On the FX drama series Sons of Anarchy, actor Ray McKinnon has been a memorable addition to Season 4, as Assistant U.S. District Attorney Lincoln Potter. His eccentric and off-beat approach to taking down SAMCRO, that at times has resembled a human chess game, has turned a few heads in town, including Charming’s newest lawman, Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar).
With this season coming to a close, Collider got the opportunity to speak with Ray McKinnon for this exclusive interview about how he’s both grateful and baffled that show creator Kurt Sutter asked him to join the show, his fear that his take on the character wouldn’t be well-received, how lucky he feels to have been a part of such great storytelling, and that he feels Lincoln’s storyline was pretty well wrapped up, by the end of the season. He also talked about the pilot that he’s developing for the Sundance Channel, about a man who is released from death row after nearly two decades, due to some conflicting DNA evidence. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
RAY McKINNON: I didn’t know the world of Sons of Anarchy until (show creator) Kurt [Sutter] reached out to me. I watched the second season in about two days, like people do with that show. It’s addictive. I was like, “Why haven’t I heard more about this show, in the awards area?” It’s just such a well-done, complex story, with the behavior of the family, and then the bigger family of the club. I mean this in the best way, but it’s a melodrama, in the way that The Sopranos was and the way that Mad Men is. It’s about complex people having complex relationship, or in some cases, simple people having complex relationships. But, I had to stop watching it because I was getting starstruck. I was just like a fan, watching it. I was like, “Man, they’re going to drive up on those motorcycles and I’m going to freak out.” So, I didn’t watch the third season. I just stopped watching it because I had to become a peer. I’m just really impressed with that show. And then, the writing of this season, with every episode, as it progressed, I was like, “Wow!” Over time, it’s gotten people’s attention, and I’m glad. I hope it continues on, doing that.
Do you know what Kurt Sutter’s interest was, in casting you on the show?
McKINNON: I know that I, along with others, have made movies, over the years. Because of my relationship with Walton Goggins, and Kurt’s relationship with Walton, and Walton being a part of our movie-making team, I think Walt forced him to look at all of our stuff. So, he knew my work, better than a lot of people did because of that. I was off making these independent films that very few people saw, and loving it. But, I think that was part of it. He’d seen me and he knew my work really well. I was surprised. When I read the role, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out to L.A. I wasn’t living there, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out there. I didn’t really know anything about Sons of Anarchy, and there were lots of reasons that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend six months in L.A. But then, I read the character and I just was like, “Oh, my goodness!” I’d been looking to play a character that was really, really bright and intellectual and weird because I have some of those attributes, more so than some of the characters I play. I just wasn’t as interested in those other archetypes, as much anymore. So, it was a surprise. I was intrigued by it. I’m still not sure what he saw, in what I’d done before, that made him think about me for this role. I’m both grateful and baffled by his choosing me. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would have loved to have played this role.
McKINNON: Because I didn’t audition for it, there’s the upside and the downside of that. The upside is that you don’t have to audition and be rejected. The downside is that they’re going to see what choice you made, on the day you show up. I said, “Here’s what you’re gonna get. God, I hope you like it.” That was partly dictated by what Kurt wrote, but also my take on that. It was going to be like you saw, and I wasn’t sure that they would go for it. That’s always the fear. After filming the first day, if they don’t like it, you’re walking around and everybody is avoiding your eyes. You always look for that first, to see if they’ll still look at you, in the eyes. The paranoia kicks in. I thought they’d say, “Ray, we love you and we love your work, but we’ve decided that we’re going to go another way.” That was a low-level anxiety for about two weeks, and then I realized that they had embraced my choice of how to play this character. Not only that, then they just started going further with it. One of the most gratifying times, in my professional acting career, was that period. It’s just been great.
McKINNON: Yes. It was based upon really wonderful writing. For me, it was like, “I see this clearly, and this is the way I see it, based upon reading what you have given me, Mr. Sutter.” It was similar with David Milch, when I played the Reverend on Deadwood. It was back and forth. I would do something, and then he would further expand it. David Milch is something else, and I feel like Kurt Sutter has that kind of talent, in his way. It’s a little different from David, but yeah. I’m lucky to have had those two guys to work for.
Is it challenging to walk into a successful show like this, with a cast and crew that have already-established relationships, or is that part of the thrill of it, as an actor?
McKINNON: I like L.A., but I haven’t lived there for awhile. So, it was weird being in a whole other environment, and then coming to this environment. I was like, “I think I’m making a TV show, but I’m not sure.” There’s that element, and then there’s the element of the cast and the crew. I think it starts with Kurt and Paris Barclay, who I knew before, and Katey Sagal. They were very, very welcoming, and all the guys were. That was a plus. Plus, I don’t care as much as I used to, about that, and that takes some of the power away from it. I just wanted to do the best work I could do and be prepared, and the rest of the stuff would take care of itself. Most of that, I can’t control.
McKINNON: Yes, I do. I think part of it comes with age, but part of it comes with the experience of being in their shoes. I know how difficult it is. I think I’m a better collaborator, in seeing the bigger picture and trying to just help that, and not be so self-centered in whatever my task is, which is being an actor. All the collaborators of storytelling, in film and television, have to be partly self-centered because they need to do their work the best they can, and that’s what makes them really good at what they do, but then they also have to be a part of the socialist society, for the greater good. You try to keep that in balance. But, I enjoy working with the different directors and seeing what strengths each individual brought to the table, and the writers too. It’s a talented group of writers, in that room, and they’re all fully invested in the show. You realize how much all the actors and all the storytellers still care about making a really good show. That’s the people you want to work with.
It’s rare, when you have created something like they’ve all created. That doesn’t come every day. The worst thing is, if you’re not aware of that while it’s happening, you miss so much about how fortunate you are. But, most of these guys realize that. You don’t capture lightning in a bottle, every day. So many shows don’t make it, for whatever reason. I still don’t fully understand why this show hasn’t gotten more critical acclaim then it has. I think it really is underappreciated. I thought it would be good, but I didn’t know that much about it, really. When I started watching the second season, my visceral, honest, nobody’s around reaction was, “Holy shit, this is great!” It’s really great storytelling.
It’s certainly hyper-realized, and there’s the attraction and the identification with the anti-hero. It’s part of human nature that, if we get to know somebody and know their human side, we start having feelings for them, no matter how dreadful some of their other actions are. It’s like, “Wait a minute, my character is trying to stop what are basically terrorist organizations that are all working together, that are a threat to our security, and I’m the bad guy because I’m not playing fair.” But, I understand that. That’s human nature, and that’s what the anti-hero does to people. These guys are willing to die for their beliefs, and not a lot of people can say that about a belief system, in modern times. Certainly, my character secretly admires that. I don’t think he’s willing to die for anything. He doesn’t really care about anything, to that degree. I think he saw the hypocrisy of it. Most belief systems have a hypocritical side to it. His problem is that he thinks too much.
McKINNON: Well, I think he’s obsessive compulsive, and sometimes I’m that way. When I’m writing something and I’m really into it, that’s all I can think about and it becomes the most important thing in the world to me, and it may not be that, in reality. You stop and you’re like, “That isn’t the most important thing.” For Lincoln, the way I looked at it, he had justified why it was important to bring these people down. He’s also educated enough and perceptive enough to know that the way our country works sometimes is not necessarily on the up-and-up. You’ve seen, over and over, how the self-interests of the way our country works is not necessarily for the greater good of everybody. We’ve done actions that are hypocritical. It’s like, “Who is the bad guy and who is the good guy, in this scenario?” I think Lincoln thinks in that way. I don’t think there was some other deeper, darker reason for him. He’s an existentialist, and he was looking for a reason to be, a day at a time. This game of cops and robbers that he was playing, just fascinated the dickens out of him. You’re in the predication business, but when humans are involved, there are so many variables. It was like human chess. But, that being said, he wasn’t a sociopath because he had empathy. It was buried and he was detached, most of the time, so he wasn’t in touch with that empathy, but it did come out, a couple of times, particularly with Eli.
Since many of your scenes were together, did you have a lot of fun working with Rockmond Dunbar?
McKINNON: It was a great relationship as actors, working together. I really enjoyed that. It was great fun. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to work with Gemma (Katey Sagal), a few more times, but there are a lot of mouths to feed in that show, and I got my fill, for sure.
McKINNON: They were all such great scenes, but one of my favorite scenes was when I got to say, “You have until after The Jetsons to decide.” Those are the kind of lines I got to say. It was delicious. And that final scene with Eli, I just loved it. He’s kind of vulnerable there, for a minute, and awkward.
Would you be open to returning to the show again, or do you feel like your character’s story was resolved and closed?
McKINNON: I don’t know. I did feel that a little bit of Lincoln goes a long way. He’s not as human-like as some of these other characters, and that could be frustrating for people because they can’t identify with him. Maybe I have some fans with Asperger’s Syndrome, or something. I would dig that. So, I felt like this season seemed to be enough. With Kurt Sutter, who knows. Maybe he could come up with some creative way, down the line, for me to show up, at some point. He leaves things like that open. But, I felt like the way it ended was pretty complete.
Do you have any idea what’s next for you?
McKINNON: Well, I wrote a pilot, a couple years ago. AMC bought it and ended up not making it, but it’s looking more and more like it’s going to find a life on the Sundance Channel. We’re moving forward with that, to see if it can work out. I love telling stories, whether I’m the human instrument that helps tell that story or I’m the man behind the curtain. This is the kind of story that I would love to be able to tell. If that happens, that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll freak out, all at the same time.
McKINNON: It’s about a man who, after 19 years on death row, is released due to some conflicting DNA evidence and he goes back home. He’s not necessarily not guilty or guilty because of the circumstances. It’s a person who’s been in a state of sensory deprivation for almost two decades, so part of it is this man, awakening back to another world and going back to his family and how the family is going to deal with that, and then how the prosecution is going to deal with it. Are they going to re-indite him? All of their careers are based on this high-profile case that they convicted him on. There’s the Senator that was the prosecutor. There’s the investigator who’s now the sheriff. Everybody’s career is based on him being guilty. The whole town’s belief system is based on him being guilty. For 20 years, they thought he was this evil person. Let’s say this guy wasn’t guilty and he didn’t do this, but he’s convicted at 18 years old and sent to death row by the people who are responsible for helping him to develop his own mores and principles. Now, it’s 19 years later, or whatever it will be, and he’s been raised on death row. So, even if he didn’t do it, who is he now? I was inspired by Mad Men, even though it’s a totally different setting and plot. But, it’s about the secrets people keep. I think the Sundance Channel is a great place for it because you can be a little outside the box.
Acting, writing and directing are all different forms of storytelling. Did you just always want to be a storyteller, or did one attract you first?
McKINNON: I was influenced by my mother and father’s close friend, who’s from their hometown. He became a journalist, and a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at that, with his work with civil rights in the ‘60s. At first, I thought I wanted to be a journalist and a writer. As a kid, I had written, but I didn’t find my voice and confidence as a writer, until I was in my mid to late 30′s. So, I went off on the path of acting and learning how to do that instead. I became obsessed with that for awhile, but was always still writing. That’s what I’ve just continued to do, but mostly in the closet. I’d say it was writing that attracted me first, but I’ve rediscovered my love for acting, lately. Lincoln and Sons of Anarchy was a great opportunity for that. I do hope that there will be other characters that will let me go to my freak place, like Lincoln did, because I do like to do that.