I spoke with JC Mackenzie about Vinyl. JC plays Skip Fontaine in the HBO series created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Rich Cohen. Skip is the head of sales and sometimes that means spending time making records disappear in clever and unique ways. JC was a delight to speak with and he certainly gave a refreshingly honest glimpse into the world of acting. He was kind enough to share some really fun stories. Make sure you check him out in Vinyl, which airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.
Lena: Vinyl has you back working with Martin Scorsese. You’ve done at least three films with him, right?
JC Mackenzie: The last one was The Wolf of Wall Street. The one before that was The Departed. The first one was The Aviator. They were all unique and different experiences based on the subject and material. Marty always fits it to whatever kind of mood the film is. He was completely different on the set of all of the films. It depends on the scenes. If the scene is intense and hard, the vibe on the set will be exactly that. He’s, kind of, an iconic director and you’d think given that it would be difficult or nerve racking to work under him but it’s the exact opposite. He’s just a gem to work with for an actor because he just creates this playground of an environment where actors can just open up, create, take chances, and make mistakes. That’s normally frowned upon, particularly in network TV, because they like status quo and if you do anything different or eccentric you’ve got the continuity person coming up to you giving you notes that have been given to them by the director. With Scorsese, everything is open and accepted. He loves mistakes and uses them often. He’s the best actors’ director that I’ve certainly ever worked with. He has the unique ability to tell a story visually, cinematically through camera angles. He, sort of, diminishes the line between documentary and fiction. Often you see that in mumblecore films, but it’s done without this unique and dramatic visual storytelling talent that Scorsese has so it gets, kind of, lost. Though it seems real, it’s meandering boring. With Marty, you get what you get in real life but it’s told excitingly through camera angles. For me, all I want to do is act as authentically, naturally, and realistically as I can under imaginary circumstances—you are put in these situations where you are killing people, or you are getting killed.
All of these kids that are coming out of acting school have perfectly good training and they are taught wonderful things but they never get a chance to execute and do them. I feel like I’m slagging network TV again, but they just don’t get a chance to do it partially because the dialog is so expository and it doesn’t even make sense. No human being has ever said this stuff, and partially because of the nature of the TV series. It’s changing because of cable but they tend to be a little myopic and one-dimensional. His stuff is great. I get lightheaded talking about working with him because he’s the best. I never thought it would amount to anything. I’ve always had small roles in his films, and I’ve been happy to do them, but being in an HBO TV series being executive produced by him, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter—I mean every actor in Hollywood wanted something to do with this television series. It was difficult to get an audition for an episodic on an HBO show let alone a series regular. You wouldn’t have an opportunity unless you had an in and my in was him. I had worked with him and his casting director I know very well and the only reason I’m involved in this series is because of him. I’m eternally grateful for both his talent and to be given this opportunity. Listen, I’m an old actor and it’s difficult to get work. It’s difficult to get work at any point during an actor’s life, but at this age this doesn’t happen because there are very few roles. When I go to auditions there are guys who have been nominated for Academy Awards and won Emmy Awards that are in a room auditioning for the episodics. There is very little work out there.
Lena: You must have a great story about Mick Jagger that you can share?
JC Mackenzie: I was so nervous. Mick came to one of the first read-throughs and I was sitting next to Ray Romano. I told him that I had to go and meet him because it’s Mick Fucking Jagger. I had to go and say something. I’ll probably never get another opportunity. I was nervous enough talking to his son Jimmy Jagger. Jimmy is totally cool. I got over Jimmy. Ray told me to go up and say hi. There’s always a bunch of people surrounding Mick Jagger and it’s not that he’s holding court; he’s just Mick Jagger. I saddled up to the side of somebody and I could see him, sort of, looking at me from the side and I couldn’t even get words out of my mouth. Obviously, this has happened to him before so he just gave me a great big bear hug and went, “It’s alright mate.” I hadn’t said anything but he’s just so used to people being speechless that he just grabs them. We had a brief chat. He’s actually very elegant and very smart. He’s a very wild man and I’ve seen this in his son, as well. He’s got all these different sides to him that makes him very unique and interesting, and obviously the superstar that he is. He’s charismatic, compelling, kind, intelligent, and he’s also Mick Jagger.
Lena: I have to say that I love Skip’s “magic” mustache.
JC Mackenzie: You are about the only one. My parents are horrified. My parents spend the majority of the time not critiquing my work, but critiquing the way I look. There is always a correlation between how well dressed I am and how well I did in the television series or movie I did. If I’m playing the lawyer with the suit it’s always, “We liked you in that. You were very good.” If I’m playing a somewhat creepy record executive with a big bushy mustache and a bad haircut it’s, “We saw your show.” That’s the extent of the comment. It’s fine. I’ll put hair on my back if it means working on something like this.
