There are very few actors who can command a scene and own a character like Chi McBride. While he admits that he never sets out to elicit a particular reaction from an audience and that the response to the work itself is organic, there is an undeniable, often undefinable, special “something” that certain entertainers have that makes that organic response possible. Whatever that special something is, McBride has it.
His voice booms like the bass drum in a marching band, banging out dialogue in a way that makes even throwaway lines seem like the best writing in any given script. His presence on screen is at times both formidable and approachable, making him capable of slipping into a wide array of fictional mindsets, which he has done seamlessly throughout the course of his career. And even when the projects themselves aren’t necessarily memorable, McBride’s work is.
With a career that has spanned numerous decades and countless character turns, he has been a part of some of our favorite entries into the Pop Culture Hall of Fame of the last 20 years, including the incredibly inventive but short-lived series “Pushing Daisies” and the before-its-time horror hybrid “The Frighteners.” Currently he can be seen returning to the role of Lou Grover in the long-running CBS series “Hawaii Five-0.”
We recently sat down with McBride to discuss why he doesn’t spend much time reflecting on past work, how he’s exactly as famous as he wants to be, and why “The Frighteners” may have fared better had it been released at a different time.
TrunkSpace: You have played a number of characters in various series that stretched for well over 80 episodes, Lou Grover of “Hawaii Five-0” the most recent one. Are there any characters that you wish you got to go on that long-term journey with, that ultimately didn’t have that opportunity?
McBride: Yes and no. I really loved the role I had on “Pushing Daisies” and it was a lot of fun to do. I loved the four years I spent on “Boston Public” because all we did on the set was laugh.
I’m not really attached to things in that way. My philosophy is only, we’re here until we’re not here. I don’t really spend a lot of time with any sense of longing or loss that I couldn’t continue to do something. Above all things this is business and I got that early on. I’m not really an artist. I’m pretty pragmatic about what I do for a living. We’re here until we’re not here. While I enjoyed those two roles particularly very much, I don’t spend much time reflecting on that kind of stuff.
TrunkSpace: So do you view your career as a whole journey as opposed to individual jobs?
McBride: Yeah, pretty much, because I’m not in control of the longevity of any particular project. Like I said, I’m not really an artist because I have a much more pragmatic view. An artist to me is a guy who draws with charcoal on a paper tablecloth for a bowl of soup in a restaurant. All these guys who are real artists, whose work lives forever and in perpetuity, is regarded in the same way by historians as well as people who consume that art now. Those guys are artists. I’m just a guy trying to make a living.
I take my work seriously and I do everything in my power to be good at it because it’s my job. You’re a journalist, I’m sure you try to do the best that you can in your field so that you can continue to work and support your family. That’s where it’s at for me. Every job, it’s no different to me to go from “Pushing Daisies” to “Hawaii Five-0,” or whatever I’ve done in between those two things, as it is you working for this paper or that paper or a guy going from IBM to Xerox. That’s just the way I’ve always looked at it.
TrunkSpace: In taking that pragmatic view and focusing on the business side of show business, are you someone who is interested in development and producing as part of what you do?
McBride: To a point. It’s never been my desire to be the King of Hollywood. To tell you the truth, I’m exactly as famous as I want to be, which is not very famous at all. I’ve gotten to the point where television networks will let me know that they’re seeking out my services and I’m happy to give them to them. We negotiate and do our business and I really enjoy what I do and I make a good living. But I’m not looking to be the King of Hollywood, because to do that, first of all, that’s a young man’s game and second of all, it is all-consuming if you’re trying to do that.
There’s an old saying, “The people in Los Angeles talk about two things, themselves and show biz.” I just don’t want to have show biz, I never have, consume my life to the point where you have a child and then the next thing you know, when you finally notice it, is that the kid is now using your razor and you don’t know where all the time went. It takes a level of dedication that I’m not prepared to give.
TrunkSpace: So you enjoy the work and work hard to be good at it, but you don’t need everyone to know that you’re good at it?
McBride: Exactly right.
My job is to do my job. Your job is to love or to hate it. That’s how our mediums serve each other. To think too deeply about it on that level, it’s really not that hard. It’s just a TV show. It’s just a movie. It may be around forever, but there’s some guy, and I’ve used this reference before, there’s some surgeon and he has to take a tumor the size of a lemon out of some kid’s head today. That’s important. That is not what this is.
So, yeah, I do look at it more of “business” than “show,” because that’s how everybody in the business part of it looks at it.
I don’t care how good a show is, if nobody watches it, they’re peeling it off the air. That’s just how it is. There are many shows that you start following and they yank it, but they yanked it for a reason. People aren’t putting on TV shows because they’re swell. They’re putting them on because we’re conducting business and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that a lot of people think that there is something wrong with that. I’m not one of those.
TrunkSpace: There are a lot of fans who take it very personally when a show is yanked off the air, “Pushing Daisies” being a good example of one.
