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Johnny and Susan McPhail: An Exclusive Look at Oxford’s Own Actor and Actress

2 Susan McPhail Closeup Kids in Background by Suanne Strider
Susan McPhail / Photo by Suanne Strider

There are not many people in this world like Johnny and Susan McPhail. Having had the pleasure of interviewing both of them recently at their lovely home in Lafayette County, Mississippi, I got to know a side of them that, well, everyone else usually gets to see—if they are lucky enough to be around them.

These are two of the most “real” people you will ever meet, especially considering that both Johnny and Susan are actors whose stars seem to keep rising higher and higher—and very quickly, too. Johnny and Susan exude an energy and zeal for life that is palpable in the room when you speak with them—especially when they talk about acting. That, and their children. And their friends. And, well, just about everything they talk about. They are the kind of people that are pretty dang happy about life and just living it. This in itself sets them apart from most people.

Johnny has been the half of this dynamic duo who, up to now, has done the majority of movie, television and theater appearances. But over the last couple of years, and especially this year, it has been Susan’s turn to be in the spotlight. Susan McPhail had two movies play at Sundance this year. As Johnny proudly posted to the locally-famous Facebook page Johnny McPhail Has a Posse on August 7:

Susan was in two movies that played at Sundance this year—Mississippi Grind and A Walk in the Woods—a record that very few actors have achieved. Her scenes were mentioned by critics [regarding] both [movies]. Yes I am bragging because Susan is my wife and has made me the luckiest man in the world.

It’s little things like this that make all us women a little jealous—not of Susan, really—but of the beautiful relationship that Johnny and Susan have together. They giggle like school kids, and when Johnny looks at Susan, he has stars in his eyes. Who could blame him? With Susan’s Mae West looks and attitude, she’s quite the beauty—possessing a bubbly, engaging personality and a Southern accent that drips from her mouth like honey.

1 Johnny and Susan McPhail Closeup by Suanne Strider
Johnny and Susan McPhail / Photo by Suanne Strider

Susan is gregarious and funny—with a contagious smile and a laugh that is viral (in a great way). She is also kind, with a caring and motherly way about her that seems to balance well with her more witty, provocative side. She’s honestly one of the most entertaining, interesting and welcoming people I have ever interviewed—along with Johnny. If she is a star, she does not know it—at least not in the sense that she thinks of herself as being “above” anyone. But she is aware that she has talent, and she speaks of it with a seriousness that could come across as pride, if she had a prideful bone in her body.

Much has been written about Johnny, his younger years, his acting…but not much has been written about Susan and her younger years and acting career. I asked Susan about her younger life and whether or not she was “boy crazy”— because she was given the role of a convincing seductress as “Beulah,” the love interest to Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods. She told me about her youth, and how she met the love of her life:

Susan: I grew up in Memphis and was labeled a tomboy by more than a few in our neighborhood. I hung out with the boys, climbed trees, fished, and  played outside when possible. Even going into high school, I had a lot of female friends, but my best friends were usually guys. I did not become boy crazy until I met Johnny. We met at a club in Memphis called The Desperado. He walked up, introduced himself, and I fell. 

Johnny and Susan have walked together hand-in-hand most of their adult lives, and they have also appeared in several movies together. In one of their most current debuts, Texas Heart, Johnny and Susan play a couple who take a special interest in the “new-kid-in-town” lawyer, played by Erik Fellows. John Savage (The Deer Hunter; The Godfather, Part III; Summer of Sam) also guest stars in this much-anticipated, soon-to-be-released movie, and he and Johnny have some integral scenes together. Here is a photo from on the set of the film, where Johnny is shooting a scene with John Savage.

Johnny and John Savage in Movie shooting
Screen Shot, Texas Heart / Photo submitted

Local actor Rhes Low of Oxford, Mississippi, also appears in Texas Heart, playing a Sheriff’s Deputy. His character can be seen in the trailer for the movie, questioning the main character. Local celebrity/politician Mayor Bill Luckett of Clarksdale plays, quite appropriately, “Judge Westcott;” but unfortunately, his part is not seen in the trailer. This link shows the trailer for Texas Heart, in which Johnny and Susan McPhail are featured prominently.

American Ultra is another film being released very soon in which Johnny McPhail plays a gas station attendant. Johnny spoke with me about Jesse Eisenberg, the star of American Ultra and other well-known films such as The Social Network (“Mark Zuckerberg,” founder of Facebook) and Now You See Me. Johnny McPhail named Jesse Eisenberg as one of his favorite actors to work with.

3 Johnny McPhail Closeup Photograph by Suanne Strider
Johnny McPhail / Photo by Suanne Strider

In American Ultra, Eisenberg (according to IMDb) plays a “stoner – who is in fact a government agent – …marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.” Co-starring Kristen Stewart (Into the Wild, the Twilight movies), this fast-paced and seemingly hilarious film is coming to a theater near you this Friday, August 21st:

(Note: There is a screening of American Ultra at the Malco Theater complex from 7 to 9  p.m. on Thursday, April 20th. Johnny McPhail and probably Susan, too –they don’t go too many places without each other– will be there.)

