"I root for the underdog": John Magaro on playing outsiders, from "Past Lives" to "LaRoy, Texas"

The actor on his milquetoast character embracing his dark side, and balancing violence in this noirish buddy comedy

Published April 12, 2024 2:00PM (EDT)

John Magaro and Steve Zahn in "LaRoy, Texas" (Brainstorm Media)
John Magaro and Steve Zahn in "LaRoy, Texas" (Brainstorm Media)

John Magaro seems to have a penchant for playing nice guys. In last year’s “Past Lives” he was Arthur, the understanding husband to Nora (Greta Lee), when she reconnected with her first love, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). A vulnerable speech Arthur gave was among the Oscar-nominated film’s most moving scenes. 

Magaro also played mild-mannered Cookie in Kelly Reichardt’s gem of a Western, “First Cow.” Working with King Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie steals milk from a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) to make and sell oily cakes, which eventually gets them into a bind.

"I’m interested in the struggle of dealing with our depressions and our anxieties."

In his latest film, “LaRoy, Texas,” written and directed by Shane Atkinson, Magaro stars as Ray, a milquetoast husband whose former beauty queen wife Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson) is cheating on him with his brother, Junior (Matthew Del Negro). Ray hopes to improve his marriage by getting his wife the money she needs to open a beauty salon. Just as he hits rock bottom, cash literally falls in his lap. Ray is mistaken for a hitman and asked to kill James Barlow (Vic Browder). Unexpectedly, Ray does just that in an act of self-defense. However, the murder sets off a chain of events involving a briefcase full of money, blackmail schemes and other shenanigans. 

As Ray teams up with Skip (Steve Zahn), a private detective, to figure out who is after him (and what is really going on), Magaro lets his character evolve and become less passive and more self-possessed. The rapport between Ray and Skip is amusing. Likewise, the cockeyed view of these Texans, who sometimes, but not always, let other people get away with things, is endearing.

Magaro spoke with Salon about this penchant for playing humble characters and making the Southern-fried caper comedy, “LaRoy, Texas.”

What appealed to you about playing Ray who is rather passive, rather than say, the showier role of Skip? 

I’ve been acting for a while and I feel I’ve played dark characters, from school shooters to alpha-type guys, and in “Overlord,” where I played a very loudmouth New York soldier.  Recently, it’s been these kinds of sweet, passive people, but I don’t know if I am actively seeking it, but maybe it’s just coming to me and I’m responding to it. 

What I do think I respond to about these characters is the outsider status of them. I respond to outsider storytelling, and this is why I have such an affinity for indie filmmaking and this kind of scrappy indie filmmaking and first-time directors. I root for the underdog. I think that’s part of it. I’m interested in the struggle of dealing with our depressions and our anxieties. These are things that I deal with. For me, it is cathartic, in a way, to play characters who are dealing with depressions or insecurities or uncertainties in their life. Those are stories I am interested in. Beautiful people who have a lot of money — it is hard for me to sympathize with those stories. What do you have to complain about? That sounds mean. But because I don’t have those things, I find the story of the outsider more intriguing. Ray certainly is like that and very beaten down and he is in a place in in his life in complete, complete emptiness. He is pushed into these circumstances that are insane and unexpected. He changes over the course of this, and that arc is interesting to play.

I did a film called “Not Fade Away” a few years ago — which is nothing like this — about a guy who is very insecure who transcends into becoming a local rock star. There is something of that in Ray where he goes from a pushover to embracing this darkness and coming out of his shell. 

LaRoy, TexasMegan Stevenson and John Magaro in "LaRoy, Texas" (Brainstorm Media)

What do you think about Ray’s relationship with his wife, whom he hopes to impress by getting her money? His brother overpowers him at the business they co-own. Is he blind to all and goes along to get along to not lose what he has? 

Ray is a man who has grown up in a town and has never really left that town. He was handed a job from his family. He married a woman who went to his high school. His world is so small, and when you are from a town that is so small, where everyone knows each other, the stakes become higher. It’s not New York, where you can go from one group to another. Ray is stuck there, and he is so afraid to shake anything up. This is all he knows. He doesn’t want to rock the boat in any way. He is not an idiot. He’s not blind, but he has chosen to put blinders on. 

