Baltimore's John David Whalen plays a K Street lobbyist as a good soldier in "Casino Jack'

First-time movie actor brings his Navy and theatrical experience to a tricky role

  • Baltimore's John David Whalen plays lobbyist Kevin Ring in "Casino Jack," which opens this weekend.
Baltimore's John David Whalen plays lobbyist Kevin Ring… (Handout photo, Baltimore…)
January 06, 2011

For the Jack Abramoff biopic, "Casino Jack," how difficult was it for John David Whalen to get into the heart and head of K Street lobbyist Kevin Ring?

The Baltimore-born actor explained Wednesday that it wasn't all that hard. In an ensemble filled with master manipulators and scam artists from Kevin Spacey's Abramoff on down, "Kevin Ring's the innocent, the ingenue, the guy who goes along — he is not headstrong, not greedy, not a mover or shaker."

Director George Hickenlooper included this junior member of Abramoff's team in his cast of tainted characters only after he and screenwriter Norman Snider interviewed Ring about the Abramoff fraud and corruption scandal. "Everyone else pled guilty to the charges brought against them. Kevin Ring pled innocent. That fascinated Norman and George."

Before filming began, Whalen spoke to Ring by phone. The ex-lobbyist's candor impressed him. "I understood where Kevin was coming from. People were calling Jack Abramoff the most successful lobbyist who ever lived. When you go to a boss like that and ask him what to do, it makes sense for you to do it. You assume someone in that position of leadership and power, with that reputation, is doing a great job."

Ring's sensitivity to hierarchy came naturally. "I understood that scenario from having been a Navy officer" — which he was until a mere half-dozen years ago.

Growing up in Bel Air and attending Boys' Latin, Whalen had two goals: to receive a degree from the Naval Academy and a naval officer's commission. As a teenager, he pursued athletics, playing soccer and lacrosse. When he took the title role in "Dracula" and the drama teacher said he was a natural, acting as a career never entered his mind. He graduated from Annapolis with a degree in oceanography. He was stationed in the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11 and the early years of the war in Afghanistan.

He ended up in a Navy oceanographic group in Monterey, Calif., and began performing in the town's vital theater circuit. That's when he realized acting would be his life's work. In March 2005, he resigned as a lieutenant. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles and accepted roles in every film-school short that came his way. Director Hickenlooper saw Ring's clip reel attached to an e-mail that expressed his interest in the movie. He thought Whalen was an ideal choice for Kevin Ring.

Whalen will say a few words at the film's 7:15 p.m. screening at the Charles on Friday. "I'm so glad it's coming to Baltimore" he said Wednesday. "The city has been a big part of my life. For me, it's like a homecoming."

—Michael Sragow

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