In 2014’s Big Significant Things, directed by Alison Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s daughter) not only do Johnny and Susan appear in the same scene with each other, their lovely daughter Ashley plays in the scene, as well. Apparently, the talent runs in the family. See the trailer here.

Ashley is autistic. Johnny and Susan, along with Ashley, are breaking barriers when it comes to casting people with special needs. Susan has dedicated a lot of her life—both at home and at work—to breaking down these barriers and helping to reverse the stigma given to special needs people. In her IMDb description, under the heading “SPECIAL CONSIDERATION,” Susan is listed as: “Autism Expert – Special Education Teacher for over 25 Years, Public Speaker and Education Consultant – Synchronized Swimmer – Horseback Rider – Adept at Archery.” To say that Susan is multi-talented is an understatement. Not only is she an amazing humanitarian, she is a right-down amazing person. And, somehow in the midst of all that she does, she found time to be in the films listed below.

In 2005, Susan played “Freeda McCommon” in J.D. Evermore’s Glorious Mail, which was written and produced by another local favorite celebrity director, producer, and actor and philanthropist Alice Walker; Susan played “Lady in Hell” in Jim Bulian’s 2007 film Bellringer; “June” in Meaghin Burke’s Killer Kudzu, also featuring Alice Walker—as well as Johnny McPhail (Kudzu Killer was the winner of the Oxford Film Festival’s Community Film Project in 2014); Susan was “Vivan” in Stephen Kinigopolous’s 2014 short film Last Call; she was “Danya West” in Tony Bloodworth’s yet-to-be-released film Forced Move (with the starring role awarded to Oxford’s Rhes Low, who is also the producer of the film). Along with Forced Move, there are six (yes six) more films due to come out either later this year or early next year in which Susan plays a part. Susan is “Betty Reynolds” in Mark David’s new film Texas Heart (described above, with Rhes Low as “Tim”); in the television series Quarry, Susan plays a “Gridiron Wife;” she plays “Mrs. Koehler” in Battlecreek, also directed by Alison Eastwood and also featuring another prominent local figure, Mayor Bill Luckett as “Jack”; Susan is “Harper” in My Father, Die directed by Sean Brosnan (son of Pierce Brosnan); she was “Beulah,” Nick Nolte’s character’s love interest in A Walk in the Woods; and “Donna,” the card-shark poker player in the upcoming movie Mississippi Grind—released this past August 13th and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

After viewing a “preview” scene of Susan in Mississippi Grind, I assumed that Susan had been playing cards all her life. But when I asked her about her very seductive part as “Beulah” in A Walk in the Woods, and whether or not she is in real life anything like “Beulah,” she explained to me that as an actor, one must play the part whether they are remotely familiar with that character or not:

Susan McPhail Mississippi Grind
Susan McPhail in Mississippi Grind / Photo submitted

I was cast by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden in the role of Donna in Mississippi Grind. Donna was described as a “cigar chomping Southern diva”.  After getting the news from my agent that I was cast, I panicked because I knew nothing about   poker.  Friends in Oxford gave me several crash courses and they had an expert  on set to help me look more natural.  As for looking like I knew what I was doing, I guess all I can say is that, as an actor, you have to be that character.  You imagine yourself as that person, and I think that helps (at least it helps me) to be more natural. I’ve been told that I am a method actor.  

Method actor, character actor, whatever anyone wants to call Susan—she is obviously a very good actor. And really soon, we will get a chance to see her in action, on the big screen, right here in Oxford.

Susan has a huge debut this month for the film adaptation of the 1998 book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachia Trail, written by Bill Bryson. In the film adaptation, named A Walk in the Woods, Robert Redford plays the main character; setting out to “rediscover” himself in the Appalachian wilderness, with Nick Nolte being the only person Redford’s character can find to make the trek with him. Susan plays the part of “Beulah,” Nick Nolte’s love interest. Susan said that she almost cried when they wrapped for Beulah’s scenes, because she had so much fun working with and learning from the director, Ken Kwapis, as well as Nick Nolte. The critics have nothing but great things to say about Susan’s role in the film, which is a sultry seductress who catches the eye of Nick Nolte’s character, Stephen Katz. See the trailer here. 

Nick Nolte Ken Kwapis Susan McPhail A Walk in the Woods
Nick Nolte, Ken Kwapis and Susan McPhail – Publicity Still / Photo submitted

Luckily for us, there will be a screening of A Walk in the Woods right here in Oxford on Tuesday, August 25th at the Malco Theater complex. Proceeds from ticket sales will go to fund the 2016 Oxford Film Festival, a cause of which both Johnny and Susan are huge supporters. See you there!

Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at suannestrider@gmail.com.

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