While many actors seek fame and recognition,
Neal Jones would be pleased if you never realized he was on your TV screen. The journeyman character actor enjoys creating unique characters and blending seamlessly into films and TV shows without having the audience realize that it’s him playing the role. Luckily, he was still willing to step out and talk with us about his work on Rescue Me, Generation Kill and Dirty Dancing.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I was born in Kansas and when I was about three-years-old, we moved to St. Louis. And then when I was about 11-years-old, we moved to Athens, Georgia. And then when I was about 16-years-old, we moved to Jefferson City, Missouri. When I was about 18, I went to New York. And a couple of years ago, I moved to Los Angeles.
Why did you move around so much as a kid?
My father worked for Westinghouse and he kept getting promoted within the company. What they do in Westinghouse, his bit of it, is transformers. He’s an electrical engineer and they built and sold transformers. The particular plants where they manufacture said transformers were scattered throughout the country and those were the particular places that he went to assist with duties of manufacturing.
Did you enjoy all of the moving around as a kid or did it frustrate you?
It’s, like many things, a blessing and a curse. One on hand, there’s the excitement of new situations. And, on the other hand, having achieved a new situation, it’s the trepidation of having to restart over again. I hadn’t thought about this, but it’s possible that that has something to do with my habits. I tend to be restless and tend to have to keep moving, things of this kind, and it may be partially responsible.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
Well, you know, I’m not sure decision was the most powerful element. Actors tend to be actors, no matter what line of work they’re in. It makes a good deal of sense, if that’s your prerogative, to attempt to get paid for it. And if that works out, then all is well and everybody’s happy.
I was meant to be a trumpet player. I was on the verge of attending music school. But I had been playing the trumpet from such an early age and I, once again being restless in nature, thought, “You know, I don’t know if I can practice anymore than I’m already practicing.” And I knew I would have to practice even more than I was practicing.
And so, my recollection is that when I was in high school, I had been reprimanded for cutting some class or another, and was commandeered into performing in one of these high school productions. And it seemed to go very well for me. It was an odd production I think probably for a high school, it was a production of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark. I just enjoyed it so much. The attendees seemed to enjoy themselves as well and at the insistence of the people who were running the drama department, I went to audition for a place at an acting conservatory in St. Louis. I was awarded the place and a scholarship and I thought, “Screw it, I’ll try this.” And that was that.
Once you made the decision, how tough was it to break into the business?
Well, it’s been in fits and starts. That’s the nature of the business, I’m afraid. But it wasn’t as difficult as it could’ve been. I received an offer for a job in New York while I was performing at a regional theatre in St. Louis and decided to elect that opportunity and ended up in New York and began working off-off-Broadway quite a lot. Of course, that doesn’t pay very much, so I was doing other things in the meantime – washing dishes, busing tables, things like that.
And then I managed to secure an agent who sent me on an audition for a production of Macbeth, which was being staged at Circle in the Square and it was a production contract, which means a Broadway contract because the lead player was from the United Kingdom. And, lo and behold, they offered me a job. I guess I was 20 or 21, and that essentially was my first paid gig.
Was there ever a point where you thought about giving it up and doing something else for a living or were you committed to it once you made the decision to be an actor?
I don’t know how to put this, but it’s not really a decision. I know that sounds terribly mystical, but I don’t mean it to.
So you saw it as a calling?
When you talk about show business, acting, things of this kind, vernacular, semantics often get in the way. It’s difficult to speak of in a really cohesive fashion and everyone has his opinion and will state it and sometimes those things conflict. So let me put it another way – if you’re in it for the money, you’ve got to be nuts because there are so many more ways to make more money more easily that if one had any sense, he’d probably choose an alternate route.
Your first film role was in Dirty Dancing, which is really interesting.
Well, at the time I was in a musical on Broadway which was a big hit called Big River. And some of my actor friends were insistent, because I was in that thing for about a year, they said, “You know what? You’ve got to do movies or television or something. You’ve got to get another job.” And I hadn’t really been interested all that much in the cinema or in television. I was kind of a theatre geek. But I began to go audition for various things that were TV and film and lo and behold, one of the first ones I went on was the audition for Dirty Dancing. And I managed to get an offer.
And I went down there. I think it was an eight-week shoot. Fascinating experience and a very memorable one. But I came back to New York when it was finished and went straight back into the same show in a different part because it was still running. And it ran another year – it was an awful long time. I don’t mean to criticize the length of time that shows run because it’s a blessing for actors and audiences alike, but at a certain stage you think, “You know, it’s good to change it up from time to time.” So I began to pursue television and film much more and things have worked out kind of.
When you were doing Dirty Dancing, did you have any idea it would be such a big hit? Could you tell, it being your first film?
