John C. McGinley on Becoming “42”‘s Red Barber
By Kyle Anderson on July 16, 2013
John C. McGinley has acted in some of our favorite movies and TV shows, like Se7en, The Rock, and, of course, his nine-year stint as Dr. Perry Cox on Scrubs. In 42, he portrays the real-life announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Red Barber. Mr. McGinley was nice enough to speak to us about what it took to portray such a larger-than-life historical figure, how filming the movie mirrored Red’s real life, and what he’s doing next with the creator of Scrubs.
Additional reporting by Brian Walton
NERDIST: We here at Nerdist don’t generally like sports movies, but we really enjoyed 42.
JOHN C. MCGINLEY: Oh yeah? Why is that?
N: Well, the characters were so rich and interesting and sometimes sports movies are too much about the sport and not about the characters.
JCM: I totally buy that. When you go back to Jimmy Caan and Billy Dee Williams doing Brian’s Song, about Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, it’s not really about football, it’s about how much these two men loved each other and cared about each other and how profoundly impacted they were by loss. It doesn’t have that much to do with football, and so, yeah, I buy that. I buy exactly what you’re talking about.
N: You played broadcast announcer Red Barber in 42, and what was interesting is that he, as a personality, was very fair to everybody and wouldn’t become friends with players, etc. Did you watch or listen to a lot of Red’s game broadcasts in preparation?
JCM: Yeah, Brian Helgeland the director provided me with about half a dozen or eight or so World Series broadcasts that Red did with Mel Allen. I have a rehearsal space that I use out here in Malibu almost as an acting laboratory, and I just went down to the space and kind of obsessed out on this sound, which was so alien, and I tried to figure it out; he has two autobiographies, so I read about him and what I figured out is that, because this guy was born in Mississippi, raised in Sanford, FL, came up through the Cincinnati Reds organization, and then wound up in Brooklyn, I think that those four regions so impacted him and were so imprinted on his cadence and his syncopation that he borrowed a little bit from each of those regions and it yielded that sound of which Brooklyn Dodger fans, obviously an aging demographic, hold so dear. They hold it like a father holds a son. They’re crazy about Red Barber, and the self-imposed mandate on my end was to elevate to that, to take some integrity and elevate to him. You know, usually when you do a film, somebody wants you to bring your flavor, bring your cavalcade of eccentricities; I wanted to bring Red, really pragmatically, and that’s where I stayed on point, right in that groove.
N: Actors sometimes get to play the same character in multiple movies that aren’t necessarily sequels. You do such a good job playing Red, and he’s such an interesting character, do you think you’d want to pursue something like that and play him again?
JCM: Oh, my God, yeah! I mean, because 42 is not the Red Barber story, it’s the Jackie Robinson story. So, what I was lucky enough to get to do in 42, parenthetically, is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Red Barber goes. So, oh my gosh, I’d do it in a second.
JCM: I consumed everything I could about him as far as facts go. His two books, and then Brian Helgeland gave me one other book, so I read three books on one guy; I’ve never read three books on one guy! I’ve never played anyone who had three books written about him. And then I just spent so much time down in the space with those CDs. It was embarrassing. But, all that stuff, actors function out of fear, so I was afraid. I wanted to elevate to Red, I didn’t want to bring him down to me. That seemed like the marching orders that I gave myself.
N: Were you able to see some of the actors playing the games in the movie?
JCM: I was in a giant soundstage in Atlanta and the day before [we shot my scenes] the whole company was wrapped. And that’s good and bad. The good part is, for the three or four days that I was there shooting, it got to be the Red Barber show. So, I didn’t come up for air; I stayed right in the mix. And, the bad part is I didn’t get to meet any of this ensemble of actors, which is a pretty astonishing group. So, I regretted that, but completely self-indulgently, I got to stay in Red’s skin for 96 hours and not come out.
N: It’s fascinating how much that parallels Red Barber’s actual experiences with away games, which they always had to recreate because he was in the studio.
JCM: Oh, you’re right! You realize, the generation before Red, they weren’t even going out to Ebbets Field; they were down in the basement, the bowels of the Chrysler Building, and they were reading ticker-tape dispatches from either Ebbets Field or from the Polo Grounds or from up in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium, and they were recreating the game using ticker-tape.
N: That’s amazing.
JCM: It blows my mind!
N: And that’s what you had to do. You had to go and film after everybody left.
JCM: And I was looking at nothing. I was looking at a big piece of cloth. Those were four really, really exciting days, I’ll tell you that.
N: What do you have coming up we can look forward to?
JCM: I just finished a run on Broadway with Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, which was easily the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I played Dave Moss, so I was the straw that stirs the drink. And, we did a pilot with the guy who invented Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, for TBS called Ground Floor and it got picked up. First week of August, we go to Warner Bros. Stage 19, and do it in front of a live studio audience. We get to do ten and it’ll be on TBS in December and if it does any ratings, hopefully we’ll do it for a couple years.
N: That is exciting to hear, because we’re huge fans of Scrubs.
JCM: It was a funny transition in retrospect. Not, funny; it felt really organic and natural in retrospect to go from 1,400 people a night at the Schoenfeld Theatre with Al on stage to 300 people in the audience over at Warner Bros. doing Ground Floor, and I just felt like my skills were as keen as they’d ever been.
N: That must be great for you, having done so much theater.
JCM: It felt really really good. It just sort of goosed the engine a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I loved doing Scrubs, but it was five 14-hour days; you’re grinding. You’ve got to pull a rabbit out of the hat on Scrubs. With this, you ostensibly have four days to rehearse and massage and rewrite the material and then you shoot it on the fifth day. So, that felt really, really exciting and fun.