Timed for a Blu-ray re-release, this interview with John C. McGinley focuses specifically on one of his earliest roles, in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It was originally published on the Empire website, and later formed part of a feature on Oliver Stone.
Now perhaps best known as the ferocious Dr Percival Ulysses Cox on Scrubs, John C. McGinley’s career has been a long and varied one, often involving the ferocious Dr William Oliver Stone. The start of that particular relationship was Stone’s 1986 autobiographical Vietnam tragedy Platoon, which, if it wasn’t quite the high-profile inmate-run asylum that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now had been, nevertheless shot in the shadow of some serious political ructions in the Philippines. The gruelling four-month shoot took its Kurtz-like psychological toll on the small battalion of actors that signed up for Stone’s jungly action, and if McGinley has since emerged to fame and fortune in a comedic role, his tour as Sgt. O’Neill was no joke at all. “I’m very proud of Platoon,” he tells Empire, “but at the end of it I was done. I was DONE.”
OW: You’ve worked with Oliver Stone possibly more times than any other actor, but Platoon was the first time…
JCM: Yes. I didn’t make it to Salvador, but I auditioned for Platoon and initially got a relatively minor part. Two years before we shot, I was going to be playing Tom Berenger’s radio man. I don’t know what the character’s name was, but he ended up being played by Ivan Kane. Then the film was cancelled, I don’t know why, but presumably because of money. And then two years later Oliver called up, and the actor who’d been going to play Sgt. O’Neill, John Spencer, had taken a Broadway play. He went to do Execution of Justice, about Dan White and Harvey Milk. Anybody would have taken that job: it was a huge play in New York at the time, and Oliver’s was a low-budget independent film in the Philippines, which at any point may or may not have been happening.
So Oliver called and asked if I wanted to play Sgt. O’Neill. I was playing Third Guy on the Right in Hamlet, with Kevin Kline, in New York at the time, and I was understudying Laertes, which was quite a coup. We were two weeks into rehearsals, so I told Oliver I’d love to, but that I had to go and ask [the director] Joe Papp. I knew O’Neill was the third or fourth lead in the film, but nobody in their right mind who happened to be lucky enough to be in Joe Papp’s circle would have burned that bridge. But Mr Papp told me to go and gave me his blessings… and the minute I left the play there was a revolution in the Philippines and we were delayed six or seven months! The play opened and closed to great reviews and it was “the most important Hamlet on these shores” and blah blah blah, and I’m sitting in New York, not doing it, and not going to the Philippines either!
Did it have to be the Philippines? Was there ever any thought to shoot Platoon somewhere else?
I don’t know. That’s an Oliver question. I think two years earlier it had been scheduled in Mexico.
Stone has said that you’re a good guy and a tough guy, but he cast you in Platoon as a bully and a coward. Do you know what his thinking was behind that decision?
Well, I guess all actors at some level understand a sense of desperation and hopelessness! At O’Neill’s core, he’s desperate and hopeless, and that compels men to do things that are, for them, extraordinary. I thought of him as like those pilot fish that suck off the kills of the sharks. He’s like a parasite, in other words, feeding off Tom’s character, or any character that can further him. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. I kind of created a back story for him that he probably sound up in South-East Asia because he was a REMF – Rear Echelon Mother Fucker – that probably was playing cards somewhere in Germany and cheated or something, and the colonel or major he cheated transferred him to South-East Asia, and all of a sudden this guy who’s an absolute fish out of water in a combat area, finds himself in the middle of a war. He happens to be a sergeant so he runs one of the three squads, and this is absolutely what he’s not equipped to do.
Did you discuss those thoughts with Oliver? How available was he for those sorts of conversations?
Well he loved all that stuff. For the two weeks before the shoot, when he put us through the boot camp, this stuff was all we talked about. You weren’t allowed to call other people by their real names: you had to call them their names from the script. It all got to be almost Stanislavsky-type saturation. It was genius, in retrospect, and at the time we all bought into it, so it wasn’t any sort of burden. We were three squads of eight, so that’s 24 guys buying into a fictitious initiative, and when that happens, maybe you have a chance.
Were you aware of O’Neill being based on someone Stone might have actually known in Vietnam?
I became aware of it. I think he was an amalgamation of one or two people.
Did you all keep to your factions from the script, even when you weren’t shooting?
It was kind of like in high-school or middle-school: different cliques and groups of guys definitely hung together, and did throughout the whole film. But I don’t think it was necessarily in concert with what Oliver put on the page.
You all went through intense training – was the shoot itself equally regimented?
