Michael O’Neill is an actor who needs no introduction. With a career that has spanned more than three decades, the veteran character actor is well known to audiences for his roles on numerous films and television shows including Transformers, Dallas Buyers Club, The West Wing and Bates Motel.
O’Neill took a somewhat unique path to Hollywood and plainly confesses that acting was not even on his radar when he was studying Economics at Auburn University. The original plan, he says, was to go on to business school at the University of Virginia.
“Above all else, be lucky”, O’Neill said of his acting career, in his typical self-deprecating fashion. Michael’s path to Hollywood began in 1974, shortly before he was to graduate from Auburn University. He had given a speech to his national fraternity, which had been recorded, and before long that recording wound up in the hands of legendary actor Will Geer. Geer tracked down Michael O’Neill by telephone and urged him to give acting a try “before the corporate structure snaps you up”.
O’Neill gave it some thought and jumped at the chance. He was not discouraged but in fact emboldened by those telling him he would never make it (“It made me mad! You know, you can do a lot on a good resentment”, O’Neill quips) and so he moved to California and went on to study under Geer at Theatricum Botanicum. From there he went on to appear in the television show Shirley and after getting his SAG card, landed his first role in a feature film, Ghost Story.
After that film in 1981, O’Neill was able to secure a number of TV roles from LA Law to Millennnium and The X-Files. By his own admission, it was landing his now iconic role on The West Wing as Special Agent Ron Butterfield in 1999 that signified a change in his career and led to other key roles on such shows as 24 (“The first guy killed!” – he jokes), The Unit, Grey’s Anatomy and more recently Bates Motel.
The Alabama native, who moved back home a couple of years ago to be closer to his ailing father, splits his time between Los Angeles and Birmingham, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. In addition to his booming acting career, O’Neill keeps busy with charity work, especially with The Shjon Podein Children’s Foundation. “We all drink from wells we didn’t build”, O’Neill says, “so I feel some responsibility to give back when and where I can”.
Michael’s newest project is the CBS series Extant, which he described as “the highlight of my career”. In the following interview with TVWise he discusses the show, working with such a strong cast, his recent turn as Nick Ford on A&E’s Bates Motel and much more.
TVWise: What can you tell us about Extant?
Michael O’Neill: The pedigree of it is pretty extraordinary. Mr Spielberg is our executive producer and fearless leader, Mickey Fisher wrote the story, and of course the incomparable Halle Berry stars in it. So those are the building blocks. The story is set about 60 years in the future and NASA has become a private agency. There are also obviously themes and technology that have developed in ways that we could foresee and not foresee…so that’s the environment that we’re in. The show itself centers around the journey that Halle’s character Molly takes. Molly Woods is an astronaut and I play her boss, Alan Sparks. I send her off on a 13 month solo mission into a quadrant of space that we’re only mildly familiar with and something occurs on that journey, which changes both her and what we know on Earth dramatically. She returns from that mission – a solo mission – pregnant. So there’s been some sort of an encounter and it spins from there. She returns with the absolute extraordinary improbability of such an event occurring and tries of course to keep it secret. But that’s not something you can do in the International Space Exploration Agency with people like me moving around. And our story launches from that spot.
TVWise: But you’re character is more than just Molly’s boss isn’t he?
Michael O’Neill: Yeah, and what they did with Sparks which I liked so much is… you clearly get an idea that my character mentored her, has tremendous respect and affection for Molly and yet at the same time there’s a lot of corporate intrigue. There’s a certain usurious quality that I have about my personnel. I think they plant the seed with Sparks to continue to be a director and a mentor to her. Sparks’ character in our backstory has been a former astronaut with NASA, he’s a holdover from those last explorations when NASA was still public. When the private agency formed, because of his experience in deep space exploration, they tapped him to head it. My character is, in a word, her boss, her friend, her colleague. And yet also someone who is a bit behind the curtain if you know what I mean? ‘Don’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain’ from The Wizard of Oz. That’s my role. That’s my role in this. I have a liaison with Mr Yasumoto (Hiroyuki Sanada) who, because we’re a private enterprise… we’re funded by him, and he has his own agenda. And I’m a participant in that agenda, more of which will be revealed as our episodes move forward.
TVWise: He is definitely not like any of the characters you’ve played before, do you think Sparks has a darker side that we’re perhaps not seeing right away?
Michael O’Neill: [Laughs] Well I would say he is more dangerous than he appears, so yes. You know, anyone that’s achieved that much and has a driven personality…. He’s very mission oriented and will think outside the box very quickly and is a great crisis manager, even if the crisis is of his own making, So in answer to your question, yes, I think there is an exploration as to the shadow of this character, without revealing too terribly much. And yet there’s always the sense that given the opportunity he would do the right thing.
