Mark O’Brien is a pleasure to speak with about his role as Billy Shore in The Front Runner, which is set to open in select U.S. theatres on November 7th, just in time for the midterm elections. We requested to speak with a member of the “campaign team” exclusively and we were so glad that it was O’Brien, as he is making big waves in Hollywood, by, get this, being a decent person (much like his co-star, Hugh Jackman). He is like a good Newfoundlander, though he now lives in Los Angeles.
During our chat in the TIFF Bell Lightbox during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, he ran into a few people that he knew, on the red carpet, walking by, and it was fascinating to observe first hand how genuine and committed he is to making those around him look and feel good.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our chat with Mark O’Brien of The Front Runner.
Brief Take: You and Allan Hawco must be close collaborators.
Mark O’Brien: Well, we were. I did my first gig with Allan Hawco called Above and Beyond, which was a miniseries for CBC in 2006, and then we did Republic of Doyle together for six years. We haven’t worked together since then but I always get the feeling that we will. We’re really close. We were actually just texting the other day; I’m going to see him soon. There are people like that, that are like family, that we’ll always have that connection, and I think that we’ll always want to work together again.
BT: Republic of Doyle holds a special place in your heart also because that’s where you met your wife, right?
MO: I met my wife (Georgina Reilly) on Republic of Doyle. The series really influenced a lot of life and my career and my personal life, and who I am as an actor, and what I think I can do, and what my limitations are, and all those important things. It was like on the job training, which every television show and movie really is, but in that situation it was such a wonderful time in my life.
BT: What drew you to The Front Runner? Where does it fit into your career arc?
MO: It’s pretty huge, man. I like being in things, no matter how big the part is, if it’s something that I believe in and something I would want to go see. As soon as I read The Front Runner, and I’ve seen the film, I was like “this is the kind of movie that I would be so excited to go watch”. So to me, I think that you create your own luck, and in the arts, for sure, but it’s a privileged position for sure, to be in something that I would want to see as a spectator.
BT: As a spectator, what aspect of the project appealed to you in particular?
MO: Well, it’s a fast-moving, entertaining story that doesn’t necessarily take sides, it just gives analysis. Those are my favourite movies. I like things like Michael Haneke, David Lynch movies, in which I am left to decide. This movie is a bit more mainstream than that, but I like those movies too, in which here is something that’s entertaining, that’s interesting, with characters that you can connect to, but there’s no easy way out.
BT: Do you see a lot of parallels with this film and what is happening now?
MO: Absolutely! You definitely do. It would be hard to say to the contrary. I also think that good art always creates a projection onto what’s happening right now, because the themes that we see in the world and in life are cyclical, it always continues, like this is not the first time that there’s been a government that people are shaky about. I did a movie this year called The Darkest Minds in which everyone was asking about kids being in internment camps. I mean you can’t predict certain things that are going to happen, but I think great art reflects what’s happening in society and I think that this movie does that.
BT: What do you think that people will get out of seeing The Front Runner in a theatrical setting?
MO: What I love about Jason [Reitman] is that he’s a pure filmmaker. We don’t have filmmakers like Jason who make the kind of movies that I grew up on. They just don’t make them like that any more. Maybe The Big Short, which is funny but has that kind of weight to it. This is a very Robert Altman-esque movie, especially with the camerawork. But I think that people are going to find it very funny, which is interesting because, look, this is a very tough story, but there’s humour in everything and you can laugh at almost anything. I think people are really going to like it. I watched it and I thought it was a great movie. It’s a good story well told.
BT: What did you like best about working in an ensemble like this one?
MO: The biggest thing is off-set. You wanna enjoy shooting, you wanna enjoy the people that you are around, you wanna have fun so that you can make good work, and we had the most fun. We all had dinner together every night, we all went out on the weekends together, all of us, Jason, Hugh (Jackman), everyone. We had an incredible connection. I’ve been fortunate in a lot of instances. Republic of Doyle was great, Halt and Catch Fire was a tight group. You don’t always get it, and we really had it on this movie. We have a group text going. We shot this movie a year ago and the group text hasn’t stopped. In the movie, the campaign team is together and we’re with Hugh in every scene, so you want to be comfortable with one another and you want to be able to laugh unexpectedly, and you want to be able to be there for one another and take the piss out of one another. You need that kind of camaraderie and you see it on screen. The way that it’s shot, it has that sort of vibe, the Robert Redford film The Candidate, that kind of vibe in which sometimes we were on camera and didn’t even know it. And Jason would come over and be like “just so you know, you’re on camera, right?”. [laughing] We had such a good relationship that we made it work. My wife came to dinner last night and said “I don’t even know what the hell you are talking about”. [laughs] So many inside jokes, but it was great, man.
BT: So it’s like a campaign?
MO: I think it takes great leaders, a good story, and you have a leader like Jason Reitman and Bron Studios, Aaron L. Gilbert is a great leader, great producer, Helen Estabrook, these are really good people and really good workers. And then Hugh Jackman. How could you not have a good team?!
BT: Would you like to be that leader one day behind the camera?
MO: I have several films in development right now. I want to make films and it’s finally starting to take shape, but I think that I needed to focus on my acting career to help get me to this point. I’m very ambitious, but it has helped me to get to a point to when I hopefully am going to make my first film.
BT: You have quite a year coming up.
BT: Do you want to break it down, project by project?
MO: Sure. This year was very busy because I was in a couple of Netflix movies, Anon and How it Ends, and I thought those went really well. Then I have this coming out, and I have a small part in Bad Times at the El Royale. I got to work with Drew Goddard, who I love, and Jeff Bridges. I mean, he’s legendary! And I did a movie this year called Goalie which was about Terry Sawchuk, who I knew all about growing up because I played hockey. And I’m doing a movie right now, which we haven’t really broken, but I’m filming something right now (he has a film coming up directed by Noah Baumbach, as well as Ready or Not with Samara Weaving and Andie MacDowell). In January, I think it’s January, we start filming City on a Hill, which is the new Showtime series, which I’m very excited about. It’s produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and Kevin Bacon is one of the leads, and I’m one of the leads, and it’s such a cool story, man. I love stuff set in Boston and I love these kinds of gritty stories, and I really like this character a lot. It’s the most excited I have ever been in my career to start that show.
BT: As a Newfoundlander, Boston must be…
MO: …There’s a similarity there. I always say that Boston is 75 per cent New York, 25 per cent Newfoundland. You think, it’s this big city, East Coast, Irish Catholic-like feel, but then you add New York City into that vibe, it’s the East Coast kind of thing and that Irish kind of vibe. I feel like I really know those kind of characters. I grew up with them. It’s just a different kind of accent. Oh, man, I’m so excited! We’ve got such a great team.
The Front Runner in now playing in select theatres in the U.S. The film opens in Toronto and Vancouver on November 16th and will open wide in Canada on November 21st. Bad Times at the El Royale is currently playing in theatres everywhere.