Interview with Jonathan Tucker and Olivia Wilde of The Black Donnellys

Features, Interviews, Shows

It’s time for another conference call. This is the second conference call for the new NBC drama called The Black Donnellys. That’s the show that takes over the Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip timeslot of Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT. On this call, press from around the world got a chance to interview two stars of the show, Jonathan Tucker and Olivia Wilde.

if you havenThe Black Donnellys is about an Irish family living in New York in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The Donnelly family includes four brothers who are very close and protective of one another. Filmed in New York City, this gritty and hard-hitting drama is loosely based on the background of Bobby Moresco, one of the series’ executive producer-creators. The other executive producer/creator, who also directed The Black Donnellys pilot, is Canada’s own Paul Haggis. Moresco and Haggis are the Academy Award winning co-writers of Crash.

Jonathan Tucker (Tommy Donnelly)

Jonathan Tucker stars as Tommy Donnelly, the second son of the Donnelly clan. Raised on the mean streets of New York, Tommy has had his brushes with the law but is now on a straight-and-narrow path to pursue a career as an artist. But strong family ties tend to get him into trouble, especially when he is defending his volatile brother Jimmy. At 23, Tucker has starred in a myriad of feature films, including Barry Levinson’s Sleepers as the young Billy Crudup, and in Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides as a voyeuristic neighbor and attempted savior alongside Kirsten Dunst.

Olivia Wilde (Jenny Reilly)

Olivia Wilde stars as the beautiful Jenny Reilly, a childhood friend of the Donnelly brothers and Tommy Donnelly’s longtime crush. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, Wilde spent much of her childhood in Ireland, where she studied at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. She starred in a critically acclaimed arc of episodes as Alex in FOX’s second season of The O.C., and starred in the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Fox drama Skin opposite Ron Silver. Wilde will soon be seen in New Line Cinema’s feature film Alpha Dog helmed by director Nick Cassavetes and starring Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake and Emile Hirsch. In addition, Wilde completed the feature The Death and Life of Bobby Z with Paul Walker and Laurence Fishburne for director John Hertzfeld; the independent film Turistas, alongside Josh Duhamel for director John Stockwell, and Conversations with Other Women, opposite Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Here are the highlights of what was said in this conference call for The Black Donnellys with Jonathan Tucker and Olivia Wilde…

Jonathan, how do you get into your character or pump yourself up before a scene? Do you listen to some Irish bands like Dropkick Murphys or watch The Departed before you go and film the next day?

Jonathan Tucker: Actually I do use music a lot. I’ve always used music for my acting and I do have a very personal play list that I create. iTunes has been a real blessing for that, because it allows me to personalize the moment and scenes and the whole general overview for the show. I don’t do the Dropkick Murphys because they’re not on iTunes. I’ve done the Flogging Mollies which I think are a wonderful little band for the Irish stuff, though.

Olivia, since it is a very testosterone filled set, have you played any pranks on the guys to hold your own? Do you joke around with them about anything?

Olivia Wilde: They’re always playing pranks on each other, so there’s no room for my pranks. But they are just a pleasure to work with, each and everyone of them and I never really feel outnumbered. I don’t know, I guess I feel like one of the guys or they feel like one of the girls, I can’t tell which but its all good.

You both grew up differently than the characters you play on this show. How did you prepare for these roles then, since it was so different from how you grew up?

OW: Okay, I met with Barbara Moresco, who is Bobby Moresco’s wife, before we shot the pilot, and discussed what it was like to grow up as a young woman in this type of neighborhood. I still use my notes from that interview as we shoot the show and it is invaluable information for me, because I did grow up in a very different type of environment. So that’s really helpful, also, shooting the show in New York City really helps get into the role and with our crew who are mostly from neighborhoods like the one we are creating. Also, having Bobby Meresco around to keep us in the moment and keep us close to where he came from and reminding us how people there think, react, and speak really helped. So I think a combination of all those things for me.

