In NBC’s new dramatic thriller THE FIRM, airing Thursdays at 10 PM, ten years have passed since the events in John Grisham’s best seller, which became a 1993 film starring Tom Cruise as Mitch McDeere. Mitch is a lawyer who took down the legal partnership he was working with when he discovered they were allied with organized crime. In the series version, developed for television by Lukas Reiter, Mitch, played by Josh Lucas, his wife Abby (Molly Parker), their young daughter, Mitch’s secretary Tammy (Juliette Lewis) and Mitch’s brother Ray, played by Callum Keith Rennie, have all spent a decade in Witness Protection. When they’ve all been living in Washington, D.C. for six months, Mitch decides it’s time to stop moving across the country and hiding under assumed names. He starts a partnership with a new firm that may prove to be as deadly as the old one.
However, Rennie’s Ray can roll with whatever happens. As an actor, this seems true of Rennie as well. The actor, born in England and raised in Canada, where he still lives, has 109 roles listed on his IMDB credits page, and this doesn’t count his stage work.
Sitting down at a break during the Television Critics Association press tour, Rennie speaks about his gig on THE FIRM. The character Ray McDeere is an ex-con turned private detective who helps brother Mitch however he can. In Rennie’s estimation, the character is so happy to be out of the penitentiary that everything else seems fine by comparison.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did you do any research into private detectives and/or ex-cons in order to play Ray?
CALLUM KEITH RENNIE: The ex-con stuff, I went to a bookstore, just trying to find out the mentality of people charged with manslaughter and the usual origin of why that happens. It’s situational homicide. There are usually drugs or alcohol involved in the situation. A lot of this may be situational – at a certain point in time, things may get pushed too far and an explosive temperament may result in somebody’s death. So it was research to find a place where Ray had a volatile temperament, but it wasn’t something that he wore every day, it was really a situational thing, probably fueled by alcohol and a lifestyle that he chose for many years, bar drinking and spending time with a rough and rowdy crowd, as opposed to his brother Mitch. His milieu was completely different than Mitch’s and that’s where he got himself into trouble and he’s now out trying to redeem some of that.
AX: Did you do any research into the private eye aspect of the character?
RENNIE: I just looked it up online. [laughs] I just looked up how little background [is needed for the job]. It wasn’t a lot.
AX: Speaking of professions, according to your biography, you’ve been a film and television actor since you were twenty-five years old. What did you want to do before that?
RENNIE: Well, actually, I’d done some theatre at twenty-five and I didn’t really like it [laughs]. I mean, I liked acting – I wasn’t sure if the theatre was for me. I’d done tons of different jobs before that. I’d worked lots of jobs, but I still had no direction, so the theatre stuff was just an opportunity to show up – people said, “You should be in this play,” and I’d been doing a live radio show on Saturdays, and we’d developed some plays for this fringe festival in Edmonton, [Canada] and it was an opportunity to try it, and it went well, but there was that starting/stopping that I was going through, not knowing if that was what I wanted, and so it sort of faded away. And then at thirty-three, after a life-changing moment, I did my first TV thing. It was, “Oh, I get it.” I understood the work of being an actor for the stage was incorporated into the work that I was doing in TV, but the way I could look at it was different, because I could never understand on stage, why something worked, why it didn’t work. It was an ongoing anxiety about getting it perfectly right every time. Shooting a very small part on the TV show HIGHLANDER, my first TV gig, I had one line with Sheena Easton [in the episode “An Eye for an Eye”], I realized you get more takes, you get to look at your work later, see what worked, what didn’t work. When you think it’s great, it’s sometimes not. There was a mechanism in it for me to be able to grow.
AX: Weren’t you the guest lead in an episode of HIGHLANDER, where you have an enormous swordfight with Adrian Paul?
RENNIE: [The HIGHLANDER episode “An Eye for an Eye”] was the first episode that I’d gotten. [laughs]. And then the same director, Dennis Berry, brought me in a year later to do another HIGHLANDER [“The Innocent”].
AX: Was that the biggest swordfight you’d had at that point?
RENNIE: It was the only swordfight I’d had at that time.
AX: Do have any recollections of shooting that sequence?
RENNIE: No. I do not. [It was] nineteen years ago. I had a clip of it on a demo reel that I had for awhile. I just remember that there was a great shot of me [doing] a big spit with a sword, just gobbing and a sword, and obviously, the swordfight comes right after that.
