(Featured image left courtesy of Joshua Hinkson, featured image right courtesy of Paper Crane Creative)
Though the pandemic brought production on countless projects screeching to a halt, Netflix has seemed barely fazed by the new roadblocks. Between returning seasons of The Crown and brand-new hits like The Queen’s Gambit, the service has still kept up its constant stream of quality television, and they’ve started the year off strong with the buzzy Firefly Lane. Based on the novel by Kristin Hannah, the sweet dramedy is a decades-spanning love story of a different sort, with its sights turned on a pair of best friends, Tully and Kate, who navigate relationships, careers, and family dramas with only each other to truly rely on. Led by the dynamic duo of Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke, the series immediately caught the attention of subscribers, quickly occupying the coveted number one most-watched slot, where it still ranks in the top ten.
In the four decades of Tully and Kate’s story, a lot of men pass through their lives in different capacities, but two of the most important are Brendan Taylor’s Mutt and Jason McKinnon’s Sean. The former is a sweet and funny cameraman at the women’s news job in the ‘80s, and the latter is Kate’s reserved older brother, who is holding some secrets of his own. TV Wasteland had the opportunity to speak with Taylor and McKinnon about their experience working on the new Netflix series, their shared experiences growing up, and what they look for in a production team.
The two men both grew up on the North Shore near Vancouver, and they both actually went to the same school. In seventh grade, Brendan took a drama elective as “a pretty shy kid,” but he described that he soon found a passion in that class. After more school performances over the years, people had told him to pursue it further, but he’d never been sure that he’d make a true career out of it. At the end of high school, he made a few short films with friends with a VHS-C camera. While he knew about storytelling and the structure of movies, he admitted that he didn’t know much about technicals like editing, so he recorded the films “in sequence, in camera… If we screwed up a take, you would look in the eye piece and rewind it and stop it and then start the take again.” He remembers it as a super fun experience, proving that you can still make great art without all the equipment or techniques.
At the same time, just a few grades apart in the same school, Jason grew up playing hockey, but “in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t necessarily something I would go pro in.” It was something he enjoyed, but he always knew that acting was going to be his future focus. He recalled one of his teachers in school pulling him aside and telling him, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this. You should do more of this.” It was the first time he’d really gotten that reinforcement, so it cemented that path in his mind going forward.
Taylor grew up “as a film baby,” with his uncle working as a grip and his mother in the art department of commercials and series. She retired a few years ago, but her final work can be seen on the popular NBC series The Good Doctor. “Early on, I would help her out on sets, and then I would get paid to help her out. I eventually got my own contacts, and then I got into it, with years and years and thousands of hours behind the camera before ever stepping foot in front of it.” Acting was always his ultimate dream, so he’s thankful that he has been able to take those steps to where he is today. He still designs short films or indie features here and there, acknowledging that “it is an important, difficult, very specific job that is very time-consuming” that he doesn’t have as much time for anymore, but he’s happy to have that well-rounded experience.
Another shared moment in McKinnon and Taylor’s backgrounds are their credits on Supernatural, the CW’s smash hit Supernatural, which just recently came to the end of its fifteen-year run. Jason had had the opportunity to meet stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles before, so he found it “very cool” to be able to work with them. He recalled one of Jared’s friends from Texas coming to visit production, bringing his hockey gear along. McKinnon had a game planned for the weekend, so they ended up playing together. He appeared in season seven, and by that time, the cast and crew were so in the groove that they “were like a well-oiled machine… total family situation.” Jason’s role as a waiter infected by strange magic gave him the job of spending entire days insulting the two main stars, which he admitted “felt really weird” but ended up being a lot of fun.
Just a couple years later, Brendan had his first Supernatural experience as a vampire, but his scene was unfortunately cut from the final episode. However, everything shook out well, because not long after he got the opportunity to return in a larger role as Officer Doug Stover, love interest of fan favorite Donna Hanscum. Like McKinnon, he had to wear some thick contact lenses, but this time there were two layered, one bloodshot and one black.. He also highlighted how kind and welcoming Ackles and Padalecki were, remembering how he was welcomed with open arms when he made a reappearance a few seasons later. “The set was one of the best sets ever, and it was a staple of Vancouver.” The city is where the official Supernatural convention is held, and Taylor attended one year with Brianna Buckmaster (who plays Donna), where he was blown away by the sheer size and passion of the fanbase, which was one of the first big Internet fandoms.
McKinnon also made an appearance in the DC universe as legendary writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in Legends of Tomorrow. “Before much technology existed, where everything is documented now, I think I only found one voice recording of Fitzgerald reading a poem.” Slipping easily into a classic transatlantic accent, Jason discussed the occasionally bizarre experience of incorporating old acting styles in an action-packed time travel superhero show. Drawing inspiration from David Hoflin and Tom Hiddleston’s performances in Z: The Beginning of Everything and Midnight in Paris respectively, he found that he really connected to the aesthetics of that era (and Fitzgerald’s “wicked” middle hair part).
Of course, today they’re both on Firefly Lane. Brendan praised Katherine Heigl, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, for her professionalism and also emphasized how “incredible” Sarah Chalke was to work with. Heigl’s nickname with friends is Katie, which of course created some confusion on the set, as Chalke’s character also goes by a similar name. Jason highlighted the Emmy winner as “so generous with her time,” describing that it’s “hard not to do a good job because she’s always there for you in the scene.” The two men also connected with Chalke over going to French immersion school. McKinnon said, “I’m sure any actor will agree, it starts with number one and number two on the call sheet, and that sets the tone, so the fact that the whole show was like a family is a testament to them.” Taylor described how it’s all about “being present and in the moment, and to me it’s important to have that experience on set” with everyone on the same page. The directors changed every two episodes, but Vincent De Paula stayed consistent as director of photography, and Taylor underscored that the warm, inviting look of the show was “all him.”
One of the major conceits of the show is how it jumps between various time periods, telling the stories of these characters in a non-linear fashion. The audience may learn about a character’s future before their past is brought to light or vice versa, and it creates for an exciting narrative where you’re never sure what could be revealed next. According to Jason, “for the actors, we’ll get the scripts coming to us as we go. It’s not as if we have the ten scripts ahead of time, so I think for us, it was more so playing the dynamics between Sean and Kate… and he hasn’t told her about the things he’s dealing with, and that relationship has its own arc,” and with Sean and Tully’s resulting friendship, “it was more playing [the specific dynamic of the time] and having that inform the scene than the arc, so to speak.” He also knows that the writers have their plan and have the narrative outlined in such a specific way (through Hannah’s original novel and the team’s own fantastic talent) that they can all trust in the plan of where everything’s going next. “For me, it was about finding those relationships with Kate and Tully.”
We’ve only seen Mutt in the eighties so far, so we’ll have to wait and find out if he will end up in the present-day storyline, but Taylor said that “it’s typical in film to shoot out of sequence regardless, so when jumping a timeline (which is becoming more of a common thing in narratives nowadays), it’s really just your job to kind of get an acting basis of where you just came from and where you’re going,” scene by scene. He also emphasized the importance of doing your own homework as an actor and drawing the lines between moments so that you can emotionally inform a scene as best as you can, of course always with the help of the writers and directors as well. “I appreciate that more and more, being able to own that collaborative relationship a bit. Never pushing your stuff, but having your voices join together. We’re all after the same goal, which is to tell a story.”
We discover in the first episode with the seventies’ teenage Sean that he is in the closet in a secret relationship with his best friend Robbie. Anything beyond that is getting into spoiler territory, but as the episodes unfold, we slowly learn more and more about Sean’s backstory, leading up to his present-day reality. When McKinnon first read the script, he found himself thinking about “the common ground with anybody [which] is: Do you fit in this world? Where does anyone fit? Who’s your family?” He considered those questions and the common goal of many to find that place where they fit in to identify Sean’s particular struggle in college and beyond. “The writing is just so good, and… you have the writer, you have the director working back and forth with you and collaborating, which is huge.” To Jason, the difference between a technical director and an actor’s director is big. To him, the latter is someone who will ensure that they’re working with you directly as they go, but “as an actor, you’ve got to be prepared either way.” One of the coolest parts of production for him was the little huddles they would get into between takes to make sure everyone knew what was going on for the next scene or the next bit.
Taylor hopes that we’ll get to see a blooper reel at some point, because “the reality is when you’re shooting, [between all the coverage shots], you have full scenes of every actor, but you can only choose one cut at the end. Who does the camera end up on?” It’s every actor’s job to always be fully involved in the moment, even if there isn’t a camera pointed on them at the time, so Brendan had a lot of moments at the ends of scenes of fun reactions that he hopes can make it into some sort of extra video. McKinnon specifically remembered a scene their characters shared, which was already supposed to be an awkward interaction, when he walked directly into a column at the end of it. “You couldn’t have written a more Mutt thing to do,” Taylor said. “It was something out of Looney Tunes and completely unplanned.” Of course, the scene has to stay consistent in future takes, so he didn’t want to completely fake it, but he was still able to recreate it to help it get into the final version of the episode. “I grew up with slapstick… so that sort of stuff just makes me happy.” Jason also described Sarah Chalke’s occasional “wheeze status” laugh, which in one scene brought the entire cast and crew to tears with laughter. “Everyone had a blast working on set, so you could pick out any day, and we had a good time.”
Both actors have appreciated the widespread positive reactions to the show. With so many people at home watching Netflix so frequently now, Brendan has received many messages from people that he may not have talked to in a while to tell him how much they love the show, which he really appreciates. “Any actor’s dream is to be involved with something that resonates with people. Not popular for the sake of being popular, but because we did something… that people genuinely like. That’s the most gratifying part of it, really.” McKinnon described it as a best-of-both-worlds scenario, where everyone had such a good time working on it, and they can also be really proud of the final product. “With 2020 being what it was, I think people really wanted a show like this and needed a show like this, all about connection and friendship.”
Firefly Lane is definitely the type of series that we could all use right about now, and we can’t wait to see more from it and both Taylor and McKinnon in the future. The entire first season is available to stream now, only on Netflix.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Taylor and McKinnon’s hometown and had mistaken information about Supernatural on Twitter. The errors have been corrected, and we apologize for the mistakes.