When audiences see "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," they'll encounter actor Dermot Mulroney — just not on screen. He's playing cello on the soundtrack.
Mulroney met "Rogue One" composer Michael Giacchino in 2005 at the premiere for the romcom "The Family Stone," which Mulroney starred in and Giacchino scored. The actor told Giacchino that he played the cello and challenged Giacchino to hire him for a movie scoring session.
"I was like, 'Can you really read music? Because there's no rehearsals. You just have to play it,'" Giacchino recalled. "He goes, 'No, I can do that, I can do that!' I was like, 'All right, well, then why don't you sit in with our cello section on 'Mission Impossible'?"
Mulroney did just that on the third installment of the "Mission Impossible" franchise, and he has played on nearly every Giacchino film score since, including "Star Trek" and "Jurassic World."
"This sounds weird, but he's a great mascot," the composer said with a laugh.
But this is no mere stunt. Mulroney, 53, began playing cello before he entered the fourth grade in his hometown of Alexandria, Va.
"I wanted to be a bigger kid," Mulroney said over lunch on the set of his CBS drama "Pure Genius." "I was pretty small. I remember asking my mother: 'Do you think I'll ever be big enough to play that instrument?' And I've loved it ever since."
He played cello in the school orchestra and took private lessons from Loran Stephenson, a cellist in the nearby National Symphony Orchestra. He got to play under Leonard Bernstein during a student day at the Kennedy Center, where he regularly soaked up concerts featuring the symphony's musical director, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
"I think we must have been told to practice, or encouraged — but I don't have any memory of being made to practice," Mulroney said. "By the time I was a teenager, and I was really good, I remember wanting to practice, because it was something I excelled at."
Mulroney won solo competitions as a teenager, often with Édouard Lalo's cello concerto. As a student at Northwestern University, he performed in a college orchestra all four years and continued with private lessons while also acting in plays. He was on the precipice of a life in classical music but chose to step back.
"At 14," Mulroney remembered, "Loran Stephenson said, 'You need to decide now if you want to go to Eastman or Juilliard or or any of the top conservatories. You can do it, but you need to start not practicing the half-hour or the hour — you need four hours of practice to get up.' That scared me off, because I wanted to goof around with my friends after school."
He put the cello down after college, where he majored in film with an eye toward becoming a cinematographer.
"The truth is," he said, "I thought both of those ideas were dead-end roads. I thought it was a stupid career path, because there's no chance in hell that I would either be a professional musician or an actor."
Time, of course, has proven otherwise. Mulroney has had starring roles in film and TV since his breakout in the 1988 western "Young Guns" — roles ranging from the object of Julia Roberts' desire in 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding" to the man of the (haunted) house in last year's "Insidious: Chapter 3."
At times, he's brought his cello into the frame, as in the 1991 film "Samantha." In his recent guest spots on Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle," Mulroney introduced his musician character by playing the prelude to the Lalo concerto.
"I go to my garage," he said, "and I still have my box of cello music from my high school years. And there it is: my copy, with my high school handwriting on it, that I haven't looked at in 35 years. Many of the players on the show are finger-synching to somebody else's recording ... but I'm really proud to play to my own pre-record."
He got back into music in the mid-'90s as a member of the band Low & Sweet Orchestra, and he now plays and sings in the band Cranky George.
The work for Giacchino is invisible. Mulroney sits in the back of the cello section as the 11th chair and just tries to keep up with the master artists around him. But he loves it.
"Obviously, I knew about orchestras, I knew how to play in one, I knew about scoring orchestras," he said. "But then when I started doing it, it really became a different perspective for me and such a source of pride — but pride related to the fact that I'm included in an exclusive group of musicians ... really just towering talent. I'm more of a journeyman player."
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