You may not know Neal McDonough’s name, but you probably recognize his face — and his steely blue eyes — from roles both heroic (Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers) and villainous (Desperate Housewives, Justified). “My wife says I need to write a book and call it Just Famous Enough,” Neal jokes to Closer. He’ll likely heed her advice.
Neal, 52, is so dedicated to his better half, model Ruvé Robertson, that he refuses to do love scenes. That policy cost him a job on the short-lived prime-time soap Scoundrels in 2010. “I won’t kiss any other woman because these lips are meant for one woman,” he says of Ruvé, the mother of his five children (ranging in age from 4 to 13).
In his latest role, Neal plays a 1950s Air Force general determined to keep UFO sightings top secret in the History series Project Blue Book. But nothing was confidential when Neal spoke to Closer.
Do you see your Project Blue Book character as a hero or a villain?
It’s not so much that he’s a good guy or a bad guy. He’s a patriot, and he’s going to do the right thing for his country, no matter what.
Do you identify with this character?
He totally believes the US is the greatest country ever, as do I. My dad came over from Ireland and walked straight into the Army office and said, “Make me an American,” and they shipped him overseas for five years. That’s deeply in my blood, so when I get to play guys like I did in Band of Brothers or Flags of Our Fathers who bleed red, white and blue, it’s great for me.
Do you believe in UFOs?
As a devout Catholic, I believe certain things. Who are we as human beings on this planet to say that God might not have plans in other places? To think it’s just us is a bit myopic. If you believe in spirits, why can’t you believe there be might extraterrestrials? Who knows?
Both your parents were immigrants from Ireland. What did you learn from them?
When my dad got back from being in the Army, he met my mom and worked the Ford assembly line, then he got into real estate and bought this mom-and-pop hotel on Cape Cod, which is where I grew up. What he instilled in me was an honest work ethic. If you work hard, great things will happen.
Not coming from a show-business family, why did you get into acting?
It was kind of a no-brainer for me. I was the youngest of six kids, and I always loved making my brothers and sister laugh. At school, I was the class clown. I wasn’t good at math or reading because I was dyslexic, but I was really good at entertaining people.
How has dyslexia affected you as an actor?
If you give me something cold to read right now, I can’t read it. I have to go over it a couple of times. But that really helps me have a photographic memory with text. I can look at something a couple times, and I’ve got it, which is a great tool to have. Dyslexia helped me become an actor in some way, and I’m blessed to be where I am right now.
You worked steadily for years without much recognition. Is it true you were ready to give up acting before Band of Brothers?
I was going to give up my Hollywood career. I was going to move back to Cape Cod and work at my parents’ motel and do local theater. Then I got a call from Steven Spielberg that he wanted to see me for Band of Brothers, and it was off to the races.
And you met your wife the first night you were in England to shoot Band of Brothers?
It was St. Patrick’s Day, and we literally bumped into each other on the street, locked eyes and that was it. The next morning, I called the woman I was dating at the time and said, “I’m sorry, it’s not going to work out with us anymore — I just met the woman I’m going to marry.”
So you’ve lived happily ever after?
Almost 20 years, five kids and just one heck of an awesome life later, to have her as my partner in everything, I’m just the most blessed guy I know. That’s why I go to church every day and say thank you to God for everything he’s given me. And most importantly, thank you for giving me Ruvé, because without her, I most certainly would not be talking with you right now.
How have you managed to avoid doing love scenes, especially on shows like Desperate Housewives?
When [creator] Marc Cherry signed me, I said, “I’m sure you know, but I won’t kiss anybody.” He was like, “But this is Desperate Housewives!” I said, “I know.” He paused for about five seconds and said, “All right, I’m just going to have to write better.” And we had a great time.
Were you surprised when your no-sex-scenes stance got you fired from Scoundrels?
I was, and it was a horrible situation for me. After that, I couldn’t get a job because everybody thought I was this religious zealot. I am very religious. I put God and family first, and me second. That’s what I live by. It was hard for a few years. Then [Band of Brothers producer] Graham Yost called me and said, “Hey, I want you to be the bad guy on Justified.” I knew that was my shot back at the title.
How did it feel to be back in the ring?
I think my acting got so much better because I really appreciated it. I took a shot on the chin, but I was not going to lose the fight. And it worked. My career has been phenomenal ever since.
In addition to Project Blue Book, you’re going to be joining Kevin Costner’s drama Yellowstone next season and you have six movies coming up. What drives you to work so hard?
Because I have to. That’s what I’m supposed to do. God gave me this talent of being an actor, and I’m not going to waste it. That’s just who I am. I love working, and with five kids and a fantastic wife, I want to make sure I’m taking care of everyone. That’s what my dad did, and that’s what I’m going to do.
Coming from a large family, did you always want to have a lot of children?
Ruvé came from a family of two kids, I came from six, so we met somewhere in the middle. My math isn’t good, so five’s in the middle of six and two. We just always wanted to have a big family. But I think we’re staying at five.
Do you feel like you’ve come a long way from Cape Cod?
When I was a kid, they were auditioning for Jaws in my neighborhood and all my buddies did it. I was like, “Why would you audition for a movie? Let’s go play baseball!” All these years later, having done five or six projects for Steven Spielberg, every once in a while I’ll sit back and think about how I’ve gotten to where I am.
And how does that make you feel?
If you had told me back then that I would be in 100 movies, I would’ve just laughed. It’s pretty remarkable all the people I’ve gotten to work with and all the places I’ve gotten to travel to. And believe me, I appreciate every second of it.
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