Ray McKinnon is a gifted actor, writer, director and producer of films. He grew up in Adel, Georgia and is best known as a character actor, usually playing southern weirdoes—but his range extends far beyond that. He was the “bonafide” guy engaged to Holly Hunter’s character in the Coen Brothers’ classic, O Brother, Where Art Thou. He was a dying preacher in HBO’s Deadwood. He’s also had roles in Apollo 13, A Perfect World, Driving Miss Daisy, Sommersby and dozens of TV movies and series.
Around 2000 Ray wrote, directed and starred in a short film called The Accountant. It was filmed in Conyers, Ga. for under $100,000. It was hilarious, tragic and might be about the best 38 minutes of filmmaking of the last decade or so. I saw a rough cut before it came out and became nearly obsessed with it, so much so that I went to Atlanta to see a screening and hopefully meet this redneck auteur. I took with me a nearly completed copy of my six-year work in progress; an album my band Drive-By Truckers made called Southern Rock Opera. We exchanged info and a friendship was born.
The Accountant went on to win at film festivals and ended up winning the 2002 Academy Award for “Best Live Action Short.”
Around that time, I wrote one of my better songs inspired (more in spirit than in literal story) by The Accountant. The song was called “Sink Hole” and a couple of years later, Ray used it in his first feature film Chrystal, a dark, beautiful film of loss and redemption starring Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount (who is Ray’s wife as well as his co-producer).
This year, Ray and Lisa are releasing a comedy called Randy and the Mob. In the film, Ray plays Randy, a “New South good ol’ boy” who has gotten himself in deep with the IRS and the mafia and has to go to Cecil, his estranged, flamboyantly gay identical twin brother (also played by Ray) to bail him out. Lisa plays Charlotte, his long-suffering wife who teaches baton lessons and has developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I ended up writing a song, inspired by Charlotte, called “She’s A Little Randy,” which Ray used in the film and on the upcoming soundtrack.
I was asked to interview Ray about the new film and whatever else I wanted to ask him. I called him at his new home outside Little Rock, Ark. to discuss movies, life and the importance of tax credits for luring filmmakers to the South. Oh yeah, Ray is funny as hell, so transcribing the interview was a lesson in weeding through the laughter. Enjoy.
Patterson Hood: Growing up in Adel, were you involved in local theatre or high school drama?
Ray McKinnon: I was certainly involved in drama, but not the kind you put on stage [laughter]. It was what they call an outdoor drama. My mother actually did theatre in college and summer stock and directed school plays, My grandmother directed school plays and both of my sisters acted in high school and one was an actress in college and my Dad was a Ford dealer, so there was acting all around—[laughter]—my dad being the best of the lot. My sister did a thesis film and needed someone my age to be a guy with a speech problem, as she was majoring in speech therapy, so she brought me to The University of Georgia to play this kid.
I wanted to do theatre in high school, but I was too scared to do theatre at a small town high school in Adel, Georgia [laughter]. So I stuck to sports. I was writing a lot so that eventually all came together.
PH: Did you act in any plays in college?
RM: I took this introduction to theatre class. I had always wanted to do that, but had been too self-conscious. It wasn’t easy for me to do.
This theatre teacher encouraged me to come try out for a play and he told me later it was because I looked like I could build sets [laughter], not because he thought I had any talent.
PH: How did that lead you to California?
RM: After college, which was close to home, I didn’t have my stuff together to make it to California but I thought I could manage Atlanta. So I moved there and started, between bouts of self-destruction, to do plays. I got an internship at The Alliance Theatre. Started studying the craft and eventually I started doing movies and TV shows. Back in those days it was the joke that if you couldn’t get a job on In The Heat of the Night then you really should start to question whether you can do this or not. I played a crack dealer, who died, and later came back on the show as the town editor [laughter]. I did a movie called Paris Trout. They were going to cast this role out of L.A. and they cast me instead and I thought that meant it was time for me to move out to Los Angeles.
The first thing I auditioned for out there was a role in Bugsy and I was so clueless I didn’t know how fortunate I was to even get the audition, much less get the part, so I thought, “this was easy,” which of course it’s not.
Even back then I was already writing screenplays and some plays—always wanting to tell my own stories.
PH: Let’s talk a bit about The Accountant, which was the film that you won the Oscar for. Was it written early on or shortly before you made it?
RM: Not long before I made it. After the first script, someone in Hollywood suggested I change the Southern family into Vietnamese boat people [laughter]. …I just kept on writing some other scripts, including Chrystal. I was trying to get financing to make it, but a script with no dialogue in the first 10 pages, set in the Ozark Mountains, is really not your sexiest sell. Eventually I just said, “I need to make a film.” The Accountant just kind of formed in a two-week period. I would read each day’s writing to Lisa and she said, “This is the one.” We decided that we were going to finance it and learned how to make a movie step by step.
