Updated: May 31
Kevin McNally, star of Unforgotten, Supernatural, TURN: Washington Spies and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, talks to us about starting his career, advice for new directors, and the experience of directing his own short film, Lipstick.
It's been a pretty turbulent year for the film and television industry, with many large productions grinding to a halt as they were postponed or cancelled altogether. As professionals across all disciplines of production found themselves in limbo, some were able to use the time to work on projects they might not have otherwise - especially when it comes to short films.
Kevin McNally is one such professional. How has the successful film and television actor found working life in the time of a pandemic?
"Well, what a good question. Interestingly enough, just before all this hit last March, I had installed recording equipment in my house. So, for the beginning of the pandemic I was doing a lot of voice work, because a lot of companies got in touch with agents to see who could record remotely, and I was one of those people.
"Then as the summer went on, with a little bit of lifting of restrictions, a lot of young filmmakers were asking me to do some short films, which I did. It was an opportunity to work with some young filmmakers that I wouldn't normally have been available to work with. Then I directed my own shorts before the lockdown restrictions came in again and I went back to voice work, and I've since been filming a TV show in Wales. So I did pretty well to stave off a lot of the boredom that many of my colleagues have gone through."
Before we discuss directing his latest short film Lipstick, I first ask McNally how he started out as an actor, and the first steps he took down the path of his impressive career.
"Well, I had always wanted to act, really. I used to act at the free schools I went to as a young man. When I was 16, I wanted to go to the National Youth Theatre, but my family couldn't really afford to send me to London for that amount of time. I was then fortunate a youth theatre started at that time in Birmingham where I grew up, so I joined that. That was one bit of luck!
"Another bit of luck was that there was a man at the local Repertory Theatre, Michael Simpson, who needed a young actor. He had cast quite a well-known young actor who had to pull out because of filming commitments, then he happened to come and see the youth theatre and offered me a job. I left and school, and then did a year of theatre until I could get into a drama school, which was RADA. I left there in 1975 and started to work in television almost immediately."
For many actors, the early years before becoming a working professional feel like chasing a dream. For those who do make the breakthrough, when work starts and continues to come in, there must be a tipping point at which the dream becomes reality. Does McNally remember when that point was in his career?
"That's a good question. Fortunately for me, throughout the series of events that I've described to you, I didn't really have to do a lot of chasing. It seemed to all fall into place at the right time, although probably a little young. I think I could have done with a bit more life experience early on. I've certainly never doubted that this is what I will always be doing, but it just so happens that I have worked all the time.
"I don't think you ever get to a place where you say, 'I've made it'. There's always something in your mind that you want to do, something you've not done, and you wait for those opportunities to come up. I didn't go to America, or to Hollywood, for instance, until I was 46 years old. So, that previous time of working as a largely British television actor changed quite late for me. Change can happen at any point."
That first career leap to America came in the form of Joshamee Gibbs in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It has since seen McNally star on all of the franchise films up to now, as well as appear in a number of television series, including Supernatural, Designated Survivor and TURN: Washington Spies. What was his working experience after making the move?
"I first went over to do the first Pirates, and while I had worked on big films before, it had not been in such a good part or in such an engaged capacity. It's remarkable that wherever you go in the world, film crews are exactly the same. Same roles, same division of labour.
"The difference I found in America was when I started to do American television, which in terms of hours is brutal compared to anywhere else in the world. In the UK, we'll take two to three weeks to do an episode of television. In America they take seven or eight days. They also, generally, make more episodes. They're hellish hours, particularly for the crew. So, yes, television was the biggest area of shock for me working in the States."
Having worked with many directors across his career, I ask what has his experience been working with new directors in particular, and what advice would he offer them when working with actors as experienced as McNally?
"Well, having had quite a bit of experience of this last year. I think it's very interesting. I think any actor of my age or experience would say there are many types of directors. There are directors who perhaps come from an acting background, so are very good at directing actors. There are directors who come from film, so they're very good with the cameras. A lot of directors come from editing, they've seen other's mistakes, so they will know how to shoot and piece something together. I would say whichever discipline the director comes from, they should really have a look at the other disciplines a director needs.
"I had an experience a couple of years ago, working with two directors on one series. One of the directors knew what he wanted and knew when he'd got it, so there was a real feeling of energy during the day and moving forward. The other director was a little less sure of how he was going to put it together, so, as we say in the business, he shot the shit out of it! That can become very, very tedious when every take is a wide shot, a mid shot, a close up, the reverse... it just becomes dull.
"When when somebody knows what they want, they're going to have more interesting thoughts, and they're going to get things in a couple of takes, rather than keep on going because they're not sure if they've got it yet."
With that in mind, what is his preferred way of working and collaborating with directors?
"Very often in film or TV, you have to do all the character preparation yourself, there's very little time afforded by producers for rehearsal. So, I like directors who like to put in a bit of rehearsal time, otherwise they leave it up to you to come with something very positive and very rich on the day, and of course you're prepared to throw that away if the director doesn't like it."