AX: You work very steadily in Canada …
RENNIE: I’m still in Canada and Canada is always going to be my home base, because that’s where I grew up and that’s where the opportunities for me to start [acting] were. It was great timing for me when I started at thirty-three, because Vancouver had just started to bloom with X-FILES and the volume of shows to number of actors was quite great, and so it was a nice opportunity to be able to audition, get gigs, learn to work. And then, through that, independent Canadian films were showing up and I was getting to work on those. I like working on small, heartfelt pieces and that’s what Canadian film [has been] and to be invested in a Canadian industry was what I loved. And so you’d work on some American shows and then do these small independent films and then luckily relatively early on, Paul Gross and DUE SOUTH out in Toronto talked to me and I did twenty-six episodes of that, which was an awesome experience. By the time I’d worked on CALIFORNICATION, I don’t think I’d worked in L.A. for ten years [before that].
AX: Where does THE FIRM shoot?
AX: Some of the shots are done in Washington, D.C. Do they do a little location work, or do they just get an establishing shot and cut it together very cleverly?
RENNIE: They shoot some stuff in D.C. all the time, but the structure of some of the buildings in downtown Toronto doubles well and the climate doubles well for D.C. as well.
AX: Have you and Josh Lucas talked about the dynamics of playing brothers, and/or have you and Juliette Lewis talk about the romantic relationship between your characters, or did you just do the scenes and see what came up between you?
RENNIE: We had a couple of rehearsal meetings beforehand. It was mostly just trying to find the time [to rehearse in the schedule of] the show. Juliette I’d worked with before on a movie called PICTURE CLAIRE, Molly I’d worked with six times before.This is the first time working with Josh. A lot of that is like seeing the playing field and how everyone works and how the relationships are, because [the characters] come from quite a history out of the gate, from the book and from the movie. How do we create this idea of a group of isolated people who’ve been in Witness Protection for ten years and hold true to the fast-paced thriller aspect of Grisham’s style of writing? So yes, there’s a constant discussion of how the relationships are working and finding ways of putting grist between Mitch and Ray, and the style of the relationship that Abby and him have is different than the one that Tammy and I have, but we’ve lived out of each other’s pockets for so long that we’ve got some shorthand and we all get each other, we know each other and there are no secrets.
AX: How does Ray feel about Mitch? Is he angry with Mitch for dragging him into Witness Protection, or does he think, “Well, I was in a mess before Mitch got us into this mess, so it doesn’t matter which mess it is …”
RENNIE: Yeah, it’s a mess, but what I’m trying to get through the performance is that he’s happy to be free. Every day that he’s out, he gets to do shit, some of it a bit dodgy, but he gets to do shit, and he’s in the shit with Mitch, but he’s still out and he’s free and he’s figuring stuff out. There may be drama, there may be incidents, but he’s getting to do what he likes to do, and have it with a passion, because he’s not in prison, he’s free for all of this drama, he’s not suffering the results of it yet.
AX: THE FIRM is a pretty serious show, but it seems like some of the lightness that is there is comes from the interaction between Ray and Tammy …
RENNIE: Yeah, it is. Juliette is a fantastic actress and her portrayal of Tammy – she’s spun out, I’m a bit spun out and some acting is from different angles and she’s delightful to work with and great fun. It’s finding that stuff of two wingnuts trying to be in a relationship.
AX: Do you have any questions about how all the plot pieces fit together?
RENNIE: You know what? I’m not really a big picture guy. I’m really on the day, make the scene work and I’m trusting that the people on the outside, like Lukas Reiter, have thought those things through. When we were in the [rehearsal] room, he had an answer for all of those things. He’s very clear about why certain things happen. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought of it before. I can’t see where the arc of the whole thing goes, so I really just want to make the scenes as good as possible. If questions come up, I ask them, but I don’t try to get bogged down by them.
AX: Are you a fan of the legal thriller genre?
RENNIE: Part of this [is enjoyable] for me is because I’m not having to be involved as a lawyer, I’m not in that world, and I don’t know if I would ever choose to play in that world. I do like the idea of an ex-con being a private detective, and helping out his brother, who is honest and doesn’t want to cut corners and doesn’t want to draw outside the lines. I get a kick out of that.
AX: You played Rick Felder on the first season of THE KILLING last year. Will you be back on that? Do you have any other projects coming up besides this that we should know about?
RENNIE: I did a small piece on CALIFORNICATION this season. THE KILLING – I’m not sure what’s going on there, because I’m doing THE FIRM, and then maybe a film or something through the hiatus.
AX: So they may have to write you out of THE KILLING to accommodate this?
RENNIE: Well, THE KILLING – we were never set completely. If we can find some time and they say “Yes” to it, I’d be happy to come back and either wrap up the character in a fun way or ride the show out. I had a great time on that, I loved the cast and the crew and the way that show works. I was really interested in the part, because I was a guy who is just trying to hold onto – I don’t know if I’m giving away any secrets.
AX: Anything else you’d like to say about THE FIRM or your career overall?
RENNIE: My career has been awesome. I have a lot of gratitude to be able to continue to work. And watch THE FIRM. It’s awesome.