Keir O’Donnell is the kind of actor we love to watch. Never afraid to fully absorb a character into himself, he is a chameleon on screen, embracing the art of becoming someone else entirely with each and every role he takes on. Currently he can be seen as legendary rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey Dewey “Daddy-O” Phillips in the CMT series “Sun Records” as well as in the Chris Evans film “Gifted,” which hits theaters this Friday. For fans of “Ray Donovan,” you can also catch O’Donnell in the upcoming season of the compelling Showtime drama where he’ll be playing none other than Susan Sarandon’s son.
We recently sat down with O’Donnell to discuss portraying real life people, his desire to play a badass and how his turn as the tortured Todd in “Wedding Crashers” was both a blessing and a curse.
TrunkSpace: You’re playing Dewey Phillips in “Sun Records.” You’ve also played John Wilkes Booth in “The Crossroads of History” and Jeff Kyle in “American Sniper.” As an actor, is there more pressure portraying someone who actually walked this earth as opposed to a fictional character?
O’Donnell: No question. Absolutely it is. There’s a lot more, sort of, guidelines to stick by, for better or worse. You have to not only do your job, but you have to do justice to either someone living or dead out there, that probably has some sort of a legacy if you’re portraying them in a film or TV show. It’s quite often big shoes to fill, as with all of the historical figures that I’ve played.
I think within that, obviously you are trying to capture an essence of these people. You’re sort of dead in the water if you’re doing a bad mimic or if you’re trying too hard to sort of encapsulate that person for exactly what they are because you have to work within the parameters of the script and the story, which is often times not exactly how it went down. So, if you can just find the essence of that person and then you sort of make it your own and hope that you land somewhere in the middle there.
TrunkSpace: A guy like Dewey Phillips made a living off of his voice, so did having that recorded history make it easier to help find his voice in your own?
O’Donnell: I mean, yes and no. I remember when I first got the material… I had sort of like heard the name Dewey Phillips, but I wasn’t totally aware of how prolific he was, nor did I know what he sounded like. There is quite a lot of audio of him out there, which is mainly what I went off of. When I first heard it, I thought, “There’s absolutely no way that I can do this.” Somebody categorized him as hillbilly rap or something. I mean, he’s really…
TrunkSpace: He definitely had his own thing going.
O’Donnell: He really did and I think that’s why he was so groundbreaking with that and obviously his music tastes and breaking color lines and everything else. But, originally hearing that, I thought it was sort of an impossibility, but the more that you listen to him, you can start to break through and find your own rhythm within it too.
TrunkSpace: What we love about your career is that you always seem to physically change in any given role and you’re never afraid to take risks and look the part, whatever that part may be. In the case of Dewey, that wardrobe just seems like it would help you get right into character.
O’Donnell: It’s incredible. Yeah. Well, thanks. That’s a huge compliment. The biggest compliment that I can ever get from people is that I’m a chameleon. I guess that’s what I always strive for, from one character to the next. I like to approach characters from the outside in, meaning, from wardrobe to hair and makeup to the physicality of the character and then once you sort of find that, the inner workings seem to go along with it.
TrunkSpace: And that’s what’s so great about your work is that your body always seems to be acting as well.
O’Donnell: Thank you. I think I started to pick that up in drama school in college. I love actors who do a lot of physicality work and I started in theater as well, so that is, just as a whole, more physical. So, to try to find ways to bring that to TV and film… to put that on screen… it’s always something I’m striving for.
TrunkSpace: The series runs on CMT. From a viewers perspective, it’s both awesome and overwhelming how much original content is available everywhere nowadays. Is it sort of the same point of view from an actor’s perspective in that, there’s more roles available but also more noise to cut through in order to have those performances be seen?
O’Donnell: It is. I think that, on a whole, it’s a good problem if it is indeed a problem. When I started out, films were the way to go and everyone wanted films. That was just because that mainly the material was there, but nowadays, I think it has shifted… night and day. The level of content on TV is just so elevated now. And I think what helps immensely is the series orders are smaller, so you’re doing eight or 10 episodes and it’s feeling like it is just a longer film, essentially.
TrunkSpace: You’ve worked on some of the most iconic, pop culturally-accepted television shows of the last decade from “Fargo” to “Sons of Anarchy” and all points between. Do you ever think of your acting career as something that has directly impacted pop culture by having been on these shows that have left such a mark?
O’Donnell: Gosh, that’s such a tough question to answer. From time to time, I do get people who are like, “Wow, you’ve made such great choices.” I would love to say that all of them have been choices of, like, “I will get on this prolific show.” I obviously go where the work speaks to me and stuff that really floats my boat, but, yeah, I’ve sort of stopped through some really, really great ones in the past. And it’s cool to see how… even if I just do a guest star or just a reoccurring arc, it’s cool to see how you can pop in and out of that world and sort of see it from afar. Or, see it as a fan perspective as well. A lot of these shows I’m fans of and you go, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I got to enter that world.”
TrunkSpace: And now you get to be Susan Sarandon’s son in the next season of “Ray Donovan!”
O’Donnell: Yeah! What a trip, huh? My God!
