John Lee Hancock’s The Founder tells the fascinating story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling milkshake-machine salesman from Illinois, who met two brothers in 1950s Southern California who had invented a new speedy system of making and serving hamburgers and fries. Kroc was so impressed by what the McDonald brothers, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), were doing in their burger shops that he saw franchise potential. The Founder, written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), details how Kroc eventually maneuvered himself into a position to be able to yank the company from the brothers and create his own billion-dollar empire. The film also stars Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, and Patrick Wilson. I sat down with the immensely talented Nick Offerman to discuss similarities between Ray Kroc and Donald Trump as well as some of the darker sides of the American Dream.
Danny Miller: I read several reviews of this film that said Dick McDonald was your “first dramatic role.” I’m not sure I agree with that. Did you see Dick as a big departure for you?
Nick Offerman: No, not at all. I guess I can see what they’re getting at — a lot of what I’ve done in the last decade has some kind of comic bent to it. Even in films where I’m playing a straight guy there are usually a few laughs to be had and this didn’t really have any moments like that. If there are any laughs, they come straight out of the dramatic tension in the scene. I was going for a square, hardworking version of a guy in the 1950s so it felt similar to most of the acting that I do!
Your chemistry with John Carroll Lynch was so great I totally bought you two as brothers. Had you worked with him before?
No, but I’ve looked up to him for many years and was over the moon to be cast as brothers with him. He comes from live theater as well and we just kind of hit it off. Doing interviews with him for this film has only impressed me more. He’s so intelligent — he’ll respond to questions he’s asked with references to Andrew Carnegie or give a 10-minute treatise on the movie Michael Clayton. I’ll be sitting next to him thinking, “Oh God, I feel dumb!”
Did you have to work with him for a while to get to that “brotherly” place?
I have a brother that I love very much and there was a time when we lived together as adults. Before I started getting acting work in L.A., I was really hoping he’s become as obsessed with woodworking as I am. I had this idea that we’d turn my woodworking shop into the Offerman Brothers and I thought that would be the most wonderful life. That never happened and there are certainly things about each other that bother us, but I’m just crazy about my brother, he’s one of the greatest guys I can think of, so it was very easy to transfer that sensibility to John Carroll Lynch who is also very easy to admire and such a generous actor.
These are obviously all real people. Did you do a lot of your own research on them or was it all on the page?
We were very spoiled in this film because the producers, Don Handfield and Jeremy Renner, had this material for almost 12 years as they were trying to get this film made. So much of what we would normally do they had already done so when we came on board. They gave us these big packets of research and pictures and Dictaphone recordings. There are a few things on YouTube of Dick McDonald that I watched, but that was all frosting because Robert Siegel had so masterfully laced everything that we needed into the script. The script told us exactly who we were in this brotherhood.
It’s interesting to think of how they were treated by Ray Kroc. I mean, he definitely shafted them but I couldn’t help thinking, well, maybe they were better off. And it’s not like they didn’t get a lot of money even if it wasn’t the billions that Kroc ultimately made.
It’s true. Dick and Mac were actually quite prosperous. It’s interesting because there’s been so much talk about the American Dream but these guys really did achieve that dream: they created a business that did so well that this guy bought it for $2.7 million. I haven’t done the math but that’s probably something like $15 to $20 million in today’s dollars.
That’s what I was thinking. And at least they didn’t have to sell their souls down the river in terms of what McDonald’s became.
Yeah, I think that’s an interesting point.
I keep hearing people comparing Ray Kroc to Donald Trump which makes me defensive for Kroc!
(Laughs.) It’s true. “How DARE you say such a thing about Ray Kroc!”
I mean, he obviously had a ruthless side but I just don’t think the comparisons hold up.
I agree with you. I think Ray Kroc was a much more intelligent and relatable human being whose ambition got the best of him whereas Trump is sort of an inscrutable jackass, possibly even demented. He’s absolutely incomprehensible to me which is what is terrifying about him — he hardly ever behaves rationally.
And even if you don’t like what Ray Kroc did, you can certainly understand what he was doing and hoping to achieve.
Absolutely. They were both master salesman. But that’s another thing about Trump that I find baffling. There’s nothing about him that explains how he was able to accomplish what he’s been able to pull off. I understand that he represented a message that caused a lot of people to vote for him, that’s where the salesman part comes in, he convinced people to vote for a bunch of smoke and mirrors. “I’m going to give you what you want,” and they were like, “Finally!” and then he was like, “I have no idea what they want. Fuck them!” Trump and Kroc were also amazing at creating a slogan or a vision that you could sell and then let people fill in the quality they were looking for, whether it’s the golden arches or slapping the name Trump on a building. We’ve come to learn, sadly, that Trump is a terrible businessman and doesn’t own most of the things that say Trump on them, he’s just a great salesman, so that all the people who are too lazy to do any homework are like, “What are you talking about? He’s got his name all over the place, he must be terrific in business!” And you’re like, “No, he’s actually completely full of shit.”
And certainly both Trump and Ray Kroc had issues with their own narcissism and grabbing credit for things.
Yes, that’s true. For some insecure reason, it was very important for Kroc to be credited with the whole thing, he was not good at treating his collaborators fairly in that regard. But when I watch the film and see him doing bad things, I can at least understand what human reactions made him do it. And also, it’s worth mentioning that he couldn’t have known at the time how filthy and plastic and poisonous the fast food industry would become. He was instrumental in replacing nutritious ingredients with garbage, but at the time he had this vision that was almost like science fiction.
The film really makes you think twice about what success is, what the American Dream is founded on.
To me it’s fascinating in terms of not only what’s going on in our country but also globally. The lesson of the film, to me, is should there be a limit on how much success any entity should achieve? Because at a certain points, what detriments does it start having on people, on our natural resources, on the quality of the product that they’re selling? My beloved favorite writer, Wendell Berry, tells this great story about his friend who’s this Amish farmer who sets himself a limit. He decided that he’d only farm as much land as his horses could accomplish working from sunrise to sunset, he would never work a beast after sundown. So whatever income he could glean within that limit, that’s what his family subsisted on. I love that analogy of finding your happiness and satisfaction within a limit that you set — rather than our weird consumerist American dream that says you should never be happy, you can always get more.
Yes! The so-called American Dream has turned into the opposite of what that Amish farmer is doing. It’s all about volume and bigness. That’s why I left the film thinking the McDonald brothers were better off.
I agree. To my way of thinking it represents the forces that are running our country. They’re establishing legislation for health and safety and the environment and agriculture that’s based solely on money with no integrity. There’s a terrifying book called Lethal but Legal by Nicholas Freudenberg that details all of the lobbying that’s taken place in Washington over the past 20 or 30 years in terms of fast food, alcohol guns, vehicles — it’s insane. All this money is being spent to make sure that companies can keep poisoning us or selling their products to the widest possible audience.