August 26, 2016

Being Catholic in Hollywood: it's possible. Just ask Neal McDonough

By Carl Kozlowski *
Neal McDonough (L) plays Marty Burlsworth in 'Greater' (Hammond Entertainment).
Neal McDonough (L) plays Marty Burlsworth in 'Greater' (Hammond Entertainment).

There are few actors in Hollywood brave enough to wear their Catholic faith on their sleeve and base their career decisions about the films and TV shows they will and won’t do on the morals they’ve been instilled with. Jim Caviezel, who played Christ in “The Passion of the Christ” before becoming the star of the hit CBS series “Person of Interest,” and Mel Gibson are two of the standouts.

But Neal McDonough is another staunchly Catholic actor who is making a splash in Tinseltown, with nonstop work in television including a regular role on the CW network’s hit superhero show “Arrow” as villain Damien Dahrk.  What’s even more remarkable about him, however, is that the married father of five’s strong standard of not performing sex scenes has inspired him to walk away from a $1 million payday for the ABC “Scoundrels” in 2010, drawing attention and admiration for his principles from those in show business as well as far beyond.

Now he’s the one of the stars of the new faith-driven movie “Greater,” in which he plays the real-life character of Marty Burlsworth, who instilled a passionate faith and unquenchable spirit in his younger brother Brandon. Brandon went on to become the greatest walk-on player in the history of college football, becoming a beloved player for the Arkansas Razorbacks despite being considered too short and too fat to play, and who set an inspiring example for all when he made it all the way to the NFL – only to be killed in a car crash 11 days after being drafted.

The movie powerfully addresses his remarkable life and the way that his death also inspired others to greater faith and trust in God, and McDonough took the time to discuss the movie with me for CNA. The movie is playing in select theatres nationwide, and you can find the them by visiting the movie’s site at www.greaterthemovie.com.

You play Marty Burlsworth in GREATER. Tell us a little about the character.

Well, Marty is a real guy – and a really great guy. He’s the older brother of the movie’s central character, Brandon Burlsworth, a phenomenal offensive lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the late 90s. Brandon is right on the cusp of making it the NFL, he gets drafted by the Colts, and he dies. That really puts Marty through the ringer – and the movie follows how he tries to get his faith and his joy back after the tragedy.  

Sounds like a meaty and emotional role.

It really is. Marty is a typical big brother –- loves Brandon, wants the best for him, razzes him a little bit throughout his life. But as much as Brandon looks up to Marty, Marty looks up to him, too – because he has such high character and commitment to all he does. Particularly when it comes to his religious faith, Brandon’s is deep and consistent – and Marty admires that. Especially when he struggles with his own faith after Brandon dies.

Speaking of faith, you’re well-known as a Christian in Hollywood for your strong Catholic faith. Did that influence your decision to star in a faith-based film like GREATER?

My Catholic faith is central to who I am as a human being – not just as an actor – so it informs every decision I make, whether it’s deciding on a project or deciding on how to treat the guy who cuts me off in traffic. And, for the record, I don’t get it right in either case every time!

I’m always on the lookout for projects with a strong moral and inspirational core – and GREATER certainly qualifies there. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking take on what it looks like to follow the path God lays out before you even when it has bumps and twists and turns.

As long as we’re on the subject of your faith, it’s been reported that you actually lost a role because you wouldn’t do the graphic love scenes that were demanded of you. That your Catholic convictions and your respect for your wife made you uncomfortable about the part.

(Laughs) yes, it’s true that I don’t like to do – I won’t do – those kinds of scenes because of my desire to honor Ruve. One of the reasons I take my fair share of villain roles is because very rarely are villains required to do love scenes. I’m just more comfortable as a man and a husband when that’s not part of the job.

Speaking of villains, you were the chief bad guy on last season’s ARROW, the CW series based on the Green Arrow comic books. You played Damien Darhk, who was very dark indeed. How much fun was that show to do?

Well, it’s still fun to do – I’m filming the upcoming season now and it’s a delight. He is really a rich, hammy villain – very much in the brilliantly crazy mold of other comic-book bad guys like Lex Luthor and even the Joker – without the clown makeup. I mean, who doesn’t want to be in a superhero series or film? I’ve been in two now, and it’s a dream come true for every actor who was a kid who loved comic books.

Can you give us any details on the new season of ARROW?

You know a good villain never gives away his plot. You’re going to have to tune in like everybody else.

Let’s go back to GREATER. The young man who plays Brandon, Chris Severio, is a first-time actor. What was it like working with him?

Chris is a top-notch young man and a very fine, intuitive actor. He’s the moral center of this movie – and that’s a tricky thing to play without coming off as too pious or self-righteous or boringly goody two-shoes. Chris does a very good job of avoiding those stereotypes and giving a very honest, real performance. You root for Brandon, you see why Marty and everybody else admires him so much, because of the sincerity and grit Chris brings to the part.

Were you aware of Brandon’s story before the film?

I knew about the tragedy of his death, of course. And about what a remarkable story he was as a player – to make it as a non-scholarship walk-on at a major school like Arkansas and end up being drafted fairly high into the NFL. That takes a remarkable amount of determination.

But I didn’t know his backstory, the struggles his Mom went through as a single parent and the obstacles they had to overcome. Nor did I know about Brandon’s strong faith – God was the center of his life and his character. In fact, Chris Severio says he was so moved by Brandon’s faith and how it helped him be the best he could be that he, Chris, was actually inspired to grow closer to God in his own faith just by playing him in the movie.

What do you hope audiences walk away with from the film?

First and foremost, I hope they’re truly entertained. This is a movie of very big ideas and themes but also great fun and humor.  There is some excellent, exciting football action in this movie, along with lots of solid family drama. And there’s plenty of humor, too, in Marty’s relationship with Brandon but also as we see Brandon expanding his social skills as he gets more and more accomplished at football.

But I also hope audiences leave encouraged – reminded that when hard times do come, and they will, that God has a purpose in them. And we can actually be blessed through the pain if we follow Him through it.

What’s next for Neal McDonough?

Let’s hope it’s celebrating the opening weekend success of GREATER. 

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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