Mark O’Brien has had quite a year. The actor has appeared in several critically acclaimed projects, including, recently, Oscar nominated film Marriage Story, the Showtime series City on a Hill, and horror-comedy Ready or Not. He’s also well known for his roles on Halt and Catch Fire for AMC, and films like Arrival and Bad Times at the El Royale. We connected with O’Brien to discuss his latest project Goalie, a film about the life of legendary NHL goalie Terry Sawchuk.
Nerds and Beyond: So first of all, I just want to say congratulations, because you’ve had a pretty successful 2019. You’ve had Marriage Story, Ready or Not, and City on a Hill, so you’ve had quite a year. What I wanted to get into with Goalie in particular is how much did you know about the Terry Sawchuk story before you signed on to this film, and what originally drew you to the role?
Mark O’Brien: Actually, it’s funny, because you think you know a lot about somebody, right? And then when you actually delve deeper, it’s revealed that you didn’t know as much as you thought you did. So I knew what most hockey fans know of him. I knew he played with Detroit for the prominent part of his career and he went around and played in Boston and with the Rangers for a little bit. And I knew that he held the record for wins and shut outs and that he was known as the greatest goalie of all time. That’s pretty much all I knew, really, because I didn’t know anything about him as a person. I didn’t know about his upbringing in Winnipeg, there was so much that I didn’t know, but I was drawn to the role because I knew he had a troubled life and that was about as far as I got. And I knew he died at a young age. So that was enough for me to be really interested in. Also just being a hockey player. I knew it immediately. I knew that I had an affinity for the script and a story and a hockey movie in general, and I think when you can delve into something that you already have a passion for, you already have a leg up.
Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. And of course he is a very introverted person. I mean doing research for this interview, there’s so many things that I’ve never heard of about Terry. Did it change your preparation for the role at all, since Terry was a real person versus when you’re prepping to play a fictional character?
O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely. I mean what a lot of people say is that they want to do them justice, and that’s certainly a part of it. But also you have a wealth of material that you don’t normally have if you’re playing fictional characters. So why not take advantage of that and open up doors for yourself without having to pound them open yourself? So I found that really, really helpful in a lot of ways. It also proved to be challenging as well, because there’s so much written about him, but there’s so much that’s not in his own words cause he was an introverted person. So you kind of have to fill in the blanks of who he is based on who we think he is. So it’s both a benefit and also can create its own challenges at the same time. But I really liked that, because then there’s a space for me to put my own kind of accent on it because at the end of the day it is me playing him. So it was pretty invigorating actually.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s interesting! I feel like we hear so much about actors, like you said, wanting to do justice to a real person and in particular with this real person where his interior life is not nearly as well known as his exterior life. You mentioned earlier that you played hockey as a kid as well. But I have to assume that learning to play hockey on film was a completely different experience for you, especially since the era of hockey the film is talking about is a completely different style of play than the modern era. What was the biggest challenge you encountered in portraying that on film?
O’Brien: Well, it’s hard to get the hockey stuff right, because hockey is not an easy thing to capture on film. Like football, you know, just conceptually for me, I’m not going to speak out of turn, but it seems like it’s a bit easier of a thing to follow because the ball is bigger. You know what I mean? It’s a similar type play. It’s literally a larger object to follow and a bit more of a malleable object ’cause it can bounce and can be handed off easily. Whereas a puck is kind of an odd instrument that’s not used outside of anything but hockey. It’s not easy to photograph. So that’s challenging, just the way we did the hockey games. So I was pretty hands on with that.
But that was challenging to set up a play. It’s not always simple because it’s going at such a fast pace, too. So there was that. And also, I wasn’t a goalie. I played hockey, so I had to learn to be a goalie. I had certain knowledge of like, if you’re a guitarist you probably play drums a few times, like it’s like that kind of thing. So I had to learn how to do that and, and it did create its own challenges. You know, when you’re on the ice for 15 hours, you’re kind of messed up by the end of the day. So physically it was a challenge, too, but one that I welcomed, the one that I was really eager to get started on.
Nerds and Beyond: And coming in as someone who’s young enough that really my experience of hockey is goalies covered in pads, to watch the trailer for this movie, to see how physical it was really shocked me. So I’m sure that was part of it as well, making sure that people really understood how physical hockey was in that particular era.
O’Brien: Oh my God. Yeah. It was wild because you’re only 16 or so, and there’s only six goalies. So you are one of six in the world who was making it to the NHL. So now I have to be physical and put everything on the line and that’s really rare compared to today.
Nerds and Beyond: One thing I thought was super interesting is that you’ve worked with your wife [actress Georgina Reilly, who plays Sawchuk’s wife in the film] several times in several films, including in this one where you actually have a pretty volatile relationship. Do you find it’s harder or easier to build that fictional connection between your characters when you have that real life connection as well?