TrunkSpace: We know it’s probably too early to say much, but what can you tell us about your character George?
O’Donnell: I mean, to be totally honest with you, it still remains to be seen a little bit. I do know a little bit of the back story, which I can’t go into too much, but it’s… yeah, it’s going to be a wild ride. As always.
TrunkSpace: That show has some of the best badasses in TV. Will you be carrying the badass torch forward?
O’Donnell: (Laughter) I don’t know if badass is the right… God, I would love that. I always strive to play a badass, but I tend to always get the sort of damaged, awkward darker guys, which is obviously fun in its own right. So, it’s more along those lines. Susan Sarandon plays this sort of head of a studio in Los Angeles and I play her damaged son.
TrunkSpace: As an actor it must be fun to be able to slip in and out of all of these shows and play with such a diverse cast of fellow actors.
O’Donnell: It’s incredible. And, for me personally as well, to be able to play this sort of wide range of characters and to not get totally stuck into one thing. I think, still to this day, if I had to pick one thing that I get recognized for the most or that people know me from, it’s “Wedding Crashers.” That was my first film ever, so it’s pretty wild that still 10 plus years later that that’s a mold that I’m extremely proud of, but still trying to break in a lot of ways. It can be a blessing and a curse in many ways.
TrunkSpace: You mention trying to break that mold from your “Wedding Crashers” character, but at the same time, your career path seems to have gone more towards the dramatic side than the comedic side of things.
O’Donnell: Sure. I’d fight to say that, even if you go back and watch “Wedding Crashers,” the character of Todd was a pretty dark, tortured guy. And I like looking at all things that way. It’s not black and white or is it drama or is it comedy, but it’s if you play that character’s reality as real as possible, then the comedy can come from the situations. But it’s also that the comedy can come from the darkness of it all or the drama is suited because that’s the reality of that character.
TrunkSpace: Because like life, things aren’t just funny or just dramatic.
O’Donnell: That’s right. So, I don’t know if I’m a dramatic actor or a comedic actor. I’m just a… I play it situationally, I guess.
TrunkSpace: From your perspective, what’s more difficult… finding that first big break or maintaining career longevity?
O’Donnell: I’d say big break. Big break. I have a ton of actor friends who have worked forever, but they’ve yet to still find that sort of iconic thing that puts them on the map. Like I said, that can be a blessing and a curse, but you’ll find that some doors start to open a little bit more if you can break through with a sort of stamp of approval from the masses.
TrunkSpace: So was “Wedding Crashers” the project that changed things for you?
O’Donnell: Big time. I mean, in three days it changed my life. I went in and I pre-read with a casting director, the next day I got a director callback and then that following day I got the film. So, yeah… I was delivering pizzas at the time and that was it. I had no real concept… I had been just really hustling and trying to figure out LA and figure out film, as opposed to theater. And trying to get myself on tape as much as possible just to see what worked and didn’t work. That came along unexpectedly fast, but I had no real concept of the film industry, I suppose, so when the film was such a huge success, I guess I had no grounds for comparison. There was one part of myself that was like, “Oh, this is great… every film is like a huge success. A comedy classic!” Obviously in time you realize, “Oh wow… that was incredibly special and unreal that it was my first foray into it.”
TrunkSpace: And from an industry projections standpoint, that was a film that a lot of people didn’t see coming in terms of its level of success. When you do a film like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which you also starred in, you can kind of expect that it’s going to have a big weekend, but nobody saw “Wedding Crashers” coming.
O’Donnell: That’s right. And I’ve seen that happen in my career since and I’ve also had other things that I’m like, “This is going to be huge,” and it’s not. There’s no real rhyme or reason for these things. To sort of get that out of the way so quickly, it was a giant learning curve right out of the gates.
TrunkSpace: Your next film “Gifted” is due out in limited release this Friday. Can you tell us how your character plays into things?
O’Donnell: Chris Evans adopts his sister’s kid and then it becomes a custody battle because the little girl turns out to be gifted, hence the title. So, it has this sort of “Good Will Hunting” vibe because she’s extremely gifted at math. Once this is found out, his mother then tries to gain custody of the kid, so it becomes this sort of… what’s best for her and the societal impact of young geniuses. I play the little girl’s biological father. Some might say deadbeat dad.
TrunkSpace: Not deadbeat. Dark and tortured!
O’Donnell: (Laughter) Exactly. Right in my wheelhouse!
But yeah, I pop up in the courtroom scenes trying to get back into her life all of a sudden. How convenient!
TrunkSpace: It seems like the kind of film that isn’t so easily greenlit these days, but at the same time, is needed in theaters. It’s nice to see something original, particularly in the drama space, getting made.
O’Donnell: Yeah. Absolutely. There’s no question. My part is small but very pivotal to the story, but what drew me towards it was that it’s a great script and the cast, obviously, was phenomenal. But also… Marc Webb directed it, who did “500 Days of Summer.” It is… it’s like you said… it’s a rare thing. It’s becoming more and more rare for a studio to back a film like this, so this is really nice.
“Sun Records” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CMT.
“Gifted” hits theaters this Friday.