Lena: Is it fun being able to bring that era back to life?
JC Mackenzie: It really is. Once we get into the costumes and we’re on set and I’m looking at all these crazy actors with their get-ups, it really puts you in that time and you really notice it when you shoot on the streets of New York, which I’ve done before. I’ve done all the Law & Orders and all the episodics in New York but to shoot in New York like that, we shot in East Village one night and they had cordoned off four or five blocks and all the cars were from 1973 and early and all the extras were in costumes. There were thousands of people around watching as we were setting up to do a shot. That was really exciting. You are immediately thrown into that era. I was telling Terry, our EP and head writer, that it was very easy to learn this dialog. I was telling him that it’s a first time for me that I’ve spoken like a human being with overlapping dialog and making mistakes. He writes the way human beings speak, so it doesn’t feel like an antiquated throwback to some weird formal period that no one understands. It’s not too different from the way that we speak right now. We didn’t have any of the wild handshakes and high fives, and all that, but it’s just human beings and they haven’t changed that much.
Lena: I love watching shows in different eras. That rotary car phone was hilarious.
JC Mackenzie: Yeah. Isn’t that funny? I love all these little things. Richie, at that point, he’s got everything high-tech. He’s got the best of the best and it’s like out of a sci-fi movie now. It doesn’t even make sense.
Lena: Is there anything that you worked with on the set that you think should make a comeback?
JC Mackenzie: The lack of iPhones is refreshingly pallet cleansing for me. Having said that, every single actor including myself, on set during setups are on their phones. You really can’t get away from them, but while we are shooting it’s nice not to see an iPhone. We do an awful lot of smoking on this TV series because they smoked a lot more back then. These guys particularly smoked a lot more because they were record executives in the early 70s. That I could do less with but there’s not a lot that I would bring back. I think the costumes are just insane. I remember the 70s a bit. I remember thinking, as a child, that this is horrible. [Laughing.] The costumes, the clothing, and the hairstyles are horrible but the culture at the time, oh my god that’s what Marty, Coppola, and all these great and unique, and at the time young directors, started making personal films—character driven personal films. What a great era for films and music. The music is very, very interesting and I think it’s an ongoing, evolving thing as every show is. You find out what works and what does not, and that’s what the first year is all about. They had an arc and a narrative throughout the year and you’ll see by the end of this season how radically changed the series gets. It moves in directions that you wouldn’t think at the beginning. I’ll leave you with that for a teaser.
Lena: With all the things that go on in the show, what did you find to be the craziest thing?
JC Mackenzie: Personally, I had to do a sex scene, which was horrible. I’m just randomly having sex with one of the secretaries in the office. They approached me and asked if I would sign a nudity waiver. I went, “Why? How nude am I going to be?” They went, “Nude. You are going to be nude.” My reply, “I mean, you are going to show all of me?” They went, “Yeah, we may, so you have to sign off on this.” I agreed and then the costume person came up and she gave me a sock to wear, a genital sock. I didn’t know what a genital sock was and she explained to me that you just put your stuff in the little pocket. It’s flesh colored and your ass is exposed but everything else is, sort of, covered. I put it on and I’ve been working with these people for a year and a half and they’ve never seen my genitals. [Laughing.] It’s just odd to pull your pants down in front of a hundred people and pretend that you’re engaged in an activity like that.
Lena: This week is Elvis week. What can you say about the upcoming episode?
JC Mackenzie: It’s funny because we have read-throughs every week of the script and one of the writers asked if I would read Elvis. I’m not playing him I just read it for the purpose of the episode. He actually has a lot of dialog and I sang a couple of the songs horrifically because I’m not a good singer. When I questioned who they were going to get for Elvis, they had choices of actors that could sing and Elvis impersonators who could, sort of, act. They got this guy who is the top Elvis impersonator in the country right now. He’s a young guy, I think in his mid-twenties. Allen Coulter, who directed the episode, and Bobby Cannavale took him and guided him through all of the scenes that he had to act in. I guess he just knocked it out of the park. He sings three or four Elvis songs. It’s a wild episode that takes Bobby and Ray to Vegas to sell our private jet to some big hotshot because our company is struggling financially. They encounter Elvis at the same time. It’s a great episode for Ray because he really gets into it. If you think I’m naked, Ray’s starker throughout the entire thing. It’s a fun episode.
Vinyl airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.
Follow JC on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jcmackenzie