JT: I’d say that this show really, more than anything else, is about truth and that’s really what we hope separates us from a lot of the other shows that are on network television. It is more cinematic, like the shows you’ll see on an HBO or Showtime, it’s more like going to sit in a movie theater. And for me, the truth that I was able to find in regards to the working class, Irish American experience, was very close to home. I grew up, as I joked around, in the “People’s Republic of Charlestown” in the City of Boston. I was blessed to be raised right there, on Monument Square in Charlestown and every morning, I’d hop on the bus and go to school 45 minute out into the suburbs in Brooklyn. So I got to have my seat really in both worlds.

How do people, especially the women, keep both their nurturing spirit and yet this absolutely tough spirit simultaneously on this show?

OW: I think it is a matter of survival. I think that’s what they are asked to do in order to keep going in that world. The women especially have to remain incredibly strong and pretend they’re not seeing a lot of what’s going on and yet keep everything going and nurture everyone. I think that’s what’s so great about Kate’s character. She is coaching Jenny in the ways of being a woman in this neighborhood and what Jenny’s going to have to deal with in the future, even though she’s grown up as one as one of the boys, now she’s going to have to start covering for them.

Jonathan, did you have a lot of brothers or friends growing up that made it easy for you to jump into your role here?

JT: I have a younger sister and I’m actually here in DC right now surprising her for her 21st birthday. I love her very much. But this is a show that is specifically about New York City and about the Irish, and about a working class group of brothers. It is a universal story in regards to family, what you would do for your family? So I don’t have any brothers, but I really fundamentally can understand being put into a position where I have to make an extraordinary choice to take arms to protect the people that I love.

Olivia, your character is there to cover up and protect people that have done bad things. How do you deal with the moral ambiguity of what you’re struggling with?

OW: I think that’s exactly what she does for the whole season. She struggles with that, and she decides that she has to protect them because they are her family, but she needs to remove herself a little bit from them so that she can protect herself. I think that’s why she has distanced herself from Tommy against every instinct that she has of loving him. She has to protect herself. She struggles with that and goes back and forth. She’ll clean up the blood but she won’t knowingly condone the violence, at least not yet.

Jonathan, your character is a thug, but he has an artistic side to him as well. Your father is a great art professor, did he help you prepare for the art student side of your character? And how did you prepare to be a gangster with all of the weapons?

JT: My father teaches at the University of Mass at Boston. It is one of the only public institutions in the entire city which hosts almost 60 colleges and universities. It is the only public one and he’s got people coming in who have one or two jobs. The average age in his class in 27. A lot of people have kids, a lot of them have very real concerns and they’re going to school almost an hour away, using public transportation to go once or twice a week to learn about French impressionism and modern sculpture. That is a beautiful thing to see. That experience has been a part of my life, and so I can understand the duality with Tommy because it is very much the duality that a lot of the students in my father’s classes deal with.

And as for the weaponry. Those are those things, when you’re acting, you really want to commit to and you just got to go for it. Whether that means driving a car or any kind of props, you just got to practice all that stuff a lot and I’ve been very lucky to have great prop guys and good practice time. It’s all about truth. So a lot of those props are real and I got to really try them out.

Olivia, is it true you’re actually a princess?

OW: My husband’s father was a Prince. He unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, but he was a prince in Rome, and so by law, my husband is a prince as well. So technically, that makes me a princess. It’s not a very archaic thing. It’s an aristocratic title that actually the Pope gave out to a few families in Rome in the 15th Century. It’s kind of funny because in writing, occasionally, I’ll get a piece of mail that says Princess Olivia and I’ll get really excited and keep it for a year. But I’m not a princess on set though.

JT: The thing is, sometimes Olivia calls me Daddy and that makes me a King.

Do you bring that experience into your character? How you got married and the rebellious side?

