By Emily Williams
Reflecting on her success in the film industry, Judy Garland once said she was “born at the age of twelve on an MGM lot.”
Today, show business isn’t so tied to location. Technological advancements have made it easier than ever to make a name for yourself and build a career from the comfort of your own phone.
Alabama native and career actor Michael O’Neill has seen it from both sides.
A Mountain Brook resident, Michael, along with his wife, Mary, will share their experiences in the industry at the Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon June 4 at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
“The business that we will be discussing includes how does an actor get a job and how that has changed since Michael began his career,” Mary said. “The structure of his business. He formed a corporation that is the entity that contracts with production companies for his talent … generally, his experience over 30 years in the business.”
At the June Mountain Brook Chamber luncheon, the O’Neills also will discuss what it means to be a career actor rather than a star.
Michael’s first role was in Fred Astaire’s final film, “Ghost Story.”
Since then he has appeared in more than 100 roles. Among his most notable film projects are “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Transformers” and “Seabiscuit.” He is also well-known among “Grey’s Anatomy” fans for portraying Gary Clark, a grieving widower-turned-gunman who committed mass murder.
Montgomery-bred, Michael was born to a farming family and graduated from Auburn University in 1974 with a degree in economics.
Instead of entering a more conventional career, he took a leap of faith. He traveled to California to pursue a career he knew next to nothing about; he had never even been on a stage before. He began with acting lessons, which later took him to an acting school in New York.
A lot has changed about the industry since Michael’s entrance into the world of acting. Many of those changes have made it much easier to get away from LA and make a home in Birmingham.
“The fact that the industry has become more mobile and more technology-dependent makes it easier,” he said.
No longer does he have to appear in a room before a panel for auditions. He simply records his audition and sends it to a casting agency.
“Very often a production company looks at my reel online and makes an offer without an audition,” he said. “The mobility means work for me can be anywhere.”
That mobility also means that work takes him across the country, during the past two years sending him to Los Angeles, Savannah, Nashville, New York, Washington, D.C., Northern California and Toronto.
“One of the reasons I love this area is the ease with which I can get to and from (Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport),” Michael said. “Our house is about a 20-minute ride to the airport and traffic is nothing compared to California.”
The O’Neills moved to the Birmingham area in 2011 to be closer to Michael’s aging father and his brother.
“At the time, our three girls were close to high school age and we knew Mountain Brook offered excellent schools,” Michael said.
With Annie, Ella and Molly in school, Mary took the Alabama bar and now works for the international firm Ogletree Deakins’ Birmingham office. She also volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for Jefferson County CASA and the Alabama Lawyers Assistance Program.
Mary never saw herself living in the South until she spent time in Michael’s old stomping grounds of Lake Martin and Auburn.
“As a native New Yorker who lived most of my adult life in California, my perception of Alabama was jaded until I got here,” she said. “Now I don’t see myself living anywhere else.”
“Coming home to Birmingham gives me an opportunity to slow down, connect with my family and friends and relax until the next gig,” Michael said.
Film Industry Comes Home
Over the past year, Alabama has experienced a huge increase in films made locally.
“The film industry here brings so much cash infusion into the local economy,” Mary said. “Small businesses benefit from the talent and crew taking their earnings and spending it at restaurants, dry cleaners, gyms and shops.”
Alabama has some stiff competition, though, according to Mary. The industry here is still limited.
The state gives out a maximum of $20 million in tax credits each year, which can be eaten up by just two films.
“So, it’s limited and will keep a lot of production away from the state,” Mary said. “Georgia has no cap, one of the reasons it’s the location of choice for so many shows and films.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal stated in July that Georgia-licensed films had an economic impact of more than $9.5 billion in the 2017 fiscal year – $2.7 billion of those dollars in direct spending for the state.
Though he does not consider himself a star, but a career actor, Michael will be gracing the small screen in spring 2020 in a new NBC show “Council of Dads.”
The show is about a father whose life is thrown into disarray by a health scare. He seeks help from a few of his closest friends to act as “back-up dads,” role models for his kids for each stage of their lives.
Michael, who frequently plays an officer of the law or military officer, is taking on the role of Larry, the main character’s AA sponsor.
“Larry is a man who lost his own family to alcoholism, and, sober, he’s being given a second chance to be a part of his mentor’s family,” Michael said. “He’s not sure he has the tools to succeed.
“Ultimately, he proves to be a calming presence who shows his love through his actions,” he added.
For those who live in the area and dream of turning acting into a career, Michael has some words of wisdom.
“The best thing young people can do is get training,” Michael said. “Train with a good acting teacher.”
In Los Angeles, he first studied at the Theatricum Botanicum under Will Geer – best known for portraying Grandpa Zebulon Tyler Walton on the series “The Waltons” – and his daughter Ellen Geer.
For those who are looking to build a good foundation for a future in film production, Michael suggests the University of Montevallo.
“The University of Montevallo has developed a very good production program and is committed to training young people for the film industry and other forms of media,” he said.
To hear more from Michael and Mary O’Neill at the June 4 chamber luncheon, visit mtnbrookchamber.org.