Holt McCallany On 'Lights Out,' Boxing, Playing Tough Guys
He's had supporting roles as tough guys in everything from Fight Club to Three Kings. Now, Holt McCallany is being hailed as a leading man in his own right for his role in FX's Lights Out.
McCallany was born in New York City to a cabaret actress mom and an actor and producer dad, who made most of his decisions for him in his early life. His father insisted on him and his brother receiving an Irish education so they were sent to live with another family in Dublin. After his parents divorced he moved back to the United States, to New Jersey, and then Nebraska where he was expelled from a Jesuit Prep School. Shortly after his expulsion, he ran away to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor, but his escape was not very successful due to his parents tracking him down and sending him back to boarding school in Ireland. He attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris where he studied French and later theater at two other acting schools in France.
Some of McCallany’s hyper-masculine roles include Casualties of War with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, Alien 3 with Sigourney Weaver, Fight Club with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, Alpha Dog with Emile Hirsch and Justin Timberlake, and Vantage Point with Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker.
Lights Out is not Holt’s first television series appearance, but his first leading one. Holt had a two-year role on CSI: Miami and guest appearances on Heroes and Burn Notice. “Well, I always felt like I was a leading man trapped in a bad guy's body,” he tells Uinterview. “So it felt great because, to be honest with you, you’re right, I played a lot of heavies and soldiers and a lot of cops, but it’s a lot better to get the girl.”
It was awesome. I was on the red carpet with Michael Strahan who was doing the pre-game show on Fox. He asked me for my pick, and I said Green Bay is going to win, and Aaron Rodgers is going to be the MVP. I called it! So how about that?
Well, I always felt like I was a leading man trapped in a bad guy's body. So it felt great because, to be honest with you, you’re right, I played a lot of heavies and soldiers and a lot of cops, but it’s a lot better to get the girl.
I think in Hollywood, more than anywhere else in the world, anatomy is destiny. And if you’re a big buff-looking guy you’re simply going to have to play some bad guys. Get used to it. But I always felt like I was an actor that had a lot more to offer. I feel like I have range, and I hope I have the kind of depth and sensitivity that you need to be able to play a loving father and loving husband and loving son. So now I’m getting an opportunity to show that side of myself, and I’m really happy about that.
Well, first of all, it’s unlike other shows on television. An ex-boxer with dementia is not the kind of character that you see every week. And we’re blessed with really good writers, led by our showrunner, Warren Leight, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and Tony Award-winner and a guy with a lot experience in TV drama. And we have great actors like Stacy Keach, who plays my father, who has been a consummate actor, done everything that you can do. Pablo Schreiber plays my little brother, and the adorable children that play my daughters. We have really good people, and I think we’ve made a quality product. And in these tough economic times that a lot of families are facing, it’s almost like an allegory. It’s this guy who is trying to overcome all these obstacles and provide for his family, even though he’s kind of struggling to pay the mortgage on the house and pay tuition. I think a lot of American families are going through those things, and I think it resonates with them.
I was boxing all my life. Boxing has always been my favorite sport. I was boxing since I was a kid. My little brother was a Golden Gloves champion. And I boxed recreationally all of my adult life. And then before the show I trained with some of the best guys in the business: Teddy Atlas, one of the great boxing trainers of all time, Mark Breland, who is a former welterweight champion and Olympic gold medalist. And I fought at the amateurs [level] myself, as a heavyweight.
You do worry about it. And I suppose that’s really the Achilles heel that you have, as an actor that loves boxing. There is no way to box and not get hit. It’s simply impossible. So you’re going to get hit. But you try to box smart and defensively to the greatest extent possible. And that means keeping hands up, keeping your chin tucked, moving your head and trying to avoid the big punches. But really once you get in there, you can’t really worry about, “Am I going to get hit in the nose?” But you know, I was never really a pretty boy. So I wasn’t really that worried about it.
This has been such an exciting experience for me, for all the reasons that you mentioned – getting to be the lead on a great show on a great network, FX is a great network, boxing is my favorite sport, getting to shoot in my hometown, getting to play the former heavyweight champion of the world – there are so many great moments that to pick one is really, really hard. But I would say that among the great moments would be shooting the heavyweight championship scene, when I win my belt back from "Death Row" Reynolds in the last episode of the season. That was an incredible moment to play. I love working with my friend Bas Rutten, former UFC champion. They had this awesome cage fight in episode four that I thought really came out well. Getting to play a love scene with Catherine McCormack. Getting to play emotional scenes with my children. Getting to act opposite Stacy Keach. There are so many great moments. I guess maybe if I really had to choose one – and it’s really hard – but there’s a scene at the end of episode three where my family makes this memory book for me. And I’m looking through the book, and they had included a lot of memories from my past, from when I was little boy. Photographs from shoeboxes and dusty closets. Photographs that the art department made of me and my fighting career, and I’m there with my wife and my children, going through this memory book, and that was a very emotional scene for me. It was almost like the lines between art and life began to blur for me.
You know everyone expects that if you’re playing a boxer that you’re going be playing a guy who's kind of a brute on a certain level. But I’ve known a lot of fighters that weren’t that way at all. Guys who were very dignified, elegant, articulate, decent, compassionate guys. That doesn’t mean that when they get in the ring, they aren’t capable of brutality. They’ve got a job to do. And they’re a pro. And they’re in the hurt business. And the bell rings, and you’ve got to go and take care of business. You’ve got a man coming forward, throwing punches at your head, and you know you have to impose your will and win. And the stakes are very high, and it’s a very dangerous game. So you have to be capable of all those things. That doesn’t mean that you’re not a nice guy. It’s finding that balance between being able to use those emotions that we all feel, being able to channel that veracity, and not losing yourself.
Well both of my parents were actors. My father then became a producer and won a Tony award on Broadway. My mother was a Broadway actress who was also one of New York’s best cabaret singers, and really one of New York’s real old-school divas of the cabaret world. I grew up around the business all my life. I knew when I was six years old that I wanted to be an actor. I’ve said this before, but I really believe this – there is no greater advantage that a young person can have than knowing early on what they want to do with their lives. Because a lot of young people struggle with that. “Where do I belong?” A lot of young people are lost. I knew what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. And when you know, it’s like a calling. As the great playwright Lanford Wilson once said, “When you know who you are, then the rest is just work.”
I did. And that speaks directly to what I was talking about. I was 14 years old, but I hopped a Greyhound bus to L.A. to try to become an actor. Because I knew. So it was only a question of time. Now it’s true that it took a little longer than I had hoped, and it’s true that for a long time I was stuck in supporting roles and character roles, but I don’t regret it. I learned so much. And now at this time in my life, I’m having the opportunities that I’m having. I’m so grateful for that.
Well, I just wrote a script that I’m also a producer on, that was bought by another network, Lifetime. That’s going to start shooting in the spring. It’s the true story of a woman in Brooklyn whose son was wrongfully convicted of murder, and she went undercover to prove that there was corruption on the jury. It’s a great story. It was originally a Vanity Fair article, and I co-wrote the screenplay with the journalist who wrote that article. And it’s going to be a terrific movie. And that represents another stage in my journey – writing and producing. But that really interests me. Finding stories that really interest me and putting projects together.