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Q&A – Phil Burke (Mickey McGinnes)

Phil Burke, who plays Mickey McGinnes on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about working with noted playwright Neil LaBute on the show and why he prefers being a modern day bartender.   

Q: Mickey’s now running a successful whorehouse and saloon. Are you as good a businessman as your character?

A: [Laughs] I’d like to think I could run it a little bit better. But under the circumstances, Mickey is doing a pretty damn good job.

Q: You’ve actually bartended a lot in real life. Do people recognize you from the show while you’re bartending?

A: Yeah, it’s weird when somebody gives you an iPhone picture of yourself. You’re like, okay, great, so that’s two pints of Guinness and two shots of Jameson and did you guys want to eat?

Q: Is it more fun to bartend in the 1860s or today?

A: They don’t give me any real alcohol or any real customers [on the show]. [Laughs] So I’m going to have to say bartending in 1867 is not something that I’ve actually enjoyed, just because I haven’t actually sold anything. I think that the mark of any good bartender is to actually make a sale and get some tips.

Q: Would you have been a bartender if you’d lived in Hell on Wheels?

A: No. I definitely don’t think I would have. I think I would have been more on the laboring side, just because it’s a steady job. All you’re doing is you show up every day, work 10 or 12 hours a day, and then you get your money… Either that or I would make my way up to Sheriff.

Q: What would Common have to say about that, as the current Chief of Police?

A: I am not sure about the way Elam runs that town! And not for nothing. There are a lot of shenanigans. There are a lot of things going up and down, and as far as Sheriff is concerned, I don’t know if Elam is doing his job. [Laughs]

Q: Mickey’s made some tough decisions. Do you think it’s possible to be kind and successful at the same time in Hell on Wheels?

A: Absolutely. But I think there’s something to be said for getting the job done… I think one of Mickey’s strengths is his adaptability and his willingness to survive. He understands that you can’t be stagnant in life and you definitely can’t be stagnant in Hell on Wheels… If you don’t move with the town and you don’t move with the times, then you’re going to get left behind.

Q: Mickey distances himself from Sean this season. Did the writers tell you anything about the brothers’ trajectory?

A: No, we never have any idea… Every new script is like a Christmas gift. You just unwrap it and see what happens next… It’s great as an actor. It’s just a bundle of joy that shows up on your doorstep in Calgary.

Q: What’s your favorite Mickey and Sean scene from the past three seasons?

A: There’s a scene in Episode 1 in Season 1 where Mickey and Sean are on the back of a cart, and they’re just sort of riding on the cart going nowhere… They’re just following along. They’re just so green, and they don’t know what’s going on. In Season 2, the turmoil was building.

Q: Since you started on Hell on Wheels, you’ve done other TV and movies. Did it seem strange to not be filming out in the wilderness for those?

A: I’m been fortunate enough to have professional experience where I’ve been to some incredible places, but when you’re going to set every day [for Hell on Wheels] and you take a look out the left side of your car, and there’s the Rocky Mountains, you’re just thinking, “Whoa.” It’s kind of kick-ass… One of the things that I’m really thankful for with our show is that I get to work in an incredibly beautiful place.

Q: You’ve done a lot of theater work. Do you prefer stage or screen? 

A: They’re two very different things. I love the stage. That’s sort of where I started trying to learn to be an actor, which is obviously an ongoing process… But with TV and film, it’s much more scene-specific, which is great because of our wonderful writers and our incredible designers. There’s nothing that’s ever filmed in order, which keeps you on your toes… And it’s exciting to be on set as a young actor. Every day is exciting.

Q: Were you excited to work with Neil LaBute this season? Did you learn anything new from him?

A: Are you kidding?! He’s one of my favorite playwrights of all time. I was giddy as as a schoolgirl. Moreover, he’s one of the coolest guys in the world. The guy is just awesome… I take a few plays with me everywhere I go. One of his plays, In a Dark Dark House, is one of my favorite plays of all time… and so the last day we were working, I was like, “Hey, could you just sign this play for me?” [Laughs] Me and him had dinner a bunch of times and we were good buddies at that point.

Click here to read an interview with Common, who plays Elam Ferguson on AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

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