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Actor John Hoogenakker on Being Yourself in Any Situation

It’s not always easy being an actor. John Hoogenakker has been directed by Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh and Clint Eastwood, he steals scenes from John Krasinski in Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, but nothing will bring him to mind quicker than one nonsensical phrase: “Dilly dilly”. Yes, that’s Hoogenakker as the Bud Light-loving monarch in a series of ads that has done the impossible: invaded the public consciousness in the age of streaming and Tivo boxes.

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But Hoogenakker is so much more than a catchphrase-spouting king selling light beer to the masses, just one episode of Jack Ryan is enough to recognise that. The North Carolinian actor – now based in Chicago – has a quietly impressive presence as Matice, the hardened CIA operative who introduces Krasinski’s Ryan to his team’s way of doing things in the field. We spoke to John about getting under the skin of a man who doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone and the impact of his Bud Light fame.

How did the part of Matice come about for you?

I came in and did the read for it and it felt kind of closer to me than any other role that I really got to play, certainly on television. A lot of the theater work I've done here in Chicago has been classic and also mid-20th century American drama. To play a guy that I could place geographically from the part of the country where I'm from – I'm from the Southeast – felt accessible to me as a character.

John Hoogenakker

What was it about Matice that spoke to you more than most of your other roles?

A lot of friends that I've had, that I've grown up with, have been outdoorsmen. I've spent a lot of time outdoors in my life, of course I've been around hunters and military types. He just kind of, I thought had an ease.

The scene that I read initially was I think it's actually in episode two. They're about to go into an apartment to do a raid, and they're in the armored truck. He's kind of giving Jack a little primer on how to handle his weapon. 

My kind of approach to that language was casual, as opposed to playing it as some kind of gruff hard ass, which I thought wouldn't ring true anyway. The guy lives and breathes weaponry, so when he's talking about it, it's going to be with a certain ease. It would be second nature to him. That was the way that I approached it, didn't try to put a whole lot of spin on it. Tried to play it natural, that was the way it was.

What I like about Matice is that he isn't like your average badass. When you think about the kind of guy he is and the kind of situations he's in, it seems to me that quiet confidence rings a lot more true than throwing his weight around, being gruff, being the toughest guy in the room.

Yeah, I'm glad to hear you see it that way too. We had the benefit of getting to work with a lot of advisors. Primarily Kevin Kent, who was a team member on the SEALs for about 20 years before he retired. A lot of these guys are not huge, they're not big muscle-bound crazy dudes. They're guys that if you were standing next to them in the checkout line in the grocery store, you may not even think that dude's military. I love the idea of a guy being so comfortable in his own skin, that he doesn't really have to telegraph his background or his motives.

John Hoogenakker

Yeah, when you've done what he's done, you don't really need to impress anybody else.

True. I love that. One of the coolest things about the gig is they raise Matice up to a series regular in the second season, and we get to see a lot more of that laidback banter that I thought typified the way that the SEALs dealt with each other on set. I thought, man if I can bring some of this to the work that I'm doing on screen I'll really be honoring these guys.

The cool thing is I think they spend 95 per cent of their time with one another busting balls and keeping it loose. If you get too intense in an intense situation, you tend to lose control. These guys are always taking the hot air out of each other. It was a really cool thing to witness. As a boy growing up, playing in the woods and in the mountains, we played army all the time.

Getting to kind of hang out with retired team members, and take direction on this role was like getting to throw a ball around in the outfield with the Yankees. It was a really cool experience.

I can imagine. I watch a lot of war movies and there's a certain appeal in that sort of thing, but I don't want to be shot at. So, I can see why playing Matice might be really fun because you're getting to do the cool parts of that without the possibility of dying.

That is the key thing to remember. We were shooting all these scenes, and running around with explosives, getting to do all this incredibly cool stuff, but keeping in mind that the guys that we are filming with have been in those intense situations for the majority of their adult lives. It really helps keep things in perspective, and it gives you the desire to honor the work that they've done.

