone of the show. What I mean by the tone of the show, you’ve seen the first two seasons so you understand, but Stan lives, his frequency band, is halfway between the Exorcist on one extreme where it’s really scary but you can’t break a joke… and the other extreme… I’ll make it up, but it’s Scooby Doo where it’s funny but the monsters are largely declawed.

We wanted it [Stan Against Evil] to live in the middle there, which is an incredibly hard landscape to maintain because it’s so easy to make jokes at the witches expense and then the witches are no longer a threat, or, it’s really easy to make the witches so scary that they dominate everything.

To live somewhere in the middle there, which is where Stan does live, is really hard. There’s tons of traps and Dana and I are both obsessed with it and we have been obsessed with that from go.

The one way we found to do it and what resonates, we found, at these comic cons we go to, whether San Diego or New York or the one we did last summer up in Silicon Valley, where people really connect is when Evie or Stan have to emotionally connect and all the B.S. has to stop, just for a second, it has to stop and they have to get their bearings… otherwise we’re dead.

When they authentically do that, which is the only way Janet and I know how to do it, and then Dana puts this stuff on the page, and it’s like Thanksgiving dinner! The actors just can’t wait to call action and get out of my eye line.

That preposterously ambitious oner that walk and talk with a steady cam, which was about five pages, the beginning of [episode] 208, where before Stan walks into that house to transport back to get Claire, I mean, that was six pages and a oner! That’s insane!

Dana put it down and I think we did it three takes. That stuff yields dividends because it grounds the show.

M&C: Dovetailing off what you just said, your facility for language, and your ability to think on your feet so quickly, and to spit out lines with such voracity and authority, that has served you so well in “Stan” as well as everything else you’ve done. Are there unsung roles that you wish people knew more about, that you’re especially proud of?

John C McGinley: Yes, these two independents I just did that came out last year and then this year. The Good Catholic, I thought, was a spectacular, contained, unbelievably well-realized, independent film.

From left, Danny Glover, Zachary Spicer and John C. McGinley on the set of The Good Catholic, Pic credit: Pegasus Pictures
From left, Danny Glover, Zachary Spicer and John C. McGinley on the set of The Good Catholic, Pic credit: Pegasus Pictures

Then we did this film in Nashville a little while ago, and it came out this year, called, Benched.

It’s with Garret Dillahunt and myself. It is pretty much a two-hander.

It’s so clean and it’s so spot-on. It’s based on a play called Rounding Third that Richard Dresser wrote and because it ran for so long in Chicago, they kept whittling away any fat in the narrative.

A still from Benched with John C. McGinley(right) Pic credit: Gravitas Ventures
A still from Benched with John C. McGinley(right) Pic credit: Gravitas ventures

So by the time Richard Dresser turned Rounding Third into Benched, it was just this stealthy, streamlined, piece. Garret and I just tore into it for three weeks in Nashville and the film came out, it’s spectacular.

M&C: One of my favorite things that you talked about with Dan Patrick was when you remember your dad and the things that he would talk about and how he would stay fit and the little words of advice and then, of course, your own family history in sports and how important sports is to you. How important are sports to you?

John C McGinley: I think it’s a way to structure your life and for actors or, like you, any independent vendor when we have down time, I need to structure it. I structure it with, like we were surfing this morning or playing golf, or lifting weights.

As my father used to say, “Fighting’ gravity”. However, you wanna fight gravity. I think, for independent vendors, free time can either be the devil’s handiwork or it can be incredibly productive. I’ve chosen the latter.

So, between being daddy, the driver to pottery, to ballet, and to different speech and occupational therapy classes for Max and, for the girls, taking them to swimming, and horse, and theater class, in between I like to structure the day. I’m much better served with structure and sports has always structured the day for me.

M&C: You mentioned Max …Can you talk about the importance of siblings in the family and their interaction with a child with Down syndrome and especially with how it relates to Max and his development? How’s he doing as a teen?

John C McGinley: Well the dirty little secret with people with Down syndrome, is it’s very, very, difficult as a young adult, Max is 21, to have age-appropriate friends. It breaks your heart but I can’t be a hypocrite. I didn’t have any friends who were born with challenges when I was 21. That has to be okay because young men and women are going off and they just hit the springboard of getting out of college and they’re going and doing their things.

Well, [with] Max, that’s not what we’re doing, although he is going to Santa Monica Community College, and he is working at Starbucks, and he is doing all this stuff, but age appropriate friends are practically impossible.

So Max has a best buddy and he has his two sisters. That’s not lost on them. I’ve made it very clear, I can’t really force you to be your brother’s friend, because I don’t buy that.  But I can make it an important responsibility that’s gonna make you shine. That’s a better approach. And eight and ten-year-old little girls wanna shine and they get the shine with Max.

With the introduction of spoken language for them, I don’t know when you get spoken language, four and five, you know, really well articulated spoken language for [my daughters] Billie Grace and Kate, it liberated the household. Otherwise, you really had to ride very closely during playtime because maybe Max would squeeze somebody the wrong way or maybe they would fall together the wrong way, and you damn sure better be there to spot.

When the girls, now, would like Max to do something prior to engagement, like maybe wipe your mouth because maybe there’s some stuff on your lips… or maybe clean off your chin or maybe don’t hug me so hard or hug me without your hands around my neck, wrap them around my shoulders, that has liberated the house in the independent play which is just mind mindbogglingly different to be in that house when those three people are allowed to have independent play.

That’s the gold standard in our house. Billie Grace and Kate like to micromanage independent play, so have at it.

M&C: It must have been so wonderful to have them with Max. Max isn’t an only child and that he has these girls that love him unconditionally and …

John C McGinley: … No there’re conditions! If he has ketchup all over his face from lunch, you gotta wipe him off. If you’ve got slobber coming down your chin, no kisses till you wipe it off.

