Charlotte Native John Hoogenakker Talks Drama, Debate and ‘Waco: The Aftermath’
Coming up as a student at South Mecklenburg High School in the early 1990s, John Hoogenakker wasn’t sure what his trajectory would be, but he knew it would involve acting.
The son of a commercial and voiceover actor, Hoogenakker began doing plays with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte at a young age, then used his acting skills to reach the national championships for the National Speech & Debate Association — in a category that most don’t even associate with that organization.
Moving to Chicago with an eye on comedic acting, Hoogenakker has found himself following a successful route as a dramatic character actor while still flexing his comedic muscle with commercial roles like that of the Bud Light King (think “Dilly, Dilly”).
Most recently, Hoogenakker can be seen in the limited series Waco: The Aftermath, which wrapped its run on May 14 and can be streamed in full on the Showtime app. Hoogenakker played Clive Doyle, a Branch Davidian who survived the government raid on the compound in 1993 and stood trial for it during a time when white supremacists, Christian conservatives and anti-government extremists were rallying around Waco as a call to arms.
Speaking over the phone from his home near Asheville, Hoogenakker discussed his unexpected career path, his most famous comedic commercial role and why Waco is just as important 30 years later as it was when Clive Doyle stood trial.
Queen City Nerve: So you grew up in Charlotte in the ’80s and ’90s. What are your memories of your childhood here? I assume Hurricane Hugo was one, that’s the cliche that everyone goes with. What other sort of things come to mind when you recall your childhood in Charlotte?
John Hoogenakker: Hugo was an intense experience, sure. Well, I did some plays at the Children’s Theater. I did Oliver Twist and I did The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I did some commercials. My father was a commercial actor and he also did voiceover, so I did some of that as well. When I was in high school, I competed in debate events, but I don’t want you to have the wrong impression, the event that I did was Humorous Interpretation, which is a lot more like acting than debating.
I read that in your bio and I was curious. Whenever people hear debate, they picture arguments over current events — a poli-sci type of thing going on. Can you paint a picture for me of what a debate in Humorous Interpretation looks like?
John Hoogenakker: Humorous Interp was an individual event that I discovered after about my first year [doing other debate categories] wherein you could take a cutting of a play or a TV show or a movie, and that cutting could be anywhere between like six to 10 minutes in length and you had to include an introduction somewhere in there. But the idea was your feet didn’t move, so you stayed within essentially a Hula-Hoop space on the floor, but your upper body could move in service of portraying all the characters in this play or this TV show or this movie.
And so you would compete. There would be like six teenagers in a room doing their cuttings, doing their pieces, in front of a single judge, and then it would go to quarterfinals, semis and then finals, and slowly over the course of a weekend tournament, two days roughly, as more and more people fall out of their events, they show up and they watch Humorous Interpretation and Dramatic Interpretation finals. Generally you got better audiences in Humorous Interp because folks want to show up and laugh. And so that’s basically what it was. I won the state championship a couple of times, I won the district a couple of times, and the district champion gets to compete at the national level. So I went to Kansas City for one and I went to Fort Lauderdale for the other.
You went on to have an impressive stage career. What was your ideal trajectory, in your mind? Was theatre always seen as the most important thing or was it seen as a stepping stone to get to film and TV? Or was it sort of like, let’s play it by ear and see what work I can get?
John Hoogenakker: (laughs) I think it was C, Ryan. But I went to Chicago because I had auditioned for the theatre school at DePaul University kind of on a lark; that was the only one I had the cash to audition for. And I was lucky to get in because it is still one of the most preeminent theater training grounds in the country, if not the world. It’s on the level with Juilliard, and I had been to Chicago a couple of times in the past and had never been to New York, so it felt more achievable. I guess I thought, “Oh man, I’m going to Chicago. This is where Second City is. I’m definitely going to do Second City. With any luck, I should be on SNL by the time I’m 22 or 23.
By the time I was graduating high school, I had gotten cast in [Shakespeare’s] Anthony and Cleopatra, which was the inaugural production at Navy Pier for Chicago Shakespeare Theater when they had moved from their old space. And from there I kind of continued getting paying theatre work. So I was never able to balance the training program schedule at Second City with the actual paying theatre work that I was doing. So cut to a few years later, I started booking voiceover work. A few years later, I started booking film and television work as it came to Chicago.
