Mark McCullough: In his own words
Ahead of his appearance in NBC's "Quantum Leap" reboot on October 17, the Savannah native opens up about his career
Since his dangerous car crash on the roads of Nicaragua, William Mark McCullough is a changed man.
When McCullough walks into a room, positive energy engulfs it, which is kind of a surprise when you think of the mostly gruff and tough villains he plays on screen. The Savannah native dropped everything early on and moved from D.C. to L.A. to start an acting career, and although he looks back on his move to L.A. as unwise, McCullough has certainly paved his way into Hollywood. As McCullough puts it, he found his niche. When he talks to you about acting, you can feel his passion for the craft like it’s running through his veins. In addition to his acting, McCullough co-founded Fort Argyle Films. Its film, “A Savannah Haunting,” is the first locally produced film in Savannah to be accepted into the Savannah Film Festival. South recently sat down with McCullough to catch up on his upcoming projects, reminisce on the past and offer advice on how to make a career out of acting.
South: When did you first know you wanted to act? When did you know there was that fire inside of you?Mark McCullough: I was not one of those people who grew up as a child wanting to be an actor. It really didn’t cross my mind. I was in college and I had to take an art elective, and my choice was art history or acting. I thought art history would suck, so I took acting. I remember I showed up for the first class, got a monologue, and did it a couple of days later. When I finished the monologue, my whole body was on fire. It was amazing. Acting literally fell into my lap because I had to take a class. It was a long road before I figured out how to turn that into a professional acting career.
SM: Where did you go from there? What was the next phase in your acting journey?
MM: I studied acting in college and learned the craft of acting on stage. But I didn’t learn anything about film and TV, and I learned nothing about how to get a job. So I graduated I was just lost. I mean, I knew nothing. I went to law school up in D.C., and I thought that perhaps standing in front of a jury would feed that desire I had to perform. It didn’t. About six months in I took a trip to Nicaragua, and I was in a bad car accident. It put me in a hospital bed for a few weeks. Lying in that bed made me reevaluate my life, and I realized I was doing something I didn’t enjoy. When I healed enough to return to D.C., I quit my job, moved to L.A., and started the long, hard process. I didn’t know anyone there.
SM: Tell us about the process of trying to start an acting career in L.A. What did you learn from it?
MM: Looking back, I learned it was really the absolute worst choice I could have made as a new actor. I coach people all over the world now, and I always tell them don’t move to L.A. or New York to pursue acting. You’re going to go in with no credits and competing against literally a million actors. It’s so hard. There are so many acting teachers in L.A. who have never worked on a professional film set in their life. I spent years studying with people who had good intentions but gave me a lot of information that was not useful. I eventually found a working actor who taught classes, and he was able to tell me things that really matter. I learned how to market and brand myself to casting directors and agents and how to work on camera. I learned acting is about being honest and truthful in the moment. If someone sees me rehearsing a scene somewhere, they should think it is absolutely real.
SM: What is your brand? What makes you unique as an actor?
MM: I learned that my presence on camera gives off a dark, edgy and unsettling quality with this expectation of violence. In real life, I’m a total sweetheart. What we give off on camera is not necessarily the truth, but you have to figure out what that is. If you look at the characters I’ve played in my career, almost all of them are villains. I play very, very intense characters. If I play a hero, it will definitely be an anti-hero with a lot of rough edges.
SM: Do you have a dream role you’d want to play one day?
MM: I’m playing my dream roles now. Here’s the thing, I understand as an actor my job is to be an assistant storyteller. That’s it. I love being a part of productions with great stories, and I don’t really care what characters I play. If my branding had been different, and I was the hero or the best friend, I would have been fine with it because I just love being on set. I love bringing characters to life.
SM: Can you tell us about your role in an episode of NBC’s ‘Quantum Leap’ reboot, which premieres on October 17?
MM: The premise of ‘Quantum Leap’ is the main characters are leaping around in time, trying to right wrongs that happened in the past. My episode is set in 1879 in the Wild West. I’m playing this gunslinger who is hired to come in to make the townspeople leave or kill them all. I play this really fun character who is evil, and it’s basically a little boy’s dream of wearing the bad guy cowboy outfit on this powerful horse with the classic stand-off with the good guys. It was amazing. They were some of the nicest people I worked with. In one scene, my character is in the middle of a Western street with a circle of fire around me and I’m having a shootout with a guy on the roof. It was like a dream come true. Even though I played bad characters, I still have fun playing those characters because they’re usually part of really good stories.
SM: Can you talk to us about your production company, Fort Argyle films?
MM: My partner is Alexis Nelson and we met at UCLA and connected to make T.V. shows and movies. I named it after Fort Argyle, near my dad’s home outside Savannah. We are looking to create really cool content that we would enjoy watching, one of them is “A Savannah Haunting” which premieres at Royal Cinemas in Pooler, Ga. on October 28.
SM: Talk to us about your film ‘A Savannah Haunting.’
MM: I wanted to create a movie that captured what it’s really like to live in an actual haunted house. Savannah haunting is not like a lot of arthouse films that we see today. It is very dread-filled. It is also a beautiful, sad story about the family who live in California when their youngest daughter drowns in the pool. The family moves to Savannah, and the mother begins to believe her dead daughter is haunting her because she is just wracked with guilt. I think it is a smart, thoughtful, heartfelt movie that happens to be really, really creepy and scary.
SM: Can you tell us about the film’s reception so far?
MM: It was the first locally produced movie to ever be accepted into the Savannah Film Festival. We just were able to pull together a really amazing team. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to get amazing actors. We’ve played the movie at film festivals around the world, and we won multiple Best Film Awards, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Director. We were beating out dramas. That’s almost unheard of for a horror film to win against dramas, so we were very proud of that. In many ways, our movie is a horror film but it is also a film about family dealing with the grief of losing a child and all that goes with it. There are a lot of layers there that make it more appealing to the Savannah Film Festival than just your average movie.
SM: Do you have any advice for any native Savannahians or anyone, in general, looking to go into acting?
MM: I teach a 16-hour class on how to become a working actor. But the first thing is to study with acting teachers who are actually actors. They’re going to know what you should and shouldn’t do. They’re going to help teach whether auditions are effective or not and how you should handle yourself on set. You’ve got to figure it out as a business and treat it like a business. Get into an acting class, learn how to act, and how to do on-camera auditions because you have to do them in today’s market. Learn how to market yourself to people who can buy your products. The big thing is you have to remember it’s a hard journey. You have to be tenacious. You have to not take no for an answer and work your ass off. I work really hard every day, but I love what I do. And that just keeps you going.
To learn more about Mark McCullough’s work, visit imbd.com.