Actor Chris McNally’s easy going, amiable demeanor is completely genuine, but the Canadian-born performer is capable of utterly transformative characterizations, fraught with subtle psychological nuance and stark, emotional depth, It’s an attribute that’s served him well in a fast-moving career which has taken him from aspiring supporting player to major lead roles, and his striking portrayal of Cal Dennison in Lifetime network’s forthcoming adaptation of the celebrated VC Andrews novel Heaven is a prime example. For McNally, landing the film’s second lead was the almost inevitable conclusion of a lifelong passion. “I just have always wanted to be an actor, ever since I can remember,” McNally said. “I’m not sure what initially prompted my interest, but there really was nothing else I ever thought to pursue.”
Heaven, which sparked an entire series of best-selling novels, is a sort of glorious throwback to mid-century Peyton Place-era tearjerkers, loaded with melodramatic moral and social conflicts and fraught with scandal and hopelessly romantic entanglements. In the case of titular character Heaven Casteel, a comely teenager who finds herself sold off by her abusive father to a childless couple only to reluctantly submit to the male head of her new household’s seduction, the story line definitely pushes some boundaries.
As McNally explains, “Heaven follows a teenage girl and her difficult journey through adolescence. The story begins in a dark place—Heaven lives with her alcoholic father, pregnant stepmother, grandmother and siblings in a small, dilapidated house in the mountains. When Heaven’s stepmother loses her baby, it triggers a tragic chain of events, ending with her father selling all his children and separating them. Heaven ends up with Cal and Kitty Dennison, who seem great at first, but life becomes even more complicated when Kitty begins having schizophrenic, abusive tendencies and Cal falls in love with Heaven.”
To call the role of Cal a challenge would be a tremendous understatement, and McNally approached it with a characteristically canny mix of dramatic craft and emotional restraint.
“Things become complicated when Kitty begins mentally and physically abusing Heaven, not letting her outside the house, forcing her to clean all day,” McNally said. “Cal finds himself trying to shelter and protect Heaven from Kitty’s actions. During this process though, Cal starts to develop romantic feelings for Heaven. This was the most difficult part to navigate, because we didn’t want Cal to come off as a predator.”
McNally’s natural, persuasive approach to a role is so convincing that, in fact, he got the part despite the fact that he had to audition remotely, via a tape shot in a friend’s apartment—hardly an ideal circumstance. “I couldn’t attend the audition since I was out of town,’ McNally said. “So I asked a friend for help taping it. We got together in his tiny kitchen and made do with what we had. When I got back to Vancouver, I had a callback, so I went in for a session with the director and producers, and a week later was told that I’d gotten the job.”
After landing the part, McNally got down the very serious business of making his character sympathetic.
“I tried to prepare for this by using the relativity of the circumstances as structure,’ McNally said. “I doubt anything would ever have transpired between Cal and Heaven if they were in a normal situation. Their reality, though, is that they both find themselves as prisoners in this house arrest-like jail that Kitty has created. So within the walls of the house, we have this warped reality, separate from the real world. In that world, I looked at Heaven as my ally, and I protect her, we bond, and her earnestness and kindness begins to authentically fill a void in my heart that I hadn’t realized, until then, that Kitty never did. I’d say that was my main prep—understanding how and why these feelings came to be, and making it work for me.”
This precisely reasoned motivation—calling back to Stanislavski’s famed dramatic admonition to “play the life”—is key to McNally’s appeal and success, artistically and professionally. In just over a decade, his continually rising profile has led to a formidable resume of on-screen achievements, with numerous roles, both on television series and small-screen movies and 2018 looks to be a banner year for the actor—he not only has Heaven coming out soon but also a recurring role in the highly anticipated Netflix original series Altered Carbon, already making a significant Hollywood buzz for being one of the most ambitious and highest budgeted series in television history.
All of this was earned solely by McNally’s dedication. “Chris has a lot of talent and passion which he brings to his work,” co-star Julie Benz said. “He’s disciplined, reliable, passionate about his craft and he really delivers when the cameras are rolling. It was refreshing to work with a young actor who is more interested in the craft of what we do than how many Instagram followers he has.”
It’s an exciting time for the perpetually driven McNally, who remains a down to earth, affable guy with a winning, attitude.
“I believe you only have one chance at life, so if you really want something, you need to do everything in your power to make it happen,” McNally said. “I use that philosophy every day and it inspires me to keep going after my goals, to keep training, keep auditioning—and working.”