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Ryan McDonell GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Friday, 05 February 2010

Last year Marcel Damen caught up with Ryan McDonell, better known to Battlestar Galactica 2003 fans as Lt. Eammon "Gonzo" Pike. He talked about how he got in the business, his first movie role on K-19: The Widowmaker, brushing shoulders with big actors like Liam Neeson on it, his scenes and his death on Season Four of the Battlestar Galactica series, what he's currently up too and his future plans. 

I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

No problem, no problem at all.

I've read you're the singer in the rock band Fifth Penny Back? Was this supported by your father, even though the genres are miles apart?

Yeah, I used to be... I grew up on the east coast of Canada and moved here. In like 2002 or so I moved to the west coast. I did that for quite a while on the east coast and I left it when I came over here. This was like a rock band and my dad is like a folk musician actually. I played with him a little bit at times, just because he wants me too. I came out here and started another band called TV Heart Attack and that's been taking off actually, quite a bit here in Canada at least right now. It's been great.

I've also read you're a crazy MC, you got some dope rhymes and can do some mean battles. Let's hear it!

(laughing) That, I've got no idea what you're talking about. If someone is going to write down some raps or something and they want me to rap it, I can do that. I'm certainly not an MC. I played a rapper once in a movie and maybe someone twisted it from that. No, I don't "battle" on my off time.

I thought we could do a mean battle!

Yeah, right! No, none of that. I have no idea where that came from.

I've read your nickname is Cuffy. Where does that come from?

It's so funny that you've dug this up. Actually my grandfather gave me that. It has to do with this hockey player he used to play with as a younger chap, back in New Brunswick. He reminded me of him, so he started calling me in Nova Scotia when I was a kid. It kind of caught on out there. All my friends kind of know me as that. Some friend's parents might not even know my real name. (laughing) As soon as I moved away, I've never heard of it since until you just brought it up in these questions. So it's really funny and very, very rarely I hear that name anymore.

I found it on the net.

Really? So funny! On IMDb? I've seen it on that before. I don't know if it's like my mom who put it on or something.

Maybe one of your friends.

Yeah, friends from high school or something.

 

Ryan McDonell

Ryan McDonell

 

You began acting at the age of 15 with leading stage roles in eastern Canada. How did this came about?

The principal at my school knew I'd always taken an interest in it. He directed plays and stuff in the area I grew up in. They were doing The Outsiders and they wanted me to be Ponyboy [Curtis]. I came in and read for that and ended up doing it. I kind of caught the bug from there. He kind of took me under his wing a little bit. His name was Vic Flurry. He kind of pushed me to go on and go to the theatre school in Halifax, called Neptune Theatre.
We kind of trained a little bit and through there I ended up doing The Sound of Music too, which was a musical and I had to sing a bit -- things like that too.

I kind of caught the bug and wanted to jump into film. There really isn't a market out there for it, so I kind of luckily got a small little part on a movie that was filming out east, but as far as getting out of town and get to where the stuff was going on, I had to move across country.   

Do you still do stage work?

I haven't recently. It's always something that I'd love to do. Vancouver is not a huge theatre city per se. There's lots of great theatre here, but it's not something that's as busy as the film and television here right now. And it so happens that that's now kind of taking up my time. I mean, I always love the stage. The stage is incredible -- playing music on it. I play quite a bit in the city and around here in western Canada. Being on stage is like no other -- the immediate response and the energy you can get from when you mess up. It's that energy you can't get in other places sometimes like in the film environment. It's exciting, it's a rush.

IMDb lists your first movie role as a Russian soldier in K-19: The Widowmaker. Is that true?

Yeah, that's right.

That's a great start for a young actor.

Yeah, it was a bit of a dream. I was asked to go -- they were doing the small casting calls, because most of the movie was already cast when it came to my home town, Nova Scotia, to shoot. They ended up giving me one line in the movie. So I did that and I think it was cut out of the movie actually but I'm on the back cover of the VHS and that was like a big deal for me, as a young guy. It was exciting. I was on set for about a month. You're brushing shoulders with guys like Liam Neeson, who is incredible, Peter Sarsgaard, who's on there as well. He was younger at the time, but is now one of my most respected actors. You're just amongst that kind of energy of that crew. It was really something you just soak up as much as possible. I didn't have to do much. It was not like... but to be in that environment, right out of high school. It was really exciting and definitely sparked the flame to continue on that. 

Did you actually get to work with Harrison Ford?

I didn't have any scenes with him, but I did meet him and stuff like that. He's iconic. It's pretty incredible to shake hands with someone like that. Especially at the time when you're eyes are so big at everything. It was just an enormous crew and so overwhelming. You have your little CBC shows, which is a network in Canada here in Halifax and then you have a grandiose movie like that coming in. It's quite a shocker for the whole city and exciting. To be a part of it was awesome to say the least.

Was a lot of that shot on location or also in studios?

A lot was shot on location. I didn't travel anywhere else other than my home town. I know -- I believe they shot some in Russia, in Toronto, Winnipeg, Halifax and many different places, but I only stayed in Halifax.

That's too bad.

Yeah!

I know you're a bit too young to have seen the original Battlestar Galactica series on television when it first aired, maybe on reruns or something. Had you seen it ever?

I've seen clips of the old one, but never into any detail. I do love it, but it didn't really spark until I saw the Miniseries for Battlestar Galactica. I'd read for it -- I auditioned for it. I can't remember what role it was, but it was back in the Miniseries period when they didn't even know it was going to go into a series. That's when I started paying real close attention to it.

 

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon 'Gonzo' Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon "Gonzo" Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

So you actually already read for the Miniseries?

Yeah, like a lot of people in Vancouver. Where I was living right now, I know in the Miniseries alone, percentagewise there's a lot of local Vancouver actors that are on it. They turned into regulars and some stars from the show itself now. It was a big support in Vancouver and it did really well -- it bodes well for a lot of people.

Did you actually follow the series through the years?

I did, I mean I wanted to do it after I read for it first and when I saw the Miniseries, I saw how clearly awesome it was. The camerawork was incredible. It was really real. I knew a few people that were on it. I did know Grace Park, who I'd been in class with, and a few other people there on the show. I used to hear stories from them about the scripts they were getting. Everyone was chumming up a bit to see what happened on the next episode. It was a really exciting atmosphere to be a part of. It was serious television. So, to even come on and do like a day or two was pretty amazing.

You first starred as an unnamed viper pilot in "Occupation" and "Precipice" in the liberation of New Caprica and then it became Lt. Eammon "Gonzo" Pike. So they finally gave you a name but what kind of a name is that?

I like to think it is a great name. (both laughing) Some of my favourite movies as kid were the Muppet movies, so when I heard my name was going to be Gonzo, I thought it was pretty cool. He's like the wacky daredevil and that was kind of the underlying theme with him. I know they wanted to recruit some pilots to bring along on the Demetrius. It so happened I got on there, which was fantastic. It was one of those missions -- it was up in the air and no one really knew what we were really going for and if we should believe Kara. Like you've been sitting around waiting for good missions and now this one kind of comes along on sort of like a sewer ship. (laughing) One of the last things you want to be doing.

I thought it was so funny they had Gonzo on Battlestar Galactica. I didn't know they had Muppets in Battlestar Galactica world.

(both laughing) Go figure! You can pull out any name these days on any kind of scifi show and get away with it if it's done well. The thing with Battlestar Galactica is that you could call someone Kermit and it will still be cool. There's just something about this show -- the realness, the quality of the color grain that it's shot in, the music especially... It's a very powerful, I think, important show. They just have a way of getting away with anything. There's all kinds of scifi names you can come up with. Some people can pull it off and some people can't. I definitely think Battlestar can. They can call it any way they want as long as I can be on the show. That's kind of the idea. 

 

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon 'Gonzo' Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon "Gonzo" Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

Had you made up a backstory for the character you played?

There was a bit. It was more or less the idea that he disagreed with Kara the whole time as a lot of people did. There started to be a lot of mutiny. The fact that we've been called up to do these missions, it seems like for him that it's been one of those moment where he's kind of like one of those hot shot guys -- Top Gun / Tom Cruise thing. I just want to fly and shoot stuff up, give me the mission kind of a deal. We were sitting around for so long that you get antsy. You just want to do whatever and jump on people. False accusations start coming up. It was just more of a waiting game for Gonzo or it seems like that. That was kind of my take with it. Until we had to go and do some serious things later.

When Pike was stationed on the Demetrius, you got to work with a lot of the main cast. How was that like? Was there anyone in particular you liked working with on that?

It's weird, all the scenes when you have so many people like that, it never seems like you're working with just one person -- it's like this big cohesive unit. Everyone has got so many things to say in each scene. I particularly didn't have the chance to work one on one on things. I liked working with Tahmoh Penikett. We had kind of a little thing where we got a scuff. It's more of being in the atmosphere of those guys, because they've been together on the show for three or four years. Their banter back and forth with each other is just... you can't really replicate it in any other way. When you step into that it can be -- I'm sure it's probably daunting for a lot of people to just be thrown into an atmosphere of people who've been together for so long and it was weird. All in all, it was great to have been able to just show up and with Katee Sackhoff and Grace Park. So many people I know: Bodie Olmos. Those guys were all just great people too.

I would really have loved to had the chance to work with someone like -- the obvious people -- Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos, Callum Keith Rennie. I've always really respected him, so I was hoping one day, but... You know, those guys, they carry that show. It's really been fun to be a part of it.

In the series Pike ends up piloting the raptor that destroys the Hub's FTL drive. The raptor gets severely damaged and Pike wants to jump out, but is stopped by Seelix. The raptor then gets hit and when the bullets pierce the canopy we see Pike getting hit several times. That's a pretty cruel death. How did you find out they were killing you off? Were you excited about shooting it? How did you feel about how it ended?

I almost got killed off earlier than that due to strictly other things. I was going to do another movie and they were dying my hair blond. They messed up my schedule and didn't realize they needed me for the mutiny episode. You see, after Tahmoh [Penikett] actually knocks me out, for accusing him -- the conspiracy with his wife; all that kind of stuff and he knocks me out. You don't see me for like an episode, like Tahmoh locked me in the back room. I'm pretending that I got knocked out from that instead of getting bruised. I was a little scared there and thought: "Oh no, is that the way I'm going out!"

 

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon 'Gonzo' Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

Ryan McDonell as Lt. Eammon "Gonzo" Pike in Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

But they need pilots and I was lucky enough that they dyed my hair back right away, so I snuck back on there, hopefully without anyone noticing. I had a few episodes and part before we went to do that scene. I found out that they were going to be killing me, which is always, you know... You want to be doing the show as much as possible, but if the plot is great and if your affecting the grant scheme of things in a cool way, then bring it on. Hey, it's exciting. You got to go into the green screens and get into the actual ships and they start moving it around. There's some genius camera people that work along side of it, of the ship, while you're doing those action scenes. It's always cool. It's like you're a little kid -- Luke Skywalker. It's pretty fun.

To know you're going out like that, to die like that? Sometimes there's a reason, like if my character was very well liked by the media or as far as bad guys are concerned, if they're annoying, you just need a good kill. That's for all different kind of reasons, but I think it was great. The biggest thing with Battlestar Galactica is that you don't know if you're really dead or not. They left things hanging a little and it's an interesting... especially talking to Michael Rymer and other great directors that do them. Anything is possible, absolutely anything. That prospect is always exciting and I know it's been exciting for viewers to see things come back and forth. There's definitely that in the future. I think that's sort of cool.

I just heard they green lit the new movie ("The Plan") which happens between Season One and Two. I was wondering if you were also asked for that?

No, I have not currently been asked to work on the movie they're making. No, I haven't been asked.

