Actor-director Tim Guinee remembers the stress of getting his short film One Armed Man up and running. It was not just that this was his screen directing debut. Money was tight; the actors would get no more than union scale, and friends and colleagues would offer helping hands with costumes and other elements.
He was also worried about Stow-Munroe Falls High School graduate John Magaro who was lined up for a major role, but Guinee was afraid Magaro would bolt if a bigger role in a movie or TV came along.
While the short film had some impressive names attached — Philip Seymour Hoffman was an executive producer, and the words are from the great Horton Foote — it was still a small piece. And not long before, Magaro had gotten strong notices in New York City for his work in the play Good Television, and he had starred in the big-screen film Not Fade Away.
Guinee’s casting director, David Caparelliotis, said not to worry: Magaro was in, regardless of what else was waved in front of him. Guinee could not be happier.
“John is astounding,” Guinee said in a recent phone chat. While Caparelliotis had recommended Magaro after working with him on Good Television, Guinee had not seen him in performance.
“His part was the one part in the thing where we had open casting calls, and I felt like he just blew the roof off the place,” Guinee said. “Nobody else was anywhere close to doing what he did. He’s an extraordinary young actor. I think he’s like the new Al Pacino.”
Magaro, 31, did not think about the attraction of bigger, more commercial work,
“I’ve always said that I want to work on things that I care about, and scripts that resonate for me personally,” he said in a separate phone interview. “This, first of all, it’s Horton Foote, so you know it’s solid material. And then when I read it, I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.
“It’s a short film. There’s not much that comes out of doing a short film except the experience and the fun of being a part of it. But I knew that I wanted to play this character, and it could challenge me in a way I hadn’t been challenged before. So when you get those opportunities, you have to jump at them.”
One Armed Man will show at the Cleveland International Film Festival in short-film programs at noon Tuesday and 4:35 p.m. Wednesday in Tower City Cinemas. Based on a one-act play by Foote (Tender Mercies, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird), it focuses on the conflict between two men in 1920s Texas.
Cotton-gin operator C.W. Rowe (Charles Haid) is getting daily visits from a worker named Ned (Magaro) who lost an arm in a gin accident. While the businessman keeps avoiding Ned — offering him money through an assistant — the workman wants a meeting where he can directly make his daily request: Give me back my arm. Inevitably, the two face each other — the self-confident, I-know-best rich man up against the poor fella with the determination (and the voice) of a buzzing fly that will not be shooed away.
The voice specifically puts Magaro in a different place than previous roles. Part whine, part snarl, it gets into your head as much as it does into Rowe’s.
“The voice was suggested by Tim,” Magaro said in an email follow-up to our first chat. “Ned is east Texas and poor. He works and lives in places where the ‘well to do’ … will never really be found. Because of that Ned doesn’t just have a typical Texas dialect. … It’s something you might find more in the bayous. So that dialect was originally intended by Horton Foote and Tim wanted it for the film.”
Guinee is a close observer of Foote’s work, and of Foote himself. The writer is the father of Guinee’s wife, Daisy, and Guinee has acted in productions of works by Foote (who died in 2009). Guinee even played Ned in a stage version of One Armed Man.
“It obviously struck some kind of deep chord emotionally for me,” Guinee said, He sees it as a piece rich in issues — violence, and self-justification, and the disparity between CEOs and factory workers — all of which still matter today. The tightness of the story — set almost entirely in Rowe’s office — also made it more manageable for a first-time director.
Not that Guinee came across as a rookie to Magaro.
“I really enjoy working with actor-directors,” he said. “I’ve worked with a few. It makes an actor’s job easier to have a director who gets what you’re doing. There are certainly other directors who can do that. But I feel like maybe with actors who have been doing it a long time, sometimes they transition into the director’s role a little easier. And I certainly feel like Tim transitioned into the director’s role very nicely.”
Hoffman was helpful with notes and suggestions, especially during post-production, and his death in February is still being felt. Magaro, though he did not get to meet Hoffman, called him “a tremendous actor.” Guinee said, “As a friend and collaborator, I miss Phil terribly and feel his loss profoundly.”
One Armed Man keeps going. It has been shown at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, “which was really nice because it’s a Texas film, and Tim is from there,” Magaro said. “It got a nice notice in the Huffington Post. But (Cleveland) will be its second screening, and then it might play some other festivals. So it’s nice that it’s getting close to my home turf.”
Magaro followed up the shooting of One Armed Man in the summer of 2013 with a theater workshop, an independent film called Don’t Worry Baby and then a little something called Unbroken.
“I don’t have much to say about that yet,” he said, “but that’s expected to come out at Christmas.”
Other people, though, will have plenty to say about it. The film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller and directed by Angelina Jolie. But by Christmas, Magaro may be off making another independent movie or a short, continuing his movement among “things that I care about.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.