We catch up with Michael McGrady as he talks about his career, battling cancer, and life lessons we all should pay attention to.
Mike McGrady was born in Seattle, Washinton and had inspirations to become a lawyer. Fortunately, his sister gave him and us a great gift. She entered him in an acting contest that inspired his move to California to pursue acting as a career.
If you don’t recognize the name, you know who he is. On television, he guest starred in several popular television
shows such as 24, Murder She Wrote, CSI: Miami, Leverage, and Prison Break. McGrady also played Sal Salinger on the TNT drama Southland. You can still see him on Ray Donovan as Frank Barnes, Sanford Pringle on Chance, and Tom Matthews on Beyond.
McGrady was recently on the television miniseries on FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson. as Detective Philip Vannatter. One of my favorite roles he was in was Rusty Galloway in the game L.A. Noir. His movies are equally impressive. Roles include John Shanssey in Wyatt Earp, Frank Mangrum in Diggstown, and Lou Gehrig in The Babe.
Hidden Remote: How did you get into the acting field?
Mike McGrady: In a series of bizarre circumstances, my sister entered me in a contest in Seattle for a new acting school that was starting up there. I went down and auditioned for it and got one of four scholarships. It was a little nothing school, a podunk school at the time. They had some girl who was up from L.A. that had four credits to her name which was four more than anyone else had at the time.
In 1983, I moved down to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career even though I was a business major in school. Originally came down to L.A. with a backpack and $183 and spent a couple of nights in a baseball park. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any phone numbers or anything, and I only had a few dollars in my pocket. So, I figured out I would live on the streets until I found work and find a place to stay. That all happened relatively quickly.
Hidden Remote: That had to take some guts to decide to move down to an unknown city without knowing anyone.
McGrady: That was the attitude I had. I knew that I was studying business, and I was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1979 and my dad had skin cancer and passed away from it a year earlier before I was diagnosed. Back then, in the late 70’s, they did not know much about Malignant Melanoma. They took a pretty good chunk from my arm to make sure they contained it all and took some Lymph Nodes out. I had to readjust my course a little bit, because, I was told I had a 50/50 chance to see the age of 23, I was told that I probably would not have full rotation in my arm, and more than likely could never do sports again. So, it was not like I had this great big grand plan ahead of me.
After I heard that news I knew I had to do something I had to be passionate about. I was only pursuing business because I wanted to go to law school since that is the most responsible thing to do. They make good money, but in my heart-of-hearts, I knew that it was not a path that had heart and I knew that.
Hidden Remote: I have an MBA, and I wanted to dress in a suit and make money, but it wasn’t who I was. I was a writer. Do you find that in yourself?
McGrady: Absolutely, that totally resonates with me. I pass that philosophy along to everyone I’ve known, and to my kids especially. All three of my kids I have told from the get-go. If the path you are on doesn’t have heart you are not going to last. It’s not sustainable. It’s only sustainable if it has heart behind it, and if there is a passion there for it.
James Hillman wrote this really great book called the “Soul’s Code.” He talks about in great length the proclivity and the natural abilities people have showing up at a very, very young age. All we need to do is pay attention to what those proclivities and natural skill sets and desires and passions are and then find a way to nurture it and bring it in to fruition. The Indians call it “Dharma.”
Unfortunately, we live in a society where there is not always that niche or that thing that will allow them to flourish. We categorize people. You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a construction guy, you’re going to be this and you’re going to be that. So as parents and society try to square peg people in round holes that are helpful to us in society and we place a hierarchy of value on those different professions and jobs and stuff. If you don’t fit into those cliché holes as a square peg, nobody knows what to do.
Somehow or another you get pushed or persuade into that hole and someone shoves you in there, whether it’s a parent, coach, or mentor, society, or peer groups, or whatever they push you into that hole, and then make you sit into this uncomfortable squeezed in feel, closet phobic almost.
They are people who refused to be squeezed into one of those vacancy holes if you will. Did their own thing and marked out a path that has heart and makes sense to them. I kind of did that and I am a strong believer in that. I did that with my kids, I really tried to inculcate that into their philosophy and their thinking.
Hidden Remote: Your story reminds me of the song by Tim McGraw “Live Like You are Dying”
McGrady: Anything that has to do with the idea of pursuing life full tilt, I’m about. Im not talking about pop psychology, self-help success and all those bells and whistles. Im talking about taking on challenges that are physically, spiritually and mentally challenging. It’s a way to find out what you are made of.
I am very much self-referral I don’t need a lot of attention. I love connection, and I love to connect with people but I don’t need the attention. I don’t need others approval or disapproval of me that’s not what I thrive on. I heard this great quote “What you think of me is none of my business.” I love that because people are going to think what they are going to think, and they are going to make up a story about you true or not, fact or false.
Hidden Remote: You are a cancer survivor, what would you recommend to those going through a similar situation?
McGrady: I am 57 now and I always had friends much older than me. Especially after my cancer situation. In fact when I had the cancer I ran into this extra essential place where I begin to question those cliché questions that you normally have and typically you have them when your older, “What is valuable in life, what is important, what is needful, what is useful, what am I here to do?” A lot of those are profound questions hit me at 19.
