by Ryan Meehan
Johnathan McClain is an American stage, television, and film actor, and writer. At the age of 21 McClain moved to Chicago where he wrote and began performing his critically acclaimed, multiple character, one-man show, “Like It Is.” The Chicago Reader was quoted as saying: “If we’re ever to return to a day when theatre matters, we’ll need a few hundred more artists with McClain’s vision and courage.” The show subsequently moved to New York, where his work was compared to that of Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo, and Anna Deavere Smith. And he’s our guest today in 5 Questions.
FOH: How did you get your start acting and at what point did you know that you could actually make a career out of it?
JM: I started performing from almost the time I could stand up and get attention, but I didn’t really start acting until I was about 11 or 12 and decided I wanted to study seriously and make a life of it. I don’t know that I ever much considered whether or not I could make a “career” out of it. By which I mean I never thought of trying to do anything else, so I don’t suppose I ever thought I had an option. I worked day jobs for a long, long time but I was still acting and doing plays all the while, so I don’t know if that’s when my career began or if it doesn’t count as a “career” until I was able to stop and just support myself through acting alone. I just don’t know. And I always believe I’m only one bad audition away from going back to working a day job again, so I also don’t know at what point an actor ever feels they have a career. I just put my head down and work hard and keep going until the next thing comes along. I suppose ask me again when I’m dead and I’ll tell you if I feel like I made a successful go of it.
FOH: Which tattoo that you have is your favorite, and how did you become so interested in the world of body art?
JM: I have about 15 or so tattoos and they all mean something. I have friends who get inked up kind of willy nilly, but I only get work done when I want to document, remember, or remind me of something significant in my life. That’s why I started. It sounds kind of corny, but I was having a tough time and I wanted to feel something different than what I was feeling, so I got ink. It worked in terms of refocusing me, so I resolved to make it kind of like my therapy. It’s not for everything, only major life events, so I try to use discretion. I don’t wanna go to the tattoo parlor every time I spill the milk. My favorite has to be my wife’s name. Not only is it a beautiful piece, but it’s a good reminder that this marriage has to WORK. Either that, or I have to find another Laura I can stand being with.
FOH: What’s the most unusual thing that you’ve ever had happen to you on the set of a TV show?
JM: Maybe I’m just boring, but honestly nothing particularly unusual or extraordinary has happened to me at work. I mean, it’s work. You go to work, do your job, and go home. All pretty standard. I guess the one story I sometimes like to share comes from the set of 24. While not particularly unusual, it’s a fun anecdote. I did a couple of episodes of 24, playing the Vice President’s Chief Of Staff, so when I came aboard everyone was very conscious of welcoming me to the set because we had no idea how long I might be around. And the thing that kind of cracked me up was that everyone, to a person, would take my hand firmly, draw me in close, and say “Welcome to 24,” in a real macho, “Semper Fi” kinda way. It was just cool because 24 was one of the baddest assed shows on TV and they all knew it, and they were all very much of the mind that they were in a special club. It was cool to be on that set for a little while. Oh…and Keifer Sutherland rubbed butter all over me and then would dip his lobster in my belly button, but I didn’t find that all that weird. Kind of tickled though.
FOH: The Chicago Reader did a review of your one-man show “Like it Is”, where the author (Justin Hayford) said “If we’re ever to return to a day when theatre matters, we’ll need a few hundred more artists with McClain’s vision and courage.” What do you think he meant by “a day when theatre matters”, and you think that we will ever see that day again?
JM: Well, I wrote and performed that show almost 20 years ago, at a time before there was the internet and cell phones, and all of that. I think at that time (and it makes me sound like an old man but…) the world was a little less plugged in and the more conventional ways of reaching people – television, movies…plays – were the primary ways of communicating any kind of message. John Patrick Shanley once wrote that “Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done.” I think when Justin Hayford wrote that review, he was referencing that essential idea; that when we have a forum like theatre to make statements about the world or shine a light on our dark places as a society, we have an obligation to do so. I still believe that’s true, but in the 21st century we have many other forums to achieve those same noble goals and an even louder, larger mic to do it with. I don’t know if we’ll ever return to a place when theatre holds the same role of social importance it once did, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing as long as we continue looking forward to the tools and mechanisms we do have to make the same bold statements and do the same unsafe work. And you only need to look at the internet to see that there’s no shortage of voices straining to be heard. It’s our job as the audience to find the ones saying the important, crucial things, and listen.
FOH: How was the show received in New York in comparison to the way it was received in Chicago?
JM: Critically, the show was a similarly ego inflating, impossible expectation setting success. Commercially, it didn’t run nearly as long or draw nearly the same kind of audiences. Chicago is a true theatre town, not to suggest that New York isn’t, because that would be stupid, but Chicago is smaller and a real “up by the bootstraps” kind of a town. So one really good review in The Chicago Reader can make a show a success. In New York that can also happen, but only if it’s the NY Times doing the reviewing, and then there still has to be a lot of money involved in order to be competitive. I love New York City like I love my life, and a big part of the reason for that is that it showed me how hard you have to work if you really want to play the game. Going from anywhere, doing anything, to doing it in NYC is like going from college to the NBA. They play pro ball in NY. Which makes it all the more ironic when you look at what’s happened to The Knicks.
FOH: You are married, how do you manage to balance personal time with your professional career?
JM: It’s hard. It requires understanding and sacrifice from everyone involved. I feel very lucky. I’m surrounded by people who are patient, and loving, and generous, and who I trust. That obviously starts with my wife, but it extends to my agents and manager too. When I feel like something takes precedence on the business or personal side, the other side is very good about supporting me in what I choose. And I try and return the favor. The one thing I know for sure is that love is never enough. I love my work, I love my wife, but any success I have in my career or my marriage is the result of hard work. And that’s a fact.
FOH: What do you have planned for the next twelve months?
JM: Just gonna take each day as it comes. But if you hear of anything I should know about, please give me a heads up. I wanna dress appropriately.
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