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Interview: Actor Mark O'Brien on Making ‘The Front Runner’

November 26, 2018Ben MK

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time in American politics when it wasn't so much a politician's public statements that incited outrage, but the choices they made in their personal lives. Welcome to the 1988 US Presidential Election.

Directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner follows Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a Democratic Senator from Colorado who finds his private life under scrutiny after rumors of sexual infidelity begin swirling around him two weeks before Election Day, derailing his chances of becoming the country's next Commander in Chief. But while Hart's team of strategists and volunteers work hard to contain the political fallout from the revelation, he must also deal with the emotional toll the situation takes on his family, namely his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever).

At this year's Toronto International Film Festival I sat down with actor Mark O'Brien, who plays Hart campaign team member Billy Shore, to find out more about what it was like working on the film, and to chat about his other upcoming roles, which includes projects from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as Noah Baumbach.

One of the things I enjoyed about The Front Runner is how it's a political film, but also not. It's very thrilling and the pacing is so energetic, so it doesn't feel like your typical political drama. Was that what attracted you to the project?

O'Brien: Yeah, it has a really, really good pace. Which was even more exemplified in the editing. I think they did a great job. It was a really great editor who worked on this. And Jason just knows films so well, and I think he knew we had to go, "Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom." Because there's so much story to tell, there's so many different points of view. So I think that that pace, that really connected me to it. Cuz the script really was a page-turner. It was an amazing script.

I got a call one day from my agent, and they said, "Jason Reitman wants to meet you for this thing." And I was like, "Oh my God. I'm a fan, and I've heard he's a great guy. Some of my friends have worked with him." So I was just really excited to get started, and found out a bit about Billy Shore before I met with him. And it just went great, and then I think a few days later I was at his house for a read-through.

So what kind of research did you do for the role?

O'Brien: Because there's so many real-life people, we talked about not trying to pick up too much physical stuff about the people we were playing. Because it could distract from the story, cuz there's so many characters. And really, at the end of the day, it is this story of Gary Hart. You don't want to be too distracting either. So Billy Shore, I read everything I could about him — I read his books and I talked to people about him. And that's pretty much as far as I went, cuz it's your representation of what that person was doing at that time. So it's a very funny thing, you want to be accurate and be respectful, but also you don't want to distract in your performance.

And your character is one of Gary Hart's campaign aides, so you shared quite a few scenes with Hugh Jackman. What was it like working with him?

O'Brien: Oh, he's incredible. He's just a consummate professional. And just a good guy who loves his job, loves being around the cast and crew. I can't say enough good things about him. He's the most impressive person I've worked with, one of the most impressive people I've ever met. And just really inclusive and hard-working. Really professional and hard-working, and just the nicest guy.

He's also very talented, musically. Did he ever break into song on-set?

O'Brien: I wish. No, no, he didn't do that. But he probably would if you asked him. [laughs]

There are a few Oscar-worthy performances in the film as well. I was especially blown away by Vera Farmiga's powerful speech towards the end.

O'Brien: She's just so strong. I was there that day, and I was watching her do the scene. And I was like, "Oh wow, she's so natural." And I didn't quite see the power of it, but you watch it on screen and it's like, "Oh my God." Man, she's just incredible.

And what was it like working with Jason Reitman?

O'Brien: Jason's incredible. I would say right now, Jason's probably one of the best directors I've ever worked with, hands down. He just knows film, he lives and breathes movies. And he can reference any movie like that [snaps fingers]. He's comfortable with the cast, but also really knows the story he's telling. You can't catch Jason not knowing something about his story [laughs], he is so into the thing that he's doing. And he has a great eye for camera. I was actually really impressed [with] his knowledge of camera movements and how to tell a story visually. I was not quite aware just how talented he is. He's everything you want in a filmmaker.

You're also in Bad Times at the El Royale. What was it like working on that one?

O'Brien: Well, I didn't work with Chris Hemsworth. I worked with Jeff Bridges and Nick Offerman. But Drew Goddard directed it, and I'm a huge Drew Goddard fan. He did The Cabin in the Woods. He is so nice, it's unbelievable. I have a very small part in that film, but I probably became closer with him than some directors I've worked with for months, in just a short period of time. Like he remembers everything, and he's just fun. A lot of these filmmakers I'm working with, the great thing is that they enjoy their job, and that makes me enjoy my job, and that makes the crew enjoy their job. And I got into this because I love it, I didn't get into it for any other reason.

And last but not least, what else do you have upcoming?

O'Brien: I'm in a movie called Goalie, which is a biopic about a hockey player named Terry Sawchuk. So I play Terry Sawchuk in that film, and I actually was a producer on that film as well. We shot that earlier this year, and they're just finishing up post-production right now. So that'll come out sometime next year, and it went great. I'm shooting a film right now called Hammer, which is a crime-thriller. And in January, I start a new Showtime series called City on the Hill, which is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and Kevin Bacon is the star, and I'm one of the leads on that. Oh yeah, and I'm in Noah Baumbach's new movie coming out next year for Netflix, which I'm really excited about. So it's a really exciting time.

The Front Runner is now in theatres.

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