I’ve wanted to write about Mark O’Brien all summer, ever since I fell for his turn as Jonathan Tucker‘s fuck-up of a brother, Jimmy Ryan, on the Showtime series City on a Hill, which just concluded its first season. As it so happens, the timing of that devastating episode coincided with the release of Fox Searchlight’s horror-thriller Ready or Not, in which he plays a groom whose wealthy family subjects his new bride to a twisted ritual. The two characters couldn’t be more different, but they serve to highlight O’Brien’s range as an actor, and that’s why he has earned Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month honors for August.
Most of our Up-and-Comer of the Month subjects are a bit younger, and just starting their careers, but O’Brien is hardly a newcomer. The 35-year-old caught his big break a decade ago with the Canadian television series Republic of Doyle, where he met his future wife, actress Georgina Reilly, who also plays his ex on City on a Hill. That series led to roles in Amazon’s The Last Tycoon and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. That’s when O’Brien’s feature career began to take off, as he was tapped to work with filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve on Arrival, Jason Reitman on The Front Runner and Drew Goddard on Bad Times at the El Royale.
All of it has led to this significant moment in his ascent as an actor, and people are really starting to take notice. When Noah Baumbach was casting Scarlett Johansson‘s boyfriend in Netflix’s upcoming divorce drama Marriage Story, he turned to O’Brien, who has a kind of childish innocence to him, even when he’s doing horrible things onscreen. His character in City on a Hill is wiry and twitchy, and his performance reminded me of James Ransone‘s turn as Ziggy Sobotka on the second season of The Wire.
O’Brien is now balancing a burgeoning film and television career, but he still makes time to pursue passion projects such as indie films Goalie, which he executive produced, and the crime movie Hammer, in which he plays Will Patton‘s troubled son. He’s also set to direct himself in a feature film in the coming months, so he’s really firing on all cylinders lately. Thankfully, O’Brien made time in his increasingly busy schedule to chat with Collider, so… ready or not… here he comes. Enjoy!
What sparked your passion for acting, and why did you decide to get into this crazy business?
Mark O’Brien: Well, I never really became interested in acting until I was in my late teens. I started just making movies with my buddies, like home movies, for years. We did like 30-35 movies on a camcorder, editing on the weekends and stuff like that, and I wanted to be filmmaker. But then, I think from that, I started to realize that I just really liked acting. Then I just did improv in high school, and I did plays. It’s funny, because I didn’t know anyone in the business growing up at all. I just kind of came to it on my own. My family, we didn’t really go to the theater, we weren’t a big movie household, so it kind of came to me a bit later. And I don’t know… it’s a tough job to not like, but it’s also an easy job to hate, so it’s a really interesting vocation.
How’d you land the role of Jimmy Ryan in City on a Hill?
O’Brien: It was the weirdest timing. The show was supposed to shoot much earlier than it did, and by ‘show,’ I mean ‘pilot.’ It was back in 2017, and I was actually shooting something called The Front Runner, and I’d heard about City on a Hill. I hadn’t read the script but I’d heard about it, and I was like, ‘oh my god! A crime story set in Boston in the early 90s from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon? Can I do craft services? I mean, I’ll do anything!’ But I was unavailable to even audition, and I was also tied to another series that I was shooting called The Last Tycoon. And then that got canceled, but I was still unavailable due to the shoot for The Front Runner, so I was like, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.’
And then they pushed it again, and I had previously met with the casting directing, Judy Henderson, who only recently had come on to the pilot at that point. And I’d just recently met her a few months previous, and it was very happenstance. And they already had their choices for Jimmy Ryan, from what I’d heard, and I said, ‘oh, that’s too bad.’ But then she was like, ‘oh, I like Mark! I met him a few months ago!’ So they said I could send a tape, and I guess everybody liked it enough that they wanted me to meet with the director of the pilot, Michael Cuesta. They said I could Skype with him, but I said I wanted to see him in person, so I flew to New York on my own dime and put myself up, because I wanted the role so badly and had to meet him.
What did you model the accent after? Did you work with a dialect coach?
