Dermot Mulroney is in the midst of a hostage situation, and he can’t stop laughing.
The actor is hard at work on the set of “Crisis,” an unquestionably dark political thriller filming in Chicago, but each time he starts to recite his lines, he meets co-star Max Martini’s eyes and immediately breaks character. “This hasn’t happened for 20 years,” he proclaims to a roomful of bemused crewmembers. “I have tears in my eyes.” Seconds pass before Martini dissolves into laughter, too, and soon the rest of the room erupts.
Later, Mulroney shakes his head in mock shame, blaming the duo’s outburst on “jokes that have now been running for five months. You couldn’t explain them, and they don’t make any sense in the first place.” That sense of humor is consistently apparent on the set — between scenes in which his character gets punched in the face and spouts lines like, “No one’s going to die here,” Mulroney snaps back to impishness, bantering with the crew about the weather and writing fake names on Martini’s chair.
It’s especially impressive considering “Crisis’” chilling premise: The series, which premiered March 16 on NBC, follows the fallout after hijackers seize a school bus filled with the offspring of Washington’s elite. Mulroney is convincingly creepy as Francis Gibson, whom he cryptically describes as a “seemingly mild-mannered ex-CIA analyst who’s a chaperone and parent on the bus. As far as we know, I’m one of the hostages being held at this undisclosed location.” He pauses, smiling mischievously at his careful avoidance of spoilers. “Did I put enough ‘allegedlys’ in there?”
But Mulroney’s playful persona belies a rich vein of talent and a devout commitment to his craft. “He’s very serious about the work,” says Mark Piznarski, who directed him in several episodes. “He’s never late, he’s the first one on set, always prepared, gracious with receiving notes and collaborating. He’s a joy to work with. I wish all actors were like him.”
Mulroney, 50, has honed that work ethic over three decades, with appearances in more than 65 movies. A Virginia native, Mulroney was discovered by a Hollywood agent in 1981 while studying film and acting at Northwestern University. “There were all of those actors going right from Steppenwolf and Practical Theater Company — Malkovich, Glenn Headley, Sinise. It was Chicago’s year that year, so I got swept up in that trend,” he says. Armed with rugged good looks and considerable training, Mulroney never looked back. Only months after setting off for LA, he booked a lead in a TV movie called “Sin of Innocence” and, as he puts it, “I’ve basically been working ever since.”
Though the ’80s and early ’90s saw Mulroney starring in a number of high-profile movies — including the Western “Young Guns” and the critically acclaimed drama “Longtime Companion” — according to the actor his big break came in 1997, when he played a groom-to-be torn between his best friend (Julia Roberts) and his fiancee (Cameron Diaz) in “a little movie I filmed in Chicago one time called ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding.’ ”
His rakish grin widens when he reminisces about filming the romantic comedy with close pal Roberts. “One of the most memorable scenes for me is on that tour boat, where Julia and I go up and down the river under the bridges,” he says. “Coming back here to shoot [‘Crisis’], I’ll go by a stairway to an L where I know we shot a scene, or by a nightclub where we filmed. I’m always happening upon these locations that I shot at 16, 17 years ago, and I remember them like it was yesterday.” So do his fans — to this day, it’s the first film they bring up when they approach him. “It’s its own phenomenon in that it’s remained as popular as it ever was,” he says. “It’s dropping into a short list of romantic comedies that will last forever.”
Though the success of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” meant Mulroney could have spent the rest of his career playing twinkle-eyed romantic leads, he consciously avoided typecasting, portraying a scheming waterbed salesman alongside Jack Nicholson in 2002’s “About Schmidt” and an oilman trapped in the wilderness in the 2011 Liam Neeson thriller “The Grey.” Last year, Mulroney took to the small screen, guest-starring on the sitcom “The New Girl” and HBO’s “Enlightened,” then reunited with Roberts in the film adaptation of Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.” “I tried really hard to get that part,” he says of playing Juliette Lewis’ sleazy fiance. “Julia and I were very thrilled.”
But “Crisis” represents the biggest departure for the actor thus far: As Francis Gibson, he’s unlikeable and (potentially) criminal, his handsomeness obscured by glasses, shaggy locks and a menacing stare. The challenge of playing a (maybe) bad guy is a welcome one for Mulroney, but it’s not without its consequences. “I’ve finally understood what people mean when they say, ‘The character got under my skin,’ ” he says. “I’m exploring the psychology of a man who has elements in his personality unchecked by conventional thinking. I’ve had some dark thoughts these days.”
He jokes that some of his bleaker reflections might be attributed to his living situation: He’s camped out in a tiny studio apartment, taking the Pink Line to and from work in the midst of Chicago’s coldest winter in years. “I can’t believe I walk to work in this weather, a mile from the L stop. I’ve been approaching it like you would approach the Iditarod,” he jokes. “It’s at least half mental. You just wear the cold like a warm shirt.”
Mulroney’s close friendship with co-star Martini helps ease his polar vortex pain — the two regularly grab steaks at Gene & Georgetti (500 N. Franklin) or a “brief plate of eggs” at his favorite diner, Don’s Grill (1837 S. Western). Though he’s usually able to go incognito on the Pink Line (“There’s a distinct difference in train commuters — they really don’t give a s*** about you”), he laughs when recalling how he was recently recognized at Don’s. “Three women down the counter put it together and asked for a picture,” he says. “Don’s is very small, maybe 15 stools and that’s it. So I’m in an enclosed space, taking cellphone pictures with 15 people watching it go down. That was a little weird. But everybody’s really nice; it doesn’t take much out of my day.”
Mulroney’s Chicago fans might be surprised to learn that he co-owns local nightclub Double Door with his brother, Sean. “We got into business 25 years ago, but I haven’t been there in a long time,” he says. In fact, he abstains entirely from Chicago’s nightlife; instead, when his filming schedule allows it, he hops on the Blue Line to O’Hare and heads back to LA to catch up with his wife Tharita Catulle, their daughters Mabel, 5, and Sally, 4, and his 14-year-old son Clyde with ex-wife Catherine Keener. But he admits that it can be “a challenge” to balance work and fatherhood. “As much as it’s status quo for me, I kind of hate to admit it, but it’s status quo for them, too, that their dad works out of town,” he says. “I’m like a traveling salesman.”
It’s a sacrifice Mulroney doesn’t take lightly, and one he only makes when he feels passionate about a project. And he’s grateful to be at a point in his career where he’s able to have that kind of agency — and, of course, the freedom to have a little fun. “I expect to be working as an actor until I decide I don’t want to, so that right there is a career achievement,” he says. “I’ve always had a great time, but I’m enjoying myself more than ever before. That’s what you’d hope for after all these years.”
Dermot riffs on everything from his time at Northwestern to his lip scar:
On ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’
“[The fact that Julia and I don’t end up together] is what makes it a great movie. You need to be upset, or it wouldn’t be that great. If those characters had gotten together, that movie wouldn’t have the same impact that it’s had.”
On his iconic lip scar
“It was a long time ago, so I’ve always had it. I was 3½ and I was carrying a dish for our pet rabbits. And I tripped and it broke, and I fell on it. I definitely remember that day, even though I was 3 years old. I don’t think about it or see it, but it’s always been there. It certainly has its place on my face, right below my right nostril. That’s where it belongs.”
On his college days
“Northwestern was really fun in those days. Probably more rules now. Probably better students too. I don’t think I’d be accepted to Northwestern in this day and age with what I was coming to school with back then. It’s a better, more sought-after college than it was in ’81. I was young.”