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WAMG Interview: Actor Bryan McClure - Co-star of BLACKSTONE GRAVEYARD - We Are Movie Geeks

Interview

WAMG Interview: Actor Bryan McClure – Co-star of BLACKSTONE GRAVEYARD

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Interview conducted by Gabe Sheets

Blackstock Boneyard is a new horror film that tackles some fairly loaded subjects in 2021. Originally titled Rightful, the film centers around two African American brothers who have returned from the grave to reclaim their land after being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death a century ago. 

The film was shot nearly four years ago. But in the time it’s taken to finally reach the general public, the subject matter has only grown more relevant. As historic problems have remained unresolved, calls for racial justice have recently reached the forefront of media coverage once again.

Issues of racial injustice are challenging enough for a film to tackle. But Blackstock Boneyard has also faced the nightmare of having to find distribution in the midst of a global pandemic. This past week, I had the opportunity to sit down with actor Bryan McClure to discuss his role in the film, how he responded to its central themes, what it’s been like working as an actor during COVID-19, among many other topics.

Interview conducted June 20, 2021

Gabe Sheets: To start I want to ask about being an actor during a global pandemic. What are some things that have been impacted about your job as an actor since March 2020? We’re talking on Zoom right now… I assume all of your auditions, rehearsals, and conversations with directors have all shifted to a virtual format. What was that like to navigate, and do you think this virtualization of the process will be permanent?

Bryan McClure: Yeah, that’s a great question. I know that for a while just everything stopped, period. You know, last year was a very slow year for filmmaking and television in general, because we just had to figure out how to proceed in a safe way without jeopardizing people’s safety. So, there were long stretches where things just weren’t being made. It affected a lot of my actor friends… A lot of actors are also waiters, you know, they work in the hospitality industry, and both of those industries went down. So, it was just very difficult for a lot of my friends in that way. But for me, too… I actually had a film, that I was the lead in, that’s now on HBO Max, called In Other Words, that actually was doing its festival circuit. We literally went to our first festival in March, then the whole rest of the festival circuit got cut off. We were supposed to go to the Nice International Film Festival and the New York Latino Film Festival, which would have been right in Times Square. So, we missed out on a lot of fun opportunities just to go celebrate our film with a lot of other filmmakers. And, you know, film festivals are a great place to network and meet other filmmakers. So, that was really heartbreaking for me. And I think towards the end of the year is when we really started seeing more things being on zoom. And there’s an audition thing called like, ECO CAST LIVE through Actors Access, where actors can submit for roles that are up.

GS: Well, I know the audition process, in general, is usually insufferable. Would you sat that doing it virtually is any different? Is it any worse? Is it just like taking all the things that are really miserable about it, and amplifying that? Or do you just find it more convenient?

BM: You know, I would say there are probably positives and negatives to it. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t have to look for parking somewhere. I can literally turn on my screen a minute until the audition and just keep working on it until one minute until I need to be there which is positive. There’s a little bit of a difference actually being in the room. They get a fuller picture of everything that you bring to the table. But there’s some benefits in that, like, I’m located in Atlanta, Georgia. And I have started to see more casting directors from L.A. and New York popping up on some of my auditions than I was before. I feel like it has opened things up to a more worldwide kind of audition scenario. And it wasn’t really something that people did as much prior to COVID, and I hope that continues to stay around and even the playing field more.

GS: Have you been working on any sets during COVID-19?

BM: Last year, I got to do one [shoot] before COVID hit and then the rest of the year, I did not. But this year has been a very busy year. So far. I’ve been on five different sets so far.

GS: I wanted to ask about working on set, because there are so many protocols and different restrictions to keep everybody safe… I’m just curious how that affects your process? I mean, I would think it would be more confining, but how does it impact your relationship with the director and everything?

BM: I would say relationships is definitely the thing that’s impacted the most. I was saying to someone recently, because I just started filming a new film this last week. And I got off a TV show a couple weeks prior. And I was just thinking back about that TV show. And I was like, some of these people, I never got to see what their face looked like. We got to kind of know each other, but I could come across this person in my day-to-day life and not even know it was the person that I worked with so closely for a week. There are certain people like the makeup person that I sat in front of every day, you know, right in front of my face. I have no idea what she looks like other than her eyes.

GS: When was Blackstock Boneyard filmed?

BM: We actually filmed that in 2017.

GS: How did you get involved with the project?

