Things have been going well for John Magaro. Whether it’s his recurring role as Vinnie, Lorna Morello’s prison pen-pal husband on Orange Is The New Black, appearing alongside Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’s Carol, or sharing scenes with Brad Pitt in last year’s Oscar-winning The Big Short, the Ohio native is having himself a nice run.
Now, the 33-year-old actor takes on his next challenge as a lead in Woody Allen’s new Amazon series, Crisis In Six Scenes. Caught in the web between multiple characters, Magaro serves, in a way, as this project’s “proxy Woody”—it’s a role that the director almost surely would’ve taken on in his younger days. The debut episode sees him sometimes called “a boy” by Allen and Elaine May’s characters, while also finding himself caught between the opposing ideologies of Miley Cyrus and Rachel Brosnahan’s characters.
I had the chance to sit down with Magaro during the Crisis press day at SoHo’s Crosby Street Hotel a few weeks ago, and it was a delight to hear his perspective and experience from working on such an exciting project. After immediately changing seats (“I hate that chair,” he told me), Magaro and I talked about working with Allen, switching gears between diverse characters, Miley Cyrus, and a whole lot more.
Brooklyn Magazine: So, I saw the first episode last night and thought it was great; a lot of fun to watch. Obviously, the first question, I’ve got to know: what was it like to work with Woody on the series?
John Magaro: It was fantastic. I mean, it’s been a dream of mine to get a chance to work with him. I feel very lucky that it came true, and to have the chance to work with him as not only a director and writer, but also as a fellow actor was really a gift. It’s surreal, that first moment when you’re playing a scene across from him, and seeing such a legend at work, but you learn so much, and you realize how much he trusts his actors.
Do you have a favorite Woody movie?
That’s tough. That’s really tough. I mean, because his work has such a broad range: his off-the-wall comedies like Bananas, which I love, and then there’s fun, existential things like Love and Death, which are fantastic, and then, obviously, you have Annie Hall, and up to Match Game, which is this great drama. So, yeah, it’s hard to say, but those are a few highlights for me.
I saw you recently in a few episodes of Orange Is The New Black, and that’s of course another huge streaming show. Was there anything that your experience with that helped to bring to this series?
I think all work helps you bring something to whatever you’re currently working on. One thing about streaming services is I think they’re very closely aligned to film now, and the lines have become very blurred. So, working on a set of a film, working on a set of a streaming show, usually seems to be an almost parallel experience. But, you know, no matter what situation you’re in, you want to work hard, and be prepared, and give it your best, and support your other actors, and do your damndest to tell the story.
Between OITNB, Crisis In Six Scenes, and The Big Short last year as well, those are three very different characters. How do you switch gears from one to another?
You switch gears as easily as you switch gears in a car, because if you don’t, you’re doomed. I think as an actor, you just have to learn how to do that. At the end of the day, I think there’s a piece of myself in all of those characters, and I think you always have to bring a bit of yourself in whatever you’re doing. It’s just on the job requirements; being able to shift is necessary, so I think you just learn to do that, and otherwise you sink.
A lot of your scenes, at least in the episode I saw, were with Rachel [Brosnahan]. What was the chemistry like with her?
Rachel and I have been friends for a while. So when I heard she was doing it, I was really excited. We’ve worked on a couple things but we haven’t ever shared scenes together, so it was really nice to finally have the chance to do that. With us, since we knew each other, I think there was a real ease coming into it, and it made it fun. We were able to play, and just sort of enjoy ourselves while doing those scenes.
That makes a ton of sense, because I did think that you guys had a really natural chemistry together.
Yeah, she’s super sweet too, so that makes it easier.
Miley Cyrus wasn’t in that first episode, so I didn’t get to see her in the show yet.
Oh, that’s right! You guys didn’t see Miley yet.
But I’m assuming you guys have at least a few scenes together. What was it like working with her?
Miley’s great. She’s such a hard worker. I think that’s evident in the amount of success she’s had in life at such a young age. But she gives it her all, and she was very excited to be working with Woody. I think she tells a story that she had given up acting, and she was living at her place in L.A., and the only piece of art she had on the wall was a poster of Woody; that was the only person that could bring her back to acting. I think she was really excited to be working with him, and every day she gave it her all, and she’s super cool, and super fun to work with, and I really had a good time with her.
I thought it was really interesting how the show’s setting—Vietnam War Protest ‘60s—was strangely topical, given parallels with today. Your character even mentions that they’re living in “exciting times.” Did you see that going in? Does it seem more pertinent now even after having shot it?
No, I definitely saw it right away. I mean, it’s pretty clear—you can’t avoid the issues of our present world, and as soon as you look a little bit closer, you can see the parallels to the ‘60s. I think that’s what helps make this series something that’s worth telling right now, because of those similarities. But yeah, I noticed it and it excited me, and hopefully it will excite viewers when they’re watching it too.
I was totally thinking about that as I was watching. People don’t think of Woody as someone who goes out and makes overly political films, but if you look back at Blue Jasmine, that was about the financial meltdown and a Madoff-type thing…
But, you know, it’s also great because it’s not like, some sermon, or someone up on a soapbox telling you of all the ills of society. That’s just sort of one sheet behind the real story. The real story is about people, and people changing, which can be told at any point in history—but it just so happens that the backdrop of the turmoil of the ‘60s is also similar to a lot of the issues that we’re going through today.
Yeah, I don’t think he bangs it over your head.
You’ve worked with a lot of accomplished directors in your career, including Adam McKay, Todd Haynes and Angelina Jolie among others. Where does Woody fall when comparing with those others?
That’s a tough one to say! I mean, Woody is someone that I, personally, have looked up to for a long time and admired as an artist for a long time. So I was very excited to work with him. You know, the on-set experience is different, and I can’t say one experience is better than the other; there’s something to be garnered from each experience. Working with McKay was a blast. Working with Todd was enlightening. Working with Angie was so exciting and such a fun time, even though we were miserable and starving. Each experience, if you’re lucky, continues to build, and continues to teach you more, and it makes it more difficult to say which is better or which is worse.
I thought the dialogue was great, of course—Woody Allen wrote it.
As the actor, what is it like to look down at the script and see those lines waiting for you?You know, it’s funny, because every time before you do a take, he says “You know, just say it… that’s the idea of it, but you can say it however you want to.” So it gives you this freedom, but the words are so fantastic, it almost becomes difficult to want to change it or do something… I mean, the words are just so perfect that you don’t want to stray from it too much. And when you do it, you tend to realize… this isn’t as good as what he’s written. I mean, he just has a knack for dialogue and storytelling, and it’s amazing.
Of course, a lot is still under wraps, and I’ve only seen the first episode. But just looking at the cast list, I mean, Lewis Black and Becky Ann Baker were guests in the first episode. I saw Michael Rapaport, David Harbour listed, and so many more. What was it like just having this huge cast of characters coming in and out?
It was a blast, and you have some big names in that group. From all different facets. You know, some from theatre, some from comedy, some from dramatic films, all across the board. But the one common bond is Woody–that every actor that comes to work for Woody rises to the occasion, and brings their best work ethic, and their best ideas to the set, and in a big way, I think that’s why he’s able to move so quickly. Because people come prepared, and they want to work with him, and they want to work hard, and deliver a good performance for him.
Check out our interview from yesterday with Magaro’s Crisis costar, Rachel Brosnahan
Crisis In Six Scenes will debut all six episodes on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, September 30.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios.