As a character actor, Bruce McGill never looks a gift horse in the mouth.
So, when he was about to sign a contract to trade an acting gig for a free vacation, he was ready to sign on the dotted line. Then things changed.
“I was set to go on a cruise and swap doing a show for the vacation,” says the 59-year-old performer. “It was a half hour from when the contracts came in the mail, when I got a call to be in Law Abiding Citizen. I looked at my wife and she looked at me in the eye and said, ‘What have you been working all your life for?’ So I knew I had to do it.”
McGill originally agreed to play the part of the mayor of Philadelphia, a city under siege courtesy of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), an inmate waging a one-man war on Assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) and his associates. It seems that years before, Rice allowed one of the killers of Shelton’s wife and daughter to walk on a plea bargain, and the since-incarcerated Shelton is now orchestrating the destruction of all involved—from his cell.
The role of mayor would have called for a brief stint at the Philly location. “Then after I agreed to two weeks work, they asked if I could do nine-and-a-half weeks instead,” says McGill. It seems that the role of Assistant D.A. Jonas Cantrell, originally slated for Sir Michael Gambon, needed to be recast. “I usually sit around to hear if Gene Hackman sprained his ankle (so I can audition for a role). And that’s what happened this time with Michael Gambon, who had some permit issue.”
Gambon’s loss was McGill’s gain, as the San Antonio native nabbed one of his biggest supporting roles to date in F. Gary Gray’s urban potboiler. Meanwhile, Oscar-nominated Viola Davis (Doubt) got the smaller part as the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love.
Since his attention-getting early screen role as “D-Day,” the gonzo frat boy who can play the William Tell Overture by tapping on his throat in National Lampoon’s Animal House, McGill has been in scores of movies and TV series as a supporting actor. Among his credits are Silkwood, The Last Boy Scout, My Cousin Vinny, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Cinderella Man, W. and the recent Beyonce Knowles thriller Obsessed, and roles in three movies by Michael Mann (The Insider, Ali and Collateral), a director he calls “tough but brilliant.” McGill’s television includes a starring part in the Animal House spin-off Delta House and the short-lived Semi-Tough, as well as stints on MacGyver, Star Trek: Voyager, and Numbers.
McGill, at home in serious and silly efforts, thinks Gerard Butler is smart taking on roles that showcase his range. He credits the Scottish actor’s work as Clyde Shelton, a nice guy inventor turned vigilante in Law Abiding Citizen, “a real breakthrough.”
“He is designing his career very interestingly,” says McGill. “He made the underwear movie which I call 300. And now he shows a side of him comfortable with high tragedy–and what Gerard Butler takes from it, it is high tragedy.”
With thirty-plus years of experience working with the likes of Robert Redford, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols, Jonathan Demme, and Oliver Stone, one wonders if McGill would consider a shot at directing a film.
“I’ve been in a lot of movies with a lot of good, thorough directors,” says the goateed actor. “It is a monumental job, just in terms of workload. My job is fantastic—I get a part, whether I earn it in an audition or they call and give it to me. I come and get a haircut and have a wardrobe fitting. I show up on the first day of shooting and given a nice little box I can sit in with a bathroom and where I can put my stuff. I got out and do my song and dance and on the last day I am needed, I’m done, I’m done.
“The director has to sell the project, get the gig, make sure the script is as good as they can possibly get it, cast it, hire the crew and make all the decisions before they shoot the thing. The set of skills needed to shoot the film is one thing, but the people skills are another thing all together and keep things from flying apart. It’s really a lot pressure and nobody’s getting enough sleep, if you’re working everyday. And People say, ‘Gee, what a great life!’
McGill says that Gray, director of Law Abiding Citizen, whose past credits include Friday, The Negotiator, Set It Off and The Italian Job, has what it takes to become a first-class filmmaker. “He has the passion to do it, and unwillingness to let himself be tired, and he’s constantly attempting to get it better as he envisions it. Gary and (producer) Lucas Foster worked in lockstep, which is unusual. These guys would sit there and look at it, and Gary is secure enough to appreciate Lucas being there. Gary loves doing it, and all of the good ones do. The others start to direct and say ‘Why do I do this? I’m too tired.’ I think of Robert Redford, who I did The Legend of Bagger Vance for. He was wrung out after the film, and he said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll do this again.’
“But of course he did, because he loves it. Gary has a major love for the process and he’s still a young guy. He’s done a lot, but he knows how to ride the bicycle now, and he’s gonna take flight. I feel that this is a breakthrough film for him, too. The movie deals with moral and political issues, but even with those aside, it gives you a great ride.”