You could say Steven Spielberg is Neal McDonough’s guardian angel.
“Before doing Band of Brothers I could not get arrested,” Mr. McDonough said. “No one would hire me. I had done tons of episodic work, lots of independent films, a couple big films like Ravenous or Star Trek that didn’t really do big numbers. People said, `Wow, you’re really good at what you do but you’re not bankable.”’
After eight years working in Los Angeles, Mr. McDonough was at home on Cape Cod, Mass., wondering how long he could continue that lifestyle when he was convinced by his now manager Glenn Rigberg to return to L.A. to audition for Brothers, which was being executive produced by Mr. Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
He got the part and caught the eye of Mr. Spielberg, who then cast him in Minority Report opposite Tom Cruise, and Boomtown executive producer Graham Yost, who wrote a pivotal episode of Band about Mr. McDonough’s character.
Mr. Yost and Mr. Spielberg collaborated again on Boomtown, which is produced through Mr. Spielberg’s company DreamWorks TV. Mr. Yost originally wanted to cast a Hispanic actor in the prosecutor’s role, but couldn’t settle on the right actor. With time running out, the producers turned to Mr. McDonough.
“He just naturally inhabited the part,” Mr. Yost said. “He just filled the suit perfectly. The part is for someone who has political aspirations. I feel that someday I’ll be calling Neal and he’ll be the junior senator from Massachusetts. I’ll be asking if I can get a tour of the White House.”
A few changes did have to be made to the role, Mr. McDonough said. The original character was supposed to be a womanizing Latin lover type. “I don’t know too many real romantic types of Irish guys,” Mr. McDonough said. “That’s just not our bag.”
So the character morphed into a flawed Irish guy from the Northeast with political aspirations and problems with his father and alcohol. Over the course of the season, Mr. McDonough has tackled his character David McNorris’ descent into self-destruction. He lost his wife. He lost his mistress. And he almost lost his freedom in the final episode of the season when he feared he killed a person in a hit-and-run accident during an alcohol-induced blackout.
“The truth of David McNorris is pretty bleak at times,” Mr. McDonough said. “Deep down inside he believes-and I think the audience believes-he really is a great guy who just happens to have problems with his past. The past has finally caught up with him and he’s paying for it.”
Mr. McDonough brings intensity and a sense of humor to the role, Mr. Yost said. “There is something very humorous about the tormented character that he plays in a very, very dark way,” he said. “There’s just this slight edge of, `Oh my God, what am I doing?’ for that character, that little hint of wry Irish self-awareness.”
One of the things that makes Boomtown unique is that the stories don’t play out in a linear fashion. The same scene is shown from several characters’ points of view as an episode progresses. That means each scene is often shot from three different perspectives with three cameras rolling at the same time, Mr. McDonough said.
“A lot of times I have no idea what’s going on,” he said. But that does have its benefits. “You as the actor can’t try to tip the cards at all. You have to really tell the truth everytime or else it won’t work.”
The youngest of six kids, Mr. McDonough said he was a natural entertainer-his four brothers would always make him entertain them when he was a kid. He realized in high school that he wanted to be an actor after getting his first role as Snoopy in the senior play You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. “I was a freshman and got the role,” he said. “The seniors weren’t too happy about that.”
Next stop was Syracuse University, where he majored in theater, and then the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and Sciences. Now he’s thrilled to be gearing up for a second season of Boomtown, which NBC renewed last month and will move to Fridays at 10 p.m. this fall. His character will be returning from rehab and dealing with the fallout from his alcoholism.
“A lot of people watch my character and say I love watching your show but I certainly don’t want to end up like David McNorris,” he said. “That’s the greatest compliment I can get from anybody when they watch the show. If someone watches this show and says I learned a little something and I’m going to try to deal with it better-wow, you can’t get better than that.”