PensEyeView.com (PEV): Take us back to how you first decided to go into acting and when did you make the big leap to actually venture into it?
Johnathan McClain (JM): Wow. Well, I guess I’ve wanted to perform in one way or another since I was a kid. When I was young, I just knew I liked the attention and that people smiling and clapping for you creates the illusion of being loved, and I got pretty addicted to that. And then when I got a little older I figured out you can affect people and move them with work you do. My dad was always very supportive and would take me to see lots of theatre, and that helped me figure out exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I remember being like 11, and going to see David Mamet’s AMERICAN BUFFALO, and I was like, “Holy shit, you can be an actor and do stuff like THAT?” And after around that time, I just put my head down and went for it.
PEV: What kind of actors where you drawn to growing up? Do you remember any one person that you wanted to be like?
JM: Like a lot of brooding actors around my age, I was drawn to DeNiro and Pacino, and then eventually Brando. But I also frankly always wanted to be like Ossie Davis and James Earl Jones. Basically I wanted to be either Italian or black. But I think that seriously what attracted me to the work of those guys was the intensity and the passion and fire it had. There’s an underlying anger in it, and it felt dangerous. And I wanted to somehow taste part of that, and make people feel what I felt when I watched it. I either wanted to piss people off or stir something up, and that’s how I felt watching those kinds of actors.
PEV: What was it like trying to break into the acting scene when you first started? What was your first real big gig like?
JM: Hell, I feel like you’re never done breaking into the acting scene. There’s always the next job to get. And to that point, I don’t know what I would classify as my first big gig. I guess if I had to label it, it would be when I was like 22 and wrote my one man show. It wasn’t something someone else gave me, I made it myself, but it was the first time I got crazy press and attention for something and I think that making it happen under my own steam was all the more satisfying. There wasn’t a ton of dough involved and when it was all over I was back to working a day job again, but it was the moment when I felt like, “Damn. I can do this. I’ve got something to say and people will listen.” It’d be almost another 6 or 7 years before I started making a real, full time living as an actor, but that was the moment that turned the tide for me and caused me to recognize that it could be a reality.
PEV: What can fans expect from a live Johnathan McClain performance?
JM: You ever see a G.G. Allin concert? Like that. I usually get naked and throw as much bodily fluid and feces on the unsuspecting Sunday matinee crowd as possible. No, um, lemme think… Honestly, I just try and live as truthfully and authentically as I can in a public setting. My friend Itamar Moses, who’s a genius playwright, gave me the nicest, most amazing compliment I’ve ever gotten. He said, “sometimes I feel guilty watching you, because I feel like I’m seeing something private happening, and I feel like a voyeur.” That means the world to me, because I’m actually a fairly self conscious person. And I make a real effort when I’m working to put that self consciousness away and just be present and in the moment and all that stuff. So I hope that if someone sees me in a live play, they’ll get to see someone who’s really there, y’know? Just…being.
PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage, or behind the camera to perform?
JM: Well, like I just kind of talked about, if I’m doing my job – nothing. If I’m really present and alive, then I’m mentally unconscious. Not checked out, but out of my own way. I’ve prepared and rehearsed and then removed the judgment and expectation, and I’m just letting the energy flow through me. Doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal. If I think at all, it’s to tell myself to be fearless. If I don’t talk back to myself, that’s good sign.
PEV: What is the best part about being on in front of an audience?
JM: When you’re in front of an audience you know immediately if what you are doing is landing and making an impression. You’ve got a breathing, pulsing, barometer. Plus, you get to run the show in terms of the work you do. When you’re on film, somebody else takes your work away and edits it, and tweaks it, and you no longer have real authorship of your performance. With live performance, it’s just you and them and the pact you make together. And if you’re phony, you’ll feel it. And it’s always unexpected. That’s what I like best.
PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your work?
JM: I have thousands of inspirations. I can get inspired by art, or movies, or plays, and especially music. When I see work that’s been made that’s special, it inspires me to go out and make my own. Or even when I see work that I don’t respond to, it inspires me to go out and try and step up what I’m doing. My job is to try and reflect back some version of life to the people watching, right? So I suppose in an over simplification, my inspiration is other people.
PEV: Thinking back to when you first started out do you ever look back at your career and think about your earlier days and how you’ve arrived where you are today?
JM: Sometimes. Lately I’ve decided that there is no such thing as arriving. In the A to B equation, there is no B. It’s all A. I’m just going to keep going until I can’t and then maybe I’ll take a look and feel something about the journey, but for now I’m too busy doing stuff to think about what I did the last time. Kind of how I stay sane and keep from getting too high or too low. Because compare and contrast can be a dangerous game.
PEV: What¹s one thing we¹d be surprised to hear about you?
JM: I dunno how surprised you get, but the things that surprise most people are that I’m 42 not 24 (so please stop calling me ‘dude,’ I’m old enough to be your father), and I have a bunch of fairly aggressive tattoos. By aggressive, I mean big, and black, and stark. I love getting tattooed. Also I have an amazingly high pain threshold. That’s not really a “surprise,” but it comes in handy in the tattoo parlor.
PEV: Tell us about your role as the lead on the TV Land comedy series, Retired at 35, starring along side George Segal and Jessica Walter. What can people expect from the show?
