When HBO’s Vinyl premieres tomorrow, it will do so with a remarkable cast including veteran actor JC McKenzie. Known for a variety of roles including House of Cards, Hemlock Grove and all the Law & Orders, McKenzie steps into Vinyl as Skip Fontaine, the head of sales at the fictional American Century record label. And man, is it a wild ride.
LA Fan Cultures Examiner conducted an interview with JC to discuss re-teaming with Martin Scorcese and what it was about this story of rock and roll excess that made him want to be a part of it.
“The people involved initially are kind of not typical to get a chance to work with in the television or film industry,” he explained. “It’s like the creme de la creme. You’ve got Martin Scorsese and he really doesn’t do a lot of TV, and Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter who has written for Martin in The Wolf of Wall Street and was the EP of Boardwalk Empire. Then I found out about the cast and it was just kind of astounding.”
Skip wasn’t the role that he originally went after. “I had initially auditioned for the part that was eventually played by Max Casella,” JC revealed, referring to the character of A&R boss Julian “Julie” Silver. “I heard it went well and I was in the mix, and a week later I was told that it wasn’t going to go my way. I got really depressed because I really wanted to be a part of it.
“Then I think about seven months later, Ellen Lewis, Scorcese’s casting director, called my agent to say if JC can get himself on tape and get it to me in two hours for the part of Skip Fontaine, we’ll consider him,” he continued. “So that’s what I did. I pulled up to my apartment in Santa Monica, put myself on tape, heard I was in the mix almost immediately and I think it was about two weeks later I found out I had the part, and then we started filming six weeks after that.”
It all worked out for the best, as Vinyl‘s cast is one of the best things it has going for it, particularly the group of folks who play the record execs and are exactly as you’d expect 1970’s record execs to be (in both good and bad ways). Still, stepping back in time did require a bit of brushing up.
“I was totally learning stuff as I went along,” JC recalled. “We were instructed to read five or six books on the music industry, about music in the early 70’s in New York City, which is a relatively unexplored time period. I just boned up on every rock documentary I could get my hands on. We had executives from the industry back then come and talk to all of the actors and the writers to get an idea of what the scene was like back then, which was pretty crazy and I had no idea that the industry was as corrupt as it appears to have been. I don’t know what it is now, but certainly back in the early ’70s, it was a little dark. It was eye-opening.”
Skip is “Certainly not behind a desk,” he added. “The only thing I did behind a desk was some sexual activity. These guys are out and about the entire time. They’re not overtly evil and they’re certainly not one-dimensional, they’re three-dimensional human beings with a series of problems based on what the writers have come up with that force us to deal in very often compelling and funny situations.
“I’m shocked at how much humor [there is]; it’s an HBO drama, but it’s pretty funny. There’s a lot of crime, there’s a lot of drugs, there’s a lot of sex, there’s a lot of rock and roll, it’s just everything you might expect from a series with these guys that are involved.”
Aside from having fun with his character, he’s excited for audiences to see the quality in every aspect of the series. “We read the scripts and I don’t know what the budget is for the music rights on this show but it’s crazy the music they have in the show,” he enthused. “I’m sure it’s Jagger; obviously he’s got a lot of connections. Then you’ve got Martin directing it, so you’ve got this beautiful mix of documentary style acting with this cinematic narrative that Martin is so brilliant at.
“The cast…my God, we sat through the first read-through and I’ve never been in a better cast. You talk about these kids that come in and do one, two lines and absolutely hit it out of the park, and that’s hard because you don’t want to do too much, you don’t want to do too little, you just want to play it correctly and realistically. Ellen and Marty assembled a great group of actors for this project. By far the best cast I’ve ever been in.”
So is it as much fun as it would seem to be playing a free-wheeling record executive in the 1970’s?
“My take on acting is that it always is you up there. It’s just the side of yourself that you’re willing to show,” JC explained. “We have all sorts of different aspects of our personality – evil, smart, funny, crazy, shy, conservative – and based on the character or the situation, it’s up to you to execute…I have access to all these emotions and I’m having a good time.
“First off, it’s the one and only time that I actually speak lines that sound like they’re coming from me. There’s a lot of expository nonsense, particularly in procedurals, that it’s unbelievably difficult sometimes,” he continued. “With this show, Terry and his group of six writers, this is the way people sound. They’re funny, they talk over one another, they make mistakes, they go back, so it’s more human than anything else I’ve ever done. There’s an authenticity to the writing that you normally don’t get.”
This whole conversation just proves why JC is a perfect fit for Vinyl. He’s an actor’s actor, someone totally free of pretention and totally giving a damn about the process, who’d rather talk about how great all the nuances of production are than inflate his own ego. He’s been around the block often enough that he knows how to do his job well without any fanfare. The show is much better off with him on it, because he brings not only talent but perspective.
“Actors are all so different as human beings. They have an entirely different method on how to get to the truth, which is ultimately what all good actors have in common. That they’re real and you recognize in them what you see in yourself,” he said. And having worked with Scorcese on three past films, he’s enthused to make this number four.
“I’ve never been with a better actor’s director,” he continued. “It’s just this area of freedom that the actor has because he actively looks for mistakes. He wants you to make mistakes. He uses them…They spend a long time going over this material, he and his editor, and it takes a year for them to edit a film.
“There’s such a liberating quality for an actor knowing not only can you make mistakes but sometimes they’re more serviceable than robotic performances. His stuff is messy like life and human beings, and so I tell you, if I could work with him and do small roles in his projects for the rest of my life, I’d be happy. I’d pay them to allow me to do that. He’s such an interesting and wonderful filmmaker to act with and be directed by.”
One thinks that admiration must go both ways, because JC McKenzie is an interesting and memorable actor to not only watch for what he does but to appreciate for how he does it, and now we’ve got the opportunity to enjoy his work on a weekly basis thanks to Vinyl.
Vinyl premieres Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9 p.m. on HBO.