You said the key words right there, my “first film.” I’d never been on a film set, so it was all really bright lights to me. I was just trying to stay afloat because, as you know, the difference between theatre and film and television is a wide gorge. I was just trying to acclimate myself to the difference between performing effectively in front of a camera as opposed to performing effectively in front of an audience. I was far too busy trying to negotiate that particular change up to frankly worry about whether or not the thing was a success. And I wouldn’t have been able to predict anyway. In fact, to this day, I wonder how many people can accurately predict what’s going to be really successful and what’s going to be really unsuccessful.
As an actor, it has to be tough then when trying to pick roles.
Yeah. Once again, I think, everybody has their opinion and everybody picks roles for different reasons. But, since it’s very difficult, as we’ve seen, to predict the success or failure of a project no matter how lavishly produced it is or is marketed, it’s as well for actors to choose jobs based upon your response to the part you’re going to be asked to play. If you have a feeling for the part and it’s even better if you have a feeling for the story, then you’re going to be a lot less miserable while executing it and everybody’s in a better position to win.
So what is it that you look for when choosing roles? What is it that generally appeals to you about the roles that you go after?
It depends upon the story. If the story is one that I have a feeling for, and much of it is based upon instinct, it’s worth trying to close down the left side of the brain — in my case, that’s not particularly difficult, I’m sad to say — and trust those instincts. Part of the reward of acting is that it gives you an opportunity to share enthusiasm for a story: “Hey listen … wait until you hear this.” It’s that kind of mechanism that actors – how do you put it? See, words are just awful. Anyway, enthusiasm helps tell the story, and it’s hard to help when you don’t understand the part you are being asked to play or you don’t feel comfortable with the story you are helping to tell. It makes it all much more difficult.
You’ve had supporting roles in a lot of big TV shows, including The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Law and Order. What is it like to be a journeyman actor stepping on the set of these popular shows? Is the cast usually accommodating to actors doing guest spots or do they tend to keep to themselves?
Well that to me depends upon the project, but my particular preference is to stick to myself anyway. The job of an actor is to make it look easy and that’s easy to say, but more difficult to do. Someone once said that the job is to make the difficult habit and what’s habit is easy and what’s easy is beautiful. And the audience is meant to watch whatever they’re viewing in the best of circumstances without questioning the motives of the performers. And I talk of the performers now, not of the characters. If they’re forced to comment on the way a performance is being conducted, then it takes them out of the story. In the best cases, the audience simply watches whatever it is they’re watching without questioning its execution. They become involved; they become collaborators, if you will. And after all, it’s for them that all of this effort is being expended. If you don’t get that, then it’s hardly worth the candle.
That is an interesting aspect of your career. In some ways, you are so good at escaping into roles that people don’t even realize that it’s you playing the character.
Well, that was always my dream and my avowed intention, to be able to act a variety of roles without the audience having to be taken out of the project by thinking, “Oh, that’s that guy from whatever …” I always was very anxious to try to do things that were, in my opinion, interesting and varied. It’s not always possible, but it’s certainly something to shoot for.
You played Jerry’s son Peter on Rescue Me. How did you land that role and what’s it like working on such a great show like that?
It was marvelous working on the show, first of all. I didn’t know much about it because it was brand new. I just got a call one day to an appointment for this new show called Rescue Me that was going to be on FX. And they had given me a different part to read for; I can’t remember what part it was. I read for that part and got a call a few days later asking if I would accept another part as the son of the chief of the fire station, Jack McGee in this case. And I said, “Yeah, sure.” That’s essentially how it came about. Once again, a matter of luck, because I happen to look like Jack McGee probably.
There is an uncanny resemblance between you and Jack McGee. And, you two have very good father/son chemistry.
He’s a terrific guy and a marvelous actor. That always helps. But Julie Tucker, who cast that particular project, is one of the more perspicacious casting persons working today. And anyway she knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep in my soup.
You played a gay firefighter, which has the potential to upset people, particularly firefighters. What type of reactions did you get when your episodes first began to air?
Well the reaction was positive because the storyline was a good one, an interesting one. And, as you say, full of potential conflict, which is always fun to watch. And so the responses I got were unanimously positive. And I think the public at large, I hope, is over the anti-gay thing.
The show did a good job of getting to the point where Jerry was holding onto the problems with your character’s sexuality for so long that it was clear everyone else in the firehouse was fine with Peter being gay, which made you wonder why Jerry couldn’t just get past it and accept Peter for who he was.
That’s the best possible response anybody could get. If it sets you to reflecting in that particular way, then that is worth the candle.
The storyline was so well done. We were just curious if there was any negative response, since there are always people out there who will get upset over things like that.
Well thankfully, they never contacted me.
Now that Jerry is dead, is there any chance we will see Peter again? What, if anything, have you been told about your future on the show?
They haven’t mentioned anything yet. I would be glad to do it. You know, you never know.
We hope they find a way to bring you back. You were so good on that show and it’s a great role. They should find a way to use you again.
Well, thank you. Why don’t you start a blogging campaign. “Bring back Peter! Bring back Peter!”
Peter could always transfer to New York from Boston.
There was some talk of that at one time, from what I hear.
You played Sgt. Maj. John Sixta on the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. How did that role come about and how did you develop your character’s distinct accent?
Well, it was an invention of mine, to be honest. The actual Sixta isn’t near as loud and probably not nearly as savage. But he does exist, without question.
And your pronunciation of the word mustache, which sounded like “moo-stache,” where did that come from?
From my mother wit, to borrow from Willy Shakespeare.
So you just completely came up with the accent just playing around with it?
Yes. There’s consistently a theoretical argument that’s been going on forever, since there’s been actors, I suppose, about whether or not the audience pays to watch an actor do one thing at a time or whether an audience pays to watch an actor juggle several things at a time. And there’s, as usual, a middle ground there. It has to be said, from the start, that that text was so strong, the lope of the text to my ear was so infectious that it was very easy to invent as you went along.
I do recall one afternoon, during a sandstorm early on in shooting, I was addressing the assembled company and the lines were something like, “Your president is watching, America is watching and, most importantly, Godfather is watching.” And, I said, “Your president’s watchin’, Ameri-key is watchin’,” and when we completed the take, Ed Burns, one of the writers and producers, came up to me and said, “How the hell did you think of that – the Ameri-key?” And, of course, the cast immediately christened Captain America, Eric Nenninger, they would call him colloquially “Hey, Ameri-key.” But I frankly can’t answer it. It was just one of those things that came out because I was having so much fun. Talk about a situation in which character and script really, really do fire the imagination and engage the passions. That was one of them. I just couldn’t get enough of that.
We are big fans of David Simon and Ed Burns’ work.
And apart from everything else, they are great guys. It makes everything a pleasure. It’s just a pure pleasure.
It’s also great that they allowed you to play around with Sixta and try out different pronunciations of words in order to find the character’s voice.
They’re interested in helping. There’s a perfect example for you. They’re not interested in exercising their egos. They’re not interested in any of the things that diminish anybody’s ability to tell the story. They’re interested in helping.
The last episode gives some interesting insight into your character and with one line of dialogue, we see that he is more than just a one-dimensional taskmaster and that ultimately his obsession with the “grooming standard” was really a way to unite the troops. Do you think sergeant major might have known what he was doing all along – even if it didn’t always appear to be the case?
Sixta’s raison d’être is the health and well-being, maintenance and survival of his troops. I suppose its tough love on steroids. When the grunt loses his Kevlar, his helmet, it’s essentially Sixta throwing a fit because they don’t have surplus materials and this young man is now unprotected. And the one thing that keeps Sixta alive, it seems to me – I’ll say it again – is concern for the health, well-being and finally survival of this group of young men who are in the most impossible of circumstances.
And he knows that he will be hated for it.
Sergeants major aren’t out to win any popularity contests. It’s, for that reason, a lonely position I suppose. There’s also the man behind the curtain aspect of it. Sixta has got to enforce, promote and defend the decisions of his superiors, to be the middle-man, no matter how silly or inappropriate or dangerous or boneheaded the decisions of his superiors may be. If you don’t uphold the chain of command, the thing comes unraveled, the wheels come off and everybody dies. So Sixta’s function is to insist, again no matter how preposterous, that the mandate of their commanding officer is executed without question and without comment by those who have received the order.
That was certainly a theme of the show – not questioning orders and simply doing whatever is asked of you.
I think in different circumstances – there was much made, I don’t know how much of it ended up in the broadcast version, there was much made of the cowboy nature of First Recon. They have a little bit more leeway individualistically than do other kinds of battalions. And it’s that kind of thing that can get you killed. A good part of training is to execute an order without thought. Don’t think about it, do it. And, of course, because most of these guys are uber-warriors, it’s a little less structured than other branches of the military.
Your character is based on a real person. Did you make any effort to seek out the real Sixta before doing the role or did you want to do your own performance separate from him?
I didn’t seek him out for a simple reason – I didn’t want to be influenced by what I’m sure would have been a fondness for the guy. I just wanted to put my head down and fashion the character as if he were completely fictive.
Did you get any response from the actual Sixta after the fact?
I haven’t yet. I hope he’s not angry with me. I hope that he’s pleased, as opposed to disappointed.
Pausing for just a minute – we just talked about you playing a gay firefighter and then switched gears to you playing a Marine sergeant major in a combat zone. Although physically you look the same in both roles, those two roles are probably about as far away from each other as you can get.
