Interview With Actor Rich McDonald (Call of Duty: Black Ops II)

Finding out exactly what sort of traits a heroic character should have is far from being an easy undertaking.  Trying to build a character and do something that either hasn’t already been done before or simply feels original is where the difficulty usually derives from.

Ultimately the fate of whether or a not a character succeeds is on the shoulders of the writer/key creative team and of course the actor responsible for bringing what was once on a page to life.  Thankfully the marriage of good writing and excellent acting was on display in Call of Duty: Black Ops II when it came to Rich McDonald’s portrayal of David Mason.

By now most of you likely have played Black Ops II since the game has lived up to the CoD tradition by selling a world record amount of units.  Besides the different vibe within the single-player campaign that was lent by setting it in the not too distant future, Black Ops II did manage to stand apart from other CoD entries due to the story.

More focused on it’s core narrative and allowing for true character moments, Black Ops II featured a rather robust story that was truly anchored by the performances of actors such as Rich McDonald.  It’s never an easy task to carry the narrative of a game almost entirely on their shoulders, but Mr. McDonald provided a performance that was suitably strong given David’s military position as a Navy SEAL along with being a bit vulnerable given his tragic past.

Mr. McDonald was nice enough to spare some time from his schedule to discuss his role on Call of Duty: Black Ops II along with his past projects such as the HBO miniseries Generation Kill.



Ian Fisher: For the people out there who may have seen you for the first time via Call of Duty: Black Ops II, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what made you want to become an actor?

Rich McDonald: I grew up in Texas and started my acting career just after I finished getting my BBA at Texas A&M University. Although I was a collegiate pole vaulter and a business major, I picked up the desire to act as well, but it wasn’t until after I finished that I began pursuing film and television. I acted in a few things in Dallas and Austin, but I knew my final step was to head to LA.

I was fortunate enough to land the role of “Manimal” Jacks in the 2008 HBO miniseries Generation Kill, and that opened many doors for me. I have appeared in many television shows including NCIS, CSI: Miami, and Dollhouse, and I now portray a recurring orthodontist and love interest of Jaime King in the CW’s Hart of Dixie.


Ian: When it comes to certain roles and project, what sort of elements do you look at the most in terms of what appeals to you as an actor?

Rich: First I look at the overall quality of the project. If the project has merit and it well-organized then my interest is peaked. I also look to see if the role I am considering has a full range of emotionality.  I want the audience to identify in some way with the character’s choices, so the more well-rounded the character is, the more the viewers can justify the character and his actions. Of course I love playing the hero role, but I don’t shy away from a supporting role if it has a strong impact within the story.


Ian: One of your past projects was the terrific HBO miniseries Generation Kill in which you played Cpl. Anthony Jacks. With there being an extremely loyal following for Generation Kill thanks to the amazing writing and acting, can you talk a bit about your experience on that project and what it was like to film on location in South Africa and working alongside actors such as Alexander Skarsgard and Eric Ladin?

Rich: Generation Kill was a life changing project. I spent 7 months in Africa shooting in Nambia, South Africa, and Mozambique. The length and location of the shoot really allowed us to step into the minds of the Recon Marines that Evan Wright chronicled. The comradery between all of our cast was unmatched, and we all walked away with many life-long friends. Alex was a complete pleasure to work with. He’s a true professional and WAS the Iceman when he was on set. I will always think he was a dead ringer for Colbert.

Eric was a blast as well. I worked along side him in my humvee, and there was never a day without laughter generated from some brilliant Ladin wisecrack. He’s a great actor and a good friend of mine. Being in Africa so long under those circumstances really made you want to stay outside the hustle bustle of the world and especially the Los Angeles acting scene. Africa has it’s own pace of life……it’s hard to put into words, but it was (at least for me) a little difficult to reassimilate back into LA society once I returned home. I’m proud of GK, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.


Ian: Right now your most recent project is playing Commander David Mason in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II.  With this being your first video game role, can you tell us a bit about how you heard about the project and ultimately became a part of it?

Rich: I shot a film named BlackJacks (to be released in 2013) where I worked along side James C. Burns. In this film he is my team leader and somewhat of a father figure. While on set, he mentioned that he wanted to drop my name to the casting office for Black Ops. Eventually I was brought in for an audition, but more than a month went by before I heard anything. Finally I was brought in to audition in front of Dave Anthony. I did my job, and he offered me the job on the spot. I had to be careful not to break anything at that point as my excitement was almost uncontainable.


Ian: The Call of Duty series is one of the biggest video game franchises of all time and such a thing is clearly evident by the massive launch records set by Black Ops II. So prior to working on the project were you at all familiar with the Call of Duty series and in general are you much of a gamer?

Rich: I was very fairly familiar with the Call of Duty franchise, but I had never actually played any of them. I stepped away from serious gaming back when Duck Hunt was still popular, and just never took the time to pick it up again. I can tell you this, after being a part of this amazing project and realizing the incredible advancements in gaming technology, I’m now addicted again and play Black Ops 2 whenever I can. ….so fun!


Ian: Having acted in Generation Kill, were you apprehensive about taking on the role in Black Ops II, either because it was a video game or because it presents a more stylized and obviously fantasized depiction of war in a very Hollywood popcorn style movie sort of way?

Rich: I didn’t hesitate with Black Ops 2.  Films that depict historical events will always be, in my opinion, a completely different animal that games no matter what the subject matter. I respect both formats of entertainment, and I don’t feel my work in one format would ever prevent me from offering quality work in the other format.