TVWise: This is your first Sci-Fi TV project, what was it that attracted you to the role?
Michael O’Neill: In two words: Spielberg and Berry. In a third word, an extraordinary script. Mickey Fisher wrote something really special. You know, we all read it and our eyes sort of popped out. And when you hit the last page of the script you want very badly to be able to turn the page to the next chapter. And you love to see that, in any genre. And I think the writers have been able to consistently do that. Each chapter ends with a great appetite for what’s to follow. It’s almost one of those things that if you could binge watch it you would, because it’s hard to let go of. So a combination of extraordinary pedigree, vision and talent.
TVWise: Extant features some great talent both behind and in front of the camera, what’s it like working with such a talented group?
Michael O’Neill: He [series creator Mickey Fisher] genuinely is one of the good guys in the business. You know, it’s a tough business and you develop a thick skin. It’s funny every time I see Mickey I go “Wow, he’s made something – this guy who came from a little town in Ohio”. How that mind works, you know, is beyond me. But I get him as a person. I have great respect for him.
I’d only worked with Mr Spielberg once before on Transformers and then Ms Berry, I had admired her work from afar. And I was right to do so. I knew that she was talented, I knew that she had won an Academy Award and I wasn’t surprised to find out how beautiful she is. What I did find out that has taken me aback a little bit is just how gracious she is as a person. She’s incredibly generous and very present and a wonderful colleague. You know I find her determined in her sense of protecting our stories and making sure that we remain truthful. She’s just so incredibly present and generous as an actress, I just find myself sort of falling into scenes with her. I tell my wife “It’s a great day, I’m working with Halle today”, and my wife says “You better come home” and I say “Of course, I will”.
TVWise: You also work with Camryn Manheim on Extant. Didn’t you two work together several years ago on The Practice?
Michael O’Neill: We did. It was an issue of the police overreaching their constitutional limit and I came down really hard on the side of the constitution. I remember that very clearly. The writer, I had only worked with him once before, but he said “I’ve been looking to write something for your voice and this is it” and I said “I’ll be there”. Camryn was in that scene and I was talking to her the other day at lunch and I said “You know, I was so nervous to meet you because I’ve watched you for a long time…” There’s a kind of honesty that she has, an emotional facility that she has… I work with her a lot in this series; we’re somewhat adversarial, which is great because that means we have conflict. I’m always taken aback at the fact that she elevates every scene that she is in and, as she does that, she has a way of grounding our company. Every person has a role both on camera and inside the company and there is something that Camryn does, she brings us together, she grounds us in a way. If Halle is the gracious, the generous, the inclusive one; then there is something about Camryn that says “Okay, here we are, let’s go”. And I really have been very fortunate to work with these two women.
TVWise: I understand that this is also your first series regular role?
Michael O’Neill: You know, it is. In 33 years of pursuing the brass ring, this is the first time someone came just out of the blue and handed it to me. You want desperately as an actor, particularly as a character actor with the career that I’ve had, to have a home. You want to know where you’re going for an extended period of time and drop into a character. That’s not to in any way take away from some wonderful opportunities that I’ve had, you know I’ve been killed so many times, redirected, reconstituted and so on. And I’ve worked with some wonderful people along the way in a number of recurring roles, the first of those for me was The West Wing. The West Wing invited me in and I got to stay, but this is home now. I have a home. I have a place that…I smile when I get in the car in the morning and I don’t stop smiling until I get home at night, even if the character feels otherwise. It certainly makes a difference. It makes a huge difference. You relax differently, you’re sense of your community is different – seeing the same people, having the support you have, knowing someone is writing for your character, it’s pretty compelling. Also the responsibility changes because I feel compelled now, knowing how hard that writer’s room works, to execute their vision as loyally and faithfully as I can.
TVWise: A bit like Under The Dome, CBS has high hopes for Extant as they’re now attempting to program year round. There has been talk that, with such a strong cast and auspices, Extant has ‘it”. Did you get that sense, did you feel this was a really special project?