O’Brien: I find with accents, I normally just listen. I watch movies set there, and people who I know who are from there. I watched a lot of Damon and Affleck things, and movies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Mystic River, The Departed and Gone Baby Gone, and then you go on YouTube and just listen to people. I’ve worked with dialect coaches before, but I find, and this is just personal for me and I’m sure it’s different every time and it depends on who you’e working with, but sometimes you can get into a rhythm that’s not natural to you, so it’s sometimes tricky. So for me, I just kind of trust in myself, and I’m pretty good at knowing when I suck at it or when I’m decent at it, and it just kind of clicked at one point. I think it was just kind of understood at one point. I kind of speak a little bit higher-pitched on the show, which I didn’t realize until literally two weeks ago when a friend told me that. He said, ‘your voice is higher pitched,’ and I said, ‘I hadn’t noticed.’ So it kind of just came out, and the way I pictured him came through vocally in that sort of way, I guess.
I found your accent very convincing. I’m from the suburbs and don’t have much of an accent, but even in the suburbs there’s always 1 or 2 kids who really have the accent because their parents did, and you remind me of one of my brother’s friends.
O’Brien: Thanks very much. You know what’s really funny? You’re one of many people who have now said I remind them of their brother’s friend, whoever. So I guess everybody’s brother had a friend like Jimmy Ryan.
Did you do any research yourself about what the city of Boston was like back then?
O’Brien: You know what? It’ll sound like I’m lazy, but unless it actually completely informs the character, I sometimes don’t like to get too much into researching time periods too much, because it just takes away from what I’m focused on. I’m the type of actor who… I read the script a lot, and I go through it, and then I like to be able to throw it all away when I get to set and not have to even think about anything other than what’s around me, and hopefully it’s already in my bones — the character and what they want and what the movie’s about. So I find that I don’t benefit from too much information. Because I’ve done that in the past, to my own detriment, and I find that when there’s too much stuff, I can get overwhelmed. And meanwhile, I’m just doing a scene where the character wants a slice of pizza, so I don’t really need to know who is Mayor. You know what I mean? For me, I just find it overwhelming sometimes, unless it’s the kind of character who would be privy to a lot of certain facts. Otherwise, I don’t find it particularly helpful for me.
It’s just interesting to hear about your process. I can relate, as I used to take notes during a movie when I had to review it, but eventually I found myself focused on taking the notes rather than just immersing myself in the film, and it wasn’t helpful, so I stopped.
O’Brien: Exactly! That’s a great analogy. It’s kind of like, when I watch something, I let it just sit with me. And my wife is like, ‘he did it! He’s the bad guy! And I bet they’re really brother and sister!’ And she loves guessing [what’s going to happen], and I don’t even think about it until a movie is over. I just like to kind of be in it.
What was it like working with the Radio Silence guys on Ready or Not?
O’Brien: It was day-in and day-out hell. Ha! No, they are the best. I was literally texting with Matt Bettinelli the other day, and he mentioned something and he was like, ‘yeah, and then you’ll be in our next film,’ and I was like,’I’m taking this as legal, written contract that I now have a screenshot of.’ That’s how badly I want to work with him and Tyler [Gillett] and Chad [Villella] again. They are just very prepared. The first time I met with them was on a Skype, and we were immediately on the same page, we had the same sense of humor, and you can just tell. It’s not like I’m a gnarly, grizzled veteran in this business, but at the same time, you can tell within five minutes when you’re talking to someone who knows what they’re doing, I think. They just kind of get it, and they’re also just wonderful guys. I’m 35, so I’m not exactly a senior citizen yet, but every day of my life counts, and I want to work with people I like being around.
What was your take after reading the script, because there’s some interesting nuance to its depiction of class.
O’Brien: What I loved about that script is… you know what I honestly look for? Tony Gilroy, a great writer who wrote The Bourne Identity and one of my favorite movies, Michael Clayton, said ‘make it so you want to turn the page.’ And I know he’s not the first person to say that, but that’s what it comes down to. Do I want to turn the page? Do I care about what happens? And with this, I really did. I read it in one sitting, which, I’m going to be be honest, I don’t always do. I just really wanted to know what was happening.
And what I loved about it was… you mentioned the socio-political commentary, and I liked how subtle it was. They don’t need to hit you over the head with it, because that’s not genre. We’re not making a political analysis here. That’s not what the movie is. It’s buried there, and it’s actually surrounding the characters at all times. The setting itself is doing that. So I thought it was really smart that they didn’t lean into it too much. It’s already very palpable. And I never felt it was overwhelming when I read the script, I just wanted to turn the page, and at the end I just thought it was a very interesting take on class and family dynamics.
If you had to make a deal with the devil, what would you ask him for?
O’Brien: Oh, immediate teleportation! I hate flying. I hate airports. I hate having to go from one place to the next, even if it’s in a chair. So that, for sure. Well not for sure, but if I had to. I mean, if he’s listening, this is not a verbal contract by any means.