Pop Culture

John Magaro Refuses to Play the Hollywood Schmuck

Magaro was born and raised in Ohio before moving East to study theater. He had no expectations for life as an actor, but made his way. He’s done the New York journeyman thing for over a decade now, particularly establishing himself in underdog indie darlings—small, personal movies like Past Lives and Kelly Reichardt’s 2020 masterpiece, First Cow. “Other actors want to do action scenes all the time and get a kick out of doing that—I like sitting there and connecting and talking,” he says. “Tom Cruise is jumping out of planes and shit. I don’t know if I could do that. Well, I can’t jump out of a plane to begin with. I’m petrified of flying. No way…. But I’ve got to pay bills, so maybe I should be jumping out of a plane.”

One thing’s for sure: In conversation, Magaro is unabashedly himself. He’s a little self-deprecating, very sharp, and open about his worries around everything from Hollywood’s brewing guild-strike crisis to watching himself onscreen to, indeed, flying. (In summary on that last point: “I’m an anxious person to begin with, and I take medicine for anxiety, and blah blah blah.”) He knows his taste, he knows what he’s best suited to as a performer, and—while bumping up against the economic realities of a working actor’s life—he knows how to marry those two strengths. He agrees that he’s in a pretty good spot, having shined in Reichardt’s latest film—this spring’s Showing Up—just as Past Lives, a likely Oscar contender, prepares for a long campaign. 

Magaro will say he feels “lucky” a few times during our interview. This is partly because he looks around at the state of everything and wonders where he could’ve possibly fit in as a newcomer. “I am not a movie star…but the notion of a movie star isn’t what it was even 10 years ago, which is crazy to say,” he says. He sees those bigger names going out for the kinds of roles that he’s spent his career fighting for, and that also—were he not on the radar of Reichardt and Song and McKay and Todd Haynes and you get the idea—might now be out of his reach. “Because of the nature of the business and financing and getting eyes on movies, it helps to have someone with a social media presence of millions and millions of followers,” Magaro says. “I have none. I’m the schlub sitting at home and living his life. That’s who I am—and it’s really hard for me to be anything I’m not.”

That’s Magaro’s distinctive appeal as an actor—the gritty authenticity, the presence and care and unfiltered quality imbued into each of his characters. In 2015 alone, he played the New York Times journalist after Rooney Mara’s heart in Carol; stood out among The Big Short’s cadre of fast-talking, self-interested traders; and anchored an unexpected Orange Is the New Black love story as Yael Stone’s dreamy prison pen pal. It’s the kind of year that might have marked a turning point. For Magaro, the shape of offers didn’t change, but in holding his own opposite big directors and bigger stars, he realized he could do this. “Before that, I would step on a set and every time just be petrified that the words wouldn’t even come out of my mouth,” he says. Now, he just needed to adjust to his newfound onscreen ubiquity. People started coming up to Magaro, sure they saw him in something. “I can’t list my résumé—I feel like a schmuck doing that,” Magaro says. “The worst thing you can ever do is be like, ‘Yeah, I was in The Big Short,’ and they’re like, ‘Haven’t seen it.’ Or ‘I was in Carol.’ ‘Haven’t seen it.’ Then you just feel like a total asshole.”

The folks who are seeing these projects? Directors like Reichardt, who granted Magaro a rare—and great—leading role in First Cow, and Song, who’d told Magaro she was a fan of his work before casting him in Past Lives. “Through good fortune and relationships, I was able to start getting jobs with directors who I think are more than just directors, they’re auteurs and they’re offering something very unique to cinema and they’re doing something very special,” Magaro says. He admits to being nervous about the viability of this corner of filmmaking. “I watch these films that come out and they just don’t do the numbers that they did when you and I were kids,” he says. “I’m really worried about what’s going on, the future of films like this.” 

What of Past Lives’ rock star bow in Park City, where it was the toast of Sundance? Magaro allows for a happy grin. “It was nice. Exciting,” he says. “But maybe we’re nerds. We come to these nerdy conventions of film and we all celebrate our nerdiness doing this thing, and then we take it out to the rest of the world, and they’re like, ‘What? Who cares?’”

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