Steven Goldman sat down with actor Nick Offerman, who stars as Dick McDonald in the new release The Founder.
Based on a true story, The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) follows the trail of how traveling salesman Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) began to work with Dick and his brother Mac McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch), who created the first McDonald’s restaurant in California in the 1940s.
However Kroc eventually goes on to take control of the company, transforming himself in the process into the ‘founder’ of an economic empire.
Best known for his work on the popular sitcom, Parks and Recreation, Offerman, a twenty-year film and television veteran, recently starred in the FX series, Fargo, for which he was nominated for a Critics' Choice award.
How did your casting in The Founder come about?
It’s funny – Megan (Mullally) – my wife, suffers from this as well because we’ve both had the good fortune of having a popular television character that we’re identified with. In both of our cases our shows continue to be on the air and so people have this idea that we must be doing great. “Oh yeah, I see him all the time!”
Anyway, I was with Megan doing a comedy tour and I get this call from my agent. “They are making this movie. Michael Keaton is playing Ray Kroc. John Lee Hancock wants you to play one of the McDonald brothers with John Carroll Lynch.” This is after Parks and Rec is over, and I’m just absolutely gobsmacked to get that call. I’m not a big shot, you know. I feel so lucky that they thought of me… I was like, “Holy Shit.” And it is the best job I’ve ever had. I don’t know what it is that made them think of me, but I was incredibly grateful. I read the script and I said to my wife, “Honey, this is the best part in a movie I’ve ever had, by far.”
How much did you know about the McDonald’s story coming into the project?
I actually knew quite a bit. I am a big fan of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. So I had a sort of overview of the story. I knew that the McDonald’s Corporation, to make a gross generalisation, had made a practice of selling us all really tasty chemical concoctions.
But what I didn’t know was the personal narrative. I knew that the McDonald brothers had started a restaurant and that Ray Kroc had somehow done them a terrible disservice. But to learn the human details of that came as an amazing, edifying and horrifying surprise.
How did you set about researching the life of Dick McDonald?
Don Handfield (producer) was the main scholar and Jeremy Renner (Handfield’s producing partner) was hitting the gas pedal for 11 or 12 years before I showed up. So these guys handed me their stacks of research when I arrived, which made it all very cushy for me.
There were recordings of Ray Kroc and Dick McDonald, and there’s tons of stuff of Dick McDonald on YouTube. I’ve played a real guy before and, you know, if you’re playing Ray Charles and singing songs that’s one thing. There’s a public perception that you have to live up to. But in this case it’s more about being true to the story, the character, and the integrity of the person.
I understand that you do look like him though?
Somewhat. I mean I think I look a lot more like his grandson. But yeah, we could definitely all be in the same family.
How true is the film to the actual events?
Pretty true. I mean there’s some conjecture about the actual conversations. We know that such and such transaction occurred over this particular phone call, but we don’t have a record of the actual dialogue. The places where it veers from truth, to my knowledge, have a lot more to do with compressing the business dealings of seven years into two meetings, just to move the narrative along. But by and large, I believe all the signpost moments are true to life.
What’s your take on Ray Kroc? Watching the film, we see the character doing some fairly reprehensible things, yet we still empathise with him to a degree.
I think Robert (screenwriter, Robert Siegel), John Lee Hancock and Michael Keaton have masterfully created this sort of ‘surprise story.’ We’re like, “Okay, I know this story… This guy gets kicked around, he can’t sell a goddamn milk shake mixer, but he gets an idea and he’s going to try and pull himself up by his bootstraps.”
We’ve been kind of trained to root for him. But then his ambition and ruthlessness sort of cause him to take this villainous turn… I’m fascinated watching the movie too. I have these strong feelings about the industrial food complex in general… So it’s not a black or white story. As Jeremy Renner has said, there’s a lot of grey in his story.
And so while I absolutely am infuriated by what he did to the McDonald brothers, I absolutely understand why and how he had to do it. He had no choice. You see who he was, where he was, and what drove him. And then you see that he had this idea and he was proven right. He had this idea for what this restaurant could become, what eventually became a real estate business, as well. And he was absolutely proven right (laughs).
What was it like working with John Carroll Lynch (Mac McDonald)?
I’ve always admired him. When I got this job I read a lot more about him and was not surprised to learn that he also had a background in theatre. He thought he was also going to make a go of it in Chicago, which is where I started too. And he would have if he hadn’t gotten the audition for the famous Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he did a bunch of great work and was discovered for his role in Fargo.
So I was very excited, because I’d admired him from afar and he was certainly no disappointment. Working with John and Michael made me feel like a college freshman in a really healthy way. In our scenes, I really was monitoring myself to make sure I was on top of my game so that I could keep up with them.
What about your director, John Lee Hancock? What did he bring to the mix?
I’m a big fan of his films, particularly his ability to ask a thematic question in them. Parts of his films are always endearing and parts of them are always harsh, but in the end I don’t ever feel spoon-fed or hit over the head with a message. Rather, I’m left with an essential question about Walt Disney (Saving Mr. Banks), a football team (The Blind Side) or with this one, about Ray Kroc.
What questions did The Founder leave you with?
From the point of view of American capitalism, (Ray Kroc) is one of the greatest heroes of our history. He achieved one of the greatest business successes in the history of Western civilisation. On the other hand, he was horribly villainous and avaricious. He didn’t destroy people’s lives, but he really f****d over many of his collaborators and many of the people who helped him get to where he was.
More than anything, it was so important to him to receive the credit for being this entrepreneur, when it wouldn’t have cost him that much to say, “These two great guys in San Bernardino had this idea…”
He’s still the one who did it. I mean he was the founder of the McDonalds Corporation. If he had merely had the humility to say, “These guys came up with this cool kitchen. This other guy, Harry Sonneborn, came up with this cool real estate idea… I’ve taken these ideas and scattered these restaurants around the globe”. But instead his vanity, his ambition, his insecurity, his sense of vengeance for being the little guy for so long, caused him to lie and take all this credit for himself. And part of that lie involved denying the McDonald brothers their royalties, which were based on a handshake. He betrayed his word. And so leaving this film, I am faced with that question of: “How much is your integrity worth?” How much can you earn and still be considered a success, weighed against how many people you stepped on?
What is that success worth? I mean, I wonder how happy he was, if ever, in his life. If he had been true or decent to the McDonald brothers, with a fraction of the success, I wonder how much happier his life would have been?
The Founder is out in UK cinemas from February 17th.
Interview by Steven Goldman