On Showtime’s City on A Hill, actor Mark O’Brien plays Jimmy Ryan, a man constantly underestimated by his own criminal family, while also secretly being an informant to an FBI agent, played by Kevin Bacon. And in his new movie, Ready or Not, he finds himself with even stranger relatives — who force his new bride to participate in some deadly family games on her wedding night. I met with O’Brien at Dive 75, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, also known for their collection of games, where we talked about these roles over some Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Your character on City on a Hill, Jimmy Ryan, starts off as a guy you wouldn’t trust to tie his own shoes and then, by the last episode, he winds up outplaying everyone.
I did the pilot and saw this was a guy who has ready access to his emotions. And anyone who’s that big and bombastic has to be able to go the other way and be vulnerable — and that was important to me because I didn’t want to just play the cliche tough guy or the cliche screw up. Jimmy acts on instinct all the time, but he’s fully aware of what’s going on and he’s playing you in the moment all the time, in ways you don’t even understand. But from his point of view it’s also honest.
There’s a scene where he tries to commit suicide, and the emotion is real when he tells his dad [in Jimmy’s Boston accent] “I’m gonna take care of you” but for him that means I’m going to stay alive, I’m going to do self-preservation. And that means he’s going to rat on his brother, and that means he’s going to screw over his dad’s other son. So all the feelings are real and conflicted at the same time.
What’s it like working with Kevin Bacon?
Kevin is a hero of mine, I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. I’ve learned a lot from him just as a human being as well as an actor — how humble and grateful he is. And that’s what’s great about having him as a producer on the show. You want to respectful to him as this legendary actor, but you also want to be able to be surprising as an actor, so I can ask him about some choices before we do a take.
We were doing this scene in a car, where I’m passing him some information, and then he threatens me. At this point in the show, he’s threatened me seven, eight, nine times already, and I told Kevin — my character is never going to listen to you threaten him again, and I’m just going to get out of the car while you’re talking. And he went with it, and that’s what I love most, he just wants the show to be great. I’ve worked with other actors, and they would not like you walking out on them in the middle of their cool threatening moment.
What was your Kevin Bacon number before this series?
Three I think, it wasn’t bad.
In your new movie, Ready or Not, a woman tries to survive a deadly wedding night of games with her husband’s family. What drew you to the script?
It was a page turner. I kept wanting to know what was going to happen. I’m not a genre guy, I’m a good movie guy. I think it’s a great setup, because my character is conflicted between loving his wife and his crazy family tradition. And I’m so tight with my family. All you want as an actor is conflict.
I liken the movie to Hitchcock — and yes, I’m aware I’m saying Hitchcock — because he toyed with the audience. He always wanted them to be nervous or tense, and I think with this movie, when you can make someone scream, or turn away, or yell or laugh, then you have them. A laugh is never bad. This movie rides a really fine balance, and that tone is so hard to hit, of having have people laughing and being afraid.
Did you enjoy playing the leading man role, for a change?
I’m never the leading man guy, that’s the other thing that drew me to the script. I’ve never done the straight man, who’s confused and trying to work through something — I’m always the crazy other guy like Jimmy Ryan. Which is great, but I actually found it a massive challenge to be this kind of tentative person and going through the everyman perspective.
How was it working with Samara Weaving?
Her and I had easy chemistry — but I don’t believe in trying to find actors with chemistry. Two good actors who work hard and want it to be good will make it good. But she is a great scene partner. There’s a scene I love, where we’re in the attic together, and it’s a nice moment because I tell her it’s going to be ok, you’re going to make it — and then I ask her which way is she going to the kitchen, because my family is trying to kill her.
On City on a Hill, your ex-wife is played by your real wife, Georgina Reilly. Does real life every conflict with work?
I’m very happily married, and I love her so much. She’s my best friend and she’s a great actor. So I feel very comfortable trying anything with her, and Georgina’s really good at reinging me in. There’s a couple of times we’ve had arguments, and then had to go do a scene together. At the end we hug and kiss and forget about it. Sometimes the craziest thing in the world is happening to you, but between “action” and “cut” you forget everything else.
Which other actors do you admire?
Montgomery Clift. I saw Judgement at Nuremberg before anything else. Marlon Brando is my number one, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Then Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman. And right now, Olivia Colman is just unbelievable in every moment. But Edward Norton is the reason I started acting. I saw Primal Fear and it was the first time I recognize performance and I was like, how do you craft that?
I love Dive 75, but I’m surprised they have Châteauneuf-du-Pape here. When did you start drinking that?
I was first introduced to by one of my favorite writers and good friend, Ed Riche. His novel Easy To Like is phenomenal, and goes into depth about this wine. It’s elegant and refined, young or old, and takes on different and exciting characteristics as it ages.
What would you like to see on the second season of City on a Hill?
The storyline of Jimmy right now is fascinating. Because the only thing that was ethically keeping him at bay was the loyalty to his brother, and he’s completely blown that up. So now where does he go? He would just be a sociopath almost at this point — there’s no reason to rein it in at all.
Your character always allows others to seem smarter and stronger. Does that appeal to you as an actor?
Yeah, and I think honestly if you’re not willing to do that as an actor, you’re in the wrong business. I love heroes. I love Clint Eastwood. But that’s not me. When you’re worried about looking bad — then we’re not acting anymore. We’re in modeling territory or something.