You can’t tell the story of McDonald’s without the McDonald brothers. At least that’s what the makers of last year’s drama The Founder discovered when they set out to explore the fast-food giant’s early years. It’s a distinctly American tale that pits the powerful forces of commerce, as represented by salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), against artistry of the culinary variety. Richard and Maurice McDonald (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively) founded their namesake eatery in 1940 with an eye toward crafting quality burgers quickly, and at a fair price. Then along came Kroc, who was deeply impressed by their operation and persuaded the brothers to sell him the franchise rights. The rest is history, albeit a deeply controversial one, allegedly involving broken promises and corporate subterfuge, which is why it took so long for The Founder to come to the big screen. (The film arrives on Blu-ray on Apr. 18; watch an exclusive clip above from one of the bonus features.)
As Offerman tells Yahoo Movies, the key to making the film a reality was purchasing the rights to Richard McDonald’s own story from his grandson. The actor, best known for his seven-season stint as Ron Swanson on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, says that he feels a certain kinship with his onscreen alter ego’s belief in craftsmanship over convenience. “I have three siblings, and no matter what business we went into, we were taught to work hard and present an honest product. I’m still astonished that how many people in the world apparently weren’t brought up that way.” We spoke with Offerman about making The Founder and his second career as a woodworker.
Yahoo TV: The Founder is really the story of one man’s corruption: Ray Kroc takes something that began with the purest of intentions — the McDonald brothers’ restaurant — and allows his desire for success to consume what makes it special.
Nick Offerman: Yes, and I think [director] John Lee Hancock and Michael Keaton did a masterful job together of presenting that conundrum. Ray begins the film as this down-and-out salesman who can’t catch a break. So you’re hoping things will turn around for this guy, and then halfway through the movie he finds his big idea, but suddenly the tone shifts. You find yourself saying, “I wanted that guy to succeed, but not at the expense of the brothers and their restaurant.”
The film also makes a convincing case for how the rise of the fast-food industry was, in large part, a real estate race.
That had never really been pointed out to me before. [Authors] Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have written about fast food as a business. And when you boil it down, Ray Kroc basically deduced that he could make a killing in real estate by selling s***ty milkshakes. When you look at it in those terms, for me anyway, I feel like I’ve been taken to the cleaners my whole life. I’ve been lining their pockets while lining my arteries.
The brothers’ families have been waiting for this story to be told. Did you reach out to any of the surviving McDonald family members to learn about their side of things?
By the time John Carroll Lynch and I came onboard, they had years’ worth of research that they just handed to us. There were also a lot of audio recordings, even some conversations between him and Ray Kroc. So I had an embarrassment of riches, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. The nice thing was when the grandson came and visited the set, we looked like brothers. He said that I really could have been a member of the family. I thought I was cast because I was belligerent and speak slowly, but I guess there was a little bit of a resemblance also! [Laughs]
The sibling dynamic you share with John onscreen is so natural — you communicate years of history from your earliest scenes together. Did you have time to rehearse beforehand or did you pick that rapport up right away?
We met the day before we started shooting. It was such a treat for me. I had been a great admirer of John Carroll Lynch ever since he exploded on the scene of great character actors with his role in Fargo. I didn’t really know his career before that, but I was not surprised to learn that he’s a man of the theater and he worked in Chicago where I also got started. It was one of those things where we immediately felt like family because we’re both theater guys who never got to play the cute one.
There’s been some debate over whether or not Ray Kroc really did renege on a handshake deal with the brothers to pay them a percentage of the McDonald’s profits, as depicted in the movie. Did you learn anything about that history behind that particular moment?
There is a great deal of documentation, so everything in the film, as far as I know, is true. The only bending we did of any facts is sometimes the director and screenwriter would take four or five life instances and combine them into one scene just for the sake of moving the narrative along. We were also only able to build two McDonald’s restaurants. We built them from scratch outside of Atlanta in small towns, and by shooting them from different angles, they came to represent eight different McDonald’s in the course of the film. There was some Hollywood magic involved there. But generally the events were all true to life.
Is there a message in the movie you hope the audience takes away — perhaps something about the way we prize convenience in our food?
That’s definitely part of the story and it’s true in so many aspects of life. We think it’s better to go to a big-box store and pay much less for a crappy imported coffee table. And then when that breaks every 18 months, we throw it away and go buy a new one, the cost of quality handmade goods comes into clear focus. There’s a lot of aspects to doing things in a way that’s considered old-fashioned. But I think we need to start steering ourselves towards making quality products a new-fashioned idea.
That’s something you seem to prioritize in your own life: You have a woodworking shop that produces custom-made products. Have you noticed an uptick in people searching for that kind of furniture versus mass-produced items?
Through my writing and their enjoyment of Ron Swanson, people do seek out my woodshop. We’re a small outfit; we only make one piece of furniture at a time. But I do very much enjoy just promoting the sensibility. In any community there are people making things and so, besides selling products at my shop, I also encourage people to find the artisans in their own neighborhood. Maybe they won’t get a dining table, but they might get a really nice stained glass window or find somebody who’ll make them three lasagnas a week so they don’t have to take their kids to a fast-food spot.
Speaking of Ron Swanson, is there a chance we’ll see a Parks and Recreation reunion someday?
Well, there’s no telling what the future holds. I would’ve said that’s not really something that’s ever going to come to pass, except that Will & Grace is doing it! I believe I’m literally the greatest fan of Will & Grace. [Offerman is married to Will & Grace star Megan Mullally.] So I guess anything’s possible, but it all depends on whether or not the creators of the show think they have more to say. If they call me, then I’ll bring my mustache, roll up my sleeves and do my best to eat some more bacon and eggs for a paycheck.
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