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Shine A Light
Shine A Light

Shine A Light

John Magaro embraces his inner rockstar in Not Fade Away. By Mike Harvkey. Photographed by Nicholas Routzen

When John Magaro enters the packed coffee shop in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen where he suggested we meet, he quickly scans the noisy room—more of a wide hallway, really—before grinning sheepishly: “This isn’t gonna work, is it?” And so the 29-year-old actor leads the way down Ninth Avenue to his local bar. He opens its big red door and, without even stepping in, says, “Too loud.” Spinning on his heels he points north. “Come on,” he declares, assuring me that he knows just the spot for a little shelter. We finally enter a nondescript diner and slip into a classic red booth. Fluorescent lights flicker sickly overhead. Magaro laughs and apologizes. “I tend to make poor decisions.”

Fortunately, his decision-making skills have proven more astute when it comes to his career. Over the past few years, the Ohio native has made the jump from TV bit parts (Law & Order: SVU) to starring in Sundance favourites (Liberal Arts), and this month he steps into his biggest role yet: Doug, the young 1960s rock ’n’ roll hopeful in Not Fade Away, David Chase’s nostalgic, highly textured film about a time when music had the power to change lives. With his newly short hair and five-o’clock shadow, Magaro looks nothing like his character, whose curly ‘fro bounces about his head like a hedgerow, inviting inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan. But unlike Dylan, Doug is no musical genius. He’s just another frustrated kid who starts a band inspired by another band (in this case The Rolling Stones, who also inspired the film’s title) in hopes of getting the girl (Bella Heathcote) and giving his blue-collar father (James Gandolfini) something to worry about.

The first time Magaro auditioned for Chase he was sure he blew it. “I really look up to him because of The Sopranos. He can be kind of intimidating,” Magaro says, his voice as pinched and animated as it is when he’s singing—which, before this film, is something he’d never done outside of the shower. The six months of silence that passed after that audition only seemed to confirm what Magaro already assumed: Call-backs never come that late. Six weeks, maybe. Magaro was on a fishing trip upstate when they called him to read again. “The first question they asked was, ‘Do you play the drums?’” He laughs and dips his spoon into an enormous bowl of Pepto-pink tomato soup. “So I said, ‘Yeah, I can sort of play the drums.’” According to Magaro, “Little Stevie” Van Zandt, Sopranos actor, E Street Band member, and a producer on Not Fade Away, had wanted the actors to be actual musicians. Chase didn’t completely agree, but he was willing to give it a shot. But half a year later, though they’d found—and cast—a few musicians in the movie, they hadn’t found someone to play Doug.


Thankfully Chase didn’t make Magaro keep the beat at the call-back, but he did make him sing, and not just any old song, by any old band, but “Time Is on My Side” by The Rolling Stones. With Van Zandt on guitar, Magaro belted it out: Ti-yai-yai-yaim is on myyyy side, yes it is. “Which was frightening,” he says, grinning. “Afterwards I was apologizing: ‘I’m sorrrrry,’” he whines. “But they were like, ‘No, no, it was great. Don’t worry.’” For an actor on the way up, Magaro apologizes an awful lot. It’s an endearing quality, and hints at something he confirms when he says that his acting career so far is “kind of working out, but you never know.”

Once cast in the film, it didn’t take long for Chase to find out that Magaro could not even “sort of” play the drums. Lucky for him the two actors they cast as guitar players (Jack Huston and Will Brill) couldn’t play either. Then began a boot camp where, for nine hours a day, from late October to almost February, Magaro and the others received hands-on instruction in the ins and outs of rock ’n’ roll from Van Zandt and other E Street musicians, including bassist Garry Tallent. “By the grace of god or the fates or whatever, we learned our instruments,” Magaro says. In fact, they learned to play well enough to actually match the E Street Band’s playback track. “I don’t know if we’ll be touring anytime soon,” Magaro says, “but it was fun while we did it.”