Christopher McDonald has been one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors for nearly 25 years -- and has been acting for more than 35 years in total. He made audiences hiss as Darryl in Thelma & Louise and Shooter in Happy Gilmore, played Jack Barry in Quiz Show and lightened up to portray Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. He went mean again for Flubber and has lent his voice – for good guys and villains – to many animated series and made-for-DVD movies. He appeared in the cult fave film Fanboys, recurred on SGU Stargate Universe, and played Billy Flynn on Broadway in Chicago. McDonald recently explored the dark side again as the crooked Harry Daugherty on Boardwalk Empire. And he has a batch of upcoming projects, among them The Squeeze, Daughter of God, Texas Rising and Soul Ties, that display various facets of his acting talent. But to Star Trek fans, McDonald will always remain a favorite for his turn as Lt. Richard Castillo in one of TNG’s finest hours, “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Many of those same fans know that, well before “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” McDonald actually came oh-so-close to winning the role of Riker.
StarTrek.com heard that The Squeeze will open on April 17 – tomorrow, both in theaters and video on demand—and reached out to McDonald for an interview. He agreed, and the other day took to the phone to talk about The Squeeze and his other projects, as well as to reminisce about “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and muse about his Riker near-miss. Here’s what he had to say.
You were up for the role of Riker. How close did you come to landing it?
MCDONALD: Very close. It was down to me and two other guys, and one of them got it. As an actor, you try to forget those things, where you don’t get them. I think, “Well, good for them,” and I move on.
How did you wind up doing “Yesterday’s Enterprise?”
MCDONALD: I was doing a play at the time. I was playing Biff in Death of a Salesman. So I really wasn’t that available. They said, “Well, we’d love to see you.” I was a big fan and said I’d love to do it, but didn’t think I could make it. What happened was I got my understudy to go on and I took the meeting at Paramount. And the rest is history. It turned out to be a great episode. The guy, when I started the (auditioning) process, was named Ricardo Castillo. I thought there was no way you could wash the Irish off of my face to play this guy. But (director) David Carson liked me and he said, “This is the guy.” And he went on to help make a lot of TNG success happen.
What do you remember of the shoot?
MCDONALD: I loved the idea, the concept. I absolutely loved making it. I had a great time with Denise Crosby. I worked with Whoopi Goldberg. I’d wanted to get on the show and I was thrilled to finally do one. And that's a really good one that people still talk about now.
Did you have any sense at the time you were making something special, or you just can’t know that kind of thing in the moment, especially on a weekly show?
MCDONALD: I knew the story was very gripping, with going back in time through the wormhole, but I don’t think anybody ever expected it to be one of the top TNG episodes ever. Denise was great. We just had a great time and laughed a lot together. And David just directed the hell out of it. Everyone rose to the next level of their game to tell the story the most truthful way possible, and that’s what separates a day job from something special. Also, it’s Star Trek. I was wearing Captain Kirk’s wardrobe. I’m sitting in the Enterprise-C, at the helm, when our captain passes away. I was like, “Wow, that’s riveting.” I knew that was very cool, but the fact that it became one of the highest-rated episodes… that was a gift.
When was the last time you saw the episode?
MCDONALD: I kind of leave my work in the past and don’t watch anything I do very much, but every once in a while someone will say, “Hey, your episode is on.” So I’ll come in the room and watch it for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s not really something I search out, my own work, but I remember very much liking the episode and being happy that it turned out as well as it did.
The Squeeze casts you as the awesomely named Riverboat, a sharp-dressed gambler who recruits Auggie (Jeremy Sumpter), a talented young golfer, to play for him in increasingly high-stakes matches. What appealed to you most about the project?
MCDONALD: It’s based on a true story, and that was the most appealing thing. That always puts things a notch above. I also liked that this time I was not playing the golfer. I’m playing the gambler. Riverboat is based on Titanic Thompson, a very, very famous gambler in the 30s, 40s and 50s in America. He was world renowned for betting on anything. He’d bet on how many times you blinked your eyes in a minute. He needed to be in the game so much that he’d bet on anything. That was fascinating, doing the research for that. I enjoyed living in his shoes for a while.
Jeremy Sumpter, who plays Auggie, was Peter Pan in the 2003 movie and has been doing interesting work since then. And, Katherine LaNasa is a dynamo who not enough people know about, even though she’s been around a while…
MCDONALD: They’re both great. The thing that impressed me about Jeremy is they looked forever for a really good actor who could also be a really good golfer. Jeremy is the real deal. His dad and he have been playing golf since Jeremy was a small boy and it shows. He’s really good… steady, easy, with a beautiful swing. I loved that he could roll like he did as an actor and golfer. Katherine is very funny, and she’s just very… on. She’s on in a Robin Williams way. So she was a delight to work with because she’s always changing things up and keeping it live.
Indie films like this can get lost in the shuffle. How satisfying is it to you that people will get a chance to see The Squeeze thanks to the hybrid theatrical/VOD release it’s getting?
MCDONALD: The releasing platform has changed. Now you can go see it in a theater or stay at home and go click-click, and see it on-demand. So hopefully that will make a big difference in, as you say, giving everybody the chance to see it. It’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see the results.
In addition to The Squeeze, your upcoming projects include Daughter of God, The Zipper, The Tank, A Conspiracy on Jekyll Island, Don’t Worry Baby, Texas Rising and Soul Ties. We’d be on for an hour if we went into all of them in detail, but are there one or two of them you’re particularly eager for people to see?
MCDONALD: I’m happy to have done all of them, but I’ve got to say that this Texas Rising is going to be a big, big miniseries event. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a miniseries. It was a dream come true because every boy has gone through that period where he wanted to be a cowboy or be in a cowboy film and kill the bad guys. I got to do that, and I worked with all these great actors… Bill Paxton and Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez and Brendan Fraser. I’m making it and I’m thinking, “I’m riding horses. I’m shooting bad buys. I’m part of telling a true story about what happened after the Alamo fell.” And the best thing was that Roland Joffe directed it. I’m very excited about that one. He did The Mission and so many great movies, and he didn’t shoot this like a television miniseries. He shot it like he knows how, like a movie. It’s for History Channel and will be on next month.
The Squeeze will open on April 17. Go to www.thesqueezemovie.com to see where the film is playing near you.