OW: It was interesting when I read the pilot script, I thought wow, I’ve never read about anyone else who got married when they were 18 except for my grandmother actually. But I didn’t know about that until after I got married. But I do bring into account the fact that to really go against the norm and do something that other 18 year old girls are certainly not doing, you have to be a little bit different, a little bit of an oddball. So I recognized that in Jenny and in myself. It definitely helped me understand her in a way I think other girls wouldn’t really be able to understand.

Olivia, you grew up in Dublin. Did you know any families like the Donnellys there? Also, were either of you worried about playing into negative stereotypes of the Irish with this show?

OW: Well, my father is from County Waterford in the Southeast of Ireland and I went to acting school in Dublin, but when I was in Ireland as a young person, I was always in the South in a very, very small fishing village called Old Morrick. There were a few thousand people at most living there. The kids there became each other’s families and some people didn’t have mothers or fathers and everyone became a huge family and the tight knit group that formed really helped my acting on the show. It is very Irish to take care of each other and to struggle through very profound difficult times with humor and with your friends and family, of course. So that definitely helped. I didn’t know any families like the Donnellys, but it is funny because there was always a family, the Hennesseys in our town that seemed to be an endless number of them. There were like 76 Hennesseys in the village alone and they were all cousins and I always wanted to be one of them, so I understand that feeling of being friends with the family and always feeling that you wished you were one of them.

As far as the stereotype, I think the Irish-American community is very different from the Irish-Irish community, and I certainly learned that. Since we are working under the guidance of Bobby Moresco, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, I feel like there’s absolutely no creative license taken here. I don’t think there’s any negative stereotypes being drawn in the show. I think the most important thing we’re showing is that this is a community that sticks together no matter what. It is a very isolated community and it is very difficult to extricate yourself from it and move beyond it. That’s all based on real experiences and I really hope the Irish people don’t take offense with any of the statements being made in the show, because it is very different from the Irish-Americans and I think we’re making a point of showing that.

JT: The show is about contrast and we try to show as fully and as richly as we can in the story that there is violence and there is alcohol and there’s this scent of impetuousness that you see with these young boys but there is also tremendous love and family values and great humor and I think that is very important to note.

Jonathan, do you have any Irish links yourself? And have you had any feedback yet from the Irish-American community?

JT: I’m blessed to come from Boston and specifically from this neighborhood in Charlestown and they’ve all been incredibly supportive. I’m very lucky to have that support and I think it is fun for them to see part of their experience put into a story.

Olivia, were you a tomboy as a kid? Did you hang around with a bunch of boys as a young girl?

OW: Yeah, I was a tomboy. I didn’t have a bunch of brothers but I always wanted to have some, so I adopted a few of my great friends to be my brothers. I was very much like Jenny, but as I got older I became more of a girl, and I now have ten amazing, wonderful girlfriends in my life and yet, I still feel like a tomboy all the time. I think I bring that into Jenny.

How difficult is it as actors to wait months and months after getting picked up until your show finally airs?

JT: Olivia and I were talking about this just the other day. People who aren’t in the business really don’t understand what it’s like to be a part of these kinds of projects. It’s an experience that we share and then we create and it’s a very beautiful experience. Emotionally, all of us were cutting ourselves, so to speak. And as far as people watching it, that’s just as a small fraction of the experience.

In the present, we’re so blessed that you guys are here. I’m so thankful that you’re helping us to put the word out. This is such a small little part of everything that we’ve been doing and nothing really affects that experience because it stands on its own and it was such an incredible place for all of us and we’re so changed as actors and human beings because of it.

OW: Also I think we were very blessed to have the opportunity to shoot 13 episodes without premiering so we could concentrate fully on the work without really worrying about premiering and doing press as we’re on set working because that really does distract you. So I think that was a wonderful thing as we got to really concentrate and be in the moment.

Jonathan, at the end of the first episode your character takes a really huge turn. Can he ever go back and redeem himself?

JT: From my perspective, he is a redeemable character and if he’s not redeemable then we got a very serious problem on our hands as a storyteller. But I think he is redeemable and I think people have to understand that this is a story about New York and it’s a story about the Irish underworld perhaps, but it really is about family.

