Johnny McPhail Went From Ellard To Acting

johnny_mcphail_small.jpgGrowing up on a small farm in Ellard, just outside of Bruce, Johnny McPhail didn’t think about acting in the movies. “Hollywood seemed so far away it was hardly even real,” McPhail said.
“I remember going to Bruce on Saturday nights to see the movies. That
was real – a real big deal.” Fifty years later, the 67-year-old McPhail is acting in the movies and
becoming a sought after talent. Last weekend he was the star of the 6th
Annual Oxford Film Festival, appearing in three featured films –
“Ballast,”  “Double Decker Confidential” and “Chasing the White Dragon”
– and earning a Hoka award at the festival banquet.


By JOEL McNEECE
Growing up on a small farm in Ellard, just outside of Bruce, Johnny McPhail didn’t think about acting in the movies.
“Hollywood seemed so far away it was hardly even real,” McPhail said. “I remember going to Bruce on Saturday nights to see the movies. That was real – a real big deal.”
Fifty years later, the 67-year-old McPhail is acting in the movies and becoming a sought after talent. Last weekend he was the star of the 6th Annual Oxford Film Festival, appearing in three featured films – “Ballast,”  “Double Decker Confidential” and “Chasing the White Dragon” – and earning a Hoka award at the festival banquet.
johnny_mcphail_big.jpg“Ballast” has garnered international attention, and McPhail has been invited to festivals all over the world as a result, though last year he skipped one in Berlin to attend the Oxford Film Festival.
“In my opinion, Oxford is one of the best places to be if you want to break into acting, and the film festival is a great place for actors and filmmakers to network and make contacts,” McPhail said.
He said it’s his life, full of unique experiences, that has provided him with so much to allow him to enjoy success as an actor so late in life.
The son of Bud and Ruby McKibben McPhail, Johnny spent most of his youth working on the family farm.
“We were poor,” McPhail said. “We just didn’t know we were poor.”
He said his experiences in school remain priceless memories.
“I think my first acting was in a school play with classmate Jim Webb,” McPhail said. “We did a couple of those together.”
He recalled William Morgan getting his first Roy Rogers’ guitar and playing with his cousin A.C. Jenkins, who was killed in an accident at a young age at the pumping station.
“A.C. and I saw each other almost every day,” McPhail said, “starting as toddlers through high school. There are not many days that go by that I don’t think about A.C. and the fun times we had.”
“Recently I was reunited with my second grade sweet heart, Ellen Campbell Cox,” McPhail said. “I have a lot of great friends and family from Calhoun. I keep up with a lot of them online through Facebook.”
McPhail’s graduating class at Ellard was the last before the school consolidated with Bruce. He was named valedictorian.
“I guess they had to give it to someone,” he said. “There was only 13 of us.”
McPhail, who now lives in Oxford, spent much of his working life with South Central Bell and various other odd jobs. He was a stay-at-home dad for a long time. He and his wife Susan, who works at North Mississippi Regional Center, have three children – Courtney and twins An-drew and Ashley.
Ashley was diagnosed with autism at a young age.
“We knew one of us was going to need to stay home with her, and my job situation was better for that,” McPhail said. “It was a really hard struggle for us, but it turned out well.”
Today, Courtney and Andrew attend Ole Miss, and Susan is working on her PhD from the university.
“I’m Ole Miss poor,” McPhail laughed.
Ashley is doing well, also.
In the meantime, McPhail continues to live the dream of acting in the movies, with great help from his family.
“They are tremendously supportive,” McPhail said. “I couldn’t do this without them.”
It all started more than 20 years ago when he was drinking coffee at Smitty’s restaurant in Oxford. A casting director, who was in town preparing for the shooting of the movie “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag,” spotted McPhail sitting at a table.
“She came up to me and asked  me if I ever wanted to be in the movies,” McPhail said. “She said I had an interesting face.”
He attended a casting call and earned a part as a third detective in the movie. Through that experience, he developed a friendship with actress Penelope Miller and Red West, an actor and former bodyguard for Elvis Presley.
“Red and I became really good friends, and that opened a lot of opportunities for me,” McPhail said.
He soon landed roles in several John Grisham movies – as a business man in “A Time To Kill,” a news anchor in “The Chamber” and as Jon Voight’s stand-in for the movie “Rainmaker.”
He was a reporter in the movie “The People vs Larry Flint,” a church member in “Cookie’s Fortune,” and earned roles in “Big Bad Love,” “Glorious Mail” and “Chasing The White Dragon.”
His theater credits include “Night of the Iguana,” “Cat on a Hot Roof,” a reader at the 2006 Faulkner Conference, “Taming of the Shrew,” Larry Brown’s “Dirty Work” and Larry Brown’s “Joe.”
His biggest role, however, was in “Ballast,” which was featured at the film festival last weekend. The picture was an award-winner at the Sundance Film Festival and brought McPhail international acclaim.
“Ballast definitely gave me a lot of recognition and started a lot more calls with offers,” McPhail said.
One call came from old Ole Miss buddy Jimmy Hall. Hall starred in football at Ole Miss and now lives in Malibu, Ca, and is active in the film and theater industry.
“We were in California for the premiere, and Jimmy read about it in the L.A. Times and called me up out of the blue,” McPhail said.
The calls have continued to come as McPhail recently wrapped up shooting a horror spoof by Oxford-area director Micah Ginn.
“There’s no reason to go to Hollywood,” McPhail said. “I’m having fun right here.”
After a busy weekend of three feature films and a number of personal appearances related to the Oxford Film Festival, McPhail said he’s overwhelmed by the experience.
“I’m really happy with myself,” he said. “Not because of my success, but because all of this was beyond my wildest dreams. I was just a kid from a small farm in Ellard. This has all been incredible.”

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