Michael O’Neill: You know, I did. I do feel like it’s a special project. It always starts with the script, then it goes to the interpreters, then it moves to the support, then it move to the actors. You know, there is something going on that feels different to me. Now, having said that, one of the things that I like about this, and I’ve worked with other projects that got ahead of themselves by saying “Oh wow, we’re going to break out”, I’ve never heard a word of that on our set. I never heard it, from the top down. What I’ve heard is “We have a job to do, let’s do the best we can. We’ve got these episode, let’s energise these, let’s carbonate them as best we can, but let’s not look down the road”. So there’s a real sense of “let’s do our job” here and it’s a good way to do it, because if you get ahead of yourself you can start dropping stitches and you don’t ‘wanna do that, not with this kind of talent and this kind of support. CBS, and I’m sure Amazon as well, the kind of support we’ve gotten from them inside of filming… I don’t want to go into detail, I just want to say it’s rare. I’ve been doing this for a long time and people have shown up and they’ve put their money where their mouth is, if you know what I mean. I feel like we’ve been given every opportunity to make this thing good and I think they’ve considered their audience in an intelligent way. They want to engage in a story that’s really accessible.
TVWise: You’ve just wrapped an arc on Bates Motel as Nick Ford…
Michael O’Neill: Poor old Nick. [Laughs] You know, the thing I love about Nick Ford? He’s not a man that misjudges character very often. He came up in the criminal ranks, he clearly was a guy that knew how to use his elbows and he was a strategist. He also evaluated people very very accurately, until he ran across Norma Bates. There is something about that woman – she’s beautiful and she’s wounded and she’s vulnerable and she’s dangerous. And it was the last aspect of that that he missed. I think he was so taken in a flirtation with her… you know, her character makes a pact with the devil, without realising he’s the devil. Nick made a pact with one of the archangels or something,… I don’t know, because, it certainly took turns I didn’t expect it to take. I had to wait for the next script to find out where we were going. She’s incredibly compelling, Norma, and it’s because Vera [Farmiga] is so compelling. She’s one of the most alive actors I’ve ever worked with. I did a little film with her years ago called Nothing But The Truth and it was based on the Valerie Plame story; I only had a couple of scenes with her but I remember thinking “Boy, I want to work with her again” and then I got a season with her. My instinct was right, it was a joyous and dangerous experience.
TVWise: You been working since the early 80s, and so many of the roles we’ve seen you in, particularly on television, have been “good guys” – from a CTU Director on 24, to a former special ops guy on the The Unit to a Secret Service agent on The West Wing. Was it not good – and you have this to a certain degree on Rectify as well – to break out of that and play these darker characters?
Michael O’Neill: Yes. [Laughs] I’m very grateful that they finally let me do that. I think they did, for a long time, they saw me as a guy that could solve problems or come in and keep things safe, as it were. A good guy. Shonda Rhimes changed that a bit with Grey’s Anatomy. I played a man that was desperately broken and did some desperate and despicable things. But I’m sure that she chose me because the other side of my coin had been used so much and it has opened up a lot of these kind of characters… you know, you always want to play these…you never think of them as villains, but you want to play the guy that’s more complicated and that’s what these characters allow me to do, just deal in the complication. All of us are driven, I think, by what we believe is the right thing. It’s just how we define that right thing and how much we compromise. I never think of them as bad guys but certainly guys that are willing to do what needs to be done, whatever it takes.
TVWise: Staying with Bates Motel. If it wasn’t for that grizzly end with the fire poker, do you think Nick Ford would have taken that revenge on Norman?
Michael O’Neill: You know…No one has ever asked me that. My instinct is no. The reason for that is there was a scene we shot, that no one ever saw. It was a very very difficult scene. It was a rain storm, I put the kid in a grave – a living grave. I went to him because I had the pearls, he had my daughter’s pearls. And there was something in Ford’s character, he wanted so badly to have some resolution with his daughter. Whatever the estrangement was, the fact that her life ended so abruptly it never allowed him to bring completion to that. I think, in a way, because Freddie was one of the last people around her, what I wanted from him, what I wanted from Norman was some essence of her. “Please help me understand her”. And he was the last link to that, so I’m inclined to say, no, I don’t think I would have taken him out. I think I would have made them pay dearly for him and I might have made him pay dearly for the experience, but I don’t think I would have killed him.
TVWise: Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
Michael O’Neill: Beyond Extant, I have something called Rectify that’s is in process right now. We just finished that second season in May, earlier in May, and that’s begun airing. That’s a SundanceTV project and I play a sort of nefarious Southern Senator. A man with tremendous personal appetites, as many politicians have, who made his career prosecuting a capital murder and rape of a young woman. He put a guy behind bars, put him on death row actually for 18 years and then DNA evidence vacates the sentence. That, of course, challenges my political career, which I have no interest in being challenged. So I’m trying to get him back in jail as quickly as I can. It’s based on The Innocence Project and it’s a compelling Southern drama, which is very nice to see – it’s got a very different rhythm to it.
Michael O’Neill stars as ISEA Director Alan Sparks on Extant which premieres on CBS on Wednesday July 9th at 9/8c in the US, and on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK on Thursday July 10th at 9pm.