Olivia, do you ever envy the guys who get to run around with guns and act like gangsters?

OW: You just wait. Jenny gets tougher and tougher. I love her strength. There is a few times when you think if I were Jenny I would blow up at that point or I would break down or I would kill somebody myself. But she has learned to practice extreme restraint and self control. She has the opposite reaction with things as she should for a lot of things. But she does get tougher and tougher. The only reason she doesn’t fight as much as they do is because she knows it is usually not a good idea, but she eventually loses a little more control.

What was your reaction when you first read the script for the show?

OW: I was completely shocked that it wasn’t a film. It read like a film, and it actually was better than 90% of the film scripts that I read the previous year. So I had not wanted to go back into the television but the second I read it, I knew I had to try and get this role which I didn’t think I was going to be able to get. But I was completely shocked that it was a TV show.

JT: I had somewhat the same reaction. We read scripts all the time and it’s unfortunate that you see all these movies that get made that just aren’t that interesting. I think that more and more now actors are reading scripts just for the script. But just with this story, I think this came across as spectacular. It was a hard decision. For me, I didn’t really want to play the same character for five years. Looking back on how hard the decision was to do television again, and then seeing the experience that I’ve had and how positive it was, I’m surprised that it was such a hard decision.

In the first episode, it was said that Jenny was married but nothing was said much about that since then. Is Jenny’s husband still alive?

OW: No. Jenny’s husband is dead but she doesn’t know it yet or we don’t think she knows it yet. Joey Ice Cream has a line in the pilot where he says “he showed up in an oil drum and nobody had the heart to tell poor Jenny.” So the idea is she’s in denial or she actually doesn’t know. That resurfaces later on. In this type of neighborhood you don’t just get divorced and she actually has a meeting with the police in one of the episodes that you may have seen where she suggests an annulment. And that’s the only way out that she could possibly envision. But for a girl like her to have been left as it seems since she doesn’t necessarily know he’s dead, it’s such a disgrace for her. She’s sort of falling from grace in a way. And not to say she’s used up for good, but she definitely off the market and in a sad place. She got married to solve one problem with her life that didn’t turn out. In an attempt to solve this problem, she makes more mistakes, and that is the journey of Jenny. She is not supposed to be the saintly good Catholic girl. She has many, many issues and dark places in her life and this is one of them. It doesn’t make sense and it is a huge problem for her. And it continues to get even more complicated.

This series takes place in more contemporary times. What did you guys do about the wardrobe that you are wearing? Do you think it is true to what a New Yorker would be wearing right now?

OW: Yeah. Actually, our wardrobe designer just went to the stores that these people would go to. There’s no Abercrombie and Fitch in there. There’s nothing like that. These are local stores that she found. I’m sure the Donnelly brothers are all wearing each other clothes. And so, it’s all very true to real life. She actually is a wonderful costume designer and then she makes sure none of them look too modern or attractive and that meant that Jenny’s pants are always a little bit too short and everything is not quite right and that was her way of making sure we didn’t look straight out of The O.C. It’s very real.

JT: We wanted to have more of a timeless feel to it. We certainly could have gone further with it. But we didn’t even want to have like cell phones and stuff. But really all we’re trying to do is get the truth at every single turn. We go through all emotions to get at that truth, but there are also things that we want to shy away from. I think one of the things in terms of the wardrobe that was important was to make sure that it was really neighborhood kind of stuff, but at the same time not the “bling-bling” kind of culture.

Olivia, a lot people know you from The O.C.. Can you just tell us how that role has affected your career and a bit about the contrast between that character and this role?

OW: Yeah, well, that role was amazing to me because I had no idea how many people it would reach and how many lives it would touch. I still get letters from young women around the world saying that I helped them accept themselves and how they’re different from their peers and whether it’s their sexuality or just because they feel like an outsider much like my character was. That is what is really important to me about having done that role. I feel like it made a difference in a few people’s lives.