BM: I have an agent down in Louisiana, which is where it was filmed. And I just got the audition notification. My character, Corey is a real turd. And I was like, this is just kind of fun to dive into. He’s just got a lot going on. It’s not your normal every day, “hey, I’m, I’m a nice guy doing good things”. You just had a lot of fun things to play with, that I don’t always get to play.

GS: This project has some pretty distinct themes tied to the history of race in America. Obviously, issues of racial justice have been front and center recently… How did this affect how you and your collaborators approached the project? In what ways did this shape your perspective on the material? 

BM: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s always been an issue, you know, racial injustices. It wasn’t the hot topic that it is at this moment in time. But, so, beings as it wasn’t like, something that you hear about on the news every single day, I guess it wasn’t, it wasn’t what the movie was about for me. Obviously, my character is just a privileged, small town, white kid. For my character, I didn’t actually have a lot of scenes that really interacted with racial injustices, necessarily, you know. Our family is steeped in it in the story, but it wasn’t like, a lot of my own interactions. In the storyline, it wasn’t like I was face-to-face with a lot of, you know, black people, or anything that would really dictate how I would react in that way. So, I didn’t have to necessarily make choices about that.

GS: Looking back through today’s lens, do you do view the material any differently now? Do you think you would look at it differently if you saw the script for the first time today, and they offered you the role again? Do you think you’d have a different perspective on the material at large and maybe on the role itself?

BM: Yeah, I would say I probably would, just in the sense of… Originally, the film was called “Rightful”. I don’t know if you’re…

GS: I think it said that on IMDB.

BM: Yeah, and part of that too. For me, it was like, who, who is the rightful owner of this land? You know, and that’s the storyline, you know, which is based on the true story of some Black landowners that were forced to sell their land and murdered. And, to me, that just kind of ties into a lot of just the southern history of like, you know, Black people not being treated like humans, unfortunately. And I guess most of that stuff that my character dealt with wasn’t with that dynamic… I’m trying to think about how to say this because I don’t want to be offensive. And I want to be particular about what I say.

GS: It’s a sensitive issue, just because of how recent all this stuff has been happening. So, I completely understand. I just felt sort of obligated to touch on it, because it is so apparent in the film itself.

BM: Yeah, I think part of what I was trying to say is like, my character doesn’t really deal with a lot of racial elements in the film, but he and his family are the products of generations of prejudices. And that’s evident in my behavior and my actions. But even though my character in the film wasn’t really having a lot of racial interactions, it’s still present in the history of who that person is. Does that make sense?

GS: Absolutely. Yeah. I also wanted to ask about shooting in Louisiana. Were you in New Orleans?

BM: Wasn’t exactly New Orleans. But just outside about an hour.

GS: How long was the shoot?

BM: It was either three or four weeks that we filmed on it. I think I was on three weeks, and they might have done four weeks total.

GS: So, what was it like shooting in Louisiana? How did that environment contribute to the piece?

BM: Well, since we were in more of a remote town, I don’t know if there were many New Orleans influences. It just felt more like a small town in general. Because it was a small town, in general, I would say that you definitely get a lot of looks from people like, “who are these outsiders in our town” kind of thing. But everybody that we interacted with was really nice. But yeah, I don’t know that I necessarily felt any Louisiana specific elements except for maybe like drive thru Daiquiri places. That’s a real thing there.

GS: So as an actor, with this being a horror film, I’m curious… How do you approach material like this? I assume, and I might be wrong here, that drama is where most actors prefer to operate. Obviously, just because most of the time with drama, it just gives you more opportunities to kind of display all the tools on your utility belt. Not to say that horror is somehow less substantive or that it’s easier. I’m just wondering, as an actor, does the genre feel more confining? Does it feel more freeing?

BM: I mean, for me, the process for a horror film and a drama aren’t necessarily different. I’m still trying to be truthful, whatever the circumstance. You might be dealing with a different kind of life-or-death situation like, you know, a literal life and death scenario in a horror film that you might not see in every drama. It’s just kind of trying to access fear, really, for me in certain circumstances.

GS: Okay, so talk more about that. What is that process of accessing fear, for you, as an actor?

BM: Just comes from imagination, really. Thinking about the scenario that I’m in and what’s at stake. What can happen? And just sitting in it. I know, like, for certain scenes in Blackstock Boneyard, I went off into a room by myself and just thought about the circumstances. What’s at stake? Who am I with? The relationships that I care about. You know, all these things that mean something to me in this story. And just really letting my imagination run with it.

