'The Righteous': Mark O'Brien Talks Tackling Catholic Guilt and Grief in Feature Directorial Debut

Plus, he teases his forthcoming role on 'Perry Mason' Season 2.
by Amber Dowling — 

Mark O'Brien in 'The Righteous'

Courtesy of Narrative PR

Nearly five years ago, Mark O'Brien began writing a film about an ex-priest who was terrified of a vengeful God. The Canadian actor, who hails from St. John's, Nfld., worked on the script the film between projects with the goal of tackling big, thematic questions about the soul and motivation, but in the form of a thriller with plenty of twists and turns.  

Fast forward to today, and The Righteous is readying its digital release in the U.S. and U.K. following an acquisition by Arrow Films. The movie stars Henry Czerny as the ex-priest in question. He and his wife (played by Mimi Kuzyk) are facing grief when a stranger (O'Brien) arrives at their doorstep. The man claims to need help but his motivations seem sinister. Mayko Nguyen, Kate Corbett, and Nigel Bennett also star in the character study. 

Following a quick, 15-day shoot in St. John's, the film made its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Festival where it won Best Screenplay. O'Brien, who also directed the film, also received two Canadian Screen Award nominations: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Original Screenplay.  

"I really like films where the thing that happens to the protagonist is the worst thing that could possibly happen," O'Brien tells Metacritic. "It's the best backdrop for drama, movies where the stakes are just so high. With this film, the damnation of your soul is probably the highest stakes possible for anyone, whether you're an atheist or not. If you have those grand notions within a film, then it allows an opportunity for more intimate, nuanced human behavior and relationships." 

Here, O'Brien chats with Metacritic about crafting the black-and-white film and making his directorial feature film debut, as well as tackling other recent roles on shows from 61st Street to Perry Mason

What were your motivations to write The Righteous?  

I love the idea of confronting the things you have to confront before you can move on. The backdrop of Catholicism for this movie has rules. I didn't really want to make a movie about religion so much as someone breaking a rule against an ideal like God. I know this all sounds really highfalutin, but I love that stuff so much — that playground. I wanted to simplify it into a thriller. So, it became this movie about a burdened ex-priest who fears the wrath of a vengeful god. Why would he feel that way? And then it just morphed as I kept writing it. 

Did you actively try and stay away from priest and religion tropes?  

Yes because I like the idea of taking a preconceived notion of something and twisting it. So, there's a bit of a "stranger in the house," but then it twists into another direction most people won't see coming. Tropes are a cheap way out, and more importantly, we've seen those stories before. I like to take the knowledge we have of those things, because everyone has it going in, and then subvert it. You're toying with the audience in a fun way. I was very cognizant of not going down the road of things we've seen before because those stories have been told.  

What were some challenges you faced in getting this made? 

I'm not great at raising funds and doing all that. It's just not within my wheelhouse. Then there was the challenge of: I'm acting, and it's in black and white and it's my first film. So it's a lot of, "Well are you really sure you can do it?" I will say, Telefilm was very supportive and got behind the project. Our eventual partners, Vortex and Arrow, ended up being fantastic. But it's tough to sell it. It's a leap of faith and I get it. Like, how do I promise it's something I can really do? So, that was really difficult but once we headed in the direction of shooting, then I felt very comfortable and confident.  

What was the casting process like; did Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk share their input? 

They sure did. But I'm a believer of making things very simple. I just sent the scripts. Be normal, nice and concise. Just be chill. So I'm like, "Here's a script, I'd love for you to do this." And that's just it. They responded, so it worked out really well. I do think it probably helps a little bit that I am an actor and I've worked with the whole cast before. I can't say they had confidence in me as a filmmaker, because I'd never made a feature. But I think they knew me as a person. So, there's a trust. If any one of those people asked me to be in their film, if I responded to the script, I'd trust them. And they were phenomenal, they brought more to the parts than what I wrote. 

Did you write the part of Aaron Smith with yourself in mind? 

