As an entertainment journalist, I’ve spoken to actor Neal McDonough for different projects since the 1990s. He hit big playing the heroic Buck Compton in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” in 2001 — and became Compton’s friend, seeing him the last time shortly before his death in 2012 — and since then, he’s been mostly known for playing villains.
With his bleached-blond hair (first acquired to play Compton) and ice-blue eyes, McDonough makes an intimidating presence on screen — including a recent memorable turn as the drug kingpin/psycho-killer Quarles in FX’s “Justified” — but in person, it’s a different story.
He’s a family man, married with five children, a devout Catholic and a political conservative. All those things should ensure that he never works in Hollywood, but the opposite is true. McDonough recently relocated his family to Vancouver, Canada, and is hard at work on “Arrow,” “The Flash” and other comic-book dramas from executive producer Greg Berlanti.
But those five kids probably couldn’t watch very much of what their father has done — until now.
On Friday, Aug. 26, “Greater” is released in theaters across America. It’s based on the real-life story of Brandon Burlsworth, a “walk on” (meaning no athletic scholarship) who landed on the University of Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Deemed too short and out of shape for the NFL, Burlsworth, bolstered by his Christian faith and a fierce work ethic, distinguished himself on the field and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.
But, 11 days after being drafted, and before he signed his contract, Burlsworth (played by Christopher Severio) was killed in a car accident. This brought on a crisis of faith for his older brother, Marty (McDonough), who essentially raised him.
The state of Arkansas was also shaken, trying to understand how such misfortune could strike someone who appeared to be a devoted Christian and all-around good guy.
Also starring is conservative actor Nick Searcy (“Justified”), who directed the upcoming “Gosnell” feature film.
Calling “Greater” a “one-note sermon,” Variety unfortunately wasn’t impressed with the movie, saying:
Given Burlsworth’s piousness, Hunt and co-writer David Reindl use his untimely passing as a means of addressing a core spiritual conundrum: If God exists, how can He allow decent “Pilgrim’s Progress”-reading people like Burlsworth to perish so young? They tackle that query via Burlsworth’s much-older brother Marty (Neal McDonough), who, on the cusp of his sibling’s funeral, struggles to understand why awful things happen to the innocent and righteous. As with the religious comments strewn throughout “Greater,” this framing device is handled with maximum exposition and minimal grace. Its ham-fistedness is compounded by Marty’s prolonged conversation with a wood-whittling stranger (Nick Searcy) whose declarations about the universe’s “pitiless indifference” and the “howling abyss” that awaits those after death speaks to his oh-so-obvious Satanic nature.
Burlsworth’s straight-and-narrow course to gridiron glory is recounted in flashbacks that unfailingly cast him as a flawless servant of the Lord, an indefatigable and selfless worker, and an aw-shucks good guy. As embodied by newcomer Chris Severio, Burlsworth is a friendly giant with enormous black-rimmed glasses (think Drew Carey by way of Clark Kent) who ignores insults and never gets discouraged, to the point that even his drunken lout of a father (Michael Parks) can’t shake his confidence.
The true story of the late Arkansas Razorbacks football hero Brandon Burlsworth is an underdog saga to rival “Rudy,” and while the modest Burlsworth biopic “Greater” doesn’t have that film’s inspirational spark, the indie drama is just sweet enough and slick enough to appeal to pigskin fans and Christian family audiences.
A fine cast helps. Neal McDonough (who also co-produced) plays Brandon’s older brother Marty, who raises him in lieu of their absentee alcoholic father (the always-excellent Michael Parks). Nick Searcy plays a mysterious figure Marty talks to about God during Brandon’s funeral, as the film’s framing device.
But, McDonough liked it. As he told me, calling in during a family outing to a Vancouver mall:
It really came down to a letter that was sent to me by the writers and the producers. They said, ‘We really want you go be this guy, because if anyone could pull off the Jimmy Stewart/”It’s a Wonderful Life”-type of character for this piece, it’s Neal McDonough. I’m like, “OK, well, why do you say that?” They said, “Well, we saw you in ‘Justified.'” I’m like, “How does ‘Justified’ get to Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? He goes, “Well, I saw all the different levels of your performance, and I thought you were the perfect guy for this movie.” I said, “All right.”
[My wife] Ruve and I read the script. I said, “I want to be an executive producer on this, so I can really bring it home and get the right people attached, bring in some friends and make this something special.”
“I’ve been in so many films and so many TV shows, this one, for some reason, right when I read it at the beginning, was near and dear to my heart. Me being the ultimate Catholic boy, I finally got to do something about faith. You never get to do something about faith. In general, I’m playing the bad guy in so many things.”
When you get to do a piece where it questions faith and what life is really all about — I’ve wanted to do that for a while, and this came long. I was like, “Oh, boy, this is such a great piece for me and my family,” that I jumped right in. We kicked some serious butt on this one.
To make this thing come home true and strong and really show how amazing Brandon was, and how amazing his life was, and Marty’s life also, what Marty did, it was really a great time of my life. I’m so proud of this movie.
If you wondered why I wasn’t coy about revealing that Brandon dies, it’s because “Greater” begins there. Said McDonough:
The reason I loved the piece so much, everyone through Arkansas, and everyone who’s seen the movie, knows that Brandon dies right at the very beginning. I love that it wasn’t, “Here’s his life; and then he died.” It was, “He’s dead, and how do you deal with it?,” when everyone says, “He’s in a better place.”
Marty certainly didn’t have Brandon’s faith. He had faith, but no one had faith as strong as Brandon Burlsworth. The kid was incredible. For everyone to say, “Hey, he’s in a better place, don’t worry about it,” Marty is like, “What the heck are you talking about? The greatest thing in my life is gone.”
He really was his son, when you think about it. … That’s what the whole movie was about, for me, as Marty: “How do you deal with the death of someone that, to you, is so perfect”?
With my five kids, and my beautiful wife, Ruve, I’m think, “Oh gosh, what would that be like?” For some reason, Marty Burlsworth not only became stronger because of it, he became better. … If there’s a heroic, John Wayne guy on this planet, it’s Marty Burlsworth. I’m not kidding. That guy is unbelievable, and I got to play him.”
Images: Courtesy Hammond Entertainment/Greater Productions