During his first major acting gig, Manhattan Beach's John Churchill was shot by a sniper in an episode of NBC's “Profiler” in 2000. He spent the whole show dying in a hole.
“I called my friend who's a doctor and I'm like, 'What happens if I get shot?' He's like, 'You go through this and you feel this.'” Then that was it. I did that. It was so much fun. It was that whole thing of 'I can't believe I'm actually doing this.' It was surreal. I thought, 'This isn't going to last. I'm probably not going to do this forever.'”
But nearly 20 years later, Churchill is still a working actor and a busy one. He recently wrapped a month-long shoot on a horror film for Netflix. Last year he was seen in the T.V. series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Grey's Anatomy” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” a time traveling, sci-fi CW series where he played Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. This year, he appeared in the pilot for “Rebel,” which was directed by John Singleton.
Churchill helped support his career, while raising a family, by working as a bartender and later manager at Fonz's restaurant in Manhattan Beach. He quit bar tending more than three years ago, but continued as a manager a couple nights a week until about a year and a half ago after his second child was born.
“It's the kind of place where you know everybody ... I do miss hanging with the locals,” Churchill said.
Road to Hollywood
Churchill, who was born and raised in Arizona, was a “huge movie fan” but he never acted in high school. He caught the acting bug while studying English literature at University of Colorado Boulder. He said it was a fluke. He took an introduction to acting class for non-theater majors as an elective his sophomore year.
“That was the beginning of it and it kind of snowballed from there,” he said.
Churchill took some more acting classes and studied in Germany for a semester his junior year. At 21 years old, he was on his own for the first time and he said he grew up a lot during his time in Europe. He returned to Colorado and decided to stay a fifth year at the college to earn not only a degree in English lit but one in theater as well.
After graduation, he began his first professional paid acting gig, in the reputable Colorado Shakespeare Festival where he played Romeo's understudy and some minor roles. But after living in snow for five years, he decided to follow his sister to the beach cities after she had moved to Manhattan Beach.
When he moved, he quit acting and landed a job at Merrill Lynch in Beverly Hills. He worked there for more than a year.
“I remember driving on Vista del Mar at 5:45 in the morning going to work and I was studying for a Series 7, which is miserable test, especially if you’re not into it,” Churchill recalled. “I remember flash forwarding 30 years and thinking 'Am I going to be doing this drive to this office that I'm not really excited about at all?'”
To support himself, Churchill he picked up odd jobs including one at the Chart House in Redondo Beach.
“All through college all the theater professors said to everybody ... if there is anything else you can do in your life, do it, because this is a miserable profession,” Churchill said. “It's incredibly hard. If there's anything else that makes you happy, do it. Because maybe one of you, maybe, out of 16 of us in the studio, might make a living out of it.”
Churchill ignored that advice. He was performing in a small play in Westwood when another actor connected him with her manager. The manager got him auditions and work as an extra, which allowed him to get his first Screen Actors Guild card.
With his role on “Profiler,” Churchill was able to land another job quickly, playing Gil Grissom's (William Peterson) assistant for three episodes during the first season of the hit show “C.S.I.”
At that point in his young career, Churchill thought “this is easy.” But that quickly changed when he was offered a unique acting offer. At the time, Churchill was not under contract for “C.S.I.,” so he jumped at the chance when his first acting coach, Ken Lerner, called him about a role in director Spike Jonze's latest film, which was to star Nicolas Cage.
“He (Roman) said 'Spike Jonze is filming the sequel to 'Being John Malkovich' and Nicholas Cage is playing twins. Spike doesn't want to do the whole green screen thing. He has this really crazy idea, he wants to hire an actor that they will put in all prosthetic, that is Nicholas cage's size, who could play the other role when Nick's the main focus. You'll never be seen, no one will see you're face.' This was about a month or two out before shooting even started on this movie.”
Churchill read with Cage and they hit if off. But his manager had to call the producers of “C.S.I.” and tell them he was unavailable for the last two episodes. He got the part and went through a month of rehearsals, but then it was time for the make-up. They finished two days of shooting for make-up tests, but it “looked absolutely awful.”
“I didn't look anything like Nicolas, I looked like Marlon Brando in his 70s ... then three days before principal photography started, 'We can't use it. Spike has to use green screen. Sorry here is the check.' I got paid in full, but I was shaved like a bulb for it to do the makeup thing and I had told 'C.S.I.' see you later ... it was a huge wake up call. In the off season my manager had written or called the producer at 'C.S.I.' 'Hey, he's available for next season.' They were like, 'No, we're good, thanks.'”
Roller coaster ride
Ever since he had his first Hollywood reality check, Churchill has been on a career roller coaster. He started on the T.V. guest star audition circuit, appearing in shows from HBO's “Carnivale” to crime dramas “Cold Case,” “Law & Order: LA,” and “Criminal Minds.”
Portraying Ulysses S. Grant, where he was able to do a lot of research, was like playing cowboys and Indians.
“If I could shoot westerns for the rest of my career, that would be fine by me,” he said. “I'm a huge history buff and I get to play a real character, Civil War, the whole get-up. We were out in the middle of the woods in Vancouver. It was fantastic.”
Churchill has also been busy in web series, short films and feature films such as “Auto Focus” and “Cellular.” “Burning at Both Ends,” starring Cary Elwes and Jason Patric is expected to hit theaters this year. Sometimes it's about “getting more footage.” His role as Grant led to his role in the new Netflix horror film, which might hit theaters or be streamed.
“With horror movies, it's such a crap shoot,” Churchill said.
About four years ago, Churchill started getting a lot of commercial work, including spots for BlueCross BlueShield, Hallmark, United Healthcare and Reliant. He said his strong theatrical resume helps and the commercials pay great, if they run.
Churchill continues to work on his craft. He attends a scene study course with a private coach in North Hollywood with a “good community” of working actors.
He said he has less anxiety now worrying about his next acting gig. When not auditioning or working, he's happy staying home with his family, working on his own projects. He said there's “enough pieces of the pie going around.”
“It's not about being the best actor that day ... it doesn't matter if you're the best actor they see," Churchill said. "That's not necessarily going to get you the job. It's about fitting the director or writer's vision, and if you make peace with that, the whole process gets a lot easier.”
Some of Churchill's work can be seen at johnchurchill.net.