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Ray McKinnon explores cultural rifts of South

by Mark Burger

In the independent comedy Randy and the Mob, which opens in Greensboro this Friday, Ray McKinnon does double duty behind the camera as writer and director, and double duty in front of it playing Randy Pearson and his twin brother, Cecil.

With his businesses failing and in hock to the mob, Randy is compelled to reconcile with Cecil, from whom he’s estranged because Cecil is gay. What irks Randy further is that Cecil is more successful than he – and happier, to boot.

With his livelihood, and his life, in jeopardy, Randy’s going to have to change his whole outlook on life. Enter Tino (Walton Goggins), a mob “fixer” who indeed makes great strides in repairing Randy’s life but whose own eccentric agenda causes problems of its own.

McKinnon’s been criss-crossing the country promoting his film, and is scheduled to be present at the opening-night showings on Oct. 26 at the Carousel Grande Cinema in Greensboro.

As a young actor with plenty of time on his hands between gigs, “I always told stories on paper,” McKinnon recalls. “I’d write little plays and monologues.”

His ambition was to work on both sides of the camera, but establishing an acting career is a full-time endeavor.

“It required so much focus to gain headway and 10 years passed so quickly that I knew if I didn’t redouble my efforts, the time may have passed,” McKinnon says.

McKinnon admits that the acting opportunities were simply too good to pass up. His first feature film role was as a state trooper in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture. “Right off the bat, I got that out of the way!” McKinnon boasts with a chuckle.

Subsequent big- and small-screen roles included Paris Trout (1992), “Old Man” (1997), “NYPD Blue,” “The X Files” and the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). McKinnon also played the pivotal role as Deputy Norris Ridgewick in the underrated 1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things. It was during the shoot that he met actress Lisa Blount, whom he married in 1998.

On Randy and the Mob, Blount also served as producer and plays the role of Randy’s wife, suffering from both marriage burnout and carpal tunnel syndrome – although it’s not quite certain which condition is more severe.

Working with David Milch on “NYPD Blue,” McKinnon played what he called “a dumb old mook of a guy – the dumbest guy on the planet.”

Milch remembered McKinnon, which led to the actor’s casting as the Rev. Smith on HBO’s award-winning “Deadwood” several years later. What was originally a three-episode arc wound up a dozen. “I kept getting reprieved every week,” McKinnon says, but eventually the good reverend met his maker – in suitably violent fashion. “He was permanently defrocked,” he says with a laugh.

The Accountant, which Blount produced and which McKinnon wrote, directed and starred in, won the 2001 Academy Award as Best Live-Action Short Film. They followed this up with the award-winning 2004 drama Chrystal, in which Blount played the title role and which co-starred Billy Bob Thornton.

All of McKinnon’s films have a distinctly Southern flavor to them. McKinnon is originally from Georgia, where Randy and the Mob was filmed. Blount is originally from Arkansas, where the couple now makes their home.

“Someone once talked about fiction as trying to reframe your life to make sense of it, and to affect new energy,” McKinnon observes. “We can be such a polarized society in so many ways, even in a small town. So this was a comical metaphor about bringing people together. So it’s all of that – and my theories about barbecue.”

Randy and the Mob is filled with friends on both sides of the camera, including actors Walton Goggins, Bill Nunn and Brent Briscoe. Burt Reynolds, who worked with McKinnon on an episode of “The X Files,” agreed to do a cameo role as Randy’s haughty business rival.

The camaraderie of working with friends was one incentive, and another was McKinnon’s quirky, character-driven script – which mixes black comedy with outright slapstick.

“Mortality just kinda colors everything,” McKinnon says. “Growing up in the world I did, dark humor is your friend.”

Although there was some interest from the Hollywood studios – McKinnon recalls that one executive suggested Christopher Walken for the role of Tino – “it’s just not a studio picture,” he says. “I wanted to play the roles, and I didn’t want to sell out.”

But, he adds: “I’m ready to sell out now!”

Right now, McKinnon is consumed with promoting Randy and the Mob. That, and “reading Camus,” he deadpans. “I’m trying to figure him out.”

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For those who read my Halloween DVD column this week (page 49), I also did a quick on-line interview with Tim Lucas, the noted author, film historian and editor and publisher of the monthly magazine “Video Watchdog.”

As an expert in the analysis of filmmaking, with a particular bent toward cult classics, Lucas is a foremost authority on the work of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. Lucas contributed several commentary tracks to volumes 1 and 2 of “The Mario Bava Collection” (both now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment), and is the author of the book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (bavabook.com), which was published this summer and is considered by many to be the definitive tome regarding Bava’s career.

Like many Bava admirers, one look was all it took. Lucas was immediately struck by the inventive craftsmanship and imaginative atmosphere of Bava’s work.

“It was closer to the look and feel of real nightmares than any other horror films I’d seen,” he explains. “They’re metaphysical and not afraid to delve into unexplained areas of supernatural mystery.”

Bava never really enjoyed the critical reappraisal of his work that took place since his death in 1980, yet Lucas is certain that Bava’s legacy is alive and well in current films. Maybe too well.

“In a phrase – ‘eye candy,'” Lucas writes. “Back in the 1960s, Bava stood alone in the horror genre as a conveyer of eye candy – style over substance – and now it’s (an) epidemic.”

True enough, but with the release of the two Mario Bava boxed sets, a whole new generation of film fans can enjoy his brand of eye candy – and the first time is always the sweetest. The message is clear: This Halloween, go gaga for Bava!

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