The similarity between Jenny and Alex is that they were both outsiders. Alex was an “outsider” to The O.C.. The difference is that, Jenny, obviously doesn’t know anything about pop culture at all. She never had that opportunity really. She wasn’t able to stay in school. They’re very good because they come from completely different worlds. But their similarities are that they’re outsiders and I really enjoy playing an outsider.

What is now the biggest obstacle to your two characters getting together? Is it that she still think she’s married or a bit too shy to make a move or she is in love with Shawn or something else?

OW: Well, basically the difference between this show and a normal television drama is that, when it comes to the love interest and the love story, we don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the ups and down of love and the flirting and all of that business because there is too many life or death things to be worrying about. The stakes are too high. I think that they both realize that. Jenny would have loved for Tommy to not get in that elevator and to step out and to stay with her, but that wasn’t because she wanted him to be with her. She was trying to save his life because she sees him going down that road of his brothers as losing his way out of the neighborhood and losing his life.

I think that is really what it’s about. And as far as their wellness together, it continues to be this very difficult decision of do we give into our instincts or do we remember that this can’t happen, because I’m married and because I morally object to everything that he’s doing and I told him not to do it and he did it against my will and I think that is really what stops him. I don’t think she is too shy. I don’t think the fact that she’s married is an obstacle either. Tommy knows her husband is dead. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her. She maybe suspects that she knows he’s not coming back at least. But the stakes are too high to give in to anything just yet, I think.

JT: Olivia’s response to that is really a reflection of where we are all as actors in terms of the conversation that we were having with each other and with Paul and Bobby which was that really you think about acting kind of as an iceberg where you got that 5% that you see above the water. But in order to have that 5% buoyed, you have to have another 95%. And so, really I think for me as an actor and what we’re really talking about on the set of The Donnellys was how we are fighting against someone. And that’s particularly true between Tommy and Jenny. We’re not sure how much we care about each other or not sure how much something hurts us or costs us emotionally. And in order to fight against it, you have to have a lot going on under the water.

OW: Hopefully people were really want to follow that relationship.

Did you always want to be actors while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?

OW: Yeah, I think there was no other profession for me. I was either going into an insane asylum or be an actor. I think for a lot of people, if we didn’t have this profession, what would we do? I’m so grateful that you can switch to different characters and talk to yourself and it can be legitimized and get paid for it. I always wanted to do it.

JT: It’s like the older we get, the more and more as actors we’re trying to go back to that place when we were children. We were all great actors then, when you go to the dress up box and you put on that costume. No matter what anyone tells you or anyone doesn’t tell you, you are going to be that way and you can play for hours like that. It’s a great sense that I think we as actors are trying to get back to over and over again.

Paul Haggis has become such a huge figure in Hollywood now winning those Academy Awards. What was your first impression of him and what did you find interesting or surprising about him?

JT: That’s a great question. Paul and Bobby were day-to-day workers with us on this show. It was a very intimate relationship that was created between all of us. When you’re working with him he’s both behind the camera and right there next to you. He really is right there next to you. He’s got a little high power drill or something that he’s converted into a handheld, like a monitor. So he can be very close to you and walk you through and talk you through. And you feel like he’s kind of sculpting you in some way and he’s a huge part of the performance as an actor and he is just tremendous.

OW: He sort of became my mentor when we shot the pilot. I think a lot of people assumed he was not really around and just slapped his name on it for fun and it’s really not the case. He not only directed two episodes, but obviously supervised and edited all of them. He was always available to us and he was open to my very early morning calls about Jenny. Would she say this or would she kill this person? He is very hands on and a wonderful person.

JT: Some people really just didn’t like Crash. But you got to take every project on its own. I think that however you may feel about his past work or his future work, and I mean this positively or negatively, it’s important because I tried to do the same thing to try to look at each project and I tell him and I think that our show really does stand up.

The Black Donnellys airs on NBC on Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

The Black Donnellys airs on the Global network in Canada on Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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