All of that experience lead to McNally's own turn in the director's chair for new short film Lipstick, starring Robin Berry, Holly Joyce, Mitchell Lewis and Priscilla Olympio.
"It's about a couple who have lost a child. The mother then gets involved with a medium and becomes rather obsessed that she could maybe get a sign from the child that she's at rest. The husband is very perturbed by this takes matters, in a rather strange way, into his own hands. Then there's what I hope is a rather nice twist at the end which I won't give away.
"The film has been in a number of festivals, and actually, I was just talking to the producer about how to make it available. Now we've sort of done a year of online film festivals, it would be really nice to get it out there."
What was it like being behind the camera for the first time?
"Well, I loved it. I did come home and say to my family, 'I don't really care if I never step in front of the camera again'. There were two quite small scale films I did before, in which I was really just helping the actors to film some very interesting monologues, but the film that I shot more like a movie, was Lipstick. However, I was under no illusion that I would ever again have such a free hand to make a film, albeit a short film, in exactly the way I wanted to.
"In television, for instance, there are a lot of voices. Very rarely do directors in episodic television have much say in casting, and there's going to be a house style, which they'll be encouraged to use. So, whether or not I would be excited by that, I don't know. But it's certainly something I'll try to pursue. Myself and my collaborator on the short film are aiming to come up with a feature over the next couple of years."
Despite working with directors throughout his career, was there anything about the role of the director that was a surprise to him?
"No, because you observe. You observe a director's style that you like, and you observe directors with styles that you don't like. I learned some interesting tips from a few friends of mine who have directed. One was to always have an answer. People will be asking you questions all day, and it's better if you don't 'umm and ahh' and decide something that you maybe change later. I was very keen on that. I felt sure that I knew when I'd got what I needed, so I wasn't exhausting my actors with takes of the same thing.
"Another tip was really having a hand in every department, but allowing people to get on with their work, particularly in camera department, and then let them bring it to you and make decisions. Decision-making is an extraordinary part of directing."
While he was well-prepared for directing on set during filming, it was the off-set aspects either side of production that were the freshest territory for him.
"Yes, that's absolutely true. I have tried to involve myself on occasion with the post-production process, particularly when I was younger, just to understand the medium. I did enjoy sitting with an editor, putting the film together, seeing what they came up with, and ultimately having another voice driving towards the same objective. That was a very interesting process, but as was pre-production that I often wouldn't be involved with, going to look at the locations and deciding how we could use them.
"For instance, I needed to film in two particular rooms that I couldn't really get in one location. I had a production designer with me who came up with the great idea of making one room into two, just by repositioning furniture. That was a great insight into how imaginative people can be about the spaces you work in."
Has directing changed his perspective as an actor?
"Not really, because I think that the experience I had as a director was informed by a long time of working on films and working in television. I guess one thing I learned is that maybe you should try everything suggested to you by the director first, and then argue the case afterwards, which I maybe sometimes did the other way around before I had this experience [laughs].
"The actors I had are all part of a workshop called the Bubble & Squeak Theatre Company, who I do classes with sometimes, so I knew the actors who could come with my two mantras, which are 'preparation' and 'flexibility'. They would come with something very colourful, very well thought out, and then were able to adapt to direction. Very often you work with actors who, get a direction and they say, 'Okay, yeah, yeah.' Then they do exactly the same thing as they've done before. I like to process ideas quickly, and I set out to do that with my four actors."
As directing is something he looks to do more of in the future, did he learn any lessons on Lipstick that he will carry forward with him?
"Yes, definitely. I think it's preparation, and don't overthink. If you see something that you like, keep it. Don't let yourself overthink or be undermined by others. I definitely feel that when it comes to it, the decision is the director's, and it's best if there's that one eye on it. There were people making suggestions all the time, and I'm always willing to collaborate, but there comes a point when you have to press on, and momentum in film is very important.
"I have worked with some directors who do get stuck, and you know they're just storing up a heap of problems for later, for another filming day, or for later that day. You've really got to keep on top of it."
Bearing in mind that short film is something that he might not have considered or had the time for before the pandemic, now having starred in a few and directed his own, is the medium something he has a new appreciation for?
"Yes, and particularly working with some other young people who are starting out. It's a great way to make mistakes, it's a great way to find out what you like. When I started out with BBC, for instance, had a trainee makeup department, a trainee film department, a trainee props department... None of those things exist anymore. So more and more now, short films are the way people learn. It really is a sort of entry level into the business at the moment, so I have a great deal of respect for short films, and do consider them when people ask me to get involved."
And with everything he has learned across his career so far, if he could go back and give advice to himself right at the start, what would it be?
"I think it would have been not to be quite as relaxed as I was about everything [laughs]. That perhaps I could have had a bit more ambition, actually, but I didn't like naked ambition in the people I saw around me.
"The other thing is that the young me, hadn't had much life experience. I had a light voice and I played a lot of very boring young men. It wasn't really until I got into my 30s that I started to really relish acting. I always enjoyed it, but not necessarily the roles that I had. So, maybe the advice I would give is grow up a bit quicker."
You can follow Kevin on Twitter: @exkevinmcnally