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Off the Ice... with Mark O'Brien

An exclusive interview with the Canadian actor, writer and director

by Matt Cudzinowski @canadiensmtl /

Newfoundlander Mark O'Brien made a name for himself north of the border portraying Des Courtney on the CBC's Republic of Doyle for six seasons before making it big in Hollywood in films like Arrival and shows Halt and Catch Fire and The Last Tycoon. Now a full-time Angelino, the lifelong Habs fan still sports his favorite team's colors every chance he gets both on and off-set. He even wears Canadiens jerseys when he plays pick-up hockey in Burbank, CA. We recently caught up with the 33-year-old actor, writer and director to learn more about his passion for the Habs and some of his new projects.

How did your love of the Habs begin?

MARK O'BRIEN: I think If you're from Newfoundland, you're either a Leafs fan or a Habs fan. I would say it's 90 percent Leafs fans or Habs fans, and 10 percent other teams. Like most people, I think it's your parents. My dad was a huge Canadiens fan. He was growing up when they were in the '70s. He watched them all the way from Jean Beliveau to Guy Lafleur and onward, so that's what I saw. I immediately wanted to like what he liked, and at a very young age I became a massive fan.

Who were some of the Canadiens players that you paid attention to most?

MO: Saku Koivu. He was the guy. He was drafted in 1993 and I remember around the time he first started. I also remember Brad Brown. He was a Newfoundlander. He was drafted in 1994, and then Terry Ryan was drafted the next year. Terry is actually a buddy of mine still. I remember those teams around the mid-'90s because I was around 10 years old. I remember watching Koivu, Mark Rechhi, Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse. Damphousse was a big one for me. I was a huge, huge Vincent Damphousse fan and Patrick Roy as well. Roy was probably the first one, then Koivu. They were the ones I followed. It was such an interesting time. They were such a different team back then.

Quiet Habs fan in a sea of blue for Game 4 at #msg #gohabsgo

Une publication partagée par Mark O'Brien (@markobrienforeal) le

Was Michael Ryder also a player you paid attention to?

MO: Definitely. I remember when the Habs drafted him. They also had Darren Langdon, which was interesting. The Habs had a lot of Newfoundlanders in the organization. When Ryder came back a second time, I remember the playoffs and he had a really good season that year when he came to Montreal. In his first season, he was nominated for the Calder. He led all rookies in scoring. I remember Raycroft won the Calder. I was like - 'Oh man, Ryder got robbed!' (Laughs) Terry Ryan and I still talk about Ryder and how amazing his shot was. He was a smart player, but his shot is almost what carried through his whole career. It was that strong of a release. I was a huge Ryder fan.

Did you play hockey growing up?

MO: I started playing when I was seven. I played minor hockey until Bantam, so I played until I was 16. I still play now. I live in Los Angeles and I play a few times a week in Burbank at a place called Pickwick Ice. I used to play in leagues when I lived in Toronto, but it's hard when you're an actor because you're always leaving town. I missed whole seasons, so after a while I thought it just wasn't fair to the team. I just play pick-up now. When I first moved down here, one of the first things I had to figure out was how I was going to play hockey. It's great. It's fast. It's a good group. I've got my home and away Canadiens jerseys and I wear them when I play. I'll get some heckles from some guys on the bench, of course. I think there's something about Americans - when they see you in a Habs jersey, they want to give you grief for some reason - probably because we have 24 Cups. (Laughs)

I've been to a couple of Habs games down here. I actually met Max Pacioretty after a game once because my manager is from Montreal. He introduced me to him. I was just blown away by how classy he is. He's such a great player. Just meeting him then, I was like - 'What a guy!' He was so nice to everyone he met and very well-spoken. He's a really good representative of the team. I was so nervous meeting him. I've met big actors before, but with Max Pacioretty I was blushing. (Laughs) I'm older than him and I shook his hand and said - 'I can't believe how many Habs fans are in the crowd.' He said the team could probably go all the way to China and still see jerseys in the stands.

