John Carroll Lynch is one of our favorite “hey, that guy” actors. You’ve seen him everywhere: He’s Frances McDormand’s husband in “Fargo,” Drew Carey’s transvestite brother on “The Drew Carey Show” and a staple on “American Horror Story.” Right now you can see Lynch as both Lyndon Johnson in “Jackie” and in “The Founder,” in which he plays “Mac” MacDonald, one of the two brothers (along with Nick Offerman’s Dick) who in the 1950s created a modest chain restaurant called McDonald’s. Their revolutionary idea was gradually stolen by one Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a salesman who set about expanding their business nationwide, eventually swindling them out of their royalties. It’s a tale McDonald’s doesn’t want you to know, and Lynch is happy the story’s out.
One perk of being an actor — and even a viewer — is that you learn things you may not stumble upon, even by accident. And this story isn’t something most people know.
Exactly. When a major multinational corporation wants to keep something from you, they’re pretty good at it.
Did you get a sense that the filmmakers faced a lot of pressure from McDonald’s to keep the story under wraps?
By the time I joined this merry band, they had all gone through that. The story came to the producers 10 years before the movie was made. They read books about it and tried to option them, but they couldn’t because McDonald’s had purchased them all. They were making a concerted effort to defend the myth and legacy of Ray Kroc. They found a way to make it by meeting with the McDonald brothers’ descendants. Dick had children, so they went to them. When they called, they said, “We’ve been waiting for somebody to call for 50 years.”
It’s interesting to see the early days of McDonald’s, because their reluctance to expand beyond a handful of restaurants and their passion for quality control sounds very similar to In-N-Out Burger on the west coast.
That’s 100 percent true. [In-N-Out has] rules, like you can’t be more than three hours from the butcher you use. They keep the menu really, really small: They make burgers and fries and shakes. That’s all the make. The descendants of Dick McDonald came out to the premiere, and they stopped at an In-N-Out Burger. They saw the diagonal roof, the red and gold color theme; they saw they only sell burgers, fries and shakes. They were like, “Wow, this looks really, really familiar.” [Laughs]
I also learned this on this press tour: The McDonald brothers, one of their restaurant friends was this guy named Glen Bell. He asked them, “Would it be OK if I applied your process to Mexican food?” And they said, “Sure, go ahead!” And Taco Bell was born.
I truly never thought to ask why it was called Taco Bell.
Me either! I always thought they just liked that missionary bell they had on the early stores, when they had the fake adobe and the bell on the top. But no, it was just a dude named “Bell.”
Like a lot of people who grew up in suburban or Midwest America, I grew up on McDonald’s, though I can’t even imagine eating there now.
I wish I could say I was as big a purist as you. [Laughs] I go to McDonald’s on occasion, mostly for breakfast. I love Egg McMuffins. I know what’s in it, generally; obviously it’s been chemically enhanced. But when you’re flying a lot, you’re going to the airport a lot, you see it and say, “I know what that is. I know I’m going to get.” And that’s attractive.
Those big fast food chains are really your only options if you’re flying all the time.
Yeah, but let’s be honest: I could bring nuts, you know? I’m not a victim. [Laughs] I could eat an apple if I wanted, and I do. I know a lot of actors who travel as much or more than I do, and they eat healthier than I do. Mostly my problem is laziness. I think, “I’ll just do it this one time.” Except it’s the same “one time” three to five times a week. [Laughs] Obviously I’m not alone. It also relies on childhood. It relies on nostalgia. It relies on your memory of going there with your parents, and it feeling fun, it feeling special. I certainly grew up that way. McDonald’s was a treat we would have.
If you’re a New Yorker, it’s almost a sin to go to McDonald’s. There’s Shake Shack.
That would be subversive to go to McDonald’s when you have Shake Shack. You’d think, “I’m just going to buck this delicious trend.” [Laughs]
One of the interesting things “The Founder” does is draw a line between the McDonald brothers, who want to be successful, and people like Ray Kroc, who want everything. He’s greedy and they adamantly are not.
Capitalism can create quality. It doesn’t have to create crap. But we consumers have to know the difference. One thing that’s happening in the United States is people are asking, “What am I buying?” I’ve been to this store called Shinola. It’s a super high-end store, it’s hoity-toity. But they make beautiful leather goods, watches and things. They’re all made in America. They’re saying, “Listen, we’re made in Detroit, we’re made by Americans, we’re designing beautiful things.” That’s what they’re selling. It’s just like the myth of McDonald’s, which as Ray Kroc says in the movie is about family, it’s about coming together, it’s about wholesomeness. That’s part of what they’re selling.
Ray Kroc was really good at advertising and talking a good game.
Ray Kroc was not a restauranteur. He didn’t make burgers. He founded a franchise. Most of his ideas about food were failures. Ray Kroc was a salesman. He could pitch it. And he was really good at it. It’s hard not to look at the similarities between Ray Kroc and the famous pitchman who just took office as president of the United States. President Trump has been successful as a pitchman. He’s great at it. He’s certainly been a successful real estate developer to some degree in his lifetime; you could argue about how successful. But the thing he’s been most successful at is licensing his name. What does he sell? He sells what he says he sells, which is success and riches.
And now he’s sold a country on it. He sold that to at least 60 million people, and he sold it in the right places. So now we’re going to see if he can deliver for other people. That’s not been his strong suit. He’s not been extraordinarily successful for his business partners or his employees. But he’s been very successful. Let’s see what happens. Ray Kroc was not very successful for many other people than Ray Kroc. After his death, he was extraordinarily successful for the Salvation Army and National Public Radio, because that’s where Joan Kroc [his widow, played by Linda Cardellini] gave all the money to. We’ll see what Melania does. Although she may have a prenup.
One last question: One of my favorite films you’ve been in is David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” where you play Arthur Leigh Allen, the man Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith is convinced is the Zodiac Killer, though a lot of experts disagree. You only have one big scene, but I’ve always wondered if you played that scene as though Allen was innocent, because that’s how it plays to me.
That was David Fincher’s request. He said, “We should play this as if he’s innocent.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I looked at all the research they did, and it was hard to decide if he was innocent or guilty. But in this country you’re innocent until proven guilty! He was about to be indicted for the crime when he died, so he didn’t make it to trial. So I guess we’ll never know. That’s why I love that movie: We’ll never know.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge