The Brit, The Boxer And The Lost Boy
By Bridget Brady
I met John Campbell Mac in the landmark Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. We asked for a secluded table in the back and both ordered something “Hollywood healthy.” The ever charming John offered me a bite of his Ahi tuna when our meals arrived. We talked about his successful acting career, his pet bunny, how he never felt good enough; we got the very personal U.S.-exclusive story about John’s difficult and surreal childhood.
Let’s start easy. Give me the 411 on John Campbell Mac.
I've been here [in Hollywood] now for a year, this being pretty much the movie and entertainment capital of the world. So when you come to form a new career, you have to come here, you know? I've had a blast from the minute I stepped off the plane, I truly have. I had a very nice life in London, very proud to be British and have that perspective. It’s a really big deal leaving your country, friends, family, whole way of life, and starting anew somewhere else. I've done one film here, and I've met a few flaky industry types and thought, “Man, if I lived here, I’d be king of these parts.” I've had a blast, and now I really couldn’t make it anywhere else, you know?
I agree. So is it not that way in London? Are people much less flaky there?
It’s different, you know? If someone said to me, “What’s the main fundamental difference between there and here?” it really is like comparing apples and oranges. They’re two very different places. I will say here, there’s so much more opportunity. There, the theatre is great as a job, but it doesn’t really pay. I’m a great fan of British films, but there’s no funding there. There’s no tax breaks. There’s no industry going on. Technology has changed everything, and people are making micro-budget features now for varied amounts, and you expect to work for real cheap or next to nothing. It’s like, wow, if I was serving drinks, I’d get paid. If I was flipping burgers, I’d get paid. Why should I come up and do it for pennies or for free? I made a living there, but it’s really tough. Then you come out here, and the whole world is here. [Laugh.] So there is a lot more opportunity, but there are thousands of very qualified, very skilled, brilliant people out here.
Let’s talk about your television series, Courage, New Hampshire.
I guess it’s like the American Downton Abbey. We’re about to start season two, and it’s fantastic. James Patrick Riley is the writer/creator; he’s in some of the episodes and also plays [the character] Silas Rhodes. Courage is an imaginary town up in New Hampshire—small town—in the years preceding the American Revolution. So it’s all the unrest and the mistrust of those family issues and the Redcoats just before America decided, “We’ve had enough of that. We’re going to stand alone.” So it’s a period piece set from 1770 to 1776.
Tell me about your character.
I play Captain Daniel Cressy and, funny enough, I’m on your side. I’m a militia captain. My character was described as a man built for war, fighting the Indians and the French and everybody else, but he’s a militia captain. As the star of episode two, you see him getting a bit of the action, having a big bar-room brawl against the Redcoats. It’s great.
How’s your American accent?
I was going to go with awful. [Laugh.] Do you feel like that helps you, hurts you, or doesn’t matter?
If I've got time to work with the material, I can do an okay job, I think. I've done lots of commercial stuff, which is just an odd line here and there, so it’s much easier. But trying to improv an American accent, that’s impossible. People look at me and say, “Where are you from, Mars?” My accent can be a double-edged sword. If that’s something they’re looking for, brilliant, because now it seems to me things have changed. Now they seem to be very much looking for the real thing right across the board.
Yes, back in the day it was “acting,” right? Dialects and accents, and playing a wide variety of characters.
Now they’re looking for real boxers, real carpenters, real whatever, real English, real New York, real wherever it may be, you know? So if you’re English, great. You’ve got a good head start. But we’re in America, so the bulk of the material is written for American people. If you can get in the room, maybe, just maybe, you can dazzle them with your brilliance, and maybe they’ll move it a little bit. “That guy is so good. Maybe he could’ve been from England, or he’ll be from New York or something and have a British accent.”
Why do you think you’ve had success in the industry? What’s some advice that you would give to other actors?
I would say don’t try to go in and be what you think they’re looking for because they may not know, to a degree. I say go in and be the best you. Be as authentic as you possibly can be, and if you’re that believable, chances are they might hire you anyway, even if you are different from . . .
Their original concept.
Yeah. Sometimes it’s a closed door and you can’t get around it. Even getting in is difficult, and I have my frustrations, as does everybody else, you know?
It’s a difficult life as an actor. Have you ever wanted to quit?
