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Chris McKenna

Chris: "I got cast, type cast I
believe, as “Dopey“."

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
July 21st, 2004

For my next interview I had the pleasure of talking to newcomer Chris McKenna who is receiving rave reviews for his debut performance in Stuart gordon's wonderful film King of the Ants. Having seen the film I know that Chris deserves the praise, and I was shocked at how modest he is about the whole experience.

Why did you want to become an actor?
I was seven years old and living in Connecticut when a pamphlet was passed around school to tryout for a local theatre group called Youth Theatre Ensemble. They were doing a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I loved that movie. It sounded fun to me. I had always been a ham, singing and dancing since I was even younger than that. So, I asked my parents if I could try out and they said yes. I got cast, type cast I believe, as “Dopey”. I’ve been hooked ever since. I started doing community theatre for the next four years or so, sometimes doing two or three plays at once. Eventually I got enough good reviews and enough people telling me that I should really become professional that I listened to them. My mom started the laborious task of driving me to New York all the time for auditions and what not. Soon after, I booked a role on “One Life to Live.” It was a contract role, and I spent three years on that. I guess the rest is history!

How did you go about getting noticed?
Well, it’s kind of an ephemeral thing. It all goes back to community theatre. I caught the attention of some local reviewers and the local newspapers. They started doing features on me because I guess I was so popular. Eventually, I started the auditioning process in New York and I got the honor of singing the theme song to “Stepfather II.” “The Stepfather” is one of my favorite movies of all time, so that was a great honor. That got me going and then the soap opera was my big break. I’ve been making a living on acting ever since.

You play the lead of Sean Crawley in Stuart Gordon’s latest film “King of the Ants.” How did you get the part?
It was one of the scripts that had come across my table. I looked at the breakdown, which is a little synopsis of what they’re looking for in the actor to play the role. It was a nothing like me. It was a smaller guy, not physically imposing, someone you wouldn’t notice walking down the street. And, I’m 6’3”, about 200 lbs., there’s no way they’re going to cast me in this and as usual I’m going to be too freakin’ big. It’s a problem I’ve run into too often. A good friend of mine read the script and said I had to play the role. She had me read the last scene where Sean tells Becket that he’s going to kill him. I was so riveted. I went to an all-night diner, drank coffee all night, and read the script over and over again. I was completely possessed by the role and obsessed with the script. I started rehearsing all the time, and started to figure out the inner workings of Sean, all this before I even officially had an appointment to meet Stuart. I finally did meet him and the audition went great. Stuart was such a great guy and was opened to what I had to say. And, I had a lot to say about the role. I was really enthusiastic when I got there and he seemed to respond to everything I was doing, so that was a great relief. Soon after, I met the producers and then I got the call saying I got it and to get down there right now, they’re waiting for you at the table read. Everyone who had been cast for weeks was sitting there waiting to find out who was going to play the lead (laughs) and, in walks this lumbering Irishman. I got some strange looks, people didn’t know what to say or even who I was (laughing), but I knew who everyone was in the room, so that was strange. I guess that’s how it began.

What attracted you to the role?
Oddly enough, I understood the guy. I really understood where he was coming from. I could see how if I was put in that position that part of me would want to do it. Some part of me, however small, would have the desire and compulsion to try it, to see if he could get away with it, to see if you were capable. It was that realism that I found so riveting and identifiable, and the fact that I get to kick a lot of butt and that’s fun.

The film has an excellent cast. Were you nervous about acting alongside such established actors?
Absolutely, I was terrified. I knew who was involved in it. I got to the table read and there was Ron Livingston and George Wendt and these were all people that I knew, and I’m the only guy in the room that I hadn’t heard of (laughing). It was quite nerve wracking. But as soon as we did the table read, George went to Stuart and said, ‘you know I think this kid ’s really good.’ Stuart made sure to tell me that because I’m sure he knew how nervous I was. As soon as we started shooting, I didn’t have time to be nervous. We had a ridiculous schedule working long hours, very compact, and people seemed to really be responding to what I was doing and it felt really good. It all seemed to flow out of me and it turned out to be a lot less stressful than I thought it would be, not that I didn’t have plenty of sleepless nights and nightmares playing this role. The cast was wonderful and so supportive and I had a great time.

Chris shows the drawbacks of
working long hours.