I think in the back of my mind, I always idealized my perception of what actors could have when they lived and worked in London. You think of these wonderful actors with this great, solid stage background who also got to do really cool TV shows and movies. I think that was a dream of mine. And I’ve gotten to do a lot of short-form comedy in the realm of commercial work. A lot of the commercial work that I’ve gotten to do has been short-form sketch and improv-based and I’ve gotten to work with some great directors, so I’ve gotten to kind of get the funny out in the commercials.
So you went to Chicago with dreams of becoming a comedy star, but throughout much of your career — recently with Dopesick and Waco, but even going back to Flags of Our Fathers — I mean, I don’t really know how else to describe it, but those are some very dramatic dramas.
John Hoogenakker: It’s a wild thing, man. I was a fucking clown in high school and in college. But when I came into the casting pool, it’s a funny thing, they sort of wanted you to have a Second City or ComedySportz pedigree in order to think of you in that way. But because I had come through this really serious theatre training program and my first few credits were Shakespeare, it was like, “Oh, this guy must be a pretty serious dude.” (laughs)
But the crazy thing was, when you are competing for commercials and national commercials and stuff in Chicago, certainly you’re going up against mainstage Second City stars. So only in that instance are you swimming in the same water as they are. But for the most part, the two career paths are very distinct from one another. It’s kind of crazy. You think, from a removed standpoint, that Chicago theatre is kind of just one thing, and in a way it is, but once you get into it you have people who will commit their lives to doing black box theater and just super, super gritty stuff and will always have a survival job. Then you have people who want to be on the Goodman [Theatre] Main Stage or really want to get to Broadway, and then you have people who are just kind of aggressively courting every possible way that they could be an actor. And I think that was me.
I just really enjoy getting into stories. I enjoy the time that I spend in my career reading for things, preparing for roles, auditioning, sending tapes out. I always saw that as a really important part of my job and a great opportunity to play a lot of roles that in reality, even if you’re doing well, even if you’re working all the time, if you’re auditioning all the time, you’re certainly not getting 90% of the things that you’re auditioning for. So you have to sort of wire your brain to approach that process with gratitude and with joy and with curiosity.
Do you fear falling into that typecasting, where people wouldn’t even look at you for a comedic role?
John Hoogenakker: Well, I do think that the comedy world is kind of insular in the sense that, certainly it happens where you’ll see stars who dance both sides of that. But I think generally a lot of the people that we think of as big comedy stars were Groundlings in Los Angeles, or they were Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, or they were Second City in Chicago or Toronto. And that’s because they know one another or they know people that the other one knows, and they also speak a language; they play theatre games, they do a lot of Viola Spolin games, which gets them on a similar improvisational footing.
But it is a real thing. I’m very happy that I’ve gotten to do the commercial work that I have gotten to do, even if it’s not comedic movies. I mean, I would absolutely love to get into some of that stuff, but I’ve been able to play in that world just through the commercial stuff, which has been great. When Waco came out, a guy hit me up on Instagram, and this happens sometimes where actors will be like, “Oh, man, I auditioned for that. I really wanted that role.” And this guy is a dude who’s done a lot of big comedy movies, but he’s dealing with it from the other side. He’s like, “People don’t take me seriously because I’ve only done this other thing, and they don’t think that I can be serious.” It is crazy.
People love those stories, though, like when you see an Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems or something like that, they build it up. Obviously, it must be tough to get the job in the first place, but I feel like people are sort of looking for that sometimes.
John Hoogenakker: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point. I think that the reality with a lot of comedians is that there’s a lot of pathos that underlies that ability to make funny. You think of Robin Williams, right? You think of all these iconic comedians who have gotten an opportunity to do something heavy, and it always just blows people away.
Steve Carrell has been going in that same direction with works like The Patient.
John Hoogenakker: Yeah. I think it’s the result of effort on Steve Carell’s part because he’s so bankable. It would be very easy for him to sit back and continue to do the things that have worked for him and the things that society clamors for him to do, but for him to sit back and say, “No, I’m not going to do that anymore.”
Or I just read Matthew McConaughey’s autobiography, Greenlights, which is really fascinating. It’s such a great reflection on his life, by him. But he went through a period of time, a couple of years, where he had gotten into a place in Hollywood where he was the most bankable rom-com star, and he kind of saw his career going in this one direction and he just stopped saying yes to all the things that people wanted to offer him and pay him millions and millions of dollars to do. And he had courage and he had the ability to sort of bet on himself, he had a supportive partner, and two years later his career really shifted. But it was the result of focus and a lot of faith, I think.