GS: For that preparation, when you’re sort of diving into your imagination to prepare yourself for those scenes… Is that more something that you do ahead of time? Is that something that you would do like in your trailer? Or is that something that it’s really helpful to be on set to be in that environment to be with the set dressing and the other actors have to prepare for that?

BM: I think every actor has their own process. I would think that the more time you put in beforehand on something, the better. But there is an element of just having to be able to adjust on the spot because whatever you might be visualizing or preparing beforehand… You show up on set and the actor looks different, the set looks different, things aren’t where you thought they were in your imagination, or maybe because of the building that you guys got, you had to change the scene somehow. So, there is some things that you just have to be flexible on. The way you feel about another character. We don’t necessarily have to understand their relationships with people. [But], the other things in the scene, who you are in that world, those are the things that I think are really important to understand.

GS: I would think that, especially in later parts of the film, with the more intense scenes that adrenaline is really important, right? That you’re kind of in the moment for that type of stuff. If you’re doing multiple takes with that, with those kinds of scenes, how do you keep yourself in that rhythm? And not, you know, exhaust yourself or kind of get into this routine where you’re supposed to be surprised by something, but it’s the fifth time that you’ve been surprised by it?

BM: Yeah, it’s how do you not exhaust yourself sometimes. You know, sometimes you do get very exhausted. I’ve been on sets with people, and I know, I’ve done it myself, where it might be a scene that… where [I might feel crying is necessary], because it’s like, I just try and stay in that mental state as much as possible until the opportunity to let things you know, until action happens. And then it’s really about being in the moment, too. Listening and waiting. Not anticipating. If you’re allowing yourself to be in that moment, and you have a specific understanding about what’s happening, ideally, it’ll kick back on the fear or the tears, or whatever it is, in that moment. If you’ve really done some work behind it to understand what’s at stake? 

GS: Yeah, well, no, I understand. Like, being exhausted is kind of inevitable, with this stuff. What was the routine on this set, like how many takes were you doing for these types of scenes? I’m just curious how you respond to that if the director wanted to keep going, how you sort of, maintain your stamina for big moments like that?

BM: Yeah. It can be challenging. You know, I’ve done things where I put headphones on and tried to stay in the zone. I kind of try and stay in this general zone of like, having this underlying feeling. Because if you’re just crying between takes and you’re doing that all the time, you can, like, you know, physically, like run out of tears. I don’t know, if you get cried out, but you know, your body just says, I’ve done this so much, I don’t need to anymore. So, I try to be like, almost like building up the pressure for when [there’s supposed to be] pressure.

GS: How do you communicate with the director about that kind of stuff? I mean, are you just trying to give yourself space? Do you just distance yourself? Like, okay, this is for me to manage. Or do you go to your director and say, “hey, listen, I’m sort of running out of juice here, or I don’t know how many more takes I have left in me.” How do you approach that?

BM: Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve had opportunities where that’s been a problem. As far as like, I happen to have that discussion. I think if it was like, you know, maybe some sort of film where I was like, in a torture situation for the duration of the filming every day, to show up and bring that same kind of like intensity, day in day out. I feel like that would be exhausting. Like Saw, you know, the whole thing is just one continual torture situation after another. So, I actually haven’t had to have that conversation because most of the directors I’ve worked with are really respectful of the processes.

GS: Would you be interested in doing a project like you mentioned, like Saw where it’s like, just nonstop feeling really intense scenes? Or is that something that you’re really wary of?

BM: I’m not wary of it specifically for that scenario of continual intensity. But the horror genre in general is not my favorite acting simply because unless there’s some sort of moral… like this story actually has a [moral]. Like the title, “Rightful”. Like I was saying, there’s a justice that’s being served. Something like Saw isn’t my favorite because it seems very senseless. There’s a… I get the element of like, the suspense and the thrill and the danger and the primal fear of it. Those elements are cool to me. But I’m not too interested in being in a horror film that doesn’t necessarily have some sort of objective.

GS: What genre are you attracted to the most? What really catches your attention? Is there something that you tend to gravitate towards naturally?

