“Prom,” the new Disney pic that opened in East Hampton and across the country this spring, may not be Oscar-bait, but for Thomas McDonell, 24, who grew up summering (he actually prefers the winters) on the South Fork and finds himself at least tangentially influenced to this day by the vibrancy of its artistic community, starring in it was no small thing.
“It was totally new for me. It was the first time I was going to be the lead in a movie like that. It was a learning experience,” he said when interviewed by phone last month.
Mr. McDonell earned a lead role in the romantic comedy about high school seniors preparing for their prom, which filmed last summer. As his most prominent part to date — if not the artistic zenith of his still-maturing career — this film afforded the young actor, who trained as an artist at New York University, the opportunity to build up his acting chops in a friendly atmosphere, and also to earn the adoration of legions of teenage fans.
“I really appreciate the fans of the film and so it has not been difficult running into them — just new. And, maybe surprisingly, the fans are not all in the tween range — it’s a pretty diverse group — which is cool.”
He said the film exposed him to a wider array of actors than he had worked with previously.
“It was great to do the work as an actor, but also to try to learn about what everyone else was doing. It was an interesting mix of people; age-wise and experience-wise, we were pretty diverse. Some had never worked on a film before.” Others, like Aimee Teegarden, the lead in “Prom” who is perhaps best known for her work on the NBC TV drama “Friday Night Lights,” “were more serious, were professionals.”
Indeed, Mr. McDonell has matured and learned as an actor on the go, without an extended period of formal training.
“I didn’t study acting in the way that many actors I admire did. I have observed classes and met with coaches — but the thing that I find most useful is to be around other actors — good ones — and to try to pay close attention to the way they work.”
As for the film itself, which had not yet been released at the time of the interview, the young actor had praise for the project.
“I think people are going to like it. I hope they’ll like it. We’ll see. I think everyone who worked on the movie is really happy about it, which is a good sign, I think.”
Mr. McDonell grew up spending part of each year in Wainscott and Amagansett, where his mother, Joanie, still lives. He got into acting while studying art in Shanghai, China. An American Kung-Fu film, Jackie Chan’s “The Forbidden Kingdom,” held an open call, recruiting American-looking actors from the foreign-students section of the university Mr. McDonell was studying at for the semester. He won a part, and the experience made an impression.
“I learned a lot about movies. When I got back to New York, I was eager to find work as an actor or working on films in any other sort of way. I got a part in Joel Schumacher’s “Twelve,” and got an agency to send me on auditions,” he said. “Twelve,” based on a novel by Mr. McDonell’s brother, Nick, who shares his connection to the South Fork, is the story of decadence and debauchery among the young, wealthy elite of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The actor looks forward to his work on Tim Burton’s next film, “Dark Shadows,” an adaptation of the gothic ABC soap opera. Johnny Depp, a frequent Burton collaborator, stars as the vampire Barnabas Collins, and Mr. McDonell is playing that character as a young man.
His rise has been swift, from not even seeking work as an actor as recently as a few years ago to starring alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood when he films his parts in “Dark Shadows” this summer. He describes his work not with unlimited passion, but a kind of calm excitement that suggests he wants to grow and develop his skills at a measured pace.
And he has not left his interest in art behind; he still draws, paints, and exhibits constructions of various kinds (a recent piece was composed of plastic garbage bags full of shredded currency to represent overwhelming debt). He makes his home in New York, but Mr. McDonell says he continues to visit the South Fork, and though we should not be surprised if a more robust acting career pulls him inexorably toward Los Angeles, he speaks fondly of his time here as having helped mold him into the artist he is today.