That's too bad.

I wasn't in that season so. I can't imagine... If they did, we'll see, but I don't think so.  

The show has now wrapped. Have you taken any souvenirs?

No, they're pretty hands on with their stuff there. You might get your medals, you dog tags, but I'm not going to say if I got mine or not. (both laughing) They were pretty... those were hot commodities to be had, I think by a lot of people, so it's pretty cool. The suits and all of those little things, I didn't get to keep it, but I know some people that did.

Yeah, they're auctioning it all off.

Yeah, really. Make a killing.

I read you were on Dr. Dolittle 3 together with Luciana Carro who was also in Battlestar Galactica at the same time you started on it. Did you get to meet each other on filming that movie?

Oh yeah, plenty. Actually, we'd known each other too, prior to that movie, so I knew of her on Battlestar Galactica at the time. While we were actually working on Dr. Dolittle 3 she was also doing Battlestar Galactica. I don't know what season it was on, I think it was during the last episode, when she died. They were shooting that right alongside the movie, so it was really exciting for her to go back and forth to the heaviest stuff on Battlestar and then going on riding horses in Dr. Dolittle. (both laughing)

She expressed her gratitude for being on the show and how awesome it was and that word kind of spread really fast here in town and made a lot of people to want to be on it. It was an honor to say the least to be part of that series. Especially since I just came in on the Fourth Season. I think it's very concise and just an honor, basically, to be a part of it.

 

actor Ryan McDonell

actor Ryan McDonell

 

Cool. What are you currently doing?

Right now I just got done on a Universal movie, called Slap Shot 3: The Junior League. Then later in the fall I'm going to do something called Prep School.

What kind of parts are you particularly looking for?

That's a pretty broad question. A lot of things are presented before you go and actually look into it. I think a challenge, a good challenge, would be something you're a little bit scared of in the beginning. Something you can learn. Something like when you go on a Western and you do not know how to ride a horse and you go ride a horse. Or if you're a horrible skier and you're supposed to play a world ski champion. You overcome your fears and go and learn how to ski. That type of things are great. Anything along those lines where you get to learn a thing or two while you're doing it, is always exciting to me, so.

Any wish for an actor or director you'd like to work with?

Wow! There are so many out there. Wow, wow, wow. (pondering the question)

Who are your big examples for instance in acting? Who do you look up to?

I look up to... I like Gary Oldman. He's a good favorite of mine. I like Ed Harris. Directors... I like the classics like Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, stuff like that, but also these new guys like Paul Thomas Anderson -- guys like that. They're really stepping it up as far as bringing a pitch to life. The camera work that Paul Thomas Anderson does and Michel Gondry people like that. These guys are really innovative and are into storytelling in really cool ways. To ever being able to work with someone like that would just be incredible, a dream.

What do you feel is the best part you did so far?

My best part? You know what, I don't know if I... I'm not sure if I can say. Some of the ones I think I do well and I do horrible. And when you do horrible you get great reviews for it. (laughing) I don't know if I'm the person to ask. I had the most fun just recently, doing a hockey movie and to be in that. I played hockey every day and I grew up playing that as a kid and to be able to show up to an arena every day and to just kind of play hockey and the scenes in between. It was a pretty easy job, it was great. So that was the most fun, I could say, I guess.

Any time for hobbies?

I've been scoring some films these days as well. I play in this band right now, which is sort of a hobby, but not really. We've been selling a lot of our songs to television shows and different movies. So it's been kind of a little duo of acting and music right now. I haven't really had that I wanted to stop and do the other yet, if that road comes. When it does, I'll have to make that decision and I will when it comes. I'll still do as much of it as I can. It's been good, it's been great. I've got some stuff on iTunes. TV Heart Attack are on iTunes and on the internet and you can find that.

Okay, we'll look it up.

For sure! (TV Heart Attack website)

I'd like to thank you again for taking the time to do the interview.

Oh, no problem, Marcel. Thank you!

 
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