Dermot Mulroney Sets the Suburbs on Fire in ‘The Family Tree’

Dermot Mulroney has made this way through Hollywood taking on roles in everything from romantic comedies to cult westerns, and his latest film, The Family Tree, reveals yet another side to the versatile actor. Perhaps it’s his devilishly good looks, mysteriously obscured behind a moustache and glasses, but his character, Jack, is miles from those he’s played before. Directed by Vivi Friedman, the film boasts a cast that includes everyone from Hope Davis and Christina Hendricks to Chi McBride, an eclectic group that deftly embodies the story of a dysfunctional family in crisis. We caught up with Mulroney to chat about his experience with the film, his foray into directing, and what it’s like to work with Clint Eastwood.

How did you decide you wanted to be a part of this film? This is one that came to me. They sent me the script, I went to go meet Vivi, and I got a message from Hope Davis, who was also interested in doing it. We decided to do it together, like an old married couple.

What was it about your character or about the story that made you want to do it? I thought that the role I was looking at had some subtle elements in a movie that sometimes comes on strong. In other words, I knew the part of Jack was going to be pretty challenging. It can be boring to play a boring guy, and it’s a challenge to play a guy where his biggest problem is his passivity. Vivi and I talked about that and how to make it interesting, and from those conversations with her you see the role is portrayed more loopy than just checked out. So we tried to add some nuance to it and then fit him into story lines with these disparate characters.

There’s so many great people in the movie. Is working with a strong ensemble something you love? Definitely, some of the best filmmaking experiences I’ve been in have been with groups like that. I am in a couple of films coming out recently where it’s just a great group of people.

Was it an intimate set? If we’re breaking down what type of ensemble this was, my ensemble is really just my family and the one neighbor. Ultimately those were the funnest scenes to shoot. When you get all of these different characters in the same room, that’s what’s fun.

And how do you find things differ between working on bigger budget films and smaller independent ones like this? I used to say that I liked the smaller films because there’s a more intense creative experience, and everything happens faster and it’s more exciting. And I used to say that I liked the big movies because they pay better, but they’re slower and it’s harder to keep your concentration, but hey, here’s the deal. Well, they’re all the same now. Studios don’t pay what they once did, or at least not proportionately, and those films are being shot just as quickly as the low budget movies I’ve been doing. So the actual camera-on time in a big movie seems a lot closer to the amount of time you’d have in a movie like this. Things have compressed a little bit. I don’t think budgets are getting smaller, but they’re spending it differently. One of the places where they’re cutting costs is the actual shooting of the movie. Do you feel you’ve taken anything away from your character as a father or family member? Well, what Jack had problems with I already knew about: remain attentive to your children and run a family. I was able to identify what he wasn’t doing right, and so instead of learning something from the film to bring into my life, I brought the knowledge of how not to do that in the role.

And you look much different in the film. What did you have to do, physically? I had never really worn glasses or had a mustache in a movie. That was the big introduction of the version of me that has a mustache. What do you think? Between the director and I we came up with how he should look. It wasn’t a random choice.

Do you feel like it helps to fall into your character much easier when everything physical is in place as well? Yeah, absolutely. And those boxy, beige suits add elements of reality and discomfort.

So you just shot J. Edgar. Tell me about that. It was really good. I mean, I have a real small part in the movie, but I jumped at the chance to work with those people. I have a scene with Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio and I’m being directed by Clint Eastwood, so it had a lot to say for it. I was thrilled to get the role. It was one of those where you have to call in and audition and win the role.

And you directed a film this year: Love, Wedding, Marriage. I did! It was a limited release.

Why did you decide you wanted to transition into directing? Well, I like directing, I thought I’d give it a chance. I don’t know if I chose the right project for me, but there’s a lot to be learned.

Do you think you’ll do more of that in the future? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to make a living as a director. It would be a sideline. I mean, you can make a living if you’re a big time studio director but the movies that I would be doing aren’t going to pay me and it takes so much time that I can’t take that time away from my income stream. Life doesn’t really work that way anymore. Of course, we all know it’s not all about the money, but when you’ve got three kids sometimes it is. Eastwood’s movie? Not about the money! I would have paid them to have that experience.

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