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John C. McGinley on 'Burn Notice,' Broadway and Life After 'Scrubs'

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Aug 23, 2012 | 5:47am EDT

John C. McGinleyThose well-versed in the films of Oliver Stone or perhaps a certain quirky hospital series that helped launched the age of the single-camera comedy might have noticed a familiar face popping up throughout this season of Burn Notice: that of John C. McGinley, the decorated film and television actor famous for playing Dr. Perry Cox on the NBC sitcom Scrubs. Throughout Burn Notice’s sixth season, McGinley has recurred as Tom Card, the nebulous former mentor to the show’s hero, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan). Thursday night will mark the broadcast of the USA series’ mid-season finale (McGinley will appear on more in the fall!) — and perhaps reveal a little more about his character's true intentions?

We got a chance to talk to the actor about his stint on Burn Notice, as well as a few other exciting projects he has on the horizon (including a Broadway appearance), his lasting appreciation for the gift that was Dr. Cox, and some of his own cinematic passions.

“I’d been a fan of Jeffrey [Donovan] for a long time,” McGinley explained, discussing his decision to take on a role on Burn Notice. “I’d seen the show off and on. And Gabrielle [Anwar] is a goddess. So, I just thought it was a bunch of good actors. And Matt Nix, he can write his tail off. I thought that was a good formula — and so it yielded huge dividends.”

As we quickly learned about McGinley, the quality of writing is his top priority when choosing a project. “I read it, and I thought it was really delicious. So I said, ‘Yeah. I’ll come down to Miami.’ Why not? … There’s that silly rule of thumb that you hear every actor talk about in every stinkin’ interview: if it’s not on the page, it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s the single truest thing in the history of the planet. If those words stink, then the [project] is going to stink.”

McGinley could tell from reading Tom Card that he was a character worth sinking his teeth into. “You don’t know if he’s coming or going as far as how he supports or subverts the protagonist for four of the five episodes. That’s fantastic. He’s not wearing a particular color in the story. You don’t know if he’s the man in black or the man in white, the bad guy or the good guy. So, to be able to straddle that tight of a tightrope is the stuff that actors dream of.”

There are several big screen projects that McGinley has in the works — each of which commanded his interest thanks to the quality of its script. First on the list is 42, the developing Jackie Robinson biopic written and directed by Brian Helgeland. “The script is very smart. It’s one year. It’s 1947. It’s the year baseball was integrated. It’s not Jackie Robinson from cradle to the grave. That’s too hard. You’ve got to do that with a book … This is one year in a man’s life that, in a lot of ways, changed our country.”

McGinley enthusiastically celebrates his chance to play radio sportscaster Red Barber in the film.

“He’s one of the top-of-the-food-chain, iconic radio voices of all time,” McGinley divulged. “I don’t say that in any way disparaging Vince Gully, because Vince Gully was an intern of his for five years. So, this is a guy who, along with Mel Allen, invented baseball on the radio. They co-invented it. They were the pioneers. And I got to do that. It was massive.”

However, this story reaches far beyond the confines of professional baseball. McGinley appreciates just how grand a story this film has in store — “As much of a sports story it is,” the actor said, “this is a civil rights story.” He continued: “This is a story about empowerment and courage. Branch Rickey, who Harrison Ford plays in this, was the guy who ran the Dodgers. What he did was breathtaking. In 1947, to bring a black guy into the big leagues? As you’ll see in the story, it was an uphill climb the whole way.”

Another highly anticipated film in McGinley’s future is the newest Alex Cross adaptation, featuring Tyler Perry and Ed Burns. While both of the leading men’s characters come straight from the texts of James Patterson, McGinley got the opportunity to create the character himself with the film’s writer and director Rob Cohen. “I played Ed Burns’ and Tyler Perry’s boss in the police force … It’s not in the book. So, [Cohen] invited me to come and create this guy. We got together and decided where this guy could fit into the story. That’s as exciting as anything any actor could ever do. When you get to create a character out of nothing? He doesn’t exist in the book. He doesn’t exist in the script. Rob knew he needed an instrument in there somewhere to push this information forward, or deliver this element of the story. He goes, ‘Do you want to be this guy?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’"

As far as his cast mates go, McGinley feels as though he hit the jackpot. “I’ve always thought Ed Burns was a profoundly underrated actor. He’s a great director, obviously. A great director/writer. But I think he’s a stunning actor, too … I was pretty pumped to see Ed. It’s so great when your perception of someone is eclipsed by how great they are in real life. That’s the effect Ed had on me. I thought he was a stunning person, and an equally extraordinary actor.” Although McGinley didn’t have as much of a chance to spend time with Perry off camera, he assured that he will be “marvelous” as Alex Cross.

Among this slew of dramatic new prospects, McGinley is also staying true to his gift of humor for the upcoming comedy film Get a Job. McGinley explained the theme of the picture: “It’s [about] the Gen-Xers who have lived at home with their parents. The angle the script takes is that these are the kids who all got trophies in soccer. And even if you were thrown out at first when you were playing little league baseball, you still got to stay on first. You were never out. You weren’t ever on a losing team.”

And how exactly do kids like this turn out as adults? “So, this kind of mollycoddling that generation was afforded or afflicted with by their parents has yielded kids — young people at twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty — who… who what? That’s what the picture is. Okay, what are you doing now? There are losers in soccer games. You are out at first.”

Once again, it all comes back to the writing: “The script was fantastic. I play one of their bosses. One of the guys gets a job on a trading floor. And talk about a shark pool. To come from that background to a stocks and bonds trading floor, where everybody would take a shiv and stick it in your esophagus just as soon as look at you. So, this one character, that’s his workplace conflict.”

