The Tin Cup, a low-slung, mini-mall sandwich shop in the shadow of UT Arlington, doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d expect to get a taste of Hollywood. No one confuses West Abram Street with Rodeo Drive.
But, on a recent morning, owner Damon Carney was getting ready to wing his way to L.A. for the premiere of The Lone Ranger, the $250 million reboot of the tale of the famed masked lawman that opened in theaters Wednesday. Directed by Gore Verbinski of Pirates of the Caribbean fame and starring Armie Hammer as the mystery man and Johnny Depp as his sidekick, Tonto, it’s one of the event movies of the summer.
But Carney, who has owned the Tin Cup, with its homey interior and Americana menu, for a decade and worked in restaurants much of his life, isn’t flying there with his wife to cater the high-profile event with trays of his signature ham-turkey-pastrami John Wayne panini.
Instead, Carney will be there as one of the cast. He plays Blaine, one of the Lone Ranger’s original back-up posse. Though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, it’s the most high-profile role yet for the North Texas actor, whose résumé includes appearances in just about every TV series that has set up cameras in the Lone Star State: Dallas; Chase; The Deep End; Walker, Texas Ranger; Friday Night Lights; and, of course, Prison Break.
“It’s like being a minor-league ballplayer and finally getting called up to the majors,” says Carney, 45, seated in a corner of his eatery. “And it was a dream come true. Growing up in Texas, what little boy doesn’t want to grow up and play cowboy?”
But “playing cowboy” meant more than just strapping on a six-shooter to Carney, a Tyler native whose rugged looks recall a younger, more athletic Craig T. Nelson. It meant being sent off to cowboy camp for two weeks in advance of a 2 1/2-month shoot near Albuquerque, N.M., and Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona.
“It was eight hours a day, riding horses and shooting guns,” says Carney, who also had to grow a big ’stache and sideburns for the part.
“I pinched myself every day I was out there. I get to ride horses and shoot guns in all the same places that John Wayne and John Ford shot their Westerns.… They always say try to enjoy every minute of your life, and that was definitely [a time] where I enjoyed every single minute of it.”
To L.A. and back
The road to Ranger started for Carney more than two decades ago, as a theater student at Tyler Junior College. That’s where he met his wife, Bradi, while performing in a production of Macbeth.
In pursuit of theatrical bliss, they moved to Minneapolis, where Carney worked with the Minnesota Shakespeare Company. A stint in New York and two tries at Los Angeles followed.
All the while, the Carneys supported themselves by working in restaurants. But by 2000, the struggling actors’ life began to grate. “I wasn’t getting enough work and we found out her mother was terminally ill.… We decided it was time to move back [to Texas],” says Carney, who also says that having two children factored into the decision.
Once here, Carney stumbled across the building near the University of Texas at Arlington. Once a print shop, it would become the Tin Cup. “We saw this place for lease. We always worked for other people in restaurants and we thought, ‘We can do it for ourselves,’” he said.
That would seem to be the closing chapter for Carney’s Hollywood dreams. After all, the Tin Cup appears to be a success. It has 4 1/2 stars on Yelp and a devoted fan base.
Yet, by leaving Hollywood, Carney actually ended up moving closer to it.
“I’ve actually gotten more work here in Dallas than I ever got in Los Angeles or New York,” says Carney, who signed with the Kim Dawson Agency when he rolled into town. “Of course, over the years, I’ve built up my résumé. I’ve taken more classes. I’ve aged a little bit. All these things combined have helped me get work.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have something [the restaurant] that is our bread and butter to support our family while still pursuing a passion that I have.”
Though what could have been a breakout part — playing a recurring role as a defensive coordinator on the lauded high-school football series Friday Night Lights — turned into heartbreak when his entire storyline was axed. But he didn’t let that stop him.
“I think every actor who has been in the business long enough has a story of feeling ‘This is it’ and they end up on the cutting-room floor,” he said. “You just have to develop a thick skin and move on, realizing it’s not personal. It’s just part of the business.”
Landing ‘Lone Ranger’
The Lone Ranger role came up, Carney says, like a lot of his other acting jobs — through a casting agent throwing a line to see what’s out there. The Lone Ranger’s New Mexico-based casting director, Jo Edna Boldin, “put some Dallas actors on tape,” says Carney, “and three months later, I hear from my agent that I got it.”
The first day on the set of a $250 million movie was a bit nerve-wracking, Carney admits. Would he have to endure hours of diva-tude from Depp and Hammer? Would he wish he were home serving up a side order of shoestring potatoes instead?
But “[Johnny] was as cool and nice as you’d hope he’d be,” Carney says. “And very giving.… An example of Johnny being giving is we’re all in the desert, laying in the sun for hours on end. They call ‘cut’ and the director and cinematographer are talking about the next scene. As actors, you don’t move until they tell you to, but Johnny would go over and say, ‘Is it OK for them to get up now?’ He was looking out for us and he was part of a team.”
Despite his Hollywood connections, Carney’s fans and regulars at the Tin Cup say he remains down to earth.
“He’s a very regular guy,” says Darryl Gamboa, a patron who says he has been eating lunch at the Tin Cup almost every workday for nearly a decade. “He has a sports background, played football in high school. I play soccer and coach soccer and we talk about that. He’s like an everyman. Very approachable.”
Another veteran patron, Debbie Van Zelfden, echoes Gamboa’s sentiments, calling Carney “very guy-next-door.” “We’ve watched him on TV in different things,” she adds, “and when we heard he was going to be in The Lone Ranger, we were just ecstatic.”
Both of them enjoy following his on-camera adventures and hearing occasional tales from the set.
“It’s a peek into that actor’s lifestyle,” says Gamboa.
Carney, who was in Los Angeles on Monday for the premiere at the fabled El Capitan Theatre, says “it was just very surreal to be in Hollywood and on Hollywood Boulevard.… It went great. The best part was getting reunited with everybody we got so close to.”
Now, it’s back to reality. He was due to fly home Tuesday to check in at the Tin Cup. Then he goes home to Tyler to see the film with 30 to 40 members of his extended family.
“I grew up watching Westerns and John Wayne movies with my father,” Carney says. “I’m anxious to see his thoughts on it and watch him watch it.”
But no matter how great a time he has in Hollywood or how much attention he gets for the role, Carney has no intention of moving back there.
“The medium has made it possible for actors to get work wherever they live. A lot of my auditions, I put on tape and it goes right online to every casting director. I’m auditioning once or twice a week and it’s up or down, a hit-or-miss kind of thing.
“That’s why I have this,” he says, gesturing to his surroundings. “The Tin Cup is my bread and butter. It’s our baby. For a mom-and-pop to still be here after 10 years, we must be doing something right.”