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Scrubs star John C McGinley on the power of visual storytelling

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By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

August 31, 2022 | 10 min read

In an exclusive interview with The Drum, the Hollywood star opens up about finding inspiration and what he learned about storytelling and resilience from boxing.

John C. McGinley

John C McGinley is serious about storytelling / Anecdotes

American actor John C McGinley, perhaps best known for his role as Dr Perry Cox in the long-running sitcom Scrubs, stars in a new ad campaign launching today for Anecdotes, an automated compliance software.

It’s not his first time working with brands; his commercial work dates back to the 80s, when he appeared in a range of TV spots for Subaru. In his latest work, he plays a half-mad corporate boss who is so gung-ho about compliance that he brings in a team of special ops agents to crack down on day-to-day business functions.

In conversation with The Drum, McGinley speaks openly about aligning his values and interests with commercial projects, the power of visual storytelling and why it’s better to be over-prepared when it comes to creative endeavors.

Tell us a little bit about the new Anecdotes campaign and what attracted you to it.

I had a long conversation with Aram Rappaport, [actor, director and founder of The Boathouse Agency, which created the campaign]. Aram had a pretty dialed-in [vision]. I liked his vision. And as soon as I got off of FaceTime with him, I knew I was in the right hands, because the copy was really good.

I wanted [the spot] to be really subversive and funny so that the vibe of the thing would really crackle. I really wanted to have a Michael Bay level of chaos. I wanted those [SWAT team] guys invading the office to be out of their minds and a lot of quick cuts. Aram was totally on board with that. And I wanted a lot of the visuals to tell the story; [for example,] the young guy who comes in and advocates for Anecdotes – his juxtaposition to the chaos is all visual. And that’s what Aram shot. I thought it was genius.

How do you determine what kinds of brand partnerships are right for you?

It’s about whether or not I have any connectivity to it. [When it came to Anecdotes,] it was not something I was unfamiliar with. My brothers – all of whom work on Wall Street – deal with compliance software every single day of their lives. And if I wasn’t an actor, I’d definitely be working with my brothers out of Wall Street. I worked on Wall Street for a year between undergrad and grad [school]. And while we didn’t have compliance software back then, it’s something my whole family does. And being [involved in] financials and managing my own money and working with my brother Jerry ... it’s in my family blood – the financial component of all this, which is where Anecdotes excels. So it felt hand-in-glove to me. It all had a synchronicity to it that was really attractive to me.

Do you approach various types of projects across TV, film, stage and commercial work differently? How does the creative process differ?

No, it’s not different for me, because whether you’re on a soundstage and somebody’s going to call ‘action’ [or you’re in a different setting], at some point, you’ve got to tell the story. And it makes no difference if it’s a 30-second spot or a three-hour movie.

The way to participate in the storytelling process, for me, is the same in everything. It’s all based on homework. I teach actors now a lot, and I always want them to over-prepare to deliver. You don’t have to worry about over-delivering; I just want you to over-prepare. Whether that means breaking a script down and working with verbs and actions and deciding what you’re doing in every beat, or whether [it’s something else].

When I was getting ready to do this show I did on Broadway – I just did a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway with Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale – I stood on a blue balance ball and juggled the whole time while I was doing my lines, so that nothing in the theater could disrupt me. Nothing was going to be harder than that. What could disrupt you is cellphones, or a siren going off – we were at the Schonfeld on 45th Street [in Manhattan], so sirens and horns are going to go off. None of that stuff can throw you off. So what I do and what I have my students do is over-prepare. And that’s been my mantra for as long as I can remember.

What constitutes great creative in advertising?

I’m fascinated by advertising because it’s a meticulous storytelling process. I have a lot of ad guys who are dear friends of mine who I grew up with as a young man in New York. And the preparation that goes into their campaigns is so meticulous – the storyboarding, the color palettes that people want to work with, the attention to wardrobe.

I’ve always felt that the greatest commercials of all time – copy notwithstanding – work as silent movies. We’re compelled by a visual story. And then, if there’s copy on top of it, [it can take things to the next level,] like some of the Chiat Day stuff with Nike way back when, and the Alka Seltzer [jingle] “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is!” But [many of] those campaigns all worked visually – and then copy complemented them and just put them over the top. Commercials work when the campaign can work visually, and then a cherry on top is the great copy.

What inspires and motivates you?

I don’t know if it’s part of the Irish DNA or if it’s just the McGinley component, but I’ve always been driven, fundamentally, to be part of storytelling. That’s never been complicated – [the process of] getting there and executing and all that is where you get into trouble – but participating in storytelling has been something I’ve always done. It’s not [necessarily what I] wanted to do [but what I had to do].

When I was at Syracuse as a sophomore in college ... you have to have indoor things to do in the winter; you can’t really get outdoors, because it’s so cold up there. So I used to jog down to this gym, and I started to box, since I had fought a little bit in high school. About eight or nine weeks into it, it was turning spring. I was in unbelievable shape and I was understanding the mechanics of what I was doing. The trainer goes, ‘Are you ready to spar?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to spar.’ So he put me in with another guy who was about 188 pounds. And I’m going along, and all of a sudden, he hit me in the liver, right between the ribs. And I buckled like I’d never buckled before – and I’ve been hit plenty of times. In that instance, I realized that unless you have to box, you’re not going to – I mean, really box in a ring with somebody.

And that allegory applies to me. And it’s what I tell actors who come over here when I teach them. Unless you have to do this – unless you have to participate in storytelling – do something else. Because it’s too personal. When you hear back from an agent [that you’ve been rejected] ... they’re still gonna do the movie – they’re just not doing it with you. And everybody says, ‘You can’t take that personally.’ But how can you not take that personally? You’re not selling a vacuum, you’re selling you. So I often ask young actors if they have a plan B. And they’re like, ‘Well, yeah,’ and I’m like, ‘Do it – absolutely do it. Because you’ll be spared this endless amount of ego pummeling and gut-wrenching rejection.’

If you’re a Hall of Fame baseball hitter ... the average batting average for offensive players in baseball is .302; that means you got 302 hits for every 1,000 at-bats. Actors might get three or four hits for 1,000 auditions. And that’s grim, but it’s the way it is. So with those numbers, the trap is that your skin gets too thick and tough – and then you lose your loveliness. That which made you unique in all the world has been pummeled by rejection. So there’s this incredibly delicate balancing act between being able to sustain rejection and maintaining your loveliness.

And I was always willing to take that on because I had to. I had to. It wasn’t an option. I knew this is what I had to do. There was no plan B – there’s never been a plan B, which is arrogant and I guess ego-driven. But that’s OK. That’s what it took.

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