No, I've never wanted to. A great friend of mine who’s a businessman said, “Why do you do what you do?” and I said, “Actors and entertainers, you do it for free initially because you want to entertain, you want to perform or whatever reason it might be. Then you can actually get paid for it? Wow, that’s amazing. There’s plenty of people who will do it even if they’re not getting paid.” He said, “I don’t understand why you do what you do, because there’s just too many variables. No matter how good, no matter how focused, no matter how talented or not, it’s so much out of your control. How can you qualify what you do?” This leads us to a really funny story. So I've got a pet bunny rabbit—my wife’s pet bunny rabbit—and his name is Chunky Monkey. Chunky Monkey had his first audition last week. I see something in the breakdowns and it says, “Looking for interesting people with interesting pets.” National Petco commercial, it’s a big deal. Could be a lot of money, right?
Yeah, and thank goodness you have this rabbit.
So I really want him to get into it.
Which is funny, because you realize that Chunky Monkey wouldn’t even realize that he’s in a commercial, right?
He’s the star. What do you mean? He got all prima donna-ish after we had his first audition.
Mm-hmm. So you went to the audition?
I was trying everything to get his audition. I called my commercial agent, and he said, “Oh yeah, what kind of dog do you have?” “Well, he’s not a dog. He’s a bunny rabbit who can do tricks. He’s one of a kind. You really need to see him.” Nothing, nothing, nothing. So I just gave up. It comes back on the breakdowns a couple months later, and I can only guess they never found or it got postponed or whatever. That’s another thing when you go out for a job. “Oh God, I was so right for that” and you’re like, “You know what? It got moved. It got postponed. It got cancelled. They changed their mind.” It wasn’t you. It’s never you’re not good enough. It’s just you’re just not right. Anyway, back to Chunky Monkey. So at this time, I said, ‘Man.’ Instead of the big hard sell, I just wrote one line and I said, “My bunny is the coolest bunny on the planet, and I will show you his tricks at the audition.” Got the audition, right?
Right, because who doesn’t want to see the coolest bunny on the planet that does tricks, obviously?
So I’m driving through Hollywood, giving him a pep talk on the way to the audition: “Chunky, do this. Be polite. Speak clearly.” We get there, and he’s not even in top form. He’s a little bit put out by the journey probably, but he’s still cute as hell. I go, “Guys, he can do these tricks. He’s amazing, honestly.” I don’t think they got it. They think I’m just another crazy pet person. Then, the casting director rings me himself, which also never happens, and says, “You’re on avail. Hold the dates.” I came in late that night, and there was an email from the casting director and my wife was with me. When I opened it: “Is he booked? Is he booked? Is Chunky booked?” It was a really polite: “Hi, you guys. He’s so cute. Unfortunately, they chose another cast. Hopefully we can use him for something else.” It happens all the time. I see my friends: “Oh, I’m going in for whatever it might be,” and a couple weeks later, “Hey, how’d that audition go?” and I’ll go, “Oh, which one?” I think it’s a protection mechanism; I've almost forgotten about it the minute I left, and then if you get the call, it’s a bonus. Until you get on set, that’s only when you know and, even then, they change their mind. The network has an argument with the broadcaster, and you end up on the cutting-room floor. Who knows? Insane things about this life. Insane, but fun.
So, what’s your ultimate goal?
I’d like to be one of the most famous faces on the planet, and when people speak my name, it can bring a smile to their face. That’s true. I've said that since I was about 18 years old, and I still stand by it now. I’d like to make the whole world smile.
So would you say that’s why you became an actor?
Oh God, I don’t even know. The people who brought me up, my parents—as I know them to be—they were east end of London, real working-class people. If you’ve ever been there or met anybody from there, they’re really larger-than-life characters and they were really, really entertaining. They’ve never been in entertainment, but they would almost do a standup routine for anybody who would stop and take a look. They’re both gone now, and I love them dearly, but I think I probably get it from them somewhere along the lines. I was a boxer for a long time, and I’d like to believe that you can be anything you want to be if you’re willing to work hard enough. That’s what I love most about the American dream. I believe it’s alive and well, and I guess that’s why I’m here. I believe you can be whatever you want to be, and I believed that I was going to be this world-champion boxer like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. They weren’t only boxers; they were entertainers. They were flashy, they were showmen. I came to the realization at some point that I perhaps wasn’t going to be that great. [Laugh.]
As a successful actor, do you get recognized? Are you that version of famous?
No, I wouldn’t say so. A couple people from England sometimes come up to me, “Oh, wow. I saw you in Ten Dead Men,” and it’s kind of funny, but no; I’m pretty anonymous.
What do you like to do outside of the industry? What’s your life about?
I like to keep in shape. If I have something coming up where I've got to take my shirt off, I obviously work out a lot more. [Laugh.]
You seem pretty grounded about the industry.
Yeah, look at where we are. Look outside there. Palm trees, the cool breeze, blue skies. Looks like art, and it is. There are lots of jobs you don’t get, but every single day there’s new ones. Every single day there’s the potential, or most days, there’s a life-changing opportunity that has never come on that could just change your life. It’s insane.
So what are you bad at? We know what you’re good at. What are you really bad at?
Many things. Golf. I tried it, man. I was awful, terrible, horrible. I wasn’t even bad. I was horrible. I can’t really cook . . . How long have you got? We could be here all day. And I can swim to save my life, but I’m never going to win any races for it.
What were some of the worst jobs that you had to do while you were building your acting career?
Oh my God, where do I begin? [Laugh] After school, I worked in construction.
You’re kind of rough and tumble. You were a boxer, worked construction . . . You look like a dapper British bloke, but you’re rough and tumble. You met me at the bar with your sunglasses and your L.A. Times, super “L.A. famous.”
It got a bit Hollyweird, yeah?
It was, and then you snuck up behind me like a serial killer. [Laughter.] If you could work with any actor in the world, who would it be?
If it was comedy, it’d be Adam Sandler. I think he’s hilarious. I also really like a lot of the stuff that Mark Wahlberg is doing.
What about directors? If you could work with any director in the world, who would it be?
Guy Ritchie, because I just look and sound like I belong in a Guy Ritchie movie, for sure. I think he’s brilliant. Michael Bay, Spielberg, Scorsese . . .
I think it’s time to dive a little deeper. Are you okay with that?
I read that you were actually abandoned as a baby by your parents.
Yeah, that’s a crazy word.
Are you willing to tell that story?
I was stolen from a children’s home and then raised by an old couple that loved me like all the other kids of their own.
Your parents left you at the children’s home? Who stole you, and how old were you?
I was 6 weeks old.
And someone stole you?
My biological mom was young, working in a club in London, and had a child. I believe she perhaps wasn’t sure who the father was. The child is born, she can’t cope, so one of these guys [bouncers from the club], he gets his parents and tells them that she needs the help. “Oh yeah, yeah, we don’t mind.” I’m 40 now, and I met him [the bouncer] last year, and we chatted about it for the first time.
Anyway, he took me to them. They were already in their late 50s. There’s no way they were allowed to adopt me. So they said, “You’re going to have to go to the home and say you’re the father and get him out.” So that’s what he did, and then they pretty much moved house overnight, and when I was growing up, my old dad used to walk about four or five miles out in the neighborhood in the other direction to buy nappies and the like—diapers,—because they didn’t want anyone to know they had a baby at home.
But you knew no different because you were a 6-week-old infant, right? Those were your parents.
When I was 10, they told me that I was adopted, and that came as an incredibly massive shock. I still remember it now, [Tears.], and, “Why didn’t you tell me?!” Yeah, that was kind of shocking. When I was about 17, another member of the family told me a bit more of the story—what they knew of it—and that kind of made a lot more sense. Then I started working with Paul, my [acting] coach, and he said to me, or he hinted, that perhaps I was trying a little bit too hard. My whole life, I was a bouncer and a boxer and in construction and all these kind of macho types of stuff, and maybe there was a part of me that felt I wasn’t good enough. I’m actually answering the question, “Why’d you start acting?” I think we all have an innate need to find out who we are and where we’re from. So yeah, maybe I was trying just a little bit too hard. Paul said, “Just go and be you. It’s enough.” I think that was a real conscious shift. I pretty much haven’t stopped working from the minute I got off the plane. I think the quality of work has been better since I made that shift, more authentic, and I've been a little bit more relaxed. Part of that initial meeting with him was, “I think you should go back and try to find out where you’re from and trace your parents,” and I was like, “Ooh, I don’t know.” “At the very least, go and see this person, and have a DNA test to see if he really is actually your father.”