O’Brien: That’s a good question. Actually we found it easier, and I think it’s because we’ve been married for seven years and we understand each other so well and we also are both actors. So the amount of times she’s helped me with an audition and I’ve helped her with an audition. We’ve watched each other’s work. When we comment on work and we talk about acting and we talk about movies, there’s such an open line of communication that we actually thought it was very simple to to fall into it to be honest, because we’ve done versions of every scene you could imagine, two actors living together. So it was great. It was great. It was the best scene partner I could have had.
Nerds and Beyond: This is more of a personal note, but I’m actually from Boston. So when I heard you played a character from here in City on a Hill, I had to look it up because we’re very discerning with our Boston accents. We will rip you to shreds if you’ve got a bad accent in film [laughs]. But I think, at least for me, you pass that local test for Boston accent realism. What was your prep like for that?
Mark O’Brien: Thank you! You don’t know how important that is. For that role, it was really based on a version of myself when I was younger, not quite as criminalistic, but a version of myself and a lot of people I knew and the character had really leapt off the page, for lack of a better way of putting it. It really was just, it just hit home to me. I was like, “Oh, I just know this guy. He’s nothing like me, but I know that guy”. I’m pretty good with accents I think. But I just understood his voice, which is not just about some accent, it’s the entire pitch of how I speak. And it just felt right. So it was weird. I know it could be Chuck MacLean’s writing, his writing was very strong. So I felt like I just knew him. I can’t really articulate it, but it was really exciting and I loved playing that part. And I know, I’m from Newfoundland [Canada] and we have a very specific accent [laughs]. If someone butchers that we put the name up on the list, so I’m glad to hear that about the accent.
Nerds and Beyond: So, another film that came out in 2019 for you that was pretty big and that I very much enjoyed was Ready or Not. I went into it expecting a straight horror film and got such an interesting horror-comedy mix. What was it like for you as an actor having to balance the drama and the scares with the laughs while you’re on set creating that character?
O’Brien: Well, the biggest challenge for me is that my character wasn’t too comedic because the world was weighing on my shoulders. So to mix the tone of seeing what the great comedic actors were doing like Adam Brody and Henry Czerny and Melanie Scrofano and pushing through. And they’re so funny in the movie, and Samara [Weaving]. She’s funny. Even in her peril, she’s funny in a great way. And so for me it was [that] my character has to bear the weight of what’s actually happening in a way that he understands it, whereas Samara’s character is going through it, not that that’s easier or I think she had a harder job, but that was the challenge was hitting that tone without being in a different movie than everyone else. So that was the challenge. But I kind of felt like I understood it and we had really good directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and good producers and a great cast. And I think when you have all those elements come together, it makes it easier for you to come to a conclusion on how to play a part, which you normally don’t come to until the time you finish shooting [laughs], but still it was really enjoyable. I mean we laughed the whole movie. It was literally one of my favorite experiences.
Nerds and Beyond: And it must’ve been an experience just getting that script and reading it and sort of seeing the tone that they were going for as well. Because it’s very different than a lot of the films that came out last year.
O’Brien: Yeah. And that also has this kind of social subtext, too, of power and money and family relations. So all that was really there. I was super excited when I read it ’cause I was like, “Oh, this is a really ballsy movie and really well done characters that are believable in this crazy world, which is really hard to pull off.” I thought the writers did a really good job with that.
Nerds and Beyond: I also saw that you’re going to be making your feature length directorial debut with The Righteous, which you also wrote and you’re also starring in. So where did the idea for the story come from, and what has the process been like directing yourself on camera?
O’Brien: It was pretty crazy. I’ve directed myself before in short films and TV, but this was very different and it was a really kind of bizarre character I’m playing. I liked the idea of movies that leave you like almost like what David Lynch does. I’m not comparing myself to David Lynch, but as a fan, he leaves you confused, but needing to know more. And I just wanted to make a movie that was like that and a movie about someone trying to confront something that they’ve done and, and struggling with that. And so I can’t really say much more about it than that, but we had 16 days of shooting and it was the greatest thrill of my life, but it was also the craziest thing I’ve ever done because it was 15-16 hours of very intense work. And then I came home to my two-year-old every night. So I feel like I didn’t sleep for about two weeks [laughs], but it was exactly what I wanted to do, and we’re editing the movie now and it’s looking really good. I’m really happy. And I think when you go to make something, you can’t look at it as if it’s good or not, you have to look at it as in, “is this what I wanted?” And I think that’s the most important thing, and I think I created what I wanted to create next. If people like it, that’s awesome. Then if they hate it, then that’s fine too. That’s all part of it.
Nerds and Beyond: [laughs] What’s harder: making a directorial film or raising a two-year-old at the same time? It sounds like they’re both similar labors of love.
O’Brien: Yeah, very. [laughs] And for both you have to show wild, wild measures of restraint.
Nerds and Beyond: Well, I want to say thank you so much for your time and for answering these questions for us. For anyone interested in seeing more of your work or following your future projects, where can they find you?
Goalie will receive a limited release in select U.S. cities on January 31 and will be available on DVD and digital platforms on February 25. Check out the trailer below!