Playing a law enforcement agent is a role that James MacDonald is very comfortable with, but this time he gets to do it in a Polo shirt and ball cap! MacDonald guest stars as DEA Agent John Ness in this week’s episode of NCIS Los Angeles and he stopped to talk to NCISLA Magazine about his time spent on set. James had a great time working with first time director, Eric A. Pot and was pleased to be handed such a great script and character to play. Let’s find out more about MacDonald….
[Admin Note: The interview contains hints regarding the storyline of the NCISLA episode “Resurrection”… expect spoilers if you haven’t watched the episode yet…]
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you decided to become an actor growing up back in Wisconsin?
I was 13 or 14 when I did plays at junior high and I had just moved into town and I was searching for something to be good at because I was mediocre in sports and I think I became the class clown because I moved around so much… so you have to find a way to survive. I just auditioned and that’s the way it all started and I thought this is fun and I seemed to be ok at it and it just went from there doing a lot of high school plays and a lot of comedy, actually early in my career which I don’t tend to do much anymore. I tend to play these heavies and serious roles.
I went to a small college and did a bunch of plays and got a lot of really great parts and all of a sudden you think, I’m a big fish in a small pond and I got stars in my eyes and I said I got to go to New York! My professor at college helped me audition for a couple of acting schools in New York and I ended getting into a program called Circle in the Square in New York in the 80’s and went through their acting program for two years.
I was really lucky and I was very young when I got out of the program in New York and we had a scene night where agents could come and my first job was on a soap opera called Another World. Then I did some after school TV shows playing teenagers and got my first movie called Some Kind of Wonderful by John Hughes and played another high school kid. I was also doing theatre too. I was on Broadway doing the Heidi Chronicles which was really exciting and I did 204 shows and I wanted it to last because getting a steady paycheck in New York was a good thing. My foundation is really theater and you are luckily if you can keep making a living doing film and TV work as well.
You have been working pretty steady in TV and film…how do you remain motivated and keep driving yourself?
I think it’s the same for any creative career or one that is constantly in flux in terms of security. I feel like I have to stay constantly in training. I look at every audition as a big event because you go there and there are 25 guys for each role and you have to come in and nail it. You only got three seconds to prove yourself and you got to be in the zone. Some people can just turn it on and off but not me. I have to freely be in the right mind set. You have to have this really positive and optimistic view constantly. It takes work and that’s why I think some people just don’t last in the business and they can’t weather that. It’s kind of tough at times.
You play a DEA agent in this week’s NCIS Los Angeles episode “Resurrection”. Can you tell us about your character?
They love me in a uniform which is great for me because a lot of my work as a guest star is military, FBI agents so it’s kind of my bread and butter. The nice thing about this role is that I’m not in uniform and I get to dress casual in a Polo shirt and a baseball cap. So I said that’s cool because I have both of those so I thought maybe that will help me get the part! It was a really nice role and it had a two or three page monologue. It had a really nice juicy scene with a really nice script, so I was excited to do it because it had been a long time since I had a really interesting character to play from my perspective.
What was it like on set?
They really know what they’re doing because the director Eric A. Pot, who is usually the first Assistant Director, was directing the show for the first time. He was so enthusiastic about directing and so positive. It was kind of refreshing and that was really fun because he wanted to take the time and talk maybe more than another directors would about my character and my choices in terms of what we are doing. I really appreciated that and Chris and Todd were really nice guys and they get in the grove and it’s always nice coming on the show as a guest star when they are so relaxed because I’m always very nervous. But they made me very comfortable and I think because of that, the scenes came off really well and I thought ‘this is going to work out!’ You just never know what to expect.
Can you share any stories that you will take with you from that day?
All my scenes were with Chris and Todd. In the second scene I have a death scene! The director really wanted it a specific way because I’m poisoned and he kept telling me to slow it down and do it this ways…saying ‘you’re losing control of your arms’. So he was being very specific on how he wanted it. This one time I started to do it and as I’m dying LL Cool J just breaks out laughing and says “What are you doing man? You’re doing the moon walk!” In the middle of my death scene it was just so absurd as far as what it looked like from his perspective. And Chris was like “Hey man, give the guy a break!” It was pretty funny because I can only imagine what I did look like.
You were also in NCIS awhile back… can you tell us the difference on set between the two shows?
I can remember it vividly because when I did NCIS it was the very first show after they got picked up after the pilot. So the energy was very intense because it was the first show and the script changes were coming in very fast and there was a lot more tension and there was no fooling around. I got my scenes so late; I barely had time to memorize it. It was all military jargon and I was concerned but I got through it. They just were so concerned that the show was going to work out like everybody wanted it to. So it was just a different experience. On NCISLA they were taking the time and it didn’t seem rushed to me and Eric A. Pot was really getting what he wanted and wasn’t forced to move on and only get one take. It was nice that we actually had the time to work the scenes so that really makes a difference when everyone is just so relaxed. It was a good gig for me in that sense. Eric knew the set so well and knew everyone on it….there are a couple of neat twists and turns and it’s a fun story. When I was reading the page, there are some really great action sequences and I’m kind of curious how they are going to pull them all off so that will be kind of fun to see.
You have written and directed a short film called Heavy Lifting. Would you like to do more in this arena?
Absolutely! I think writing and seeing it become alive is one of the most fulfilling things besides acting. I’ve been writing since my early 20’s and I wrote a one man show that I did in New York and the thing about writing is that it is a pure form…and you are also creating work for yourself which is also a great element in this business. I find it completely satisfying. My wife wrote a book that I’m in the process of turning into a screenplay, getting producers and I hope that I will be able to direct my first feature film!
What’s next for you?
The writing and directing thing is happening right now. I have a one act play that I wrote and it is being produced in June and July. It is part of the Fringe Festival out here and we are going to start casting that probably in two or three weeks and I’m excited about that because it will be my first produced play. I’m really looking forward to it. I love acting but you’re really lucky if you get a chance to do it because there are so many people who want to do it and there are only so many roles but there are a lot of really talented actors who have to generate and create their own work to be creative. There are a lot of people like me who say, if I’m not going to be cast in something then I’m going to write something and put myself in it. You kind of end of doing it yourself. I’ll always be an actor and there is nothing like getting a change to do a role that is really interesting and stretches you and it’s such a blast. But the directing and writing just goes naturally as you get older if you have any talent in those areas you just want to give it a try.
NCISLA Magazine would like to thanks James for taking time out of his busy schedule to join us for a fun talk about his guest star role on this week’s NCISLA episode, Resurrection.
You can find out more about James and his future work by going to his IMDB site: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0531762/?ref_=sr_1