Dermot Mulroney on Joe Carnahan and the ‘Sweet Relief’ of Being in a Manly Movie like The Grey

Joe Carnahan’s thriller The Grey, currently receiving kudos for its blend of red-blooded action and considered existentialism, tells the fictional tale of a group of oilrig workers who survive a plane crash only to be hunted by wolves in the wild. Among the ragtag band of comrades facing off against nature under Liam Neeson’s steady leadership is Dermot Mulroney’s Talget, who, like the others, learns to shed his protective layers and confront his own fears when forced to face off directly with Mother Nature.

For Mulroney, The Grey represents a kind of muscular, male-driven pic that no longer gets made often enough. In a conversation ranging from the film’s throwback sense of masculinity to his reasons for joining Carnahan & Co. on the unusually brutal shoot (the cast and crew filmed in snowy, sub-zero conditions for months in Canada), Mulroney spoke candidly about how much the landscape has changed for him as an actor since he burst on the scene in the ‘80s, why he was happy to be in a film with no women, and how his first time on the other side of the camera (directing last year’s Love, Wedding, Marriage, which he describes as “a badly made movie”) turned him away from directing, at least for the time being.

Liam Neeson aside, you’re probably the most recognizable cast member in The Grey even though you’ve been hidden under layers of clothing and those glasses. How much consideration went into the conception of how your character looks?
I can’t say that wasn’t deliberate but that wasn’t necessarily my idea. It was in conjunction discussing it with the director, Joe [Carnahan], who saw my character as someone who has kind of receded under his protective layers whether it’s the hat and the glasses and the beard and the scarf and all this, and then slowly as the movie progresses some of those layers come off. I hope that we pulled that off. That was his goal; he was so specific with character.

What appealed to you about joining this ensemble pic and working with Joe Carnahan?
But even from his screenplay, really, is what hooked me, and obviously the opportunity to work with him and Liam. You know, I love to work – I still love to work – and I’d go anywhere for something good like this. It turns out I was going to northern British Colombia in sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions…

It seems like it was an unusually extreme scenario for a film shoot! But your cast mates have described Joe as having picked a disparate group of actors who somehow shared a specific quality, a like-mindedness about the project, that made it all worthwhile.
Very much so. I don’t know what it is that Joe has to be able to do that, but my understanding is that he’s done that with all of his films – he’s handpicked people that have something, as you say, other than the fact that they were right for the part. They’re also the right man that he wants to have on the experience. He wants to experience. What Joe Carnahan loves to do more than anything at all is shoot a movie, so he wants to do it with people that are also going to enjoy it and make it more enjoyable for him. So he’s not just picking actors, he’s kind of picking future friends.

Were you acquainted before the film?
I’d never met him before! I walk in to audition and I can tell he’s a helluva guy and that I would enjoy his company – but I think he’s actually casting for that as well. He’s casting not only for the film, but for the steak dinners after work, you know? In a way, he was. And really what I’m describing is his ability to intuitively “get” what people would have to offer, and the thing that he was determined to achieve was to get guys who were willing and able. You know, as actors we’re of course all willing, but I don’t think all of them would’ve been able to take on those extreme conditions.

I couldn’t believe that you all went into those freezing climes to shoot; word is Joe got frostbite out there at one point.
I know Dallas [Roberts] got frostbit on the nose, and I think Joe Anderson got some fingertips… this is, like, angry cold. This is all-the-way cold!

But as an actor, your body – your fingertips, your nose – is your livelihood! That seems like a risk to take for a film.
Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that! I didn’t suffer any ill effects from the cold. [Laughs] I have good circulation, so… and everybody else handled it great, too. It certainly was never life-threatening, but it never occurred to me that it might somehow affect my ability to make a living.

So when you signed on to The Grey, you were signing on not only to a film but to having an extraordinary experience.
We were signing on not only to an extraordinary experience but to risk, but a lot of guys would have. These were parts that a lot of people wanted, for the quality, for the personnel, for the content, but also the same as Joe – for the experience of getting to do something like this. I’ve done a lot of movies on stages, and sets, in a house, around a dining room table, sitting in a thing, going to the dance, all that – wonderful. But how often does somebody say, ‘Hey – do you want to go up further than you’ve ever been and stand around in the cold with me for a couple of months?’ For me, I had just come from a movie called Big Miracle which comes out next month where there, too, we were shooting in Anchorage, Alaska and it was cold and dark.

I’m guessing Drew Barrymore did not get frostbite on her nose.
She did not get frostbite, but she did get in freezing cold water! In a wetsuit, for real – she did it all. Nobody complained and nobody got hurt, and even Kristen Bell, who’s as big as this, pulled off standing around all day in zero degree temperatures.

Looking at the themes in The Grey, we’re in an era where metrosexuality has become a thing and more masculine stories and themes are something of another generation. The characters, not just Liam’s but all of them, are different shades of…

Yes, in many respects. But moreso these guys seem to represent a spectrum of what it means to be a man, or to come to terms with your own masculinity and mortality, when faced with this kind of life or death situation.
I think that’s a wonderful diagram of the film. I hadn’t quite tapped into that myself. If I were to try to get to the bottom of what character I was playing, my idea for Talget was that he’s the mother of the group. He’s the little old lady with the babushka and the thing and ‘Come on,’ because they already have a natural leader or father type, they already have a hotheaded adolescent with Diaz, and they have a knowledgeable wise grandparent type with Henrik. Where’s the mother? So I kind of filled that slot. That doesn’t answer your masculinity question because I’d much rather be accused of being testosterone-fueled than being a little old lady, but by the same token if you’re looking at each of these characters as a facet of what manhood is, then part of what manhood is, is your mother.

But that’s okay! It’s only when these guys strip away their machismo that they are able to be emotionally honest with each other.
Right. [Pause] There a couple of scenes in Jaws when the shark goes out of the movie, and you don’t really get a great look at that shark anyhow, much like this movie. But then they’re sitting in that boat and they’re just talking, and Shaw goes into this whole thing about the Indianapolis and it’s this incredible moment, an historical moment in the history of our cinema. So you say this movie has some throwback qualities, or some old school manly-man qualities; that’s intentional. That’s the kind of movie Joe wants to make. Joe is one of those guys. So, guilty as charged on that; if that’s something that needs to be brought back, then let’s bring it back. It seems like people are responding to that about this movie and to my mind there haven’t been enough of them. The pendulum swung the other way since I started in this business and there were men’s movies like whatever those Tom Cruise movies…

The meaty ‘80s, yes.
Yeah. And then all of a sudden Sigourney Weaver comes in the Alien and we have strong women, we have Working Girl, we have all this, we have Best Friend’s Wedding, and before you know it, all the fucking movies are about the girls!

Do you really think so?
I do! I do. The ones that I was asked to be in, for certain. All of them. So that’s kind of what I did for a while, and every once in a while I’d get this sweet relief of being in a movie like [The Grey], where there are no girls in it, there are no women in it –

Nobody vying for your affections...
Nobody’s vying for anybody’s affections in this movie, that’s right. [Laughs] That’s one relief right there. Aren’t we kind of tired of the vying for affection in the American cinema?

Well, let me ask you this --
[Laughs] I know, it’s tough because “wry” doesn’t really come across in print, but you put that on the website and we’ll see how that flies. “Too many ladies in the movies for a while there.”

No! I think it’s interesting you say this, given your directorial debut, Love, Wedding, Marriage.
Yeah, and it couldn’t be a more womanly movie, right? Let’s skip it. Change the topic.

I am interested in your directing impulses...
I’m not, so much.

Did you get it all out in that one film?
No, it just didn’t go very well. If I ever tried again I’d do it alarmingly differently.

Why so?
I don’t even want to talk about that movie, to be honest with you. I don’t think it’s a very clean segue, either, from masculine guy in The Grey to director of a badly made movie.

It’s only that the types of movies that they are, are interesting in juxtaposition.
I like movies like The Grey to view and to act in a lot more than I like movies like that.

The Grey is in theaters Friday.

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