A lot of people thought that the film is about killer ants, can you tell us what the film is about for anyone still confused?
I was a little worried about the title myself not wanting to walk around in an ant suit eating Baldwins (laughing). The film is about a guy, just like you and me. He’s also a guy with not a whole lot going for him, fumbling his way through life. And, he’s given a chance to make a big chunk of dough and to do something, for lack of a better word, extraordinary and he takes the chance and pays perhaps the ultimate price. I hope that wasn’t too esoteric for you, but that’s what it means to me.

What was Stuart like to work with?
Stuart is a wonderful guy, a great big Santa Claus of a man who does nothing but smile and laugh through the day. All the stressful things happened on the set, a generator ran out of gas, we were trying to film a whole movie in 24 days, there was casting problems passed the start of the shoot, and all kinds of things that arose, and Stuart was never rattled. Never once did I ever see him lose his temper and he had plenty of reasons to. Stuart is a consummate professional and great guy and I’m proud to say we’re friends now.

Had you been a fan of his work previously?
I honestly had only heard of him through ReAnimator and had seen the box on the video store shelves. A friend of mine was a huge fan and demanded that I watched Stuart’s films if I was going to read for one of his movies. I watched ReAnimator, I watched Dagon and absolutely loved the movies. I love his style and what he does with them. Frankly, I love his casting. I was honored to have been chosen by him. By the time I got into the audition I was a big Stuart Gordon fan. And, I think I will be for all time, now.

What was your favorite scene in the movie?
That’s a tough one. Killing Gatley is an incredible scene. I was really looking forward to filming it with Ron. I think Ron does an amazing job. That scene, I thought, was the most realistic portrayal of what a murder could be like by the hands of someone that inexperienced, nervous, scared and guilty. I loved the moment of tenderness where he’s so sad and trying to put him out of his misery, but the guy won’t die and Gatley just keeps muttering things. I found that scene gut wrenching and real. It reminded me of that scene in “Saving Private Ryan” with Adam Goldberg and the knife fight. A scene that had me slithering down in my seat. I was so upset and nearly in tears and gritting my teeth and wanting to yell at the screen. I think that was the scene that really did it for me and let me know upon reading the script, that this movie was different.

What for you was the most challenging aspect of the project?
I think the most challenging aspect was, first of all, trying to execute what they call in acting class ‘the character arc.’ To go from this humdrum nobody to a psychopathic killer and to do it realistically, that is a very challenging thing in itself and then the fact that you film things out of order. We were filming Gatley’s murder on day three, filming the finale on day five, then filming the opening sequence on day twenty. That’s a tough thing and I had to really trust Stuart to keep me in line and to keep me in the right place because there is such a journey the character takes that the tough part was trying to keep that arc and keep true to the character while, not only being real, but trying to keep my head straight with a schedule that jumped around.

Chris: "I certainly have nothing against conventional horror.".

Are you a fan of the horror genre?
I’m actually a movie buff. I’m a fan of all film, horror included. I mentioned before that Stepfather is my favorite horror movie of all time. Terry O’Quinn’s performance in that was absolutely stunning to me. I had the honor and privilege working with him some years later on a pilot called, ‘The Contender.’ He played my father and that was a thrill for me. I’m a tremendous fan of movies like Dog Soldiers, Ginger Snaps. The smaller, independent or foreign horror films, I think, is where some of the best horror gets done. I’ve become a much bigger fan of the horror genre since my work involvement with this film. The Fangoria conventions have really opened my eyes to some things that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I’m a fan and my interest is continuing to grow.

Would you like to do more conventional horror movies?
I certainly have nothing against conventional horror. I would love to play the bad guy, that’s for sure. I’ve got these dimples and big goofy smile and it usually will cast me as a rather nice guy. But, I would really be excited to play the good guy who turns out to be bad at the end as long as it was written cleverly. But, the thing with horror and with all film is that it has to be character driven, at least for me to admire the work. If it’s written well and the characters are not two dimensional, if there’s more to it than the cheap jumps, scares, and CGI, then absolutely I would love to be involved. If it happens to be a horror movie, so be it. I love an adrenalin rush as much as the next guy.

What will you be working on next?
I’m adapting a horror novel written by Thomas Tessier. The role in it that really intrigues me about the story would be a good guy that turns out to be bad. I’m trying to make my dreams come true in that respect. I’m also attached to a movie called ‘Art School Confidential’ directed by Terry Zwigoff, who did Crumb and Ghost World. It’s a very different role from Sean Crawley. I’m playing a New York cop, kind of a bull headed rookie jerk of a cop. That’s what you’ll be able to see me in next. Thanks very much and I hope that everyone that reads this enjoys the film.

"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview Chris.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

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