So in those same terms of being typecast a certain way or recognized a certain way, I have to bring up the Bud Light King, of course.
John Hoogenakker: (laughs) Sure.
Do you find that, with all these great dramatic roles that you’ve done and just really knocking it out of the park in shows like Waco and Dopesick, do you find yourself being recognized publicly the most from the Bud Light King, “Dilly Dilly” series of commercials?
John Hoogenakker: It’s fascinating, but the answer is no, oddly enough. You would think so. There was one time I was walking down the street and a guy had a “Dilly Dilly” sweatshirt on and he was coming towards me, and I generally would have a baseball cap on pulled low and try to be minding my own business, and for whatever reason that day I thought, “I’m going to make this guy’s day. This is going to be great. Watch this,” and I kind of lean over and I take off my baseball cap and get in his face and say, “I like your shirt!” He just looked at me like I was trying to mug him or something. He was just disgusted with me. He had no idea.
When people are kind enough to say hello or to introduce themselves, it’s always an interesting game to play of like, I wonder what they recognize me from or what they’ve seen. It’s all different stuff. I’ve had people talk to me about Colony, Castle Rock, and then if there are people that can’t remember, can’t think of where they’ve seen me from, in that case it’s generally the Bud Light King.
Back to the drama: your latest role as Clive Doyle was so nuanced, a character that is interesting in the sense that he’s by no means an evil person but there are these really disturbing aspects in terms of him failing his daughter in a protective role and things like that. How did you dive into that?
John Hoogenakker: Clive actually wrote an autobiography, which paints a fascinating portrait of someone who sort of gradually adopts what we would call an extremist philosophy, or at the very least an ultra Orthodox philosophy. He starts in Australia with his mom and they’re Seventh Day Adventists and a group of people come to their church one day and they have a meeting after church and he and his mother attend this meeting, and when the greater congregation finds out that they’ve attended this meeting, they are excommunicated. Turns out this group of people were Davidians and they later joined the sect in the United States that we call Branch Davidians. But slowly he moves further and further into an ultra Orthodox religious life, or for him, something that probably was akin to what we might call a monk.
My wife and I watched the first season [of Waco] during the pandemic when we were in lockdown and it was fascinating for us both because we were around 16 years old in 1993 when all of this was on television and we did not remember it being presented in a nuanced way at all. I think where the show kind of succeeds is, as you pointed out, Clive, he may not be guilty of the charges that he stood trial for, but he certainly failed his daughters and he was certainly not innocent in other ways. And of course, the several agencies of the federal government that were present at Waco, we’re still talking about it today because of the mistakes they made.
I was talking to Michael [Luwoye], who plays [Branch Davidian] Livingstone [Fagan], about this — he’s such a wonderful guy and such a deep thinker — but it was like explaining to people today the events that have led almost directly to them being in their present state. This show is an attempt to explain how we got to this moment, where we are, roots of certain movements that adopted Waco as their kind of cause celebre in 1993 to draw attention to their other movements that were not connected to the Branch Davidians and how those movements are connected to groups that are present in our society today.
I know he passed away just last year and he was somewhat of a public-facing figure; you mentioned the autobiography. Did you feel the need to reach out or try to meet with Clive before taking on the role?
John Hoogenakker: I didn’t reach out to him directly because, from what I could gather at this point, he was getting close to 80 and he had spoken at great lengths about everything that had gone down in 1993. So it was all accessible through the public record. And he did actually pass away the day after we wrapped principal photography, which was kind of wild.
So you’re living out in the exurbs of Asheville, as you described it. That’s not a common place for actors. Have you tried living out in Los Angeles?
John Hoogenakker: No. I was able to kind of piece it together living in Chicago. A lot of my work has been all over the place and then in 2021, it was still kind of the height of the pandemic, we reached a point where we were like, we’ve always wanted to be back in western North Carolina and want to be closer to family, had family stuff that we wanted to be present for, so we just made that move, and I feel so grateful every day.
When I travel to Los Angeles or New York for work, I love to get to go to those places, but I feel like I’m wearing the cloak of western North Carolina and it keeps me calm, and it keeps me even keel and keeps me relaxed when I’m in those places. It’s a really wonderful feeling. It’s like living in a yoga studio and then taking the yoga studio with you when you travel.
All five episodes of Waco: The Aftermath are currently available for streaming on the Showtime app. He’s expected next to appear in Knox Goes Away, directed by Michael Keaton and currently in post-production.
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