How many times have you been up to the Bell Centre?

MO: I've seen five games there, I think. The greatest one was when I went for my buddy Allan Hawco's bachelor party in Montreal. Allan created the show Republic of Doyle and was the lead. He's also a big Leafs fan. We knew some friends at RDS, so we actually got a really great suite and we watched a game there in 2012. That was probably the best experience because I was given a tour of the Bell Centre and we saw everything. I remember walking past Travis Moen and I saw Pierre Gauthier, who was the GM at the time. I saw the RDS truck. It's funny, because I'm an actor I'm around a lot of film things and technical things all the time, somehow being in the RDS truck just blew my mind. (Laughs) Then, I was up in the booth with Pierre Houde when the Canadiens scored. That was such a thrill. I'd watched hockey in French for 20 years, so it was almost like meeting Ron MacLean. Now, my French is limited to hockey announcer expressions. (Laughs)

Have you converted your wife, actress Georgina Reilly, into a Habs fan as well?

MO: Here's how much I've converted her into a fan. When we're out around friends, we're just like hockey fans. I get her to say Habs players names. She's like - 'Galchenyuk. Gallagher. Pacioretty. Price.' She has a crush on Price, like I think many people do. She always remembers Lars Eller, though, because when you watch games in French she loved the way his name was pronounced. He isn't with the team anymore, but she doesn't care.

Have you found any kindred Canadiens spirits on set over the years?

MO: Some. It's hard in the U.S. I went to a Habs-Rangers playoff game at Madison Square Garden last season because I was doing some work in New York City. The Rangers fans were as passionate as anyone else. But, there are so many people who help make baseball, basketball and football rule. Any time I work in Canada, I'll find fans there. One of the people I was really excited to meet one day was Viggo Mortensen. He's an incredible actor and a huge Habs fan. I saw him this year at the Independent Spirit Awards. He was nominated for a movie called Captain Fantastic. I went over, shook his hand and said I was a huge fan and a massive Habs fan. You could see his eyes light up because he probably never gets that.

Do any actors ever give you grief about being a Habs fan?

MO: Allan Hawco and I have had our disputes. It's friendly, but I think Allan is probably the person I run into the most where it's like - 'I'm Leafs and you're Habs.' We give each other grief in a fun sort of way, of course. But, I don't dislike the Leafs like a lot of Habs fans do. They have a pretty interesting team. I'd like to see them stack up against the Habs in the playoffs. There's still no better feeling than watching the Habs beat the Leafs at the end of the day. (Laughs)

Come on Habs! I've done MY job

Une publication partagée par Mark O'Brien (@markobrienforeal) le

How much pride do you take in The Last Tycoon, which was just released on Amazon Prime?

MO: It's weird how sometimes you end up doing things that you never thought were kind of possible, especially when it's something that you're so enamored with. For me, that era of Hollywood is something I've always been totally in love with - '30s Hollywood and the changing of the art at that point in time. It started happening before that, but in the '30s it got really strong. It led into my favorite films, which are film noir. That is kind of the beginning of a really interesting time in film because I'm obsessed with movies and I love Hollywood. I live in Hollywood and I think it's great. I'll still kind of see it with these glossy eyes of "Movie Town", so to be a part of that world was such a thrill in the sense that you do feel that you're in that world when you walk onto those sets. We also shoot on a studio lot, so there's nothing that doesn't feel authentic - except when you see somebody go by on their cell phone. (Laughs) It's very, very invigorating in that way. It's beyond a thrill. It's so fun to be a part of that world.

Tell us more about your character on the show, Max Miner. Do you relate to him in any way?

