by Max Bisantz
photography by Jason O’Dell
“I got more to come. Don’t worry about that.’
Dermot Mulroney has a voice worthy of a Ford commercial. Gruff, leathered, and impossibly smooth, he speaks his words flatly and with conviction, relying on intent rather than flourish. It’s a voice redolent of a lost Americana, a time of hard work, rough hands, and open possibilities.
True, I caught up with Mr. Mulroney on his cell phone while driving from a photo shoot in LA to Santa Monica–hardly a Norman Rockwell portrait–but that doesn’t discount the sentiment. You don’t need a farm and a tractor to prove hardworking anymore, the days of aching backs and swollen feet have long been replaced by bursting schedules and incessant e-mail blasts. A native Southerner, Mulroney is still certainly “of the Earth” in modern terms at least, the sheer volume of projects lined up for release in the next few months shows a man unwilling to slow down the workload.
“I have lots of irons and lots of fires,” he admits. “Of course you have to these days instead of sitting and waiting for it to come to you.”
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Mulroney’s always led by his roots. Known for that crooked smile and those rugged good looks, his ability to bend and flex his brand of raw, Southern authenticity has served him well in his 25-year career, garnering critical praise and commercial success.
But in 2013 Mulroney will break–he’ll have to if he wants to keep up. With three new films at the gates and a role on HBO’s Enlightened, not to mention two additional movies in post-production and his budding career as an orchestral cellist, the actor’s calendar is stacked to the brim. No amount of bending or flexing could accommodate the sort of range, but Mulroney seems game for the challenge.
“I just figured that I’d do something different,” he says of the workload. Known largely for romantic comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Family Stone, Mulroney’s recent endeavors are tough to pin down. “I evolved. I’m older. I’m taking different roles now. So it was going to happen anyway that the thing that I was most well known for would sort of factor out at a point.”
His new film The Rambler is the best indication of this jumping off point. Directed to critical acclaim by indie darling Calvin Reeder, the film blurs horror, Western, and drama iinto a bizarre 97-minute package. The Rambler exists on another plain, drifting through celluloid as pure, unencumbered mystery.
“For me, the draw was very simple,” the actor says, recalling his decision to play the title character. “I think it’s page 17 where The Rambler snatches the knife from the other poker player and grinds it into his knee cap.”
Mulroney’s two other films–the horror flick Stoker and the much anticipated Steve Jobs biopic, jOBS–are equally enigmatic. All three premiered at Sundance to good reviews, though it’s not the films themselves that excite the actor so much as their variety. Speaking to Mulroney, it’s clear that he’s looking to shake things up a bit, in his work and in his life. Whether it’s a spontaneous guest spot on SNL (in the brilliant Dermot Mulroney/Dylan McDermott sketch) or his reputed first attempt at a half pipe in Park City at the age of 49, unpredictability is what fuels the actor these days, and Mulroney relishes the chance to get knocked off balance.
“Normally, especially with something like [jOBS], an era of our history that’s so well documented, I’d have done weeks of research, reading, video viewing,” says Mulroney, who stepped into the role of Mike Markkula, Apple’s chief investor, at the last minute. “Instead all I had time to do was try on the suits and show up on the set.”
It’s strange to see an actor of such grounding take risks at this point in his career–most people would kill to have the foothold he does in the industry. But Mulroney is taking the opposite approach to most actors of his ilk. Rather than take on less work, he’s opened himself up to any and all opportunity, even venturing into fields beyond acting.
“I became good friends with Michael Giacchino [composer of Lost and Fringe] and he’s determined to put me into all of his scoring sessions as a cellist in the orchestra,” he says of his most recent job. “So for me it’s this gift that I had it returned to me.”
Working behind the scenes, Mulroney has quietly begun a second career as a background musician, playing cello in such blockbuster films as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. A private move for a distinctly A-list star, he insists that the transition is a natural one, though it’s unlikely to find another celeb who’d trade the limelight for some background work.
“I’m really grateful to Michael and the other musicians,” he continues, beaming. “They also have the world’s most excited cellist sitting in their section… They do this everyday on the job but when they see a guy come in going ‘Holy crap you guys, this is so awesome!’ I think that they may experience their day a little differently.”
It’s clear that despite a heavy workload and dueling career paths, Dermot Mulroney seems content. (“I’m living the dream!” he laughs, recalling a recent “VIP” trip to the penguin pen at SeaWorld.) It could be that he thrives on little sleep, overnight film shoots, and not knowing where the hell his career is going, but more likely is the fact that he answers to a higher calling. His schedule may be chaotic, his projects all over the place, but his focus is precise, as evidenced by his spot on performances. It’s Mulroney’s own curiosity, not his ego or career, that’s taken the driver’s seat, leaving the actor thoroughly exhausted and noticeably fulfilled.
“I’ve got a lot of creative satisfaction recently,” he reveals. “I just continue to hope that the work that I like is interesting to people.”
Next on the docket for the multifaceted actor is a return to his roots in the film version of the play August: Osage County. The project reunites Mulroney with former costar Julia Roberts, and includes a bevy of Hollywood heavyweights from Meryl Streep to Sam Shepard.
“I fought real hard to get that part,” he admits. “Here’s Tracy Letts, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, watching Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, do this opening monologue…that was a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
A deeply complex ensemble piece, Mulroney plays a member of the extended Weston clan, a highly dysfunctional family in a small Oklahoma town. One of the most well known American plays in recent history, the role is a tailor fit for the homegrown actor, whose brand of acting always seemed more at home in an Arthur Miller play than on the silver screen. Tapping deep to fill the severely flawed role of Steve, Mulroney gives the part all he’s got.
“What this guy does in those scenes I wouldn’t contemplate doing,” the actor reveals of his character. “[Director] John Wells really helped me into how to allow myself to enter those scenes…you have to kind of make a leap.”
But true to form, it never has been Mulroney’s habit to shy away from a challenge or miss an opportunity. Having worked for the past 25 years in a cutthroat industry, he’s made a name for himself based on talent, drive, and hard work alone, something that is decidedly – well – American.
“I’m tying real hard, I work real hard these days,” he admits, speeding along down the California coastline towards Santa Monica, “I got more to come. Don’t worry about that.”