Dermot Mulroney is in Australia shooting his next project and, because of his schedule, that meant talking to the Tribune by phone at 5 a.m. his time. That’s nothing new for actors, he said. “Even my own near-90-year-old mother turned to me a year or so ago and said, ‘Dermot, you really have been getting up early all these years.’ So I was really touched, 38 years into my career, by the acknowledgment that there’s a little more involved than just standing there and smiling,” he deadpanned.
These days Mulroney can be seen as Detective Bailey in “Scream VI,” which he describes as more than a scary movie, but also a whodunit. “It really keeps ‘Scream’ in its own space in the — what do you want to call it, bloody massacre movies? — but that’s part of their point. ‘Scream’ tends to have more humor than other franchises, but the main thing for me is seeing the reveal. Ghostface is always Ghostface, except you never know who is under the mask … and that reveal has always been immensely satisfying for audiences.”
Mulroney’s roles have encompassed everything from the Western “Young Guns” early on, to a string of rom-com favorites including “The Wedding Date,” “The Family Stone” and the Chicago-shot “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
When asked about a worst moment in his career, he replied: “I can effectively deglamorize myself for you, and I’ve picked out a particularly miserable tale. I had to weed through so many memories of humiliation, but what I picked out is truly a heart-wrenching tale of personal woe. As soon as they told me this was for “My Worst Moment,” this story immediately popped into my head. I’ve never told this story anywhere other than to other actors who say, ‘What’s the worst experience you’ve had on the set?’”
Mulroney is a raconteur like few others.
My worst moment …
“I was working on a film called ‘Copycat’ in 1994. I was playing the young police detective in San Francisco partnered with the more veteran detective played by Holly Hunter. And we were on the case — like everyone else was in 1994 in the movies — of a crazy psycho serial killer.
“At the time we were making the movie, I had a record deal and was recording an album for Interscope Records. So instead of learning my difficult lines the night before — it was rapid dialogue in a scene between Holly and myself — I composed a mandolin solo for a wonderful song called ‘Identified, Detained and Inspected’ from The Low & Sweet Orchestra album, which is called ‘Goodbye to All That.’ That song still lives to this day and that mandolin solo in between the lyrics is brilliant, so it wasn’t time wasted. I wasn’t just doing crossword puzzles instead of learning my lines. But I was messing around with a musical instrument instead of keeping my eye on the prize.
“So, let me describe the scene then the fallout: It was a classic car chase through San Francisco where the cars are flying over the hills. She’s driving, I’m the young rookie sitting next to her. And how it works in the movies, our car is being towed by a camera truck that’s banging down this hill for this long stretch of dialogue.
“And I don’t know my lines. I realized it at that moment.
“And then panic sets in and I really don’t know my lines. Any actor will know what I mean — there’s like a second level where you drop down into a panic vortex.
“So they tow us back around the neighborhood and it takes more than 10 minutes just to reset because of the traffic and coming around one-way streets. We tried to run the lines a little bit. And I even resorted to taping the lines to the dashboard of the car, trying to learn the lines as we’re being slowly towed back up the hill.
“Then multiply that by about 30. We did close to 30 takes.
“The director’s upset — that’s Jon Amiel, who really did an amazing job that day. And then I began to cry (laughs) and the part I want to emphasize is the reset. The bone-chilling reset every time is what I remember. Having to stew in my own juices while I’m trying to panic-learn the lines while they’re towing the car and holding all this street traffic for us.
“So the end of the story is, that scene didn’t make the movie.
“But two things preceded the end of this story. The first was me going trailer to trailer at the end of the day apologizing, first to the director with my heart in my hands, beseeching his forgiveness. And I also attempted, in person, to make my final apology to Holly that day, who wasn’t open to it at that moment. So that was a difficult non-resolve. I left the set still on the verge of tears of what an abject failure I had been and how many people I had let down.
“The second was, not all of this story is mine to tell, but Holly did contact me that night. And that’s when I got her reaction — she really let me have it, is probably a kind way to put it.
“That was a profound moment — that another actor had to call me and read me the riot act about how I should be better prepared. To my credit, I took that in. And to my credit, I worked on the rest of the film in a very difficult dynamic that I caused between the star and one of the supporting characters, meaning myself. So that hasn’t set well with me over the years, either. It never got better on that film between us. It was a fatal error that chilled all the water around us and I take full and 100% responsibility for everything I’ve described.
“But it never got warmer on that set — to the point where I was concerned about how our characters would come off on screen, because we were supposed to have a strong dynamic, if not an attraction, in the storyline. And then I remember seeing the premiere and realizing that you can’t tell at all — it looks like they totally get along! That was its own lesson.”
Why does Mulroney think he couldn’t learn the lines during the time they were resetting?
“I was not in the right head space. I was spiraling. You talk to people about dramatic horror stories about life on set and I know other actors will report to this same syndrome, that once you start blowing lines, it feeds in on itself and gets worse and worse.
“But when I think back to that afternoon, and that phone call from Holly, I still get such an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach for having failed a production that badly. Everyone did their jobs that day except me.
“For a long time, my ongoing anxiety dream in hotels was that the camera crew from whatever movie I was working on would be at the foot of my bed and I’m trying to wake up but I can’t remember my lines and the camera crew’s saying, ‘Wake up, Dermot, you have to shoot this scene.’
“So this stands out as a failure. But you have to try to turn it into a positive. Shame is a powerful motivator, that’s really what it is. Shame can really stick to your guts, that’s what makes shame unique. And this one is still in there — it’s still stuck. It really affected me.
“I made my apologies and I course-corrected and was on point for the rest of that movie — and every movie in the 30 years that followed (laughs) but my remorse still remains.”
The takeaway …
“You can chalk it up to good luck — I think they use words like privilege now — but if you peel back my own feelings about it (pause), my takeaway would be that when I made that movie, I had been an actor for eight years and I think I was still taking things for granted because I had an easy start. I had people who really put me forward and stuck their necks out for me, including Jon Amiel, who insisted I be cast in that movie. So I think that’s where the worm really turned for me: This is not a freaking playground party, man. This is an Academy Award-winning actor that I’m meant to meet at their level.
“So I had to tweak my approach and fine-tune it.
“I also tell myself: It wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything that night before that scene, I came up with a brilliant piece of music! So sometimes when I confront those feelings of shame I think, yeah, but there’s that amazing song (laughs). So that’s helped me process it over the years, knowing that something good came out of it.
“But even processing it here today with you, I really appreciate it. You can tell I’m still working on it. And fortunately the scene we’re shooting today, Rachel Griffiths does most of the talking, I just have to nod. So I don’t have difficult lines today. No shame!”
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic