Written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), The Belko Experiment tells the story of eighty Americans working in a company in Bogota, Colombia. When an unknown voice comes over the company intercom system, they hear an announcement that they must kill thirty co-workers or be killed themselves. Trapped within the confines of the building, the entire staff find themselves in the midst of the cruelest of circumstances and must decide how they’re going to survive.
One of these trapped employees is Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley), a socially awkward top executive who becomes aide de camp to Belko’s villainous COO. A veteran of stage and screen, McGinley’s career spans more than four decades and features an incredible variety of projects ranging from dramas (Platoon, Wall Street) to action (The Rock, Point Break) to comedies (Office Space, Scrubs). When asked what would draw him to a project like this, McGinley admits that, for any film to be attractive, it begins with the quality of the writing.
“First, it’s the script… if it’s not on the page, I’m out,” he remarks. “You get in the room with these people and they try to convince you of all of the things they’re going to do on the set and it’s not true. If it’s not on the page, you’re dead meat. So, if it’s on the page, that’s good.”
While The Belko Experiment has drawn comparisons to other genre films such as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, McGinley argues that what sets this film apart from the rest is both the quality of James Gunn’s writing and its cast. In the end, McGinley was stunned by Gunn’s ability to spin a strong narrative while also allowing McLean space to create his own vision as well.
“I think James Gunn is such an agile writer and Greg McLean was so adept at handling this huge ensemble that what sets it apart is the quality of the cast and the quality of [the] writing,” he claims. “He put it all on the page and he largely let Greg orchestrate the film. [James] was pretty amazing at not stepping on [his] toes and usurping his power as director. [That would be] hard when you’re someone as skilled and as amazing as James is to not kind of elbow in there… which he did not. Ever. He did stay for about three weeks longer than he meant to because he was having so much fun.”
As for his first time working with McLean, McGinley was extremely impressed by his work ethic and ability to balance multiple character arcs.
“He was just cranking. His pace of work and his ability to orchestrate that set with, maybe 20 principles on the set which is very unusual. Usually there’s the leading man, the leading girl, the best friend and the bad guy. Usually there’s four principles. And, in this, there were twenty of us.”
“We had a real family experience down there,” he continues, “which is very unusual as you progress forward… Actors have become hired hands and they kind of come and go and then they’re on to the next thing. It was a lot of bonding and some lovely friendships that evolved out of that gig, which is not usually the case. People have families. They have places they have to go. You have to commit to the next picture. Then, all of a sudden, you have something outstanding like Belko where we’re all down in Columbia together in Bogota. That’s a real treat.”
One of the most unique characteristics of the film is its location. With all the action taking place within the confines of Belko’s claustrophobic office space, one might wonder how the film can maintain its intensity. Nevertheless, McGinley believes that the tone is maintained largely due to the strength of the film’s background artists.
“The big difference for me was the background artists were all soap stars in Bogota and they played the tone of the piece. As the piece evolves, obviously, it becomes more and more desperate and they played the tone so real and were so invested that it was stunning. I mean, these are soap stars—they’re huge stars in Bogota—and, [with us,] they were background artists. They’re unbelievable [and it really] contributes to the tone of the piece.”
Unfortunately, however, sometimes real world events have an impact on productions such as these. Despite the film’s sci-fi setting, the cast and crew found themselves given pause for reflection after the events in San Bernardino, CA in December 2015.
“We shot it down in Bogota, a year and half or two years ago,” he recalls. “[Then], in the intervening time, there was that workplace slaughter in San Bernardino, California. Even though it’s science fiction, I think Belko had to take a chill pill for a second because, if you’re not into [that genre, it] could be confused with workplace violence. It’s not about any of that. It’s science fiction. It largely had to take a time out for a while.”
Of course, McGinley is most fascinated by the film’s examination of characters in a heightened hyper-reality. For instance, he believes that the most thought-provoking aspect of the film is watching characters decide how to deal with their circumstances.
“What becomes interesting about the film is the decisions that people make in order to stay alive. What cliques become vital? Who chooses to hide? Who chooses to band together? Who chooses to go underneath their desk and pray? The different decisions that people make is what, to me, is most interesting.”
When asked what he might do under the same circumstances, McGinley doesn’t hesitate when he reflects on what his motivation would be.
“I would find a way to get home to my family. I’d do whatever it took. That’s probably why they cast me. I don’t think there’s that big a distance between me and Wendell. I think I’d have a different approach than him… but I’d do whatever it takes to get home to my family.”
It doesn’t take long speaking with McGinley to discover that family is the most important aspect of his life. In fact, McGinley insists that his family comes first, even to the extent that they travel with him whenever possible.
“My people travel with me now–not to Bogota. It’s too dangerous. But… my whole troop came with me last summer [while filming Stan Against Evil],” he beams. “They made that whole thing doable. I don’t have any interest in traveling away from them.”
What’s more, McGinley’s love of his family has also spread into his desire to help those in need as well. Referring to himself as a ‘special needs advocate’, he serves on the board of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation an ambassador for the Special Olympics. According to McGinley, this passion is also personal, rooted in the deep love he has for his son.
Says McGinley, “My son Max was born nineteen years ago with Down Syndrome and, once you get your head out of the sand and start looking around after—in Max’s case, his infantile seizures and sleep apnea. Once those things abate and the playing field starts to level out, you look around and see who else you can help. Being a part of the special needs community is sort of my main job and I’m a storyteller after that. I like to help people that can’t help themselves. What greater cause? People that can’t advocate for themselves.”
By demonstrating his commitment to his family, John C. McGinley continues to prove that he is not only a renowned character actor but also a man of character. Soon, when The Belko Experiment is released in theaters, we’ll also get to see if Wendell Dukes is as well.
The Belko Experiment opens nationwide on Friday, March 17th, 2017.
To hear more from John C. McGinley about his body of work and current projects and passions, listen to the interview audio below.