John Hoogenakker

Does that weigh on you a little bit, or give you more of a boost?

I would say it definitely adds a weight to what we're doing. My biggest goal as a human being is to be myself in any situation, and to not play down to or play up to any other human being that I come in contact with. These guys, they've been all over the world two times, they've seen everybody once, and nothing fazes them.

 I think in sort of trying to be real and approachable when I'm around them, trying to lend that feel of authenticity to the work I'm trying to do puts us all in a good place. I've made a lot of great friends. We were at the premiere, which was on the deck of the USS Iowa out in California. It was just so great to see all those guys again. We were working on the second season in Colombia at that point.

The timing just worked out for me to make it back in time for that. It was crazy, we wrapped one night, I went to the airport, changed planes in Mexico City in the middle of the night, landed in Los Angeles at 8:30 in the morning, went to the hotel, took a brief nap, and then showed up at the premiere that night. I was cross-eyed, that whole experience was a blur. I think those guys really loved that character of Matice, which meant the world to me.

That sort of nod of approval from those guys, that's all I really wanted. As long as those guys buy it, I'm good.

How did you find the physicality needed to play a character like that? Are you someone who enjoys that extra physical training for a role?

Absolutely. I love to have a goal to work towards, something to achieve. I definitely see regular exercise as a great stress reliever. I'm a family man, my wife and I we have two small kids. That provides its own kind of exercise. For our children, we always try and be as healthy as we can, we model healthy eating and exercise habits to give them something to hopefully aspire to. In the last few days, my son's been like, “Dad, you've got to get me on the 545, I'm going to do the body weight exercises.” I don't mean to paint a picture that we're crazy about exercise, I'm just very happy for my son that he's exercising these days.

Maybe it's just nostalgia on my part, but I look back to my childhood and how physical it was, and we were out and about so much. It feels like that's changed with the more recent generations.

Oh no doubt. I completely agree with you. When I was my son's age, the neighborhood that I grew up in, I had to ride my bike ten minutes to get to the other kids that I played with. We were outside until around dark.

My mom had this deal with me where, I just had to be within the sound of this policeman's whistle that she had. I could go as far as I could get on the bicycle, but if she blew that police whistle, I had five minutes to get back home from wherever I was. I developed this canine ability to discern the dog whistle above all the stuff that was going on as a kid. We'd literally be in the middle of a game of foursquare or something, and I would stop and sniff the wind, and set out at a dead run.

Sometimes I'd get home, and my mom would be like, “I didn't blow the whistle.” I think she was just messing with me. Always testing me. I'm so glad the kids have that desire, and that extra energy and they're looking for a way to get it out. It seems like so many, it's just so much easier to put a screen in front of them, and let the hours drip by. It's such a waste at that age.

Is there ever point where you look at a role, something like Matice, and you think oh man I don't know if I want to go through all this again. Or is it something you're just always up for?

Honestly, I'm going to do that kind of work as long as my body allows me to do it. This second season was a lot, I knew definitely what I was signing up for. I was happy to do it because one of the great gifts of this experience for me was getting to see different parts of the world, and getting to go to South America and work in the jungle.

I've got to say, a lot of people said the bugs are horrible, but I live in Illinois, and I got to say, sometimes the bugs are much worse in Illinois than they were where we were in South America. And every bit of hot humid in Illinois too! That provided a level of training I guess.

John Hoogenakker

What's been the highlight for you, location wise?

My two favorite spots are Montreal, where we did interiors. Montreal is just one of the coolest cities I've gotten to go to. And Cartagena, on the North coast of Colombia. That was like the coolest city. We were in the walled, older portion of the city was where we were staying. We were actually in the same hotel as Dr. J Julius Irving. I got to shake his hand which was really cool. 

Wow that's not something you'd expect.

Oh not at all, totally a crazy thing.