BM: If it’s a good role, I like all genres. But, for me, I’m really goofy person in general. So, I like comedy quite a bit. The film that I mentioned earlier, In Other Words, that’s on HBO Max and that’s a romantic comedy. That was just a blast. Comedy sets, in general, just have a lighter feel to them. Because you don’t have actors over in the corner trying to stay in this like intense mental state. There’s people cracking jokes. And it happens on drama sets too, but there’s an overall, there’s a little bit more seriousness on drama and horror films. Where with comedy it’s just like the whole thing’s a party.

GS: I’ve never worked on a comedy, but now you kind of made me want to.

BM: Yeah, you know, people like Will Ferrell, they’re so great at coming up with different things on the fly. Like, I [was able to] have different endings to the scene, like almost every single time. And it was generating laughter from people around. So, it was just that was, I felt so alive. You have an immediate reaction from people as soon as cut is being called. And something like that, when you get to like, think of jokes that you can just throw out. There’s something to be said about improvising jokes and having fun.

GS: Do you prefer improvising over sticking to the text as if it’s gospel? Or does each process sort of have its place for you… Like, there are certain projects that improvising is great. And there are other projects where you think it might be inappropriate, or where you feel more uncomfortable improvising?

BM: As a whole, I feel more uncomfortable doing it in television, because television is run by writers and writers are also [usually] the producers of the show. So, in films, it seems to be more appropriate to improvise a little bit here and there, especially on lower budget things. And it also depends on who the writer might be. If you’re working with Aaron Sorkin type material, you’re not going to want to change the punctuation. [But], I do really love improvising.

GS: Talk to me about working with your director, Andre Alpha, on this project. What was his process? I know, some directors are incredibly specific with actors, while others are more hands off. How did he approach the shoot? And how did he approach working with you?

BM: Yeah, he was great director to work with. He was really chill. He let us do a lot of our things. It’s kind of like, he honed us in where he wanted us to go. And you know, that was… there were things as I mentioned, in that first bar scene, there was a lot of improvisation. I don’t know if you remember when I, when I’m leaving the bar, and I take the thing out of his pocket. That wasn’t scripted. I had that idea. I was like, oh, this is a real asshole move. And I walked up to the bartender, and I did that. [Andre] was like, “yes, that was great.” He was so open to that kind of thing. And it just made me feel open to taking chances. He was kind of hands off in that way of letting us do our thing. But if he needed something from us, he would tell us.

GS: Which I’m sure is liberating in a lot of ways, especially with like, the situation you just mentioned. With a situation like that. Is that something that you mentioned to him beforehand? Or do you just do it and see how he reacts to it?

BM: That’s how I did it. Yeah, and it also makes for organic responses from other actors too. Sometimes it depends too on how big a thing your [improvisation] might be… If you’re going to knock over a table and have to reset or something, then maybe we want to discuss that beforehand. Me and a prop definitely. Granted you’re in the moment, I don’t know, I haven’t done it. I feel like, as an actor, you might debate that. “Well, I had the impulse. I had to go with my impulse.”

GS: What’s your relationship with the cinematographer on each project? Is that something where you don’t engage much? The camera is, in many ways, a character itself. It’s creating what the audience is going to be seeing. So, I mean, do you communicate at all with the DP?

BM: I would say that kind of varies from set to set. You know, I’ve been on bigger projects like Mindhunter, where I had very little communication with the DP himself. And like, there were so many people on that set sometimes, [I wasn’t] even sure who was speaking to me, but there are certain sets like In Other Words, where I work with DP. Yeah, we became great buddies. I remember doing a take where we would get done with a take and he’d do in his accent, “great job, bro.” And there is a relationship in the sense of, they need to communicate sometimes like, “hey, do this, you’re too far off frame. Because they’re often the [only] ones getting to see frame. Sometimes the DP might say, “well, for the way we have this light set up, and with where the camera is at, it might be better if you tilt your head this way.” Or “take a step back.” And “don’t lean forward.” Those kinds of things. Sometimes, a director of photography, they have a special relationship with the director. Sometimes they’re doing similar things, trying to capture the same thing. I asked what

GS: Is that ever confining? I assume there are certain setups, right, where there are certain things that you can’t do just because of where the camera is positioned and what the camera can see. And you have all this gear around you, you know, all these lights. So, there are certain ways that the setups and just the nature of film can kind of limit what you can do as a performer? Do you have any, like processes for making sure that doesn’t get to you mentally?

