Thomas McDonell: Prom King
By: Lynn Barker
Fans are already starting to swoon over Johnny Depp look alike actor Thomas McDonell, 24, who plays Jesse, the tough guy, cycle-riding high-schooler in Disney’s new film Prom. Later on, you can catch the dark-haired hottie as a young Barnabas Collins in the spooky Tim Burton film based on the classic TV show Dark Shadows.
We cornered this hunk exclusively in a classroom at the L.A. middle school where Prom was shot to ask about his role, his music (Thomas’ band wrote and performs a song for the movie soundtrack) and his hopes for the future. On entering the classroom, we get a hug (we met Thomas at an earlier set visit).
Kidzworld: Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Are you already sick of the “young Johnny Depp” comparisons?
- Thomas: No, I’m starting to get really into that.
Kidzworld: Did they let you go anywhere on that cool motorcycle Jesse rides other than when they were shooting?
- Thomas: (grinning) Yeah, we rode it around a little bit. I started training on dirt bikes at Agua Dulce with a young Motocross kid so that was fun but different from the street bikes that we eventually started riding around on or that Norton Commando I was on. It was fun.
Kidzworld: What is your current ride? What is your dream car?
- Thomas: I don’t have a car. I live in New York and I like not having a car. I’m back and forth a lot but I still live in New York and I like not having to drive around. That’s one of the things that irks me about Los Angeles. But I’m driving a Flat Ford right now. [He won’t describe it for fear he might be followed around].
Kidzworld: What about Jesse could you identify with? Like are you a fix it guy? He fixes the fountain for the school prom.
- Thomas: Yeah. I can build things. There’s something about him. He’s the kind of guy who keeps things to himself and doesn’t reveal a whole lot about himself to people and I generally do that. I think it’s better to let people find out things about you rather than tell them. I don’t like to say “look at me”.
Kidzworld: You got this audition from a tape you sent in? What was on it?
- Thomas: I think one of the important scenes on the tape was one of the first versions of the scene in the principal’s office because it was supposed to be the sort of classic bad boy, that backtalking attitude thing. They wanted to be sure I could do that. Then once we did that, I came for the screen test and we did the more serious stuff.
Kidzworld: Did they pick you and Aimee Teegarden as a pair?
- Thomas: I don’t know exactly what happened but we did a mix and match. I know that Aimee read with five guys.
Kidzworld: And you got the part. You have a band called “Moon” and you wrote and sang “Time Stand” for the movie. Was that something Disney came to you for or….?
- Thomas: Yeah. I had the band with some friends of mine but, truthfully, the kind of music we were playing in the band was music that Disney was interested in but it wasn’t exactly the right kind of thing to fit for their soundtrack for this. We talked it over with Disney and figured out a space where the song could exist and also satisfy the band. So, we wrote and recorded that song specifically for the film.
Kidzworld: Do you want music to remain a big part of your career?
- Thomas: Yeah, definitely. Working on the music for the film was a really good thing because it gave me an idea for a way we could do that and things could cross over and how it could be part of a piece.
Kidzworld: I know that you are also an artist. What is your art like? More classic or contemporary? What medium do you like to use?
- Thomas: I started first as a painter mostly and a sculptor and I studied conceptual art in school. Now my things are hard to describe because they are formally, very diverse. One thing doesn’t look like the next necessarily so it’s not a series of paintings that all look alike. It’s about ideas. I still keep a studio in Brooklyn where I do all these things.
Kidzworld: Ah a renaissance man! You do it all! Jesse is described as a teen caught in an adult life because of his family responsibilities. Were you pretty carefree as a teen or did you have to help at home in some way?
- Thomas: I went to high school and tried to study really hard. Everyone’s family has “things” but I was pretty lucky to have a pretty “normal” teen life. Jesse, in the movie, has to work to support the family because his father is gone. My parents are both around, my brother is around. My older brother Nick, he’s a writer. (Note: Thomas is the son of Terry McDonell the editor of Time Inc. Sports Group. Thomas also has a BFA from New York University).
Kidzworld: Since shooting the film, have you already had a taste of that crazy fan excitement? Are you any more ready for crazed fans now than you were then?
- Thomas: It seems that people are really excited about the movie and I think that is leading into excitement about the cast members but there’s not been anything crazy yet.
Kidzworld: Are you hoping to do some classy indie films with a studio film thrown in here and there and are you worried about being chewed up in the big Hollywood studio machine?
- Thomas: No, I’m not worried about that. That’s a generalization of the way that indie movies are and studio movies are. So, it’s really about scripts and directors and other actors. That’s what I’ve been thinking about mostly. I think it would be great to work with other actors who I admire. Whether it’s a studio or indie movie is not as important.
Kidzworld: What do you hope this film does for your career and what do you really hope it doesn’t do?
- Thomas: I hope that people see the movie and like it and like the performances and it allows me to work on more movies. That would be good. You hope it doesn’t typecast you. A lot of information goes out into the world with a film like this. There is a ton of publicity so you hope it’s not overwhelming to the point that other things get lost because, like we’ve been talking, I do a lot of things.
Kidzworld: Let’s say you are on a date and your date does something that really makes you want to end the date right there. What do you think that might be? Is there a dating pet peeve?
- Thomas: I don’t know. I don’t end up on very many bad dates like that. Not going on a whole lot of blind dates these days. Last time we spoke (on set) I was teasing that I hated redheads. Not really.
Kidzworld:Yeah, that pissed me off (I point to my red hair and we laugh). Are you excited to be playing young Barnabas Collins in the Dark Shadows movie?
- Thomas: Yeah. I think Tim Burton is great. I’m really excited. It’s going to be cool to work on that film.
Kidzworld: Did you just go in and they said “Oh my God, you look so much like Johnny Depp?”
- Thomas: (smiling) It was sort of like that.
Kidzworld: Have you talked to Johnny?
- Thomas: No, we haven’t really talked but I think we have to (he laughs). Hope I don’t freak him out.