MO: I read the pilot and the description of Max was 'a young man from Oklahoma in Los Angeles for the first time livid at his misfortune'. I thought that that was really, really interesting because I grew up in Paradise, NL just outside St. John's and my family had very, very little money. I felt that way, too. I was angry about it. When I saw it, I could relate to it right away. He has no leeway into this world of Hollywood. That's how I felt in the acting world. I didn't have anyone in my family in the industry and I had no friends in the industry. I just had to make it on my own. It's been wonderful, but it was certainly difficult and had its challenges. To play a character like that, where the stakes are even higher, where he's struggling for survival, I was immediately drawn to it. He's someone who has to use the immediate assets around him to survive. I had a lot of empathy for that. I've kind of gone through that in a lower form myself.

You've been quite busy lately with work. Tell us about some of the projects that really stand out to you.

MO: They're all really interesting films and they're all different. I will say that there's a film that I did called Kin. I'm very curious to see how it does because it's such a different script, directed by twins Jonathan and Josh Baker. I know it's going to be so cool and I really respect those guys and that production company 21 Laps, which is actually run by Shawn Levy who's from Montreal. He was one of the producers for Arrival, so it has this kind of cool connection to Montreal and Canada. We shot in Toronto. There's another film I made called Parallel that I'm so excited about because it's such an interesting idea and I became so close with the cast. It wasn't a huge budget film, but it was a really strong script with really good producers. I also became close with the director, Isaac Ezban. We formed a great working bond. I actually just wrote a movie for him that he wants to direct. 

Press junket day for @arrivalmovie HOLLA!

Une publication partagée par Mark O'Brien (@markobrienforeal) le

Is there one piece of work that you're particularly proud of?

MO: I think Arrival will stand the test of time of being a really great film, but Republic of Doyle really gave me a foot into this industry. I grew as an artist. I learned how to really be a professional on set, and when you're doing a series for six years, you really learn so much about filmmaking. I learned so much as a filmmaker, as a writer and as person. I grew up on that show and met my wife while I was filming it. I'll always owe a debt of gratitude to that show in general, just being on it. Being from Newfoundland and being so proud to be from Newfoundland, and to shoot there, it was just such a specific time of life that was really singular. It gave me everything. That gave me a foothold as a person and I really appreciate that.

As far as work and performance goes, I really love this role on The Last Tycoon. It is one of the smaller roles on the show, but I just think it's so interesting to see someone who's constantly up against something. I really enjoyed playing that. I think it's probably the most I've enjoyed a performance.

What about your co-stars over the years, who did you really enjoy working with?

MO: There have been some big ones. Kelsey Grammar is really incredible. Matt Bomer. Clive Owen. I was lucky enough one day to do a read with Al Pacino at his house. There's also Mads Mikkelsen, who I worked with on Hannibal. He was just what a leader is supposed to be on that show. In film, we have a thing called a call sheet. It gives everyone a number, which is easier for the paperwork and to know who's in what scene. He exemplifies what it means to be a No. 1 on a show. I only did two episodes, but he was so gracious. He had lunch with me every day. He knew about me before I came to set. He was so caring of the crew and of the guest stars and his fellow actors. That is how you act on set. When you're one of the lead actors, you kind of set the tone a little bit because you're the one everyone is looking for on camera. When you're caring and conscientious like that, it really is contagious. I was really impressed. The other person I'd say is Denis Villeneuve. He's such an incredible director, but he's also a wonderful human being. He talks to everyone the same and treats everyone with a great deal of respect.

Is there a particular genre of story that fits you as an actor?

MO: I did a lot of comedy early in my career, but I've been tending toward drama lately. I really like drama with a touch of sci-fi. I think it gives you the idea of another world. I'm not a Star Wars or a Star Trek fan, per se, but I like the idea of something else. I really like that in films. Stranger Things is a great example of that. I like something that is really contained. Dunkirk, for example, is kind of a big film, but for all the extras involved that's something that's still really contained. They're stuck in this situation or that situation. I find that really interesting because in those situations you get to see what people are really like. That's why I think I like that as an actor, when things are kind of restrained.

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