BM: Oh, I would say that there are certain, I guess you can use the term, confinements. But I have a background in graphic design as well. And so sometimes, when a client would come to me with an assignment [without] any parameters, it [would] actually make it more difficult because I’m like, I don’t know what confines to stay within to give you [what you want]. And so, sometimes having [confinements] in creativity can be helpful, because then you just [have to think:] how do I be creative within these guidelines. And the same can apply on set, you know, I just have to use my creativity within the guidelines that I’ve been given to then show up and do my work.

GS: There’s obviously quite a bit of special effects in this film. I’m not sure how much stunt work there was. But how do you approach stunt work and special effects scenes?

BM: I have an athletic background. I grew up playing a lot of sports. So, I actually like it when I had the opportunity to do certain stunts and get physical in some way. Granted, there was one stunt I did when someone’s head knocked mine like before we even started rolling. I had a nagging headache the whole day. Wasn’t crazy about that. But it’s fun. It’s still very fun to do action since that’s a lot about like blocking it out with the DP, the stunt coordinator, and the other actor. To make sure that you’re, ideally, not really going to hurt each other. So, there’s those kinds of things. But then the special effects I think really kind of just comes down to imagination. You know? Nowadays, people make whole movies on green screens, you know like Avatar. I would love to be in something like that. But a lot of it comes down to [the fact that] you get a lot from the other actors.

GS: My last question will be more of a fun question. Two parts. One, what is the most unhelpful piece of direction you’ve ever gotten? Two, what is the most helpful piece of direction you’ve ever gotten?

BM: Some directors don’t really know how to work with actors. I’ve definitely been on projects where the note was “more emotion, more emotion, even more emotion.” Okay. And, you know, it was a friend of mine. And I understood what he was saying, so I still was able to get what he wanted… I laugh at that particular thing. But the best piece of direction… I actually took some classes from a director months ago, where he asked, “what are three facts about this [scene]?” Then we would talk about the three different facts that we had in the scene, and like, some people would say, “the fact here is that I like ice cream” and he’s like, “that is not a fact. The fact, is you’re eating ice cream, but you can’t say that you like it is a fact, that’s an opinion.” And he said that when you know what the facts are, then you can make opinions about [the material]. And I was like, that’s cool. And I was coaching an actor friend of mine recently. And [in the] scene her best friend had cheated with her husband. I was like, “well, the fact is that your husband cheated on you with your best friend. But whether you like it or not is completely up to you.” You know, like, you can make some really interesting acting choices, as long as it fits in the world that it’s been created in.

GS: Is that just a matter of perspective? Obviously, when we read a script for the first time, we have these certain preconceived notions that are there inherently. We’re just kind of bringing our own baggage to it.

BM: Sure. Yeah. You know, I was helping one of my friends audition for Ozark, the first season. And it hadn’t come out yet. And I saw Jason Bateman’s name on it. And I really only knew Jason Bateman from comedy. So, we took it to a comedic level, but that [ended up being] the farthest thing from comedy. You know, that’s just trying to make an educated guess based on what you know in the past, but that’s really funny.

GS: Haha, yeah, that’s great. Well, in terms of direction, what do you think is the most useful? Do you think it’s the simple things? Like just a few words are the most helpful? Or do you really like a director to roll up their sleeves and get into covering all the different dynamics in a scene?

BM: As far as like “in the moment stuff”. The director [I took the acting class with] was talking about working with Matthew McConaughey and Matthew McConaughey will come over to the director after a take and say, “just give me a verb”. That’s all he wants. Just one verb. And he takes that and goes into the scene and does it. And there is something to having like a simple note like that. Like, okay, let me play. Here’s the one thing that I’m going to use in the scene to try and like, have it tilt in that way. Sometimes, I’ve had directors get really detailed, and by the time they’re done talking, I don’t remember what they had said at the beginning. Not that that’s bad. But sometimes it can be like, I didn’t need that much to hop back into the scene.

GS: When I hear that, it sounds like Matthew McConaughey is kind of trying to set the terms on which the relationship with the director is going to work. Like he’s kind of telling the director how to best direct him.

BM: Which is actually… I’m not going to speak for directors and their processes. But not all actors work the same, right? We all process things differently. Humans in general, all process things differently. I think it would probably be a great way for actor-director relationships, for the actor to say, “this is how I best work”. It just sets the tone right away. And then the director doesn’t have to play a guessing game, so they can talk and communicate with the actor and then they’re off to the races towards making a good film.

Blackstock Boneyard is currently available on DVD and streaming.

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