So did you have the DNA test?
No, because when I met him I didn’t want to ambush him with the DNA test. It seemed low class. I don’t know. Then I saw a Facebook post, and I commented on a picture, and they reached out to me and said, “Hey, how are you doing? I just want you to know how proud the family is of you, that you’re out there. Mom would be so proud of you if she was still alive.” I’m digressing, I’m sorry.
No, digress. I love it.
Here’s a story. I was boxing and whatever, and when I was doing construction, my old mom and dad faced financial hard times. There was a program back in England where you could buy a council house for cheap if you lived there. They managed to do that, and they couldn’t pay the mortgage, so they were in desperate financial need. So I started underground unlicensed fighting. I was working in construction, so I bought the house, and I was living in Essex and I moved up to London to try and make it as a model and actor and all this other stuff. I was 23, so I was a young kid, but not with a lot of responsibilities. So I started unlicensed underground fighting to make ends meet.
Like Fight Club?
Not too far off, but with gloves.
So have you ever met or looked for your birth mother?
Yes and no, really. So I better get on and do it soon, right? So these guys sent me the message saying, “We’re so proud of you.” Then I went back to be best man at one of my best friend’s weddings in England last year. I did a 25-minute best-man speech, and they got to know me a little better. Not too hard to believe, right? I had videos and props and all sorts of stuff, man. My only job was to come and be funny. So I mentioned I was coming back for a wedding, and then my potential brother said, “Come by and see me.” I was so dying to say, “Oh, I've been here.” I just fought the urge. I went, “Sure, that’d be great. I’d love to meet your wife and children.” I went with my wife, and we stayed the night. We chatted, we talked for hours, we stayed the night, we talked another couple hours in the morning, and it was amazing to hear all these amazing stories that I heard, because I grew up thinking he was my much older brother because my old mom had brought me up. When I was 17, I was told, “No, he’s another family member. He’s not your brother. He’s your father.” But it turns out, I wasn’t exactly sure, but it seems like maybe he actually was. I don’t know, but it was even funnier because my wife was sitting there watching us, and she said we had the same mannerisms and we count the same weird way, according to her, and all sorts of different stuff. But I swear I never grew up thinking, “God, where’s my mom, and why didn’t she . . . ?” Well, maybe subconsciously, but never consciously. Everyone around me was far more interested in it than I was. Oh my God, all those years. I wasn’t really bothered, but I don’t know, I think there has been a shift. It seems like I went home and I met the guy [my potential father] face to face, and I asked him a ton of really blunt questions myself, and he faced them and answered them as well. Maybe I should care more. I don’t see what else I can do. It’s kind of out of my control, to a degree, you know?
Yeah. Do you wonder if your mom ever looked for you? Do you wish that she’d looked for you?
My whole life, I just thought, yeah, what must it be like to give up a child? I can’t imagine, you know? As a kid, I just thought, “Well, she didn’t want me.” When I went and chatted with my might-be father, he was actually kind of my savior. I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be who I am. I've never seen a picture of my biological mom or anything like that. I love my parents dearly, but maybe there was a certain amount of guilt. I was stolen from a kids’ home. You know, maybe she’s the victim. Maybe she did come back. Where is she? No one knows.
It’s fascinating, and I think these are the things that shape us. There’s something that you said much earlier, that I think is part of the human condition, of feeling like you’re not good enough. I honestly think that’s part of being human. I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet who doesn’t feel that way sometimes. I know we’re almost out of time, so just a couple more questions for fun. What’s your favorite British expression that I wouldn’t know?
Well, without any thought, “Wow, that is pants. That is pants.” That means that’s bad. That is not good.
Give me another one. This is fun.
The dog’s bollocks. The bollocks . . . that is good. The dog’s bollocks, that is amazing, right?
The dog’s bollocks. That’s awesome. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or talk about?
No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve said far too much. [Laugh.] That’s a lot of talking, huh? You’ve really done your job, how you got me on the whole parent thing. The parent thing is something that’s never really been covered, definitely not in America.
John and I wrapped up our interview with a few fun pictures and a heartfelt hug. I thanked him and promised that this article would definitely not be “pants,” to which he laughed heartily and said that indeed, our interview was the “dog’s bollocks.”
To learn more about John Campbell Mac, visit his website.