Thomas McDonell on Prom, Dark Shadows, and His Chance Start in Acting
In Disney's high school dramedy Prom, newcomer Thomas McDonell plays an archetypal bad boy straight out of a John Hughes flick -- sensitive, rebellious, and enticingly misunderstood. In real life, the 24-year-old former art student seems such the antithesis of the typical teen idol that you could call him the Judd Nelson of the Tiger Beat set. (His follow-up to Prom: Playing the young Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows.) Surely, McDonell's the only Disney star in history that can make legions of tween girls scream with one brooding glance and say he's performed Ionesco on stage in Scotland. So how did McDonell shoot into the spotlight so quickly -- and what's Jackie Chan got to do with it?
To find out where his Hollywood story begins, you've got to go to China -- or rather, Shanghai, where NYU student McDonell found himself studying abroad a few years ago and, on a whim, got himself cast in Chan's The Forbidden Kingdom. Then came a small role in Joel Schumacher's Twelve, then a contract with an agent, and before he knew it, McDonell found himself leading a sprawling cast of wholesome teens in the multi-thread teen movie Prom, in which his motorcycle-riding delinquent falls for the school overachiever (Aimee Teegarden) -- natch.
But while Prom is likely to catapult him into the culture of teen/tween idol worship -- at least, judging from the sight and sounds of hordes of pre-teens who screamed at the screen whenever he popped up, who absolutely lost it with the flex of a single bicep -- McDonell's career will likely follow a more eccentric path. At least, one hopes that will be the case; in conversation, he speaks with such thoughtful and deliberate seriousness, unencumbered by the polished 'n' press-ready poise of his young cast mates, that it seems as though he's got a varied career ahead of him.
Read on as McDonell recounts his chance start in acting, his artistic interests, Prom, and Burton's Dark Shadows.
Compared to some of your cast mates, not much information is known about you on the internet. And so we must find out. How did your art background lead you to acting?
My background was not in acting in the same way that it is for a lot of the other cast members. Some of them have worked on movies and television when they were kids, or some of them not at all. I studied art in school and I got my first job working on a film sort of as an experiment when I was living and studying contemporary art in China. I went on an audition and got a part in a kung fu film there.
What was the thinking behind that experiment?
It was that I had always loved movies and thought I'd love to be able to work on one, or in movies in general. I didn't know in what capacity that would be, but this opportunity just sort of came up and I thought, "I'll go in and have a look." And I thought that I would be good at it, also, because there were other things that I was doing that were not so dissimilar from what it was -- like going into a room and just embarrassing yourself in front of a casting director.
So you have no problem with embarrassing yourself.
No, so that was fine. [Smiles] I got to play this really small part in this kung fu movie and then it was so great that I wanted to do more.
That kung fu movie was The Forbidden Kingdom. Not too shabby. But forgive me, I've seen the film. What role did you play?
I played one of the thugs from South Boston who appear at the very beginning and chase Michael Angarano off.
Oh, yes. You guys were really mean.
Yeah, we were tough. They had us in that XXXL FuBu gear, this menacing fashion. Looking pretty goofy. Like a bunch of goofy white kids from Boston.
What were your areas of interest in your art studies at NYU?
Well at the time I went to Shanghai because about five years ago there was a big idea about how Shanghai was this new place for contemporary art. People were comparing it to Berlin or other sort of hubs. So I went to have a look and investigate.
How long were you there?
I was there studying for a semester, so about four months. And then during that time I got the job and had to stay over the summer, even though the role was really small. They stretched the working days out over the course of about two months. It was crazy. It was supposed to be six working days, it turned into 13. It was like one here, and then a week off. Two here, then a week off.
Did you have actual acting experience before The Forbidden Kingdom? Stage work, or anything?
I had worked, well... I'd never worked professionally as an actor. That was the first thing. But I had sort of fooled around in high school even though it wasn't my main interest, I was in a play. We went to the Edinburgh Theater Festival; I played Monsieur Papillon in Ionesco's Rhinocéros. In Scotland. That was funny.
How did you go from Rhinocéros and contemporary art to Prom?
Here's how it happened: I got back from China working on this kung fu movie and it was really far out, and I had all these new ideas about... everything. I could get even more new ideas from working on film, and who knows? Maybe I was good at it. Whatever. So when I got back to New York I found someone who could get me a meeting with somebody else who got me a meeting with somebody else to get me in the door of a small agency in New York called Innovative. I went in and convinced them - and in the meantime I also got a very small role in a movie called Twelve, which I got circumstantially.
Joel Schumacher's Twelve.
Right! So I was able to get an audition for that without having an agent. These two auditions I went on, and I got the parts. I went into the agency and said, "I'm 100 percent! Just send me on more auditions." And they agreed to do that, so I was going on auditions in New York but also making tapes, and we would send the tapes to California, and one of the tapes we made was an audition tape for Prom. We sent it in, they liked it, and brought me out for a screen test where I met Aimee Teegarden, and it worked.
What appealed to you about a film like Prom? It's sweet, youth-oriented... perhaps less challenging than some of the types of things you were doing in some ways?
Not less challenging at all. It's way different from anything I've ever done before. I'd never worked as the lead in a big studio movie, and that was the appeal, too - to do something new for me. Also, I thought the story could potentially be really cool. There's so much about it that was interesting to me. I'd always been interested in the Disney company and liked some of it, and didn't like other parts about it. So there's a lot to it.
What's been your experience so far with Prom now that the press element is in gear? Kids in the audience at the screening were screaming. Are you prepared for that kind of fandom, what some might compare to the Twilight or teen idol phenomena?
I've thought about it, and people ask me about it a lot, but it is not the most interesting thing to me about this business. I've thought about it but we'll just have to see if people really like the movie and they're really drawn to the actors as much as the characters. Then it will be a thing to reckon with.
So how did your role in Dark Shadows come about, did it happen in a similar way to your Prom casting?
Not exactly the same way, but something like that.
How far have you gotten in pre-production?
Well, it's a small role so it will only be a week or so. It's going to be at the end of the shoot, so I'm not going to be on set for another little while. They're going to shoot the whole film; the beginning comes at the end.
What was your first impression of Tim?
I think that Tim Burton is such a great director and I'm really excited to get to work in something he's doing. It's pretty awesome.
Were you familiar with Dark Shadows beforehand?
No, I didn't know much about Dark Shadows. And I had certainly not watched any of it. But the more I'm learning all the time the weirder and more interesting I think the film could be.