The Many Faces of Ray McKinnon

We profile Ray McKinnon, the actor, and the creator of the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel original series Rectify.

It’s not easy to make a living as an actor. While a doctor, a lawyer or, hell, even a television writer can get by with a nice looking résumé and a couple of glowing recommendations, actors are subjected time and again to the whims of hack directors looking for that ineffable, magical quality that will imbue their beloved characters with the spark of life (full disclosure: I am a hack director). 

Indeed, perhaps no other profession is as beholden to the subjective taste of insecure artists and the inevitable litany of rejections throughout an actor’s career that could send even the most diehard Marlon Brando wannabes back to grad school. Among those with the mettle to stand firm, a handful ultimately triumph with the help of luck, a chiseled jaw and well defined abs, while others manage to eek out a comfortable living playing the industry equivalent of Triple-A baseball.  

With a mile-long résumé including such groundbreaking roles as “Ominous Figure” and “Man with Basketball,” Ray McKinnon, creator of The Sundance Channel’s critically lauded original series Rectify, is a perfect example of one of those journeymen character-actors who seem to be everywhere at once, but whose name we will never actually know – “OMG, you’re that guy! That guy from the movie!” 

Yet it turns out that beyond the Howdy-Doody looks and loping Southern drawl that have him permanently filed in casting agency look books under “Southern Guy,” Mr. McKinnon is a restless artist trying to make sense of heady themes such as faith, forgiveness, life and death. With Rectify back for a second season, I decided to take a look back at a few of the roles that have made McKinnon’s face part of our collective subconscious, one brief scene at a time.

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1) Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – Trooper 1

Ey boy. Whadda you think yer doin’ with this car?

Even with a whopping nine nominations at the 62nd Academy Awards in 1990, it seems “Trooper 1” didn’t quite make the shortlist for best supporting actor. Nevertheless, playing across Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, McKinnon could have had it worse for his first credited role. With just over a minute of screen time, McKinnon still manages to make his point as the abusive southern state trooper checking up on the black man and Jewish woman driving through his jurisdiction.

2) Needful Things (1993) – Deputy Norris Ridgewick 

It seems McKinnon’s time as Trooper 1 paid off a few short years later when he was cast as the bumbling small-town deputy in Steven King’s overlooked gem, Needful Things, and this time with a first and last name to boot! Playing alongside sheriff Ed Harris, McKinnon wasn’t in bad company as he struggled to maintain order in a small New England town terrorized by the arrival of the devil himself (who, apparently, is Swedish).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmLgi5mdTVo

3) Apollo 13 (1995) – Jerry Bostick – FIDO White

Okay, he wasn’t actually on Apollo 13, but everyone remembers the motley crew of Houston eggheads who used their scientific superpowers to bring Tom Hanks home safe, right? And who didn’t memorize McKinnon’s line about the “free return trajectory option?” Okay, maybe that last one’s a long shot, but as the only guy in the control room with a plaid blazer, director Ron Howard certainly gave McKinnon the extra umph he needed to stand out above the pack.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kID9iXY5Nuk

4) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – Vernon T. Waldrip

While McKinnon certainly wasn’t inactive in the five years between Apollo 13 and O Brother, Where Art Thou, his brief cameo as the lanky gentleman suitor in the Coen Brothers’ musical masterpiece has given quote fodder to Coen fans for nearly 15 years, not to mention his priceless fisticuffs KO versus George Clooney. After such an epic, old-timey beat down, I would be surprised if Clooney has set foot in another Woolworths since that fateful day.

5) Deadwood Season 1 (2001) – Reverend H.W. Smith

In what could be considered his breakout role, Deadwood creator David Milch finally gave McKinnon his chance to shine as the kindhearted frontier reverend, H.W. Smith, who’s never short on funeral work as the ballsy pioneers of 19th-century Dakota territory drop like flies over the course of season one. After slowly descending into madness, Deadwood‘s writers finally put the nail in Smith’s own coffin in the season 1 finale, Sold Under Sin.

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6) The Blind Side (2009) – Coach Cotton

Yes, Sandra Bullock was without a doubt the shining star in this saccharine dose of feel-good Hollywood fare, but how many people can say they got their buns slapped by an Oscar-winning actress? While we can’t attest to his private life, McKinnon’s Coach Cotton got to enjoy a love tap from Ms. Bullock as he trained her adopted son from the wrong side of the tracks into NFL super-stardom.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4NDTgEuXRg

7) Take Shelter (2011) – Kyle

If you haven’t seen Take Shelter, Writer-Director Jeff Nichols slow-burning masterpiece of psychological terror, run to your local home-video store immediately. Of course, if you no longer have a local home-video store, you can probably still check and see if it’s available for online streaming. The point is that this international festival hit is one of the best pieces of American cinema to come out in recent years, and even McKinnon’s brief scene as the concerned brother, Kyle, is filled with more subtlety and grace than most blockbuster franchises could only dream of.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS7eS8DQsvo

8) Footloose (2011) – Wes Warnicker

Ray McKinnon, the actor, had a big year in 2011, scoring credits in five feature films and television series. Admittedly, playing Uncle Wes Warnicker in the remake of Footloose isn’t exactly a claim to fame, but as far as acting goes, it’s a paycheck, right?

9) Sons of Anarchy Season 4 (2011) – Lincoln Potter

Scoring another season-long supporting role in FX’s highest-rated original series, Sons of Anarchy, McKinnon played the manipulative, sadistic Assistant U.S. Attorney who’s hell bent on taking down everybody’s favorite bad-boy bikers. While perhaps lacking the subtle dramatic arc of his previous television role as Reverend H.W. Smith, McKinnon was given the opportunity to barge into a court room hoisting an inflated blow-up doll. Few actors can claim such a feat.

10) The Last Ride (2012) – Stan

While we can hope that director Harry Thomason’s critically panned Hank Williams biopic won’t be the last ride for Ray McKinnon, actor, it was his last role before switching focus to Rectify. With a brief, supporting role in the film’s first minutes, we can safely say that over 25 years as a working actor, Ray McKinnon has stayed true to his journeyman roots. And good for him. It’s hard enough making a living as a working actor, but going from playing bit parts to writing auteurist television is something perhaps only Ray McKinnon has achieved.

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