Geographically speaking, Kansas City lies far away from the coastal entertainment industry.
Despite that physical impediment, hometown folks keep making an impact on the big and small screens.
Here are performers, filmmakers, writers and others with local ties whose projects have kept KC in the national spotlight during 2015.
From “Modern Family” star Eric Stonestreet pelting Jimmy Kimmel with paintball rounds to first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez dumping Gatorade on Jimmy Fallon, the Kansas City Royals’ remarkable World Series run provided weeks worth of entertaining appearances on the nationwide stage.
Plus, there was something oh-so-satisfying seeing our KC cadre of big names — that included Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle and Paul Rudd — swapping good-natured ribbing with those smug New York Mets celebs. Not so smug anymore, are they?
Speaking of Rudd … the actor landed the most conspicuous role available: superhero. Rudd transformed into Ant-Man, the latest Marvel Comics headliner and a future member of the Avengers. His visage on action figures, T-shirts and video games ensued.
Portraying a former thief who stumbles upon size-shifting technology, Rudd told The Star prior to the flick’s release, “People ask me if I could shrink anything, what would that be? I immediately thought of my stress levels.”
Coincidentally, one of his main sidekicks in the picture was played by fellow Overland Park native David Dastmalchian, who headlined his own breakout drama titled “Animals” this summer.
Spike and friends
Most talents who’ve attained success in the movie biz inevitably move to Los Angeles to achieve it. Not Kevin Willmott, who maintains his career as a professor at the University of Kansas. The filmmaker best known for “CSA: The Confederate States of America” now courts Oscar buzz for “Chi-Raq,” a controversial effort he co-wrote with iconic director Spike Lee.
The title (pronounced shy-rack) stems from a combination of “war zones” Chicago and Iraq. Willmott used the Midwest city to unleash a reimagining of Aristophanes’ ancient comedy “Lysistrata,” in which the wives and girlfriends of gang members go on a sex strike to stop the violence.
Forming an “Empire”
“Music. Family. Power. The battle begins.” That’s the tagline for “Empire,” the Emmy-nominated series about a hip-hop record mogul’s struggle to control his dynasty. It also ignited the career of Trai Byers.
A virtual unknown a year ago, the KCK native and KU graduate (who first starred in Willmott’s locally shot “Jayhawkers”) plays the eldest of the Lyon brothers, who seek to inherit their father’s dynasty on the Fox hit. “You get to look into a family who has the money, who has the influence. But you see these are people just like you, with regard to how they live their lives and the dysfunction in their unit,” he told The Star.
Byers also appeared as a key student organizer in the Oscar-winning movie “Selma.”
Now having experienced a full year as film and media manager at Visit KC (aka the Kansas City Film Commissioner), Steph Scupham has served more than 200 productions since the office opened the previous October. (Like “American Ninja Warrior” at Union Station!) When she’s not promoting our city at Hollywood trade shows, the energetic commissioner fosters relationships between the film scene and visual art, fine arts and the performing arts community.
“There is an enormous amount of commercial and film production happening in our area,” Scupham says. “I’m proud of the passion of our crews and filmmakers.”
If Johnny Depp snags an Academy Award nod for his icy portrayal of mob kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, a big part of that can be attributed to Mark Mallouk. The Prairie Village native, Rockhurst High School and KU alum spent five years crafting the adaptation of “Black Mass,” which detailed the decades Bulger built his Winter Hill Gang into Boston’s most ruthless crime organization — all with the help of the FBI.
But Mallouk was careful not to glamorize the killer. “I don’t want to contribute to his myth, which is a lie,” Mallouk told The Star. “I didn’t want to make it romantic. He was a violent sociopath who destroyed everything around him. … He had no loyalty to anybody but himself.”
Back to Missouri
In her acclaimed Ozarks-set indie “Winter’s Bone,” Debra Granik introduced audiences to Jennifer Lawrence. But when shooting that Oscar-nominated thriller, she came across another individual who she found so fascinating that her next four years were spent dedicating a documentary to him. The result was “Stray Dog,” which focuses on Vietnam veteran, biker and philanthropist Ron Hall.
Granik claimed the yin and yang nature of this Missouri-based subject intrigued her as a filmmaker. “It was all the ‘ands.’ Someone could be this and this, not this or this,” she told The Star. “Someone could be extremely interested and knowledgeable about high-powered weapons and be an expert marksman. Then they could be very squeamish about hunting. … That blows my mind!”
Her intimate character study earned a nomination for best documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Katherine McNamara first worked steadily in the local acting scene as a child/teen performer. But the red-haired stunner just turned 20 and has now graduated to the coveted lead role of Clary Fray in ABC Family’s “Shadowhunters” series. McNamara will portray a stubborn teen who discovers she’s actually a half-angel demon hunter tasked with dispatching all forms of nasty supernatural creatures.
The big-screen adaptation of “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” fizzled in 2013, but the more episodic nature of TV could prove a better fit for this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s six YA fantasy novels. The show premieres Jan. 12.
While Rudd emerges as Kansas City’s first legitimate superhero, another local actor debuted as a supervillain. Nathan Darrow (“House of Cards”) stepped into a role previously popularized by such names as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Otto Preminger: Mr. Freeze. On the Fox hit “Gotham,” the KC native and Shawnee Mission North High School alum plays Victor Fries, a Wayne Enterprises cryogenics engineer.
He has enjoyed only a cameo so far in the moody Batman revision but is slated to develop into a major villain in the 2016 season. Here’s hoping he gets to spout better lines than Schwarzenegger’s “Let’s kick some ice!”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”