Have the locations been a bit easier this time around? I read in an interview where you were saying that it wasn't exactly luxury accommodation in the first season.

Oh you know certainly the accommodation, the places that they put us up have been great. They've been wonderful. I think if we're going to go and shoot in the Casbah an hour outside of Marrakech or we're going to drive forty five minutes into the interior of the forest in Colombia, we're there because it doesn't look like anywhere else.

Anytime you endeavor to get to that location, it's going to come with some challenges. I think the great thing is, everybody involved in this production – from the executive producers all the way down to the actors and the crew members – is there because it's exciting, and because the work is phenomenal. For me, the toughest part of any gig that's not here in Chicago, is being away from my wife and being away from our children.

Thank goodness we are so supportive of one another because you ask the universe to let you do this work and the work happens, but it comes at the cost of the other thing that you asked the universe to get to be a part of, which is a loving family. Wherever possible I try to bring my wife and kids with me.

Have they got to go on location with you while you've been shooting Jack Ryan?

They haven't gotten to go while I've been doing Jack Ryan, just because the locations again have been not necessarily conducive to family. The place where we were based in Colombia, honestly I don't know how much I can say about those kinds of locations.

There wouldn't have been much for my wife and kids to get to do. I shot some stuff in New Zealand last December, and I was able to bring them down there. We kind of extended our period of time down there, and drove around the North island. We were there over the Christmas holiday, so we had Christmas in a hotel room in New Zealand. Lake Talpo. It was really cool.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the Bud Light ads. How has that been for you? Has that changed your life in any way?

I made the decision at various points in my life to be a Chicago-based actor because I love the theater community here, I love the acting community here, and I love my neighbors too. What that means is I get to have a varied diet of the kind of acting I get to do.

I've gotten to do a lot of voiceover over the years, and theater, movies and television that have come through Chicago. Also, I've gotten to do some really cool commercials over the years. Jim Jenkins, one of the greatest commercial directors in the country, he and his partner David Shane run O Positive which is a production company in New York City and Santa Monica. We worked together on a bunch of different jobs over the years. We did Avocados of Mexico, which ran during the Super Bowl.

They put these Yoda ears on me, and I played a tour guide at an alien exhibit on Earth, which was a lot of fun. Scott Baio was in that spot, which was ridiculous. I also did a spot with Robert De Niro for Santander Bank, which was a lot of fun. 

The Bud Light thing was one where Jim just called me in, and he was doing four different Bud Light spots. One was Revolutionary War hero, one was zombie apocalypse, one was ‘Dilly Dilly’ and I can't remember what the fourth one was. There was this random nonsensical catchphrase that seemed to hit the country right at the right time. It became something so much bigger than certainly any of us had envisioned.

Certainly bigger than Bud Light envisioned. It's been a lot of fun. I formed great friendships with Sidney Lemon, who plays the queen, and Rory O'Sullivan, who plays the dilly dilly guy. It's kind of like this great fun thing where we travel to different parts of the world. Again we've been in Spain, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, New York a couple times.

I love the spots. They're character driven, there's a little bit of improv that makes its way into it. We're goofing off. The weird thing is, and this has always kind of been the case for me, I don't really get recognized as an actor. If I start to be recognized now it may be because of Jack Ryan.

I was walking down the street in Chicago, downtown, about a month or so. I'm pretty shy in real life, I don't really step out of my way to strike up conversations or anything. This guy was walking the other way, stopped past me on the sidewalk, and he had a dilly dilly t-shirt on. I thought, you know what, I think I'm going to say hello to this gentleman. Maybe it'll be a cool encounter. The guy walks past me, and I go “Hey man, I like your t-shirt.” He turned to me, looked me right in the face, and goes “Thanks dude.” He just kept walking. He had no idea.

At least you’re not having it shouted at you when you’re out for dinner or something like that.

I'm sure whoever's carving the epitaph on my gravestone will put dilly dilly on there. He'll have the last word.


Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.