These are not the questions you ask at 19. It’s “how can I make some money, how can I get my next date?” These are superficial questions, not saying that people can’t ask those profound questions, but for me, I started to ask those very profound questions at a very young age and started to looking for answers. I mean diligently looking for answers. I started reading a lot of books. I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Kierkegaard, Freud, all of them.
Starting searching for answers and uh, I think I found a few when I was younger. A lot of them come down with having a path with heart. There are people who live 20-30-40-50-60 years beyond cancer scare and do nothing with their lives and just wait around for the “other shoe to drop,” as they say. That’s not living. You are living with a blade saw. You are driving a car with the accelerator on one foot and the brake on the other. I never really prescribed to that behavior approach to life.
When the cancer hit me and what I tell other people in these certain situations is that “You have to make up your mind. Whether you are going to live consciously with life ahead of you or are you going to live life with death ahead of you. Once you make that decision, the rest of the path falls into place.
For me, I was going to decide to live life with it ahead of me and I wasn’t going to give death a second thought. I just look at it as this is the thing I was dealt with and the only way I could overcome it is to do everything I can to overcome it. Which is to eat healthy, stay healthy, stay athletic, and go and find the things that are valuable to you. Put your money, time, and effort into that. Things that have great rewards, the things that give back. And that’s what I did. I didn’t sit around and become bitter, angry, sad, and depressed. I just didn’t go that route. I made the decision that I wanted to live life and I wanted to live life to its fullest. I did not want to concentrate on death and dying.
So I went out and made a plan to live my life. I made goals, I put goals in front of me to draw me forward and I never looked back. As an actor that cancer scare was so priceless in many respects because it took me to places in my soul and my spirit that I probably would never have had until later on in my life like in my 60-70-80.
Hidden Remote: I think that’s what is so important about discovering the character. If you cant find the essence then I don’t think you can truly be what that character’s end goal is, do you find that this is true?
McGrady: Yes, absolutely. There is this saying, “It takes a smart guy to play a dumb guy, a nice guy to play a mean guy.” Its kind of a fun dichotomy and truth to that. You have to have an understanding to people, you have to an understanding of behavior as an actor, You can’t go into acting to fool yourself.
Stanislavsky made the greatest quote of all when he said: “Love is the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.” There are a lot of people in the business, whether its music or acting are in it because they love themselves in the art and not the art in themselves. It is not a sustainable career or they are miserable when they get there. They may get quote end quote and they are super popular and world renown and making tons of money but then they commit suicide.
Because what they are looking for what they are searching for was the plastic whistle that you see in the Carnival. You throw something over the bottle top, and you think you win this big bear, but instead, you win the whistle. I think that’s where people have their spirits. They go after the wrong thing, they go after the shiny objects that they are looking for that look like fun, but gosh how many times have we heard or seen or
read about people that finally grab that grand prize and it didn’t meet their expectations, and then they wonder where they go from here. I have always been very clear what my value system is.
I think surviving cancer has helped me hone down a very specific value that has been my compass and my true north my whole life. My family is extremely valuable to me. I have turned down television series that have been offered to me in the past, simply because I didn’t want to move my family out of their schools, or I didn’t want to be working 14-16-hour days a week on a television series, ya it would have been nice kind of money, but I wouldn’t be able to coach my kids in their sports, I wouldn’t be able to raise them, I wouldn’t be able to come home to them playing with them on the floor.
I would be coming home at night when they are sleeping or leaving in the morning before they get up. That never appealed to me. They are pretty easy decisions for me because I know what my value system is. Money doesn’t motivate me, stuff doesn’t motivate me, being popular doesn’t motivate me, none of that motivates me.
I told my kids for years, spend less time looking at your clock and more time looking at your compass. Because where you are going is more important than how fast you will get there. Getting somewhere fast and it’s the wrong destination you have wasted a lot of time unnecessarily.
Hidden Remote: What is your process when playing those that have lived such as Lou Gehrig, John Shanssey and detective Vannattar?
McGrady: That’s interesting. I love it. I love the challenge. The first movie I had to do that with was with Beverly DeAngelo was called “A Child Lost Forever.” Based on a true story about a child that was abducted at a very
young age, and unbeknownst to the young couple whose child was stolen that very child showed up on their doorstep on a whim looking to mow lawns when he was about 12 or ten-years-old. I played the dad Dennis. He was a real character and I met the mother who came to the set several times since it was her life story.
I spoke to her at great length about him and his mannerisms and I saw pictures of him and she told me a lot about him and stuff. So I sat down and I put together with what I thought was him. She came to the set one day and I was trying to effect his mannerisms and stuff and she was very complimentary. She said that is exactly how he walked, how he spoke, and how he moved.
When I did Lou Gehrig came around, I had not hit a hard ball, baseball since I was in junior high. Of course, I lied and told them I had because I wanted the job. And I was a right-hander. I had to learn to bat and throw left-handed. I had to learn his stance, his swing, his mannerisms. I watched a lot of film on him. I did a lot of research on him and the 1920’s. The “Murderers’ Row” gang. The rivalry and the friendship between him and Babe Ruth.
