Newfoundland actor Mark O’Brien fulfills his filmmaking dream with a thriller about God and damnation

For his feature directorial debut, actor Mark O’Brien couldn’t have chosen a more important subject.

“I’ve always been interested in stories of damnation and God and the devil and your soul because that’s what’s at stake,” he said in a Zoom interview. “There is nothing greater than that.”

He not only directed, but wrote and co-starred in “The Righteous,” which opened in Canadian theaters on Friday, an intense psychological thriller that deals with sin, faith, penance and retribution.

O’Brien is a Newfoundland native whose face would be familiar to you if you’ve watched shows like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Republic of Doyle,” “City on a Hill,” and “61st Street,” or movies like “Goalie,” “Ready or Not” and “Marriage Story.”

So, yeah, acting is what he’s best known for, but he said he’s always wanted to do movies.

While studying English at Memorial University in St. John’s – he had a minor in Classics and almost a double minor in Philosophy – he did all the theater work he could get on the side, often not paid, and made short films on weekends with his friends. He was also a host of a children’s show for CBC.

“So I was constantly learning…those thoughts were always seeping in,” the 38-year-old said.

Acting is “a tough racket,” he added, full of rejection, but “making a movie is like going to war. It’s a hard thing to do.

Still, O’Brien considers himself lucky for a rookie filmmaker. “The Righteous” took two to three years to make with the help of the Telefilm Atlantic office and the Newfoundland & Labrador Film Development Corporation.

“Others that I was trying to do fell by the wayside along the way. So this one kind of came together, probably because it was a bit smaller in nature, so it was less of a leap of faith.

It has a cast of just six, but it’s an impressive cast, led by famed Canadian actor Henry Czerny, who’s been in everything from miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent” to TV dramas “The Tudors.” and “Revenge,” and the hit “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise.

In “The Righteous,” he plays Frederic Mason, a former Catholic priest who left the church to marry Ethel, played by another notable Canadian actor, Mimi Kuzyk (“Hill Street Blues,” “Workin’ Moms”). Following a tragedy, which Frederic sees as a punishment from God, an injured stranger (O’Brien) shows up at Frederic and Ethel’s doorstep. The ex-priest is forced to confront a long-buried secret and is asked to make an impossible choice, which he fears will completely sever his relationship with God.

“I remember when I was in college and reading ‘Paradise Lost’ for the first time, it had a huge effect on me; how fascinating these ideas of spiritual damnation or betterment are,” O’Brien said. “The film has a lot to do with confrontation, confronting others, confronting yourself, the things you’ve done, and accepting it and how you’re ready to do it. And I think you see in the film that it takes a lot of layers until you can finally get to this place.

Mimi Kuzyk and Mark O'Brien in

O’Brien wrote the screenplay with Kuzyk in mind – he had met her years earlier through fellow Newfoundlander Shawn Doyle – but “Henry came to see me much later. We’re good friends and it just struck me: I just think he’s right about that.

The cast is completed by Kate Corbett, Nigel Bennett and Mayko Nguyen.

O’Brien found it useful to be a director with acting experience.

“I think every actor should direct and every director should act,” he said. “As an actor, I can’t know exactly what they’re going through every moment, but I understand the process very, very well. And I know what things not to say, what situations not to put someone in , what he needs as a performer and what is appreciated.

“But it mostly comes down to a human being understanding the situation of another human being, and being able to identify with it and also understand it so that they feel comfortable enough to give their performance.”

The camaraderie of the band determines the final product, he added, and he’s very happy with how “The Righteous” turned out.

It was well received at various film festivals, winning Best Screenplay at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal and Grimmfest in Manchester, as well as Best Cinematography at Grimmfest and the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival. (Scott McClellan did the filming, in atmospheric black and white, and filmed exactly what O’Brien said was in his head.)

But one particularly big screening was scheduled to take place in St. John’s on Friday night. “Honestly, I think about it fondly because I went to those movie theaters dreaming of making a movie,” O’Brien said earlier in the week.

Canadian actor and now director Mark O'Brien.

Although he has lived in Los Angeles for eight or nine years, “I couldn’t be prouder to be a Newfoundlander. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go back and shoot there,” he said. St. John’s “very, very tight-knit and supportive creative community” is “the only reason I make a living doing this job today.”

Regarding this life, he filmed season 2 of the American television series “Perry Mason”, but says that there will be more films in his future.

“I love wearing all these hats just because I love this job so much…it’s like a kid in a candy store.”

Debra Yeo is an associate editor and contributor to Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

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