McBride: Yeah, and you know what, I understand that because there’s somebody working a grill, making a Big Mac, and they see it as manual labor. But there’s somebody who’s got 99 cents in their pocket and this is going to be what sustains them for the rest of the evening and into the morning. Two people that are connected, but one with a significantly higher level of involvement and that have a significantly different relationship to the job that the guy behind the grill is doing than he does. That’s the same, so I understand the investment because people have their own lives and their own jobs and they look for places to escape from the mundane activities of the day and a show does that for a lot of people.
I was having a conversation with someone who is a really big star. I said, “Do you realize how many people have been sitting in the hospital feeling like they have nothing to live for and one of your movies will come on and it will lighten their burden, even if it’s just temporary? That’s a big deal to them.”
But if we focus on that part of it, now you think that you’re really doing something that you’re not. That’s the kind of thing that happens organically, it doesn’t happen by design.
I’m a big sneaker collector and there’s been a lot of stuff on the internet about me and sneakers. There was a phase that the sneaker industry was going through where you’d look at these stores that would resell old stock shoes and there’s some sneakers that sell for $3,000, $4,000, $5,000, that are brand new but they were made 15 years ago. That’s something that happens organically.
What happened during that period when there was a boom was that the shoe companies, like Nike and Adidas, would try to create a shoe that they could sell for that kind of money off the bat. I remember talking to an executive and I said, “You know, a $3,000 sneaker is for resale, not retail. You create a shoe and charge three grand for it, everybody who buys sneakers is laughing at you. You can just make the coolest shit that you can make and then that’s the secondary market that puts that kind of thousands on it.” If you sold a ’68 Mustang in 1968 for $250,000 or you tried to sell a ’69 Shelby for $250,000 in 1969, you’d have been stuck with a lot of them.
So, it’s a different relationship depending on who the consumer is.
TrunkSpace: It’s like the music industry. Those who set out to be revolutionary never are. Those who do it organically and write from that creative spark inside them, that’s when the magic happens.
McBride: Yeah, you ain’t making “The White Album” because that’s what you’re trying to do. You ain’t making “Songs in the Key of Life” because that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re not making the response to a record, you’re only making the record. It’s much the same way in what I do. I don’t make people laugh or cry, I just do what I do. The response is organic and that’s it.
TrunkSpace: So does it still surprise you when something does or does not resonate with an audience?
McBride: I’m still surprised that people actually know what my name is. Every time somebody recognizes me on the street I’m completely surprised about it – when anybody knows my name or has seen what I do because I just don’t think about those things. I only respond to how I respond to a series.
I’m going to tell you a story. I’m not going to tell you what the project was, but I did a project once and when we did the pilot and we came to the table read, one of the executive producers is sitting there. We’re all at the table and I’m sitting next to another guy who’s been in the business as long as I had. The showrunner says, “Folks, I just want to prepare you for something. This thing is going to change your life. Enjoy your anonymity now because this is going to change your life to a degree where it’s going to be difficult for you to just walk through a mall or something, so just enjoy your privacy. Let me tell you something about this show, not only is this show going to be great, we are going to reinvent the medium.”
I looked at the guy sitting next to me and I said to him, “Listen, I don’t know about you, but I’m calling my wife right now and telling her not to buy nothing.” In less than the initial ordered run of 13, the show was canceled and the rest of the episodes burned off over some obscure hour of the morning on a weekend.
You have no fucking idea how you’re going to respond. The level of hubris at that statement, I literally was rolling on the floor laughing on the inside when I heard this guy say, “We are going to reinvent the medium.” I was like, you ass, that’s never going to happen.
It’s amazing how deeply some people think in terms of their sphere of influence and their ability to control how people feel about things. I think that if those things that do happen, “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Lost,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Happy Days.” it’s lightning in a bottle, man.
TrunkSpace: At the same time, projects don’t always have to be the biggest commercial successes to impact an audience or change the industry. We mentioned “Pushing Daisies” already, but another project of yours that was well ahead of its time was “The Frighteners.” Both of those projects are two that, if released today where there is a different approach taken with the consumption of content, could have found a different level of commercial success.
McBride: It (“The Frighteners”) is kind of a cult status kind of thing from what I’ve heard. Look, the movie was released on the same weekend as “The Nutty Professor” and the same day that Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch. Nobody’s going to see the movie. Why that movie wasn’t released in October, I’ll never know. If that movie was released closer to Halloween or in the same slot as something like “It” was released, I have no doubt that we would have fared a lot better. I don’t know if it’d be blockbuster or anything like that, but if this movie had been released closer to Halloween, there would have been a different take on it, I really believe, because people have discovered it over the course of the last – what, hell, it’s been more than 20 years since I did that picture. I think that people would have responded quite differently to it in terms of its first viewing and first box office. It would have been much different.
TrunkSpace: Tonally it seems to fit more with today’s tastes than what people were consuming in the mid 90s.
McBride: It’s so funny that you say that because I kind of think the same way. I just actually saw it recently because my kid wanted to watch it and I wouldn’t let him watch it because he’s nine. But I watched it so I could see whether or not he could watch it and I was like, “Wow, this movie really holds up and this movie still is entertaining and it’s even more engaging than it was when we first made it.”
I think it just was a great film. Everything happens the way it’s meant to happen. It has achieved the status it was meant to achieve.
“Hawaii Five-0” airs Fridays on CBS.