ORLANDO, Fla. — You can't take a seat in a movie theater this fall without getting a load of that tall, gangly, drawling Georgian Ray McKinnon.
He was the school teacher who lets the young hero get extra credit for taking care of an injured dolphin in "Dolphin Tale."
McKinnon plays the smart-mouthed uncle who cuts his Boston-bred nephew a lot of slack and talks common sense to a town that's forgotten how to dance in "Footloose."
And he's the sober-minded brother who lectures Michael Shannon's character about pulling himself together when the guy's visions of a coming holocaust take hold of him in "Take Shelter."
Movie fans will remember McKinnon's comically incredulous high school football coach in "The Blind Side," cable fans his take on a preacher in a Godless town in "Deadwood." At 53, he's a character actor with a hint of "overnight success" to him. Truth is, he's anything but.
"I haven't gotten a job that I auditioned for since 'O Brother Where Art Thou,'" McKinnon says from the set of "Mud," the next film from the writer-director of "Take Shelter," Jeff Nichols. "All of my jobs are directly related to making my own movies."
McKinnon and his late wife, actress-producer Lisa Blount, collected an Oscar for their 2001 short comedy, "The Accountant." They made tiny-budget feature-length dramas and comedies like "Chrystal" and "Randy and the Mob."
"Even though nobody much saw 'em, a lot of directors did," McKinnon says.
Especially directors with ties to the South.
"You get Ray into your movie, you get authentically Southern," says "Footloose" remake director Craig Brewer. "That's why I wanted him.'"
Texas native John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") and native Arkansan Nichols are among McKinnon's fans. Georgia native Scott Teems cast him opposite Hal Holbrook in the Southern Gothic drama "That Evening Sun."
"Ray is one of that small group of character actors (Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who enhances a movie by always bringing something distinct to his role," says Georgia-based Huffington Post movie critic Jackie Cooper. And that "something distinct" is often distinctly Southern.
"There's a lot of different kinds of Southerners," McKinnon offers. "They're all complicated. That's what drove me to start making movies, seeing all these two dimensional characters that weren't real being presented as Southern."
Take his Uncle Wes in "Footloose." ''I know people like him. I wish I could be like him. I'm much stranger and less sure of the world than Wes is. I'd love to be a guy who has all his priorities in order — family, strong convictions, and still be comfortable enough in his own skin to laugh at himself and the little town he lives in."
McKinnon, who has filled much of the past year since his wife's sudden death with work, shares a little of that character's pragmatism. "The universe is a strange, wonderful and tragic place," McKinnon says. He has his own projects that he wants to get back to, a TV series that he hopes will find a home on cable, and his Screen Actors Guild card, which can be an actor's safety net.
"The first thing I thought when they called me for 'Footloose' was, "'Hey, I got my IN-surance for the year!'"