PH: One of the things that always really set you apart to me as a writer is your use of humor, even when tellinga really sad story like The Accountant or Chrystal. Chrystal is about as dark as it gets; yet there are some truly hilarious moments. Of course your new film really flips the equation, because it’s a comedy but it still has some dark undercurrents.
RM: In Chrystal, I never set out to make it funny—I just created these characters and wanted to have them speak in an authentic way. When you have a clueless 19-year-old kid there’s going to be some humor there. Most human beings have a sense of humor and a sense of the humor around them and I try to imbue the characters with that. In life a lot of things are just funny.
PH: And a lot of things are dark too.
RM: Yes. Yes Yes. Or to me, I guess, real. Some of the funniest things I’ve seen have been on “Cops” and that is also very sad, tragic and very dark. I guess that’s part of the way I view the world. My mom and dad could both be darkly funny at times. A sense of humor is a great release valve. A way to let off some steam from the sadness and the inconceivability of the cruelty of life. We don’t want to be in therapy all the time.
PH: Randy and the Mob premiered in Atlanta in September and Capricorn and Phil Walden financed it. How did that all come about?
RM: For any movie to get made is a minor miracle. We had finished Chrystal and it was screening around the south and unbeknownst to us, Capricorn Pictures and Phil Walden were developing a dark southern story, a realistic blue-collar southern story and someone told Phil to go see Chrystal. And he saw it and said that was what he wanted to do, so I pitched him Randy and the Mob and we struck a deal. Dave Copland (our producer) got him involved. They asked if we wanted to do another dark southern story and I couldn’t do it, as I had just done Chrystal and wanted to do something lighter.
I showed him the script and he and his partner read it and watched The Accountant and we went to meet them at The H&H [the infamous soul food landmark restaurant in Macon]. We had a proper Southern dinner and went back to the office and made a deal with a handshake…
PH: Did Georgia’s tax incentives for filmmakers play a part in you being able to make the film in Villa Rica, Ga.?
RM: Yes. We always wanted to film in Georgia and that enabled us. It definitely helped.
PH: Future plans as writer, actor or director?
RM: It’s a little early for pension. I’m trying to produce a movie starring Andy Griffith based upon a William Gay story called When That Evening Sun Goes Down, which comes from the title of a Jimmy Rodgers song. It’s a beautiful story about an 80-year-old man who one day leaves his nursing home, hails a cab and goes back to his family home only to find that someone has moved into his house. His son has rented it to a ne’er-do-well family, or the patriarch is a ne’er do well, and I would play him. Andy’s character moves into the sharecropper’s house next door. It will be directed by Scott Teems, who did the adaptation of the story. I started reading it and after 10 pages I just said, “What a great story. There’s going to be no money. Oh, heck.” But it’s a beautiful story, and Andy Griffith is one of our great American treasures and great actors and I just hope that this can happen. I’m really passionate about that and Andy really wants to do it and I think this could be a role of a lifetime for him. We’re seeking financing for that now.
Otherwise we’re just doing everything possible to get the word out about Randy and the Mob. It won the audience award at The Nashville Film Festival, which told us that there are people out there that this film resonates with, but it’s just so hard to get the attention of our target audience with so many people vying for their attention with much more resources. We’re trying to do everything we can. We’re talking about putting Walton [Goggins] in the dunking machine at the local theater. “$3 to dunk the guy from The Shield.” [laughter].
PH: You’ve always really made great use of music in your films. Randy and the Mob has a very eclectic soundtrack. Care to discuss?
RM: We have Béla Fleck and a band from Montreal called Bent Fabric as well as Squirrel Nut Zippers and Andrew Bird. We have an Italian folk song and My Morning Jacket and Patterson Hood. The song you created for the film kind of becomes like a small movie unto itself. I think when people hear the soundtrack and pay attention to the story it tells it will become its own thing. My question to you is how did that come about?
PH: I read the screenplay and the whole play on the name Randy and the other use of the word Randy and it just struck a nerve. Charlotte (Randy’s wife) didn’t seem like the most fulfilled woman in the world and even though the movie doesn’t really delve into that aspect, I always felt like it had to be there and I guess my song kind of explored that. Maybe she was looking for something else. The movie never really says she’s unsatisfied sexually, but how could she not be?
RM: The thing about movies, there’s a movie in every character. This movie we wanted to be like an old Doris Day movie set in the Deep South. Hotter and in drag. [laughter]. When you watch the movie, even from the beginning, you somehow know it’s going to turn out OK.