A conversation with the Yellowstone actor about his current project and his history of portraying characters with unfortunate endings.
Cowboys & Indians: We enjoyed your lead performance as straight-shooting lawman John Breaker in The Warrant, the new western set to air on INSP. We were especially happy to see you in something where you’re actually ambulatory at the end.
Neal McDonough: [Laughs.] I like that. Very nice.
C&I: [Warning, Yellowstone spoiler ahead.] Your characters weren’t quite so lucky during your runs on Justified and Yellowstone. In fact, you have quite a few death scenes to your credit.
Neal: That’s true. I’m doing this other show now, called The 100, and I die in that one also, as I often do. And I’m sitting in the makeup chair one morning, and the makeup artist goes, “Man, you’ve been in a lot of death scenes. How many do you think?” And I said, “I don’t know. Maybe 20? 25?” And they’re like, “No, I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more than that.” So we did all the numbers. And it turned out this was my 49th death scene in a TV show or movie. That’s got to be something close to a record somewhere.
C&I: You had a supporting role in the horror western Ravenous back in 1999. Is this your first time back in the saddle since then?
Neal: Well, I did a miniseries on SyFy about 12 years ago called Tin Man. It was kind of like The Wizard of Oz with a sci-fi side to it. And my Tin Man appeared in a Western duster and cowboy hat, and he was kind of a sheriff of that time. So that’s the closest I got to ride horses and such. But to play an actual cowboy — The Warrant was the first time I got to do it since then. And I’ve got to tell you: It was one of the highlights of my life.
C&I: How so?
Neal: When I was growing up, all the films that I loved were always John Wayne westerns. And The Rifleman was always my favorite show on television. And to play a variation of The Rifleman — that was kind of what we’re going for in The Warrant, with the father-son relationship, and I thought that was really great. And I was so blessed to be part of a show where I got to talk about family values and belief in God. It was fantastic.
C&I: And better still, you get to play the good guy for a change.
Neal: Yep, that’s true. But we all know why I play the villains, right? Because if I play the good guy, I’d almost always be doing some kissing scenes or sex scenes or all that kind of stuff, which I won’t do. So I had to play villains, right? That’s been my career for 15, 20 years, or least since I met my wife. It’s like, these lips are meant for one lady, and that’s [Ruvé Robertson]. So I have to be really creative in my death scenes and the characters that I take, to make sure that they’re always kind of different. Because if I just play the same villain every time, well, my career is not going to have much longevity.
C&I: In The Warrant, you play a character who fights alongside his friend Virgil in the Union Army during the Civil War. Years later, however, you’re a sheriff, your son [played by Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the legendary Steve McQueen] is a marshal — and Virgil has become a murderous outlaw gang leader known as The Saint. Casper Van Dien plays The Saint. Did you have much prep time before filming to hammer out how you’d portray your relationship?
Neal: Well, I’ll tell you this about Casper Van Dien: I really wanted him to play Saint. That was a great part about being an executive producer on this — I could put in my two cents when it came to casting. And when we started talking about Casper, right out of the gates I saw a picture in my head, and I thought, My gosh, he’s perfect for this. To go from that really clean-cut, really handsome guy that he’s always played to play a grizzled, bearded-up, dirty guy — and yeah, he killed it. I think literally the second that Casper and I saw each other on set and we locked eyes, we were like, All right, we’re heavyweights going at it. And it’s going to be a lot of fun. And here’s the thing: It looks like Casper and I have known each other for 20 years when we’re doing our scenes. But before we started filming, we didn’t know each other at all.
WHERE TO VIEW: The Warrant is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming services and will premiere June 20 on INSP.
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr
From our May/June 2020 issue.