by Jen Reel / photos by Lawrence Peart
Actor and Doty Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient Bruce McGill speaks to students about the art of acting, the value of a dollar and how to make one’s way in the world.
Bruce McGill (B.F.A., Drama, 1973) has a career most actors dream about. He’s played roles in major films like Animal House and The Legend of Bagger Vance and is so well known and sought after in the industry (his IMDb profile reads like a 20-page resume) that he rarely auditions for roles anymore.
His work earned him the College of Fine Arts’ E. William Doty Distinguished Alumnus Award, which he accepted at a private ceremony in Austin in late February. While in town, McGill spoke with students, staff and faculty, telling engaging stories of his early life and industry experiences, offering advice on work ethic and finances and answering questions from students like, “How did you prepare to play a historical character?” and “How much time passed between scrubbing toilets to landing THE major role?” (The answers are: 1] Read as much as you can—you can never know too much; and 2] It took him two years.)
McGill said he was introduced to acting by chance at age 11. When the student cast as Johnny Appleseed in the school play fell behind on his grades, his mother pulled him out of the production. With just two weeks before opening night, the director asked McGill to take his place. McGill hadn’t acted before, but he was a confident singer in the school choir and the idea appealed to him. After his first performance, he was hooked, and went on to perform in several productions throughout middle school and high school.
After high school, he found work acting for large corporations at trade shows, but his real desire was to study Shakespeare. He contemplated college to hone his craft.
“You can go to any university you want, as long as it’s the University of Texas,” his father told him. So in 1969 McGill packed his bags, drove to Austin from San Antonio and threw himself into what was then the Drama program. He performed in 18 full productions during his four years at UT.
“Get in front of audiences as much as you can,” McGill stressed to the students, “and know your lines. Your technique should be so second nature that it’s invisible, and that can’t happen if you’re wondering what your next line is.”
McGill spent a couple of years in Providence, Rhode Island after graduating from UT. He worked long and hard hours at the Trinity Repertory Theatre (which included cleaning toilets and scraping gum off seats), before eventually moving to New York and getting his first big break performing in Shakespeare in the Park. He noted to the students the importance of how they manage their relationships and their money throughout life.
“Really the first job is to sell yourself,” he said, urging students to take marketing and sales classes as a way to put themselves ahead of the competition, and to understand that a career is really just repeat business—be punctual, confident and someone people want to work with. He also stressed money management in a world where acting jobs are finite and income fluctuates.
“It’s hard to do and easy to say, but always live beneath your means and save and invest the difference,” said McGill, who credits his father, an insurance salesman, for instilling these values in him at an early age. “My father taught me the value of a dollar, and I’ve been doing this a long time. In the world of investment, time is your friend.”
McGill also told the story of what he says was his greatest gift from UT—his mentoring from B. Iden Payne, the prolific actor, director and UT professor whose name graces the B. Iden Payne Theatre at UT.
Then in his mid-90s, Payne stopped teaching courses and began focused, one-on-one tutoring. Every Monday morning for nearly two years, McGill would bring his student copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare to Payne’s office and recite a speech Payne had selected for the day.
“No, no, no!” McGill said in a dusty, English accent, imitating Payne’s feedback and drawing laughter from the audience. “I got so used to ‘no, no, no,’ but that focused time with him was invaluable, and he imparted on me the ability to deliver the lines, although written 400 years ago, as if you’re talking to somebody today.”
Near the end of McGill’s senior year, Payne told him how greatly he’d improved and that he was a “very promising young actor.” He also inscribed a quote from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra into McGill’s book: “Let all the number of the stars give light to thy fair way.”
“That I have burned in my mind,” said McGill. “Those tough times when I said, ‘What was I thinking? I don’t want to clean urinals or work 80-hour weeks anymore.’ Well, those words sustained me.”
“I never wanted to be the guy on a magazine, I just wanted to do high level work for a long time, and I pretty much got what I ordered,” he said, stressing the importance of knowing what you want to do. “It’s been amazing and gratifying, and I’m still a work in progress.”