That’s true. Some of the cast commented upon that after we began shooting and they saw where it was actually at, they did comment. We were in the lobby of one of the hotels and an American tourist came by and said, “What are you guys doing?” They were asking me.
I said, “Well, we’re doing this picture for HBO, it’s about First Recon’s advance into Iraq during the invasion of 2003.”
Some of the other boys were standing around and this tourist said, “What do you play?”
And one of them piped up, “The exact opposite of what he played in Rescue Me.”
That’s fun. It makes it so much fun.
What projects are you working on now?
Well, I just finished shooting a picture in New York called Heterosexuals, which was written by and I might add marvelously directed by a guy called Robert McCaskill. It was a lot of fun. It’s a romantic comedy.
Can you talk a little bit about what the film is about?
I just think it’s about, the sometimes difficulty of relationships between men and women.
And what’s your role in it?
Once again, it’s a supporting role. Natasha Lyonne is the lead actress and I play her thesis advisor, she’s going to college at the time. They decide to go out on a date, so right off the bat, it’s pretty hilarious. She’s a marvelous actress and we had a lot of fun.
What goals have you set for your career? What would you like to see yourself accomplish in the future?
I’d like to direct more. I’ve directed quite a bit in theatre, but not in television or film. I’d really be interested in doing that. But, I’m afraid I do take it one day at a time and try to feel as well as I can and act as well as I can and hope to get as lucky as I can.
Do you ever go back and watch the old films that you are in?
I can’t bear to do that. Some actors find it enormously helpful, and there are exceptions, of course. In unusual circumstances it can be helpful to see how you’re appearing or how things are being shot, stuff like that. But, by and large, I find it unhelpful, and anyway there’s nothing you can do about it after it’s already shot.
I have to sit around when they cut these reels that people often ask for — it’s like a small compilation of previous work — and I find it agonizing because it’s like watching a ghost. I was there. I’m a poor judge of the outcome, as far as my participation is concerned, and so I don’t find it particularly helpful to watch myself in anything. I find that the possibility of despairing over a missed opportunity in a performance I’ve given far outweighs my curiosity in finding out how it actually came out.
Dirty Dancing seems like it would be a tough film to avoid watching. It’s such a cult film, at some point I would imagine you would be at a party where someone wanted to watch it.
It’s funny you mention that. One of the weekends we had off in Africa while shooting Generation Kill, a lot of the young guys in the cast decided to take a weekend trip to Cape Town, which I’m told is a marvelous and pleasant and entertaining city. So the cast went down, spent the weekend, came back up to the location, situated themselves and I was walking through the lobby, where several of the actors were on their computers on the Internet. I passed one and said, “How did it go this weekend?”
He said, “Oh my god, it was terrific. We went out Friday night and just went and had excellent food, went to a couple of clubs and danced, had a few cocktails and weaved our way back to our hotel, in the lobby of which was a large television which remained on 24 hours. And as we made our way through the lobby, the television was blaring and we said, ‘Holy shit, look at that!'” And, of course, Dirty Dancing was playing and the younger, handsomer Neal was in mid flight in one of those scenes and the actor I was talking to in the lobby back at the location said, “Look at this.” He had taken a photograph of the screen and there was me looking very youthful. He said, “We couldn’t believe it.”
So they didn’t even have a clue that you were in Dirty Dancing?
They had no clue. I remarked, “Just when you thought you got rid of me.” Good fun. But I haven’t seen it since the premiere.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got in to acting – would you have pursued the trumpet?
Probably, I probably would have been a musician. Now, I’d also be very interested in teaching, acting that is, not music.
Is teaching something that you think you will end up doing at some point?
I do a lot of coaching, which is not class oriented, it’s one-on-one. And I do enjoy that and it seems to help.
Is that something that you find yourself doing on sets – making yourself open to younger actors if they want advice or help?
Well yes. There are so many potholes and mines in the field of a film set or a television set that it can be very confusing and very dispiriting for someone who hasn’t come through the other side of all that. So if any young actor ever has a question, it’s my pleasure and privilege to provide, I won’t say advice, but thoughts about whatever they’re confusion is because I know how difficult it can be.
What do you do when you are not working to unwind?
Well, I just try to relax as much as I can. I don’t really have any hobbies. Whether I like it or not, all of my leisure time and work time seem to revolve around acting. I hope that doesn’t make me myopic.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I guess people who don’t know me very well might be surprised to learn that I’m almost pathologically shy. I tend to get very quiet and shy around people I don’t know very well. I certainly warm up and if I trust someone, it’s more likely than not that I’ll just become a blabbermouth. But it’s not the case upon first meeting.
What does the future hold for you?
I don’t know, let me ring him, I’ll ask.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. For more information on Neal Jones, visit his official website.