Ian: CoD: Black Ops II presented a double whammy of sorts for you as an actor as it was not only your first video game project but the first time you’ve partook in performance capture.  With Black Ops II being your first outing using a new way to act, what was it like acting using the performance capture gear? Obviously it must’ve been nice to act alongside your co-stars within the game such as Michael Rooker and Tony Todd, but was there a period in which you had to get used to the mo-cap gear and acting in a more stripped down setting?

Rich: Acting in mocap was a little constraining at first but proved to be one of the most freeing acting experiences I’ve had. I definitely had to make sure not to knock any reflective dots off of my face or anyone else’s for that matter, but the landscape of the scenes was always so bare that much was left to our imaginations….. Which was quite freeing. Any nuances in your performance as it pertained to the surroundings was completely up to you and your imagination. I found that I really enjoyed it.


Ian: One of the reasons why I enjoyed the single-player mode of Black Ops II so much was because the acting in it was amazing. Your performance in particular featured a nice amount of depth since David Mason wasn’t just another gun happy soldier reminiscent of 1980s action characters as he’s a man with a tragic past that simply wants to protect his country and possibly save the world from a major conflict. So what was it like for you to find the inner core of David Mason as a character and try to balance all the different elements?

Rich: I too enjoyed the emotional depth that the David character showed in the script. The fact that this guy had his father taken from him was very powerful to me as I am close with my father and would stop at no end to find out who could do such a thing and right the wrong. I believe this story was so impactful, because it was centered around the relationships of the characters.

Most people can get sucked into this story because they can identify with the emotional ride that the characters are on. Yes saving the world from destruction is an extremely important motivation, but one will always personalize saving/helping/avenging a loved one as their top priority. This is the core of what makes David such a likeable and universally identifiable character.


Ian: At this point most gamers have experienced the rather shocking tale told in Black Ops II so lets delve a bit into spoiler territory. Since Black Ops II marked the first time in which the CoD series featured multiple endings and different mission outcomes, which narrative elements surprised you the most within the story and what are you the most excited to see expanded upon in the future via possible sequels?

Rich: I was definitely surprised by the alternate ways you could shape the story…. even down to certain lines being said or not said. I really was surprised and loved the fact that the player could actually keep all the main characters alive and still save the world. This is also what I’m interested to see in the future…will any future Black Ops stories have both Mason’s, Woods, and Menendez alive and well? That’s a hell of an equation for excitement if so.


Ian: As an actor what did you think of the branching plot told within Black Ops II and how gamers could literally shape the adventure themselves based on their decisions? Do you think such a thing is what will continue to make the video games industry stand apart from that of films & TV since it allowed a sense of freedom and spontaneity?

Rich:  I really enjoyed the branching plot pints and how they gave the player much more freedom and interaction with the game. It gives the player ownership over his/her Black Ops experience which is invaluable in the gaming world. Film and television are wonderful forms of entertainment but they don’t allow the viewer to have this ownership. I think this allows the gamer to have an increased connection to the game moreso than they could ever have to a film or tv program, and that translates into game loyalty. I think it’s safe to say that everyone from the studio to the actors who create a video are fans of game loyalty.


Ian: Having participated in projects that both have a realistic and fantastical edge in their tone, what are your thoughts on how video games should portray violence and more mature centric storylines?  With CoD: Black Ops II the game may not entirely be grounded in reality due to the more futuristic elements that are featured, but at the same time it includes some really heavy material, both in respect to the dramatic elements and what type of action occurs. So do you think game developers should continue to feature hard hitting material and parents should perhaps just do a better job at monitoring what their kids actually play?

Rich: Yes I think the main duty falls upon the parents. We live in a free country and games are going to continue to have graphic and heavy content. I think the game developers have a responsibility to include proper parental controls within the game, but it’s completely up to the parents to decide if their child is mature enough to handle playing certain games without it affecting them in any irreparable way. Games don’t make crazy people.. If they’re crazy, they were that way long before they played any video game.


Ian: Since the Call of Duty series has gone on to become mammoth in their scope and feature the talent of actors such as yourself and well known writers such as David S. Goyer, where do you think things will go in the next few years? Do you think there’s a chance that video games will not only become the go-to medium for people to experience things but for creative talent as well since it at times presents an unparalleled since of freedom? Or do you think things will remain fairly balance as they have over the last few years?

Rich: I honestly think the entertainment industries will remain decently balanced in the coming years. Obviously the gaming industry will continue to grow but so is the film and television possibilities as well. Each industry has it’s own value, and I don’t think one will infringe too much upon the other. If anything, I think they will end up helping each other immensely.


Ian: There’s a good chance that we could see David Mason return in yet another Black Ops game down the road based on the main endings of BOII.  But with that said, are there any other major franchise, gaming related or not, that you would love to be a part of if given the chance?

Rich: I would live to stay within the Call of Duty franchise, and I wouldn’t mind appearing in the Halo games as well if given the chance. Outside of gaming, I’ve always been a fan of the superhero/comic book franchises and I would love to play one of those characters.


Ian: Besides your stellar performance in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, are there any upcoming projects you want folks to know about?

Rich: I hope everyone will keep an eye out for the movie BlackJacks in which James C. Burns and I got to be military action heroes together. It’s set to release sometime in 2013. It’s a black ops flick mixed with science fiction, and it’s a good ride.


Once again I would like to extend my thanks to Mr. McDonald for taking out the time to chat with me about his career and CoD: Black Ops II.  While we usually don’t expect deep performances from the CoD series, I think it’s safe to say that the performance Mr. McDonald turned in certainly made people change their minds as it helped elevate the game beyond just being a mere action romp.



Article originally posted on January 8, 2013



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