Best known for his role as ornery Martin Crane on the long-running Frasier, John Mahoney has been a staple of film, TV and theatre — he got his start at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre — for decades.
And though he celebrated his 70th birthday in June, Mahoney is still at it, with roles on Burn Notice and In Treatment and as wisdom-dispensing grandfather Chet Duncan in Rob Reiner’s new coming-of-age film, Flipped. Mahoney sat down with Metro to talk about how an actor prepares, balancing stage and screen work and the appeal of the early ’60s.
How did you go about developing your character for Flipped?
I looked for what his flaws would’ve been, and I tried to layer in there that he liked to give a little advice — and we all do, no matter what generation it is. You know, ‘When I was a kid, when I was this, when I was that. We never did that,’ or ‘We knew how to behave.’ But I just tried to make him as human as I could by layering in real or imagined self-aggrandizing more than anything else.
But that was about it. I couldn’t put in any deep, dark secret past in there because I just don’t think there was one. I didn’t want to manufacture anything.
How much work do you do figuring out a character’s backstory?
You know, all actors work in different ways, and a lot of people do a lot of research. I don’t, to tell you the truth. I read the script and I memorize the lines, and then I think a little bit about the character. But I like to act intuitively. I like to just see what happens. I like to see how a line is said to me before I determine how I’m going to reply to that line. So it’s always new to me, whether it’s stage or screen or television.
The book Flipped is based on isn’t set in the 1960s, but the movie version is. Why do you think there’s been so much fascination with that time period lately?
I don’t know what it is. I think in the case of Flipped, the innocence of the period. It was just before so many cataclysmic things were happening — assassinations and invasions — I just think [director] Rob [Reiner] was looking for a beautiful time that he could explore innocence and decency before the world went crazy and before we became so technologically obsessed and everything else. I mean, it was such an innocent age when you look back on it.