St. John’s-born star Mark O’Brien has built a lasting career as a Working Actor with an acclaimed catalog of work to his name. In addition to winning a Canadian Screen Award for his performance in 2016’s “Goalie“, his recent body of work includes Oscar-caliber films like “Marriage Story” and “Arrival”, plus under-appreciated gems like “Ready or Not” and “Blue Bayou”.
O’Brien tries his hand at directing a Feature for the first time in “The Righteous”, a film he not only stars in, but wrote and served as Executive Producer on as well. The dark Psychogical Horror centers on a man named Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). Frederic and Mimi lose their daughter and while grieving their loss, a young man named Aaron (O’Brien) shows up. Being a former priest and looking to repair his relationship with God, Frederic finds his world unravelling and troubles growing, as he tries to understand Aaron‘s motives in showing-up.
We had the pleasure of chatting with O’Brien on the Toronto leg of his Press Tour, which included a Toronto Premiere of the Film, just before he heads to St. John’s to present it to his hometown. We met a couple nights back quickly at the North American Premiere of David Cronenberg‘s “Crimes of the Future“, which he says he still can’t stop thinking about, which means he liked it.
We ask O’Brien about the inspiration behind “The Righteous”.
O’Brien: “I’ve only recently gotten into genre-type movies only because it’s such a conduit to big, grand themes. I love big, grand operatic themes and notions in a De Palma or Bergman kinda way, where you have something big and grand, that’s interesting enough for an audience. When you’re writing it, it gives you a license to be big and intimate.”
“It’s funny how something comes out of you, because you don’t know why something comes out of you. It’s kinda like writing a song – and I’m not a Songwriter – but when something comes from within you, it’s something that needs to be expressed.”
“For me it’s about getting older and having children, and I’ve really gotta confront things in my life. Rather than making it a straightforward present-day Drama, I felt it would be more impactful if it was in another world. There’s no time and no place and that drives more participation from the Viewer. As opposed to it saying ‘New York, 1988’, where you already know some of the answers.”
“So that’s where it came from and then it kinda morphs. A draft becomes a rehearsal and it changes. I really loved the draft and where it ended up going.”.
We ask about the choice to shoot inBlack & White, but also in his native Newfoundland.
O’Brien: “It was always Black & White since Day One. As soon as I thought about it, it just is and has to be. And then you lean-into the aesthetics, so now that it is Black & White, how do I lean-into that so that it’s more impactful? It would be a journey through Frederic‘s subconscious was so it would be black and murky, and you just don’t know what’s around the corner.”
“And in regards to Newfoundland, I wanted to give it the textural feeling of Newfoundland that I felt when I grew-up there, which is cold and it gets into your bones. Above that I wanted to work in the place I love, that I never get to go to, work with friends, work with people I really respect, and have a really good time.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have shot there if I lived in Newfoundland, but I live in L.A., I work in the States almost exclusively, I want to go back home and I have a lot of passion for that. I grew-up there making Short Films with my buddies using Camcorders and now to be making a Feature there, that was really crazy! Those are locations that are really close to me in different ways. The church I went to school there down the road.”.
“The Righteous” spans multiple genres. In ways it taps into Frederic’s mind, his paranoia and fear of God. We find ourselves wondering if what we’re seeing really happened? Also, it is a Family Drama about coping with grief.We ask O’Brien how he might define his Film.
O’Brien: “My go-to definition is ‘Psychological Horror/Thriller’, but really I like that it’s anything. It’s how one views it and their interpretation of it because it is a Drama, it’s a Mystery, it’s this and it’s that. And I like that.”
“I don’t like something to be too much of one genre. I like the audience to know what could happen. Not that it ruins anything for the audience telling them beforehand, but I don’t like in my own head to do that.”.
We ask about the casting ofHenry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk.
O’Brien: “They are so wonderful. I knew them from before and they bring a lot to it. You don’t want to hire Actors who are just going to do what’s on the page. I thought about it enough. I need someone else to bring ideas for it to soar. Mimi lived upstairs and Henry lived across the street, so we had lots of hangouts!”
“The whole experience was really smooth. Henry just adds so much and brings so much presence on-set. He just really cares. The first sentence in the Movie he actually wrote. He said ‘I just wanted some extra preamble’.”
“I was editing every day while we were filming. The Editor is Canadian, came from L.A. to St. John’s, and at night every day I was seeing edited scenes. So I was living in the world completely. I don’t get Directors who wrap and go on vacation for three weeks, beacuse all I’d be thinking about during the vacation was the Movie. I’m obsessed thinking about it non-stop.”.
O’Brien tells us about his greatest challenge, and it might not be what you’d think it is being a first-time Feature Director, wearing multiple caps.
O‘Brien: “I was filming Blue Bayou in New Orleans and we were on a four-day gap because there’s no direct flights from New Orleans to St. John’s. I was exhausted and after we prepped, I flew back to New Orleans which in itself is a day of travel. So three weeks later I wrapped Blue Bayou, and I had three days off to prep and then we started filming the next day.”
“But that wasn’t the challenge. I knew the Movie we wanted to make. I’ve been on so many sets where the Director doesn’t know what they’re doing. 90% of Directors aren’t always amazing. Just because a Director’ Credits are great, doesn’t always mean they are great on-set. So you learn more as an Actor because you see what doesn’t really work after a certain point for you. I think that helped a lot. Working with wonderful people who were helpful and supportive, aware and present made me better too so that really helped.”
“The thing I struggle with most still is trying to put a Movie together. And to get to Day One of prep is tough. Any time someone is making a Movie, I’m like ‘You win! Here’s an award! You are making the Film!’. I find that incredible. That’s an artistic skill. I don’t know if that’s salesmanship or just pure will and determination. I have no skill in that area. That’s the challenge.”.
We wonder how becoming a father has changed the way O’Brien approaches his Art.
O‘Brien: “In every way. It’s gotta be worth my while to leave my daughter. I’m not a millionaire. If I don’t connect with it, it’s gotta be worth it to leave my wife and my daughter. ‘Cause I’ve already left my family in Newfoundland and that was not easy.”
“But I love it so much what I get to do. I don’t give a shit about the money. I just want to do it, for it to last and matter. I want to look back and be proud of it. And I’ve gotta say most of the things I’ve done in my career, I’m very proud of. Whether or not people watch it, that’s not up to me. That’s not up to anybody. That just happens or it doesn’t happen. My daughter’s illuminated that for me and made me appreciate what I do even more. It’s crazy I get to do this job.”
O’Brien‘s latest Series “61st Street” recently premiered at SXSW, with its Season Finale just having aired. We learned Season Two of the Limited Series already has wrapped. What’s next?
O’Brien: “Right now I’m filming Season Two of Perry Mason for HBO. I’m on all Season Two and I’m the Prosecuting Attorney to Perry‘s Defense Attorney, so we’re kinda enemies which is really fun doing a Court Room Drama and I love that Show. I’m having a blast doing it. I’m still finding the right next thing and certainly writing a lot. Three or four projects I’m just trying to get made. Right now that’s not the most fun trying to figure out who’s in. Whatever it takes to make a Movie is what I wanna do.”.
Vortex Media release THE RIGHTEOUS in theatres Friday, June 3, 2022.
(Photo/video credit:Arrow Films/Vortex Media/Mr. Will Wong)