I like conditions. I like them creating conditions because it’s more realistic. So that it can’t just be “Max anarchy” because that’s not okay and when there’s an environment that fosters that kind of behavior, I think it’s a mistake because Max is not allowed to have “Max anarchy” in Santa Monica Community College.

He’s not allowed to have “Max anarchy” at Starbucks. That’s not okay. And I love that there’s conditions. I’m not being a pill, I’m just saying I like when the girls create an environment where we can do this but we’re doing it together.

M&C:  Your work with the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, they’re fighters. Talk a little bit about that and their research-driven advocacy… 

John C McGinley: They’re spectacular. You did your homework.  I did the warm and cuddly kumbaya for eight years when I was doing the Buddy Walk, which was great. It was a way of raising money for the National Down Syndrome Society, which did a good job. That was mostly let’s hold hands and let’s empower each other.

The Global Down Syndrome Foundation has lobbyists in Washington D.C. They’re the single most powerful Down syndrome organization on the planet. We care about 50 different seats that Denver Children’s Hospital, the Linda Crnic Institute at the SIE Center, and we’re obsessed with Alzheimer’s.

Because if our population lives long enough, everybody in the Down syndrome community, if you live long enough, Alzheimer-like conditions will present but you’re not gonna get a hard, fatty, tumor. You might get a blood cancer but it’s very unlikely you’re gonna get hard tumors. Why? So now that’s made our population just indispensable in a research way to the baby boomers.

The Alzheimer’s hammer is just gonna be like a cosmic assault on Boomers and nobody knows anything about Alzheimer’s. Anything. Aside from this brain plaque, I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about what Paul Simon wrote,  “Breakdowns come, breakdowns go, what are you gonna do about it? That’s what I’d like to know”. Well, what are you gonna do about Alzheimer’s? That’s been the mandate that we’ve embraced and we are just ripping this thing apart at Global.

We have research guys who are just cream of the crop and it’s baby steps. Trust me. It’s baby steps but our population is the perfect research group and that’s what we’re doing. That’s why I wanted to be with them. It’s run by a woman who went to Harvard Business. A woman named Michelle Sie Whitten.

Michelle is to Down syndrome as Tim Shriver is to the Special Olympics.  That’s saying a lot because Tim is one of my idols.

M&C: It’s exciting and it’s wonderful that it’s such a focused and powerful organization. There’s show on A&E called Born this Way we cover…

John C McGinley: I know, I think those guys are doing a great job.  I think some people think the show is too rough. The fact of the matter is for young adults, born with Down Syndrome, it’s tricky.

Remember, most of our population was institutionalized 25 years ago so they never came up for air. So this is a whole new landscape that we’re exploring. What are young adults supposed to do? We’re figuring it out.

What’s Max McGinley supposed to do when he’s not at Starbucks and not at Santa Monica Community College? We’re figuring it out, man. Every single caregiver is trying their hardest and it is a bear.

That said, it’s a bear for all typical parents. I get in these chat groups and I tell parents who have kids born with Down syndrome, I tell ’em look, “Most of us are gonna grind through our lives as parents and as bill payers and we’re gonna do C+, B-. We’re gonna do B, and we’re gonna pay for the car, we’re gonna pay for the house, we’re gonna do a good job, and that’s great. That’s the best most of us can do.

But when you have a kid who’s thrown in your lap, who is born with special needs, you have to be spectacular. It’s a chance to be great at something. For the first time in your life, you get to be great cause you’re gonna have to be.”

I’m not kidding. Because you’re gonna have to overcompensate. I’m not talking about being a helicopter parent. I’m talking about thinking outside the box. I’m talking about vitamin interventions. I’m talking about seeking fifth opinions for the same malady because his first four doctors had their head up their ass.

I’m talking about not allowing that child to be over medicated by a community who would love to just over medicate the child. I’m talking about being a spectacular parent and function at an A-level for the first time in your life. Go get that! Go get THAT.

M&C: Language is so important. I know language is important to you, the words people choose. It relays respect and feelings and it can inflate or deflate in a second. I wanted to know if we could finish the interview with your thoughts on language?

John C McGinley: It’s easy because, as I put in one of those two Huffington Post blogs, language profoundly imprints behavior. It gives us license to behave the way our language was said. A lot of us would never, ever, think to behave in a certain way until language, all of a sudden, makes maybe unacceptable behavior commonplace.

The nomenclature becomes polluted with this sanitized versions of derision. Now, all of a sudden, you start acting in a derisive way when you never would’ve before because you’ve been given permission by language.

Well, that’s a really slippery slope and you’re responsible for it. When people don’t take responsibility for their language because their First Amendment this and First Amendment that is so spineless and weak.

I just wanna take them by the esophagus and rip their f***ing throats out. It’s not fair when people hide behind, “I get the right to say whatever I want.” You do have the right to say whatever you want until it impacts groups who can’t defend themselves, and then you’re a coward. There should be a price.

There is when you use inflammatory language about Jews or Gays, or African Americans, or Italians, or Latins, there’s a price. There’s a tax on that kind of language, but there is not, you’re free to disparage the special needs community with impunity, knowingly, in films and in TV and in these talk shows, you’re a coward. If you don’t know, then you know, that’s a Spread the Word to End the Word hopes to educate you on.

When I teach at USC and UCLA and we go over the fact that there just might be a synonym or a better way of saying, “that the party was retarded”.

There might be a better way to say that and it might make the script better. I teach screenwriters and playwrights. There might be a better way to say that. If there’s not, then you’ve got to consult the Thesaurus, man.

Season 3 of Stan Against Evil will debut on IFC Wednesday.

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