Not initially. As I was writing, I thought it just worked for me to do it. And it wasn't really much of a debate because I knew what this character is. It's a hard character to put into words. This is not to say it's good or bad, but I've never really seen a character overall quite like Aaron Smith in a film. Just the way it goes in so many different directions made it tough and delicate to communicate. And I loved acting in the movie, too. It was really exciting. 

Was the plan always to shoot in St. John's? 

Yeah because growing up in St. John's I've seen so many movies that are set in St. John's and we have to talk about how it's set there. That's not bad and I'm very proud of it. It's always cool to see something that's shot in your hometown and to celebrate it. But why can't it just be there? What if we don't even say it's Canada? Or anywhere in the world? I wanted to use the feeling that Newfoundland gave me growing up. The physical feeling of a place is palpable to anyone who's from anywhere and I wanted to mix that into the movie. It's harsh, it's cold and it's kind of gets in your bones much like the film does thematically. 

Why did you give your character that accent? 

We never mention a country or geographical location to avoid preconceived notions going in. I like not knowing where something is. So, that made it completely its own world on a subconscious level. The reason I did southern is it's pretty generic. I've done a lot of southern in the past, like New Orleans and Oklahoma, with those regional dialects before as an actor. But I wanted this to be more general southern, because that is the most common accent in the States, general southern with a slight variation. That opened up where he could be from to an even wider degree. 

Why black and white? 

Black and white was important to me from day one because it just felt right. I leaned into that feeling because aesthetically and technically and dramatically it made sense as well. The movie is really from Frederic's point of view and his consciousness or subconscious. Well that's murky and indecipherable so black and white made a lot of sense. It adds mystery and ambiguity. I thought about this a lot when I was writing, that Frederick sees the world in black and white, and every other character sees it in color. 

While you did this you had other projects going on as well, including 61st Street. How did that role compare to some of the other police officer characters you've helmed? 

That's a very heavy role. But that's why I liked it: he was a compromised character. I've never wanted to go in and play the hero — that doesn't interest me at all. I'd rather see if someone becomes a hero or becomes the opposite. It's the struggle, and that character is in constant struggle. That's juicy for an actor because struggle leads to lies. Everybody lies at some point in life, especially characters in a drama. And that leads to subtext. So now you're playing something else in every scene. I love that role in 61st Street. It's kind of exhausting physically, but it was it was a treat. Plus that's an important show, and I want to be a part of important things. I think it says things in the right way. And some people might be scared by it, but too bad. That's life. I'm very proud of it and I think it's worth watching. 

You've also got a pretty meaty role in the upcoming second season of Perry Mason, were you a fan of the first season?  

I was. I watched Season 1 and thought it was so good, and I wanted to be in Season 2 and I wanted to play a lawyer. I said that to my wife over and over. And I'm in the whole season because I'm the prosecuting attorney. It's amazing. I love that show. I love Matthew Rhys, HBO. It's so good. If you liked Season 1 you're going to love Season 2. 

Did you manifest the role? 

I mean, I guess so. I didn't make any phone calls. I just came in and I was like, "Oh my God, that's so weird." Because I never say specific things like that and I also don't watch a lot of television. I generally spend my time watching movies. There's something fun about playing lawyers and police officers because they're in positions of authority and normally they're compromised. It's usually someone who's authoritative and knows a lot and is trying to do what they think is right in an official capacity. I think there's something exciting about that. 

Was there anything in particular that drew you to that role? 

Yeah, he's kind of a nasty character. A well-to-do, very privileged guy in '30s Los Angeles, rising the ranks of the DA's office. It's just fun playing someone who feels like they have nothing to lose and has all the confidence in the world. It's a really fun role to play and there's a lot to jump into. Plus, playing opposite Matthew Rhys is like the greatest treat ever as an actor. 

Get to know Mark O'Brien: 
O'Brien has been in dozens of TV shows and films over the years. Other than 61st Street, which has a Metascore of 66, he's starred in notable shows including City on a Hill(Metascore: 65) and Halt and Catch Fire (69). In film, you may know him from Hammer (75), Marriage Story (94), and Ready or Not (64).