Mark McKinnon delivered an outstanding performance in the BET Her original film The Waiting Room, which premiered last month – and it’s not difficult to figure out why. The topic of cancer is personal for Mark, who has lost relatives to both breast cancer and prostate cancer. He spoke candidly with me about how that impacted his work on the film and why he got involved in it at the start.
We also discussed his next project, The Available Wife, which is a much more light-hearted venture that will bow on UMC next month. And as if that’s not enough, Mark also works as a minister and runs McKinnon Acting Studio to help other performers learn and enhance their skills. Get to know this versatile star in our interview!
Brittany Frederick: The Waiting Room deals with cancer, which is something your family has battled. When you have first-hand knowledge of a subject like this, does it change the way you approach a project?
Mark McKinnon: Absolutely. It definitely does, because whenever I’m building my character, usually I have to get to know something I may not be familiar with or get comfortable with an unfamiliar relationship. But when it’s a project where I have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, I’m able to pull from a lot of what I’ve already experienced, rather than having to go interview somebody or try to learn something I’ve never experienced. I’m able to pull from my own memory, sit down with myself and really process and remember what it was like for me in that situation.
BF: Was that personal experience why you signed on to the film, or were there other factors that also attracted you to the project?
MM: It was a couple of things that made me want to do it. For one, knowing that Sheryl Lee Ralph was the director was a big selling point for me. That’s somebody who I’ve always wanted to work with. I remember seeing her every day on TV on one of my favorite shows. To learn from her and get directed by her was a big, big honor. That was one of the things that got me.
Secondly, when I read the script, I saw so much of myself in the character. The way my character loved, the way he protected his fianceé, I’m the same way with my wife. When my wife had a health scare, we almost went through a very similar journey emotionally with our relationship – the struggles, the fight that my character went through. Everything about this story made me say, “You know what? I would love to to be a part of this project.” That’s what really got me.
BF: Then you have The Available Wife, where you play this major music producer. It couldn’t be more different. Did you have separation between the two roles?
MM: I had plenty of space to switch gears. I filmed The Available Wife in the spring of 2019. Then The Waiting Room, we just filmed that a couple of months ago in July 2020. I definitely had time between the two, filled with a few other projects.
BF: Was it fun to play someone with that high of a profile?
MM: Yes! It was fun being able to manage a company that had a lot of money. I enjoyed making offers to artists in the movie. I was able to take the time to learn the music business a little bit, to get to learn what it’s like on their day to day, when they’re dealing with their different activities throughout the day. That’s something I’ve always been interested in, but never had the time to really get to learn.
BF: When you’re not working, you’re running your own acting school. Has teaching helped you refine your own individual craft?
MM: Honestly, it was the opposite. When you’re working with an actor every day, even though I’m working with a script every day, helping another client, in my mind I’m still working on my craft. There was a period in my acting career where I wasn’t training. I thought I was, because it felt like I was doing it every day while coaching a client, but I wasn’t. As I began to get bigger roles and roles that had more depth, I realized there was a weakness in my preparation. There was a weakness in what I was doing. I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time, but then I finally said you know what? Let me go ahead and get back to my acting coach. Attended classes.
It was like a solid year that I didn’t take any classes. When I finally took a class again, I realized how green I was. Just like any art, the less you do it, the less you work that muscle, the harder it is to really get back on top of your game. I felt really bad once I did start taking classes again and I realized wow, I’ve been missing out on a whole lot. The year that I wasn’t taking classes was the worst year of my acting career. That year I didn’t book one job. I was living off a high from a series of different bookings I had back to back.
I had a really good year in 2016; everything was going good. But then in 2017, I’m riding that high. I didn’t train. I didn’t really feel like I needed classes anymore, which was a big mistake, and nothing happened for a whole year. I was inspired to do something about it in 2018 – to make sure I was doing something daily when it came to training. I have a team of five acting coaches at my acting studio; I made sure they were pushing me and training me in our off hours and keeping me encouraged. It definitely inspired me as an actor to make sure that I’m under the umbrella, just like I’m pushing actors every day.
Here I am telling them all the time, look, you got to stay consistent with your training. You got to do your best daily, do something, read, see the coaches, whatever. But on the flip side, I wasn’t doing it myself and I didn’t want to be that coach. Literally for the past two years I made sure I was doing what I was teaching, rather than just preaching it.
BF: Is there anything else you want TV fans to know about Mark McKinnon?
MM: I want to talk a little bit about how my faith takes me through what I do as an actor and an acting coach. I always believe that people need to have some type of spiritual base when they’re dealing with the industry. This industry is so much of a roller coaster, that if you don’t have a spiritual base, you can lose yourself. One of the things I’m always trying to encourage people to do is to make sure that you understand your purpose and you understand your passion. When you understand both of those things, you’re able to navigate through this industry. So many of my friends that I know ended up losing who they were or losing the mission that they had or their purpose.
I believe everyone was put on this earth for a purpose. When you understand why you were put on this earth and how you can help someone else, you are literally helping them stay the course, no matter how things look.
The Waiting Room is available on BET.com. The Available Wife will premiere on UMC Dec. 17 before airing on BET in 2021. Photo credits: DJ Corey Photography/Courtesy of ICON PR (first photo), Vernon S. Davis/Courtesy of ICON PR (second photo).