With VanAtter, I did the same thing. I watched interviews online since of course, we have YouTube. Kind of looked at a lot of photographs, a lot of reels, a lot of newsreels, and try to approximate him as best I could. Sometimes you don’t have the benefit of a full makeover. The best thing I could do is make Michael McGrady disappear as best I could. Bring their characteristics to the forefront. That’s always been very challenging. The most challenging work is to bury yourself into and allow these other characters to come to the forefront. Always challenging and always fun.
It’s a big responsibility because they are family members of these people. That are still living and alive so you have a responsibility to them. To make sure you depict their loved ones that is as real as possible, with dignity, and with self-respect and what not. The daughter of Phillip VanAtter had written me through Facebook because I had spelled his name wrong a couple of times in a Facebook post. She said, “That is not how you spell our name, our name is VanAtter,” and she spelled it out for me. I wrote her back and apologized profusely. Telling her “I meant no disrespect, and I had no idea.” I then asked her a few questions about him and I was able to incorporate that into some of his mannerisms to some of those scenes too.
Hidden Remote: Is there a difference between playing someone who is athletic as you did as a boxer in Diggstown and Gehrig in Babe to someone like VanAtter?
McGrady: Ummm, I think so, the first thing you need to get into shape. In Diggstown we trained with a guy named Bennie the “Jet” Urquidez, who at the time was a kickboxing champion. Benny trained me and Jim Caviezel and some of the other fighters for that movie. I think we trained for about a month.
I’ve been boxing all my life, so I have been pretty well equipped and ahead of the other guys and stuff, but I was certainly not in the physical shape they needed us to be in because we had some fight scenes that we had to choreograph all day long for several days sometimes.
We had to be in shape because when they said action, this was before digital came along and we would do a 1,000 takes and it wouldn’t cost you any more. You had to deliver the goods. You had to look like you knew what you were doing.
Lou Gehrig weighed in at 190 pounds at max and I was 225 when I got the role. I dropped twenty pounds for it. Basically, did cardio and ate nothing. I was always in the batting cage two-to-three times a week for several weeks before we started the movie. I couldn’t even hit a 30 mph softball out of a pitching machine out here in Simi Valley where I trained. I was scared. I thought what am I going to do. They are going to find me out in a heartbeat. Me and John Goodman were going to hit off a live arm. A University of Illinois baseball player who played on one of the opposing teams in the movie.
That took a lot of effort, a lot of work and a lot of time, to make that work. When we showed up in Chicago at Wrigley Field to shoot that the hitting scenes we had to bring our A-game because time is money especially when it comes to filmmaking.
Hidden Remote: Can you go into your character Sanford Pringle (Chance) and Frank Barnes (Ray Donovan) please?
McGrady: As far as Frank Barnes, when I first found out about it, I knew Ann Biderman who had created Ray Donovan had created another series called Southland. I played Sal Salinger on that particular show I loved her
as a writer I loved her as a person. She is great with character She really knows what she is doing.
When I found out that Ray Donovan was looking for this character. She found out that I was in the running for it and it really was a no-brainer. They hired me almost on the spot. When I first got on the set, I knew then, the chemistry was going to be right. They were supposed to kill me off, but they kept me alive, and they kept me alive for five full seasons. It has been a wonderful ride, and I have had a great time.
As for Chance, I have always been a huge, huge fan of Hugh Laurie, ever since his ‘House’ days. When the role for John Pringle came along, he is a neurophysicist, extremely polite, extremely successful businessman.
They had to age me like 10-15 years, because Ethan Suplee who plays my son is the sidekick to Hugh Laurie’s character is forty-forty one, forty-two, so they put a little age on me, age my hair, age my around my eye, put some glasses on me to bring up this character, which was a nice little change from Tom Matthews, the character I play on Beyond, where I play the dad.
It is the closest where I have ever played me in anything I have ever done is the dad on Beyond, because I get to play me as a dad. I don’t have to effect any characterization or anything like that. I just have to understand what’s going on in this scene, what’s motivating me, what’s motivating everyone else, anytime you get a chance to play those characters, where I get to be cathartic and express yourself in a way you don’t normally express yourself. I get to be the physical guy when I want to be, but I don’t have to be. On Ray, I get to be pretty physical at times. On Chance, I get to be this super wealthy, successful, businessman and have this strange relationship with my crackpot son.
Hidden Remote: Do you find that the roles overlap, and keep you busy?
McGrady: This year as last year as well, there is some overlap with Ray Donovan. I just finish up with Ray Donovan when I start on Beyond. I usually get two or three more episodes to go, so I have to fly back and forth from Vancouver for Beyond for the first three or four weeks. Then I finish up on Ray. Once I finish up on Ray Donovan, I start up on Chance. So there is overlap on all three of them. I love it. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t like to fly as much. But as far as the work, it keeps it interesting and it keeps it fun, keeps it challenging. Just when I start getting bored with one character in a particular storyline, then boom, I got a new one coming up. Then I fly back and do another one. I love that.