You have a terrific rapport with Steve Zahn as Skip. Can you talk about creating their unlikely friendship? Both men believe in the other, which is how they come to believe in themselves. 

The dynamic of these two is at the core of the story. “LaRoy, Texas” melds so many genres together — the hard-boiled noir, the dark comedy, the western, but there is also this buddy comedy component. Skip is like the brother Ray never really had. Skip believes in Ray and jokes around with him, and Ray is able to bust Skip’s chops and stand up to him. He can’t do that with his own brother, but with Skip, he can sass him back. That friendship that develops is such a fun part of the story and it was fun to play.  

Ray is at a low point when he is given an unexpected opportunity to kill James Barlow. Why do you think he acts the way he does? He becomes empowered as a result. It is not just that he is suicidal, cuckolded and broke that turns him though. Thoughts?

"I don’t understand films where it is violence for violence’s sake."

It is unexpected. I believe if that guy had not jumped in the car, Ray would have been found dead the next morning. But because of the twist of fate, he is presented with this thing. The rational thing is that he has been given some money, so it’s a bit of a reprieve; he has cash in hand so he can throw money at his wife to appease her for a little longer. But also, it gives him something to do. He gets to cosplay as a hitman for a minute, even if he has no intention of killing the guy. It takes his mind off his depression. Ray is going to step in the shoes of being a hitman, and things keep building and taking unexpected turns that send Ray on a path of ever-darkening chaos. 

What I love about “LaRoy, Texas” is that the film has the characters figuring things out as the audience does. Some information is known, some is discovered and some is surprising. Things get more complicated not clearer as Ray and Skip investigate. Can you talk about the knotty plotting? It is fun to watch Ray slowly figure things out and make some questionable decisions. We are interacting because we are invested. 

That’s the fun — you want to yell at the screen, “Don’t do that!” That lets the audience come along for the ride. What I like is that Shane [Atkinson] wrote it cleverly and lets us stay ahead of the audience and giving them clues and not letting viewers get ahead of the mystery. Because of his circumstances, Ray is forced to take his blinders off and open his eyes. There is a scene with a character where he touches on deep, complicated themes, like why stay in a relationship if you are treated so poorly? What makes us do this? It's almost like a therapy session. He is forced to open up his brain. There are a lot of parallel characters to Ray in this story. That duality of character and layers to who we are as people is such a huge component of this film. 

What can you say about fighting and using firearms as Ray does here. You don’t strike me as a violent guy, and maybe that’s the humor of things?

I am not a fan of, and I don’t understand films where it is violence for violence’s sake. These action movies where they are killing people nonchalantly. I get it, but for me, it’s disturbing. The only film I’ve killed people in was “Overlord,” and we were killing Nazis and zombies, so I didn’t feel as remorseful. In “LaRoy, Texas,” it’s a man pushed to his brink. I think it’s important, as an actor, to have that respect that if there is going to be a death, or a gun, or murder on screen, it has to have value and be earned. That’s why Ray has to go where he does. I don’t think he is a hero, and I’m glad folks stay with the story and root for him. It was hard to strike a balance of keeping him sympathetic and engaging. But at the end of the day, he does really terrible things. It’s OK to acknowledge that. It’s complicated. Like so many things in life, there are gray areas, and humans are very complex, and when pushed they can show sides of themselves that they did not know about, and that other people do not expect.

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This is the first feature you produced. What prompted you to start producing?  Are you looking to take on more at this point in your career?  

You do this for a long time and start to know more people and I think as actors you don’t have control. You are at the whim of yeses and nos. Actors often want to become a director or writer. Producing was what I found to help facilitate things I believe in projects I want to do. Actors come to a point in their career where they want to have more say in the stories they are telling and introducing into the world. I want to do more. I still want to continue to act, that is my primary purpose, but I definitely want to get deeper into producing and directing more. I think it’s important for creative artists to constantly be challenging themselves to be learning and attempting to do things they don’t know. It only betters you as an artist and as a person. 

“LaRoy, Texas” opens in theaters and on demand April 12.

By Gary Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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