If there’s anything that’s putting Mark O’Brien among the ones to watch, it’s his role as the unpredictable Jimmy Ryan on Showtime series, City on a Hill. The Canadian actor’s character—a young robber in early 1990s Boston—is erratic and violent. What’s seen on the screen only shows a portion of his work; the rest is all in his approach and mindset towards acting.
When he isn’t working on set in front of the camera, O’Brien still spends his time consuming the industry. Whether it’s in the form of a watching a movie or listening to a new interview about films, the actor is constantly studying up on the inner workings of film.
Below, O’Brien shares what it’s like to play such an extroverted character, working with industry A-listers as well as his family, and what he’s looking forward to next.
In the crime drama City on a Hill, you star as the unpredictable Jimmy Ryan, who joins a gang of robbers—tell us about how you prepared for this role.
Honestly, I feel like I've been preparing for this role for a long time, without knowing it. The character is a mishmash of many people I know or once knew, and of course there's a large piece of me in there. My preparation always just involves reading the script as many times as possible, letting it sink in, and then being willing to throw it all away when you get to set. You can only do that once it's in your bones.
How has your time as Jimmy Ryan evolved over the course of the series?
Pretty significantly. I always thought this character’s live-wire nature would involve a ready access to all emotions, which would make him both vulnerable and yet, antagonistic at all times. He's never willing to back down from a fight, but also is capable of going to the depths of despair with a surprisingly open mind. Therefore any emotion is possible at any time, and that raises its head as the series continues. You never know what he's going to do.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of playing Jimmy on City on a Hill?
I try not to see acting as being challenging. It's a blessing. If you work with good material, you'll find the meat of a scene and a character in a way that works for you. And I have that in spades here. So much talent on this show, but I'm always going to walk away from a scene thinking I could've done better. But that's the magic of movies—it's not black and white. It's subjective. You just have to roll with it.
As an actor, what do you feel is the most important to know or understand when taking on a new character?
The character motivation. Everyone from Donald Trump, Mother Theresa, Hitler, Gandhi, you name it, they do what they do for a reason. If you can find that reason within yourself that's true to the character, no one can ever say you're being untruthful. Some people may not like it, but they can't say it isn't honest, because it is!
In City on a Hill, you work alongside Kevin Bacon—can you tell us about working with such a seasoned actor in the industry?
It's a complete privilege. He comes to work ready. But he also comes to work ready to enjoy what he gets to do for a living. Aside from his tremendous talent and professionalism and sense of humor, I've learned to be grateful to be in this business. Kevin Bacon is still just grateful to be working. That's almost hilarious for us to hear because he's so respected and has been an A-list actor for 35 years. But, he doesn't take anything for granted.
You also share the screen with your wife, Georgina Reilly. What has that experience been like?
She's my favorite actress and my best friend. Any chance to spend more time with her, I'll take it. She's incredible in this role. I really admire her and look up to her for her work ethic and positivity and talent. When people meet her, they're always confused why she's lowered herself by being with me! I'm confused too!
You also star in Ready or Not, a thriller based on the game of Hide and Seek. How does working on a thriller film like this differ something like City on a Hill or other dramas?
Every role or movie is different than the last. In City on a Hill, my character antagonizes, he's always moving, scheming, planning. He's almost manic. In Ready or Not, I'm more of the straight man. He's much more bottled up and confused. They're two completely different roles in nearly every way. Honestly, I find playing an introverted character much more difficult than an extrovert. You have such little opportunity to communicate so much. It's like doing a scene where you only have one line—always hard to pull off.
What is one thing viewers should know about your time shooting Ready or Not before they watch it?
That the game was real and the producers and directors made us hunt each other for sport. I'm joking! Just know that we had as much fun making it as you will watching it. It's a very entertaining movie with some wonderful performances from every single actor. Also it was shot in the Billy Madison house. I quoted that movie the entire shoot. That'll make you less scared.
Another project of yours, Marriage Story, is set to premiere at Venice Film Festival. Can you tell us what we can expect from the film?
Noah Baumbach is a genius. He's been one of my favorite directors since The Squid and the Whale. It's a very ambitious film about being a parent, separation, and trying to find something to connect to. Noah is one of those few filmmakers who can balance tragedy and goofiness at the same time, probably because the two are inexplicably linked. But not every filmmaker knows that.
When you aren't acting, what types of things are you typically doing?
Writing. I've written ten scripts in the past three years. All in a different stage of development. I'm about to direct my first feature in the next few months. I'm obsessed with film in every respect. I actually wanted to be a filmmaker before an actor. Acting kind of took over and I think I had a lot to learn on what it takes to make a film. Then, I just got inspired and have been creating ever since. I watch a movie a day and when I'm not doing that I'm reading two film books at all times, or listening to interviews about film. I can't really stop because it's my work and my pastime. Outside of that, I'm a homebody and a family man. I only really go out when I'm on the road.
What are you looking forward to most—whether it's involved with the entertainment industry or not—in the coming months?
My daughter's second birthday. The beginning of the NHL season. Directing my film. And just living!
If there were a film inspired by your life, what would be the song for the ending credits and why?
The Girl From The North Country by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. It has nothing to do with my life, but I think it's the most beautiful song I've ever heard.