M.C. Gainey has been the face of evil for years. The journeyman actor has played Tom Friendly in Lost and Bo Crowder in Justified, with guest appearances in series from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to CSI and supporting roles in various movies over the last thirty-five years. This fall, he’s an integral part of The Pardon, a film that follows the story of the first woman convicted of murder in Louisiana, and he connected with ScreenFish from Los Angeles.
When I admit that he’s certainly intimidated me, even given me nightmares, Gainey laughed a deep chuckle. “I do get that a lot,” he admitted. “But which ones are your favorite?”
We spent the next few minutes discussing Justified, a role that Gainey found rewarding. “Westerns are too often reduced to modern contrivances,” he said. “But this was Elmore Leonard, just a good storyteller all around.”
Gainey shared nuggets from his experience breaking into Hollywood after acting around the country beforehand. He said that when he showed up in Los Angeles, a producer took one look at him and instructed the director to put a gun in his hand.
“They said, ‘He looks like a bad guy,'” Gainey said, matter of factly. “These shows like The A-Team needed a squad of goons a week, so I worked up the goon ladder.”
“Some of the films and shows I have done have actually inspired people and made them laugh. If you’re the star, you get to control that, but I’m a journeyman actor. There’s not a lot of personal satisfaction in the outcome because I’m doing my job. If you were in the hospital watching television and it made you laugh that I got mustard squirted in my face in Wild Hogs or something like that, then it’s a beautiful thing.”
“I believe for that moment, when you’re laughing, that you can’t be sad. For that moment you’ve forgotten what you were struggling with. I just don’t give myself much credit for that.”
Gainey laughed, remembering some of his more notorious roles. “I think maybe I view it that way is because much of what I’ve done is scare the hell out of people. I think Breakdown was my scariest, nasty role. So, to anyone I scared, I’m sorry.”
“Generally, I try to fight it. I remember with Con Air that my guy was the convict who flew the plane. Here is this horrible gang of guys, murderers, rapists, and assassins. My character had made some mistakes but I didn’t kill anyone!”
We move into a discussion of The Pardon, a story that Tom Anton and Sandi Russell have brought to the screen after hearing about Toni Jo Henry, who was condemned by the court in Louisiana in the early 1940s for a murder that she may (or may not) have committed. “I had never heard of Toni Jo,” the one-time resident of Mississippi admitted. “But I’ve known Tom Anton for a long time. There are a lot of movies made by big companies but Tom walked this one barefoot from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Los Angeles. He persevered like Moses in the desert!”
Gainey was quick to point out that the real credit goes to the script that the Antons wrote. He told me that their strength is that they are so forgiving of people and understanding of human nature. Gainey first worked with them on their first movie, At Last, which was a retelling of how they had been separated by forces outside of their control and reunited twenty-five years later. Gainey admitted that he wouldn’t have made the film if it wasn’t the Antons’ story because he had just finished filming Lost at the time … in Hawaii … and a trip to Shreveport wasn’t high on his list but the Antons were involved, so he said yes.
In the film, Henry (played by Hart of Dixie’s Jaime King) is jailed for murder where the jailer, Gibbs Duhon (Gainey), lives and works. Gibbs takes a liking to Henry, offering her kindness that she hasn’t seen in her own upbringing or in the trumped-up court process.
“In a strange way, my character is like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Gainey mused. “This guy isn’t too powerful or smart. He’s a real sweetheart, so different from many of my other characters, but he has a simple belief in her.”
Duhon approaches the local priest, Father Richard (Bones’ T.J. Thyne), about sharing his faith with the convicted Henry as a last resort. “When I approach the priest in the graveyard, he walks away and I’m the only person on set who can see this, but he leaves his coat. I spontaneously picked it up and ran after him,” shared Gainey. “It’s like the old saying, ‘if you do the fighting, I’ll hold your coat.'”
“The jailer is a simple guy who doesn’t know a whole lot, but he knows the priest, so he asks him to speak to Toni Jo.”
Gainey’s appreciation for the film rises above just putting in time when it comes to the Antons and the story of Toni Jo. It’s apparent in his enthusiasm for them, and for the redemptive qualities of Henry’s story. “At the end of the movie, you see this picture of Toni Jo on the morning that she’s scheduled for execution and she just has this smile on her face,” Gainey said. “People want to brush it off and say, ‘Well, there are no atheists in foxholes,’ and I know Samuel Johnson said, ‘Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.’ But you can just tell that she’s had this epiphany.”
It’s clear that Henry was up against a corrupt system and still, grace found a way to her heart. “You have the darker sides of life throughout the film, from the brothels to the justice system itself,” Gainey mused. “You’re supposed to get a fair crack at justice but they broke jurisprudence and this trial was a mockery. They even spread rumors that she had sexually mutilated the victim to further inflame the community.”
“I had no idea that they would execute women in 1941. I’m just completely against the death penalty,” Gainey told me, anger rising. “I think everyday someone is exonerated by modern science, forensics especially. It hasn’t worked because the people who are going to murder someone don’t stop and think that will happen to them. If only one person is put to death unfairly, it’s an outrage. I think a far worse punishment would be to be locked away alone for forty years. Even if they were beyond a doubt guilty, I’d rather see them in a cell with a chance for redemption.”
“The Pardon isn’t about guilt or innocence, but the only testimony they had against her was from a sketchy character (played by John Hawkes). I was watching Dr. Phil the other day, and he had Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean on the show to talk about this man in Oklahoma who is scheduled to be executed. It’s the same thing!”
“I’m not part of any group or organization but I’m completely against the death penalty. I’d vote against it. You can convince people in California and Massachusetts to abolish it because it’s antiquated, but people in Texas and Oklahoma are more Old Testament. Who is it that said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will soon mean we’re all blind and toothless?'”
Whether you love one of the actors like Gainey, King, Thyne, or Hawkes, or you simply love period pieces, you’ll be left considering the implications of The Pardon for the world today. It’s obvious that Gainey is still sifting through his experience, and giving a voice to his desire for redemption for all. Maybe that’s what makes him such a great character actor: he knows who he is and what he brings to the table, but he’s not afraid to show us a new angle along the way.
Gainey can brush aside his importance, and humbly accept responsibility, but when it comes to The Pardon, he’s the one who brought light to Toni Jo Henry’s cold, dark world.