A funny thing happened when we started shooting… Everybody was called to set every day, because with the circumstances and the events that were transpiring every day on the set, Oliver had to be pretty agile and light on his feet in terms of scheduling actors in and out of scenes that may have had to be shot that day that weren’t on the call sheet. He’d just bring the whole ensemble up, which meant that, especially with the night shoots, you might be up there sitting on your tail for fourteen hours, not getting used. After a couple of weeks of that, Johnny Depp and Forrest Whittaker and I went to Oliver and asked if we could possibly have a call sheet that reflected what we’d be doing, so we didn’t have to be out there for eighteen hours, just sitting with the poisonous centipedes and the ticks. So Oliver relented and honoured our request, but what happened was, we were at this hotel called the Puerto Azul, which was a hotel that Marcos built for dignitaries, so it was this beautiful gem in the middle of this abject squalor. So we found ourselves back there when we were not called, sitting around the pool, and about a week into this, Forrest and I looked at each other and had this realisation that hit us at almost the exact same time: if we were there at the pool, we weren’t in the film! When you were on the set sitting around, there was a chance you might just get thrown into a scene. Oliver would just throw spare parts into a scene, and all of a sudden you were back in the movie. So we all started to migrate back to the set on days when we weren’t on the call sheet. I mean, you’re x-thousand miles away from home: what else were we there to do? Sitting by the pool was okay, but at the end of the day it was just a bunch of guys sitting around not getting anything done. Before you knew it, whether you were on the call sheet or not, you got on that crazy bus in the morning at 5, for the two-hour ride to the set. You might just sit around all day, or Oliver or Dale [Dye, military advisor and actor] might just throw you in something.
Charlie Sheen in the film describes Barnes (Tom Berenger) as Captain Ahab. Was/is there an element of Ahab in Stone?
I don’t know about that so much as… It was Oliver’s vision. He’d served a couple of tours in Vietnam, he knew the story he wanted to tell and he’d bent over backwards over a number of years to try to get the film made. It’s almost impossible to get films made anyway, so for him to have gotten a Vietnam war movie made when he did, when all of them were duds and you couldn’t get anyone to go to them… I think he was just tearing his tail out of his sternum, so for him not to have ridden it pretty rough would have been tantamount to insanity. He had to get this thing done, and he had to marshal all these men in a single direction and still realise his vision, which he did. So no, I didn’t see him as an Ahab, so much as just a really driven storyteller and a visualist par-excellence.
The really brutal cocktail was Oliver and Dale served in the same drink! That’s really volatile stuff! But it was really something where everything that could have gone right went right. Oliver would never say that, because he knows what went wrong, but as actors, all of us were afforded the opportunity to flourish, and that’s rarely the case.
You go through a huge range of emotions in the film.
Yeah, and it was all informed by real events. The scene where I was asking Tom to leave, where my voice is really breaking… for the last four weeks before that, Cory Aquino, the president of the Philippines, had lost the army. And because we shot the film as close to sequentially as we could, as your character died in the script, you left, which is unheard of. So there was only a few of us left by the time that scene came around, and for the four weeks prior to that scene, every single night the rumour was that there was going to be a coup, and there was just going to be anarchy. All these things settle on you! We were making a film about a war that all these noble men fought in, but we were really just a bunch of New York sissies, and it really felt like it was time to get out of there! I wanted to get out. My mother had just had brain surgery in New York… It was time to go! And then Oliver calls action for that scene, and I wasn’t acting, I was channelling my life. I don’t feel like I’m lying in front of a lens in that scene. I’m telling my truth, which coincided with what Sgt. O’Neill was going through at that time, and that stuff just never happens. You can’t force that stuff, or will it.
I think the next day, we shot the scene where I hide under the body, and I was just done by that point. I kept slipping and falling coming out of that foxhole. I started to have a series of breakdowns, and Oliver didn’t want me crying. I don’t know why: it was just sensory overload, I think. I was done. I was done. He managed to get a take where I kept it together a little bit, but I’m barely hanging on in that scene. It was a four-month shoot, plus the two weeks of boot camp. It was pretty overwhelming for a bunch of us. It got pretty trippy, to tell you the truth. It was a truly profound experience for everyone that was there, I can tell you that.
Did you notice a different Oliver on subsequent films? [McGinley worked with Stone again in Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, Nixon, Any Given Sunday and an uncredited role in World Trade Centre.]
Sure, different locations and circumstances bring out different aspects of people. He was a little different down in Miami when we were doing Any Given Sunday, and when we were doing Talk Radio in Dallas we were working six day weeks, so you never stopped doing the film, which was brutal. In New York, in the high ‘80s doing Wall Street, Charlie [Sheen] and I were a little out of control and Oliver had to act differently there too… I’ve lost touch with Charlie in recent years, but he’s the best guy on the planet.
Do you know Stone well, outside of work?
I know him well enough to call him. I was just in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway with Al Pacino, and I called Oliver and told him it was really important to me that he come to the play, and he did, which meant the world to me. I think he liked it! I think he was really blown away.