A colorful stock trader, a shifty mentor (and possible villain), a sportscasting legend, and the head honcho on a homicide investigation — not to mention Dave Moss in the upcoming Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, in which McGinley will star opposite Al Pacino (a role that McGinley called “a profound challenge”). Clearly, the actor has a lot of great characters on the way. But for many of us, he’ll always be associated with Percival Cox, M.D. And McGinley seems to have no problem with that.

“To get to play that guy for nine years,” McGinley explained, “is a gift … [I] did six films this year, and now I’m going to do a Broadway play. So, if I’ve been stigmatized as Dr. Cox, then give me more stigma.”

And it’s because of how tumultuously troubled Cox always was as a human being. “He was profoundly flawed, from being unquestionably an alcoholic, to being a divorced guy who moves in, moves out, moves back in with his ex-wife — then decides that they’re better divorced but living together — to sometimes using a jackhammer to teach, only because the stakes that they’re dealing with are so important, to being a great father but raging against being a mentor, to a guy who can’t stand human touch. These are all great things. And they’re so specific and meticulous.”

According to McGinley, this kind of human flaw is what makes for great character. “What helps writers, and ultimately, obviously, helps the actors — who should serve the words that the writer puts on the page — is if the character has damages. Because then the writers can cultivate and excavate, like a dentist going into a tooth. You go into those damages and write interesting stories for a prolonged period of time. So, Cox is so damaged that they got to write him for nine years, and he never became an exercise in redundancy.”

But there are aspects of Cox that make him triumphant. For one, his intelligence, as McGinley illustrated. “I surrendered to this early on: Dr. Cox, SAT- and IQ-wise, runs circles around me. That’s a horrible thing to say about yourself. I think the guy is super, super bright. And probably rebels against that, and tries to damage his intellect with booze.”

Even more importantly is the fact that, at the very core, Cox is a truly good person. “The great thing about Cox,” the actor said, “is that you knew he had a heart of gold. At the bottom of the ninth, bases jacked, two strikes, full count — who do you want? You want Cox. Who do you want as your doctor? You want Cox. So, working backwards from there, it gave him license to hammer those kids. The guy was so fundamentally sound, that he could take those liberties.”

McGinley got to talking about one of his most memorable episodes on Scrubs, which took place during an arc in which Cox spiraled into a crushing depression after inadvertently causing the deaths of several patients. “I didn’t talk in that episode until the last scene,” McGinley recalled. “People kept coming to the apartment. It was an exercise in listening, which is always really useful for actors to do. There’s a whole school in the Neighborhood Playhouse — Sandy Meisner and the Neighborhood Playhouse — all their focus is on listening. And the listening exercises that Sandy came up with always, always are the stuff of treasure and genius work for actors.”

One thing that fans of Perry Cox might look back upon fondly is the doctor’s signature nose-flick — a quirk that McGinley himself brought to the character. But where exactly did it come from? “I was lucky enough to become friends with Paul Newman during Fat Man and Little Boy,” McGinley explained. “When John Cusack and I were down in Mexico doing that film about the atomic bomb. So, I kind of was obsessed with Paul Newman. He was the best to me. One of his famous throws to Robert Redford in The Sting — “The coast is clear, everything is okay” — was that nose flick. So, it was kind of an homage to Paul.”

Talking about The Sting got the actor thinking back upon some of his other favorite films. Among them: Casablanca, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, and The Grey Fox. “A lot of people would argue with The Grey Fox,” McGinley admitted. “But I don’t care, because it rocks me. The storytelling is so clean, and it’s so gorgeous. And Richard Farnsworth, who I never met… he’s a reason to put a motion picture camera on a human face.”

And when you consider the common themes of this string of movies, McGinley’s favorite pick of 2012 might surprise you: The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The actor affirms that it is “the best film of the year,” divulging emphatically: “You have to be willing to suspend your disbelief, a la E.T.. If you can’t do that, then don’t go to the movie. These reviewers that have been uniformly unkind to it, I don’t know what film they were watching. If they think they were watching a true story about a little boy… it’s a love letter. It’s an enchanted love letter. If you watch E.T. and say that there are holes in the story because this alien lands, then don’t go to the movie! It drives me insane. You go see Timothy Green, and tell me if it doesn’t rock your world. I loved it. I loved every frame of it.”

While it might be a bit easier to pinpoint his favorite of other artists’ works, McGinley just can’t decide when it comes to his own line of films — specifically, his list of Oliver Stone movies. McGinley holds the distinction to be the only actor to have worked with director Stone in six features, and he cherishes each one of them. “They’re all pretty special. Going into the Philippines for six months and surrendering your life to [Platoon] was unbelievable. Doing Wall Street was special, because my father and Oliver’s father both worked, independent of each other, on Wall Street. Doing Talk Radio, I created the role in the play and did it for a year and a half, and then Oliver said, ‘Do you want to do the movie?’ Any Given Sunday, I got to meet Al and spend five months with Al.”

And although he was not involved with this year’s Savages, McGinley had nothing but high praise for the film. “I thought it was fantastic. I thought all the actors were great. I thought Benicio [del Toro] and John [Travolta] and Salma [Hayek] were just in top form.”

Three big pictures, one Broadway play, a television guest spot on the way, and a hell of a lot in the realm of film and television to his name already. McGinley is one of those rare actors that seems to crank out golden performances wherever he goes. Does he have a knack for picking terrific material, or is he just good enough to make anything worth watching (a skill he accredits to a limited populace, including the likes of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams)? Whichever you choose to believe, it’s hard to ignore the actor’s vast talent.

Catch McGinley in the season finale of Burn Notice on Thursday night at 9 PM.

MORE:

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