405 – John C. McGinley: Throw Yourself at Risk and Rejection

A couple weeks ago, I auditioned for an off-Broadway play. I don’t want to be an actor. I just wanted to know what it’s like.

I wore a full suit. And a top hat. I memorized lines.

The next day I interviewed all-star actor John C. McGinley (our second interview).

He used to be the reader for a few Oliver Stone movies.

I remember John telling me, “Readers can make or break you.”

It was scary.

I was shaking. I was pink. I was wobbling. You can see in the video. Maybe I’ll share it someday.

Auditioning was research for the podcast. This time, I would sit across from John and ask questions from inside the experience. Inside the fear…

Because “actor” is not a standard job. It means you’re throwing yourself at risk and rejection day after day. Most people avoid those things.

Not John.

He’s been at it for over 30 years.

Here’s what I learned from John. C McGinley:

 

1. TRUTH CHANGES. LIFE CHANGES.

 

John made an obscure sound with his mouth. It sounded like the noise you hear when a cartoon character falls off a cliff.

“I can’t even do that noise!” I said.

“What does that matter?” he asked.

I was listening to one of the greatest actors alive today talk about a craft I know nothing about. I told him about my recent audition.

Steve, my producer, set it up. I got the idea when I had Seth Godin back on the podcast (3 months ago). He told me to do a one-man show.

And I’ve been doing things to get there.

I did the math. I’ve been studying acting. I’m interviewing John C. McGinley who’s been in 80+ movies, nine seasons of Scrubs, six Oliver Stone movies. And now he’s writing and producing and acting in “Stan Against Evil,” which has its third season premiere on Halloween.

So when he did the sound effect, I saw the talent gap.

“I coach actors on that all the time… on what not to use,” he said.

The talent gap grew.

We were only five minutes into the interview. And I was seeing old tricks as new. I was studying him and thinking, “OK, I have to be more this or get good at that.”

And then he’d slam the door. “You don’t use your Felix the Cat bag of tricks. Because it gets old and then you become this vaudeville little jackass. People just want to see your truth. Not ‘just.’ That’s a horrible thing. People want to see your truth.”

“But doesn’t your truth often change?”

“Of course,” he said. “It better! Your truth is going to change because your life changes. And that informs what’s genuine to you.”

 

2. CREATE WHAT YOU CONNECT TO

Episode one:

There’s a scene in “Stan Against Evil” where Stan (the main character) puts his hand where his wife’s keys used to be. The network said it was “too sad.”

John put the scene in.

“I’m like, ‘F*** you. Stan’s sad. He’s missing his wife!’ And we go to these Comicons where we do Q&As with thousands of people. Those are the things they connect to. And you’re like, ‘Great, we’re on to something.'”

“Stan Against Evil” is its own genre. It’s not just humor. Or just horror.

But the network decided (before episode 1 aired) that the show would be a comedy/horror. Not a comedy/horror that people can relate to. And see themselves in.

Luckily, John and Dana Gould have creative freedom. He’s not writing what he hopes the network will say “yes” to. Nobody should create what they think will be approved.

Because if it doesn’t raise any red flags, it won’t capture anyone.

You have to create what you connect to.

Especially now that everything’s digital. And we’re not in the same room as our audiences or customers.

Because doubt creeps in.

And it’s easy to get stuck in the thought loops:

“Is this right?”
“Will this work?”
“Am I on the right path?”
“What if this fails?”

When John did theater it was different. He said, “You knew what people were connecting to. We’re all breathing the same air. You can feel it. And the feedback is f***ing tangible. It’s immediate. And you know… but when you’re doing a TV show (or an app, a product, a book, etc.), you have to go with what’s going to drive you. Now you have skin the game.”

 

3. FIND WHAT’S GENUINELY VALIDATING

“It’s genuinely validating to go to these Q&As,” John said.

But he didn’t start here.

“You got to remember, actors get rejected for a living,” John said.

Then he told me the mean batting average for offensive players in the Hall of Fame.

“It’s 302. And what that means is that you failed 698 times out of a 1,000. That’s really interesting because actors fail at an even greater rate. You can ask any of us. Especially early on.”

And the rejection is personal.

“A cup salesman can reconcile. He can say, ‘The cup is shaped a little wrong. It’s not me.’ When actors get rejected, they’re rejecting you. They’re doing the movie. They’re just not doing it with you. And that hurts.”

“So how did you find the resilience?” I asked. “Because most people I know who have gone out to L.A. for acting have quit.”

It was in his gut.

He said, “It was clear as day. This is what I had to do. I knew I had to participate in storytelling. I didn’t know what that looked like, but I knew I was gonna be a storyteller.”

He had an umbrella: storytelling, as opposed to a goal like “I’m going to star in Oliver Stone movies.”

He told me his advice to aspiring actors. And it applies to all industries…

“If you have a plan B, definitely do the plan B because it’s gonna work out better.”

—-

John also talked to me about his family life. His son was born with Down’s syndrome. Just four days into his son’s life, John was making life-or-death decisions. He had to advocate for his son in the hospital. And advocate as he grew up. John said, “You just don’t accept things that don’t feel right.”

I asked, “Is he fully aware of his situation?”

He said, “I have no idea.”

—-

I asked John to look over my audition tape. We ran out of time. So next time.

I also told him what I’ll ask him when he comes back.

I want to talk about the shape of media because John’s seen it change so much in the past 30-40 years.

That’s just one area.

Every person on my podcast can give perspective on industry changes, family matters, wellness, health, stress, pursuit, etc. This episode reflects the layers and layers of troubles John had pursuing his acting career. And in pursuing a healthy life for his son. Which he still does.

I told him, “I’m trying to figure out the John McGinley technique for anything…”

Everyone should.

  • Hi James….not seeing a link or anything for listening to the podcast. Just an FYI buddy.

    • Today

      Shows up now, right at the top in the gray rectangle with the play button

      • Cool now it’s there; that gray rectangle did not show up on my Chromeback that day ;)

  • RJ Rosenberry

    One of my favorite actors. Interesting read and interview. I love the story on the statistics on actors and rejections.

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