JM: On RETIRED I play a guy called David Robbins who quits his job in New York to move into his parents’ retirement community. In the second season we’ve added Marissa Jaret Winokur, Tony winner for HAIRSPRAY on Broadway, as David’s sister. And so in the second season, the show is much more an ensemble, family comedy than it was in the first. I’d say people can expect the expected. We’re a straight up, classic, family style sitcom. There are some twists and turns, but nothing too bonkers. I think we hit our stride in season 2 and found some really nice, honest, funny stories to play with and with any luck audiences will think so too. We never set out to re-invent the wheel, just put some new ones on your old family sedan.
JM: My friend Adam Stein, who’s in the Funny Or Die videos with me, came to me with a sketch he’d written about Rick Santorum. Adam used to write for DAMAGES which, while not known as the funniest show on TV, is excellently written and so was the sketch. We know some people at Funny Or Die and they thought it was funny too, so they put it on the home page and the response was solid, so we decided to keep going. It also gives us a chance to work with our friends and just play and have fun. We just shot one with Michael Emerson from LOST and PERSON OF INTEREST. We also feel like politics is any easy thing to make jokes about, because it’s kind of absurd. It’s not really about people, it’s about winning. So we decided to take on the role of these two behind the scenes guys who are kind of idiots and have no loyalty, but are addicted to the process and to winning. It’s been fun and we plan to keep going as long as we can.
PEV: How is “Retired at 35” different than works projects you’ve worked on in the past?
JM: Everything you do is different from everything else, but the biggest way in which RETIRED is different is that it’s succeeded. And by succeeded I mean we got more than one season, we’ve been given the green light to keep going, and TV Land has really put a lot of support and love into the show. I guess, if I’m being honest, the biggest difference in RETIRED and everything else I’ve done isn’t the work or the process, but the size. I’ve been doing this for a while and this is the first time I’ve had my face on a bunch of billboards, and ads on TV. That’s been strange, because I’ve now been around long enough to understand that doesn’t happen for everybody, so no matter what happens with the show in the long run, I’ll always be grateful for the shot.
PEV: We’re big music fans. What are you listening to these days?
JM: Since Adam Yauch’s passing, I’ve been listening to a lot of Beastie Boys, but I always listen to a lot of Beastie Boys, so that’s probably not a fair answer. I’m an enormous music fan, so rather than try and distill it down, I’ll just list what all comes up as having been recently added to my iTunes over the last few months – in order: Bassnectar, EL-P, Jack White, Plug 1 and Plug 2 from De La Soul, Florence + The Machine, Iron Solomon, The Used, Tech N9ne, Hurt, Civil Twilight, Adrenaline Mob, Armin van Buuren, Hugo, Metallica, Mad Child, Snowgoons, James Blake, The Roots, Disturbed, Joell Ortiz, Evidence, and Orange Goblin. So…that.
PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career?
JM: I guess they think it’s okay. I don’t really know. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t really ask. I find that inevitably when you talk about work and career, whether you work in a bank or are on a TV show, someone’s gonna say something that you don’t want to hear. So I usually steer the conversation in another direction that’s a little less personal. Like gay marriage or terrorism.
PEV: What can we you doing in your spare time, aside from acting?
JM: As noted, I scavenge about for a lot of music. I play with Garageband a bunch too. I write. I like to hang out with my wife. She and I will play basketball, or tennis, or ride our bikes. We travel a bunch too, so I’m also usually nursing a cold I caught on a plane somewhere.
PEV: Name one present and past actor/actress that would love to work with? Why?
JM: Okay, past…? Montgomery Clift. Dude was realer than Real Deal Holyfield. Watching the guy sit in a chair is more interesting than watching most people…do anything. And present…? Matt Damon. Here’s the thing about Matt Damon – people know who he is and get that he’s a movie star and like his movies, but the guy’s still the most underrated actor in Hollywood. He’s never included in the conversation about the greatest greats and it’s a crime. Other actors get how good Matt Damon is. He’s that kind of actor. I challenge you to find a false note, or an uninvested beat in his work. And he’s always been like that, since he was young. The kind of actor who makes other actors better. He really listens and is totally unselfish. Love him. Let’s make this happen, Matt.
PEV: Is there an up and coming actor/actress you think we should all be looking out for now?
JM: There is. And in the spirit of showing my whole hand, I should note that we have the same publicists. But I have felt this way for months now, even before I knew that was true. – I think Shailene Woodley is a revelation. I didn’t really know who she was before I saw THE DESCENDANTS, but she knocked me out in that movie like…like the first time I saw Don Cheadle in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (check that out if you haven’t, you’ll see what I’m talking about). I call actresses like her “a dirty trick.” Because she is. She’s a dirty trick. She shouldn’t be that good, and radiant, and young all at the same time. I’ll be interested to see what she does next, because I think she’s got the goods.
PEV: If acting wasn’t your life (or life’s goal) what would be your career?
JM: Someone asked me this the other day and I said I’d probably be a serial killer. Or a professional alcoholic. Or the worst mixed martial artist in the world, but I’d still do okay because of my high pain threshold. Honestly, I have no idea. I cannot imagine doing anything else and I never have. Acting saved me. And I know that sounds very overly dramatic, but I can have a tendency to live a lot in my own mind, and that’s an exhausting and sometimes confrontational place. Acting lets me live in someone else’s mind for a little while.
PEV: So, what is next for Johnathan McClain ?
JM: Thinking about getting lunch. But I should go to the gym first, because when I work out after I eat lunch I always feel kind of sick. You know what I’m talking about. You’re a person.