Apex: Neal McDonough on Bruce Willis & Playing an Empathetic Villain

Neal McDonough is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, playing his share of authority figures, everymen, heroes, and villains. When it came to working with one of the industry's most venerable actors again in Bruce Willis in Apex, he couldn't pass up that opportunity. I spoke with McDonough about his role as Dr. Samuel Rainsford in the film, working with director Edward Drake, and his approach to his roles. Apex follows ex-cop Thomas Malone (Willis), who's serving a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit; he is offered a chance at freedom if he can survive a deadly game. Six hunters pay for the pleasure of hunting another human on a remote island, but once Malone arrives, all hell breaks loose. Laying traps and playing mind games, Malone tries to turn the tables and fight for his life and his future.

Apex Star Neal McDonough on Bruce Willis & Playing Empathetic Villain
Neal McDonough in Apex (2021). Image courtesy of RLJE Films

How Apex Is Latest Collaboration Between Neal McDonough and Bruce Willis

"Bruce and I did Red 2 a few years back, and we developed a nice friendship from it," McDonough said. "Corey Large, the producer said, 'Do you want to be opposite Bruce in the next film we're doing?' He's one of my favorite guys in Hollywood and one of the most talented screen actors. No one does what he does in front of the camera when he turns it on, like Bruce, and I think he turned it on particularly well in Apex. I'm really proud of this movie on so many levels. We had a great time doing it. Ed, the director, just nailed it, and my daughter, London [Jane McDonough], got to have a nice little part in it, so my wife and I were very happy with that, but it really came down to working with Bruce again. He's one of my favorites, and I was blessed to be able to do it again."

Apex Star Neal McDonough on Bruce Willis & Playing Empathetic Villain
Neal McDonough in Apex (2021). Image courtesy of RLJE Films

Working with Drake was about as easy as it gets on set. "[Ed] knew exactly what he wanted," the Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City star said. "He was a very prepared director. His shot lists were always readily available. Everyone knew what was going on, and there were never any surprises. Then let the actors do what they do best. He trusted us with that, and we trusted him with the cameras. Because of that, it really worked so seamlessly." When playing a villain as one as Rainsford, the actor emphasized the importance of making the character as relatable as possible.

Apex Star Neal McDonough on Bruce Willis & Playing Empathetic Villain
RLJE Films

When you have a bunch of professionals on set and have a really cool script to work with and a director that really knows what he's doing, it makes for a really fun, enjoyable environment to create. I think that allowed us to create characters that were different from a lot of films. My character here seems to be the villain, but you understand this guy that he's on a strange and bizarre level. He seems like a nice guy and a businessman. He's just tired of hunting pheasants and wants to hunt human beings. As strange and bizarre as a theme that it is, that's just who this guy was. So I never played him like a villain. I just played him a guy who was kind of bored with life at times and needed a challenge, as we all have at times. If you play a villain like he's doing something horrible and you've lost the audience.

When you play a villain like he's just doing his job, this is what he thinks is right. Everything that I do, I think is right as the villain. It makes it a much scarier villain and a much more understandable villain for people to say, 'Oh, I get why he's so twisted. The man's twisted and I kind of like him.' That's the way I go after my villains. Heroes obviously are a big difference. So to play opposite Bruce, who is not a squeaky clean guy either and has his issues that he has to overcome those issues to survive. That is great conflict and when you put the two of us together at the same time, that's fun screen time and the audience, I truly believe will not be let down by our performances and the film in general. I think Edward did a really terrific job molding this to be a really great kind of independent action thriller. I think he did a phenomenal job and I'm blessed to be part of it.

It seems natural given the intensity McDonough has in his roles; he compares his prep work to that of a professional athlete. "I love doing what I do," he said. "There's nothing really difficult on this as they never really are. There are challenges with running or challenges of action, things. You have challenges with all kinds of stuff, but it's like game day for me, as a performer and an athlete. I'm always up for the challenge of whatever arises as an actor. So there's physicality and playing with all the different weapons, assembling and disassembling weapons. I've done all this before in so many different movies that now everything's kind of like second nature to me. I'm at a certain time in my career that knows I've done so much. I understand how to do so many things that work in front of the camera so well that I've been really at a really nice time in my career, and I'm just very fortunate and blessed to have been doing for as long as I have really worked my craft. Now I'm ready for bigger and better roles, and that's what's happening the last couple of years, and I'm so humbled by it." RLJE Films' Apex, which also stars Large, Alexis Fast, Nels Lennarson, Lochlyn Munro, Megan Peta Hill, and Trevor Gretsky, is currently in theaters, on-demand and digital.

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Tom ChangAbout Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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