It’s been 22 years since George Newbern first stepped into the role of Bryan MacKenzie, the perfect groom-to-be to Steve Martin’s harried George Banks in the beloved Father of the Bride films.
But you’d think the ’90s movies were still at the top of the box office judging from the reactions Newbern gets from fans (and co-stars) on a daily basis. “Because the movie was so good, it just kept playing and playing, so it touched many generations and became something of a right of passage for girls. So I accept that I will always be, to them, that guy,” he told BuzzFeed over coffee at a Mediterranean restaurant in Los Angeles.
But it took a while for the now-49-year-old actor to truly embrace his place in pop-culture history, and remembering some advice from Superman himself really helped him do so. “I did a movie with Christopher Reeve when I first came to L.A. called Switching Channels,” Newbern recalled. “I asked him if it was weird to be Superman. He said, ‘You know, George, I’ve fought against this whole Superman thing, but one day I realized, Hey, I’m Superman.’ So, at some point, I just started saying, Good for me, I’m Bryan MacKenzie.”
Even some of Newbern’s new Scandal co-stars can’t help but see him as the adorably nerdy independent communications consultant who wed Annie Banks (Kimberly Williams) in the picturesque on-screen ceremony. “Katie Lowes talks about it all the time,” he said. “Katie’s 20 years younger than me and I remember during our first make-out scene, she kept saying, ‘What are we doing?!?’”
Scandal executive producer Betsy Beers is also a massive Father of the Bride fan, which Newbern believes helped him land the role of B613 contract killer Charlie back in the show’s first season. “Betsy told me they liked that I seemed like someone you would never suspect of being a killer,” he said. “It’s classic against-type casting.” And while the character was initially designed to appear in only one episode, Charlie is still alive and kicking two years and 24 episodes later — despite the writers’ best attempts to, repeatedly, kill him off.
“Betsy told me that the whole writers room debated killing Charlie for a while in the scene where I was bound to the chair and Huck [Guillermo Díaz] had got a gun to my head,” he said with a laugh. “But I think the writers are very conscious of getting the most mileage out of stories because, in this crazy, soapy, political world, it’s all about places they can find more gas in the tank. They initially kept me on because it helped the story, but I do feel like they know there’s more down the road for him.”
That’s assuming Charlie can survive Scandal’s Season 3 finale this week. “I really don’t want him to die. The character is in the crosshairs because he’s always doing bad things,” Newbern said. “But really, truly, it’s so rare to get to play a great character on a well-written TV show that actually stays on the air. That combination is almost impossible.”
And, over 30-plus years, Newbern has learned just how elusive that triumvirate is. “I went to college at Northwestern and was flown out to Los Angeles during my junior year to audition for Back to the Future,” he said. “Suddenly, I’m in front of [Steven] Spielberg doing a screen test with Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd. It was right before Eric Stoltz [who was later replaced by Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly] was cast. And while I didn’t get it, I knew going back to New York to do musical theater would be fun, but it felt like there were stratospheric possibilities for crazy fun out here. So, I said, I’m young, I better do this now because it might be impossible to start later.”
While big gigs like the Father of the Bride movies, Adventures in Babysitting, and Designing Women quickly came, Newbern realized, after a year and a half, “No one really cares about you but you. They say they do, but everyone in Hollywood is a heat-seeking missile and it’s easy to go after the cute girl or guy that’s new to town.”
After that moment of anagnorisis, Newbern committed himself to the work, and went after every job, no matter how small, like it was the lead role in a big-budget, Hollywood tentpole movie. “When I first came to L.A., I was plotting out my career choices as if I actually had a choice,” he said, chuckling at his former self’s naiveté. “Unless you’re Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, impossibly good-looking, or look like a freak, you have to be malleable and open to everything that comes your way because that’s what makes it possible to pay your mortgage and eat.”
With that mind-set, Newbern has worked steadily in film and television since 1982, sharing the screen with everyone from Jack Nicholson to Jennifer Aniston, evolving into an in-demand voice-over actor, and always trying to challenge himself. These days, he’s looking to direct episodic television. “Acting in Los Angeles can be very isolating because you either have a job or you don’t have a job — and if you don’t have a job, it’s all about getting out of your house,” Newbern said. “It sucks to sit around, waiting. That’s death.
“Nothing about this industry is easy. As you get older, you look back and think, If I knew it was going to be this hard, I can’t imagine that I would start this career. But, at the same time, no one’s got a gun to your head. Looking back over the last 25 years, I’m lucky, lucky, lucky. I’ve had a cool life, and it’s been hard and fun and rewarding and filled with so many ups and downs; but I’m still here because I know it’s what I was made to do.”