HeyUGuys and I caught up with talented character actor Scoot McNairy to talk about his latest film, Aftermath, which also stars Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the interview Scoot also talks about bringing a sense of humanity to the complicated characters he plays, the differences between depicting characters in movies and on TV, and starring in Fargo Season 3.
In Aftermath you play a character burdened by guilt of a different kind to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, despite your character being at least indirectly responsible for events. You brought a great degree of sympathy to the role. Was it important to you, to bring a sense of humanity to this character?
Yeah, 100%. I mean I definitely try to bring a sense of humanity to all the characters that I play to sort of ground them. But for this one it was a tough one, you’ve kind of nailed it in your question, he’s not responsible for it but in a way he is partly responsible for it and that was something that I sort of wrestled with for awhile. It’s really not his fault, but it is his fault, but it’s not, so I kind of found myself going in circles with that. And one thing having looked into what Peter went through, the actual real guy because I didn’t really base the character on him, I just took a couple of pieces from him. And one of the things that he said that I really latched onto was that the longer and longer the trial went on the more and more childlike he became, I thought that was really really fascinating.
I try to base my characters on the life that they’ve had and how they’ve come up to this point and I found myself really leaning towards shame and guilt. In my research for this role I talked to air traffic controllers to give me a sense of what it means or the stress that is put on air traffic controllers’ shoulders and what all that is like. But one thing I kept leaning towards was shame and guilt. And Brené Brown, you know she does the pep talks, she wrote a book on vulnerabilities mostly for CEOs. Well, I found myself really researching shame and guilt and what that feels like and what the body goes through and that was something that I really try to infuse and plug into this character in this role. Someone who was dealing with an intense and an extreme amount of guilt and shame. That was just the angle that I ended up taking based on Peter saying he became more and more childlike. I just felt like as an adult knowing what shame and guilt felt like and reversing that and being a shamed and guilted child I thought would make an interesting character on screen.
That certainly came across in your performance and it allowed the film to be about the psychological aftermath of events rather than being about villains and heroes. The film is somewhat based on a real life 2002 incident, did you feel a certain obligation to portray things in a certain manner, or was the fact that the setting and characters were changed allowed you to separate things from the real life story and be more creatively free?
Yeah, I definitely wanted to keep it available for me to be free with the creativity of the character, having researched Peter and obviously his past in 2002. But researching Peter himself, you know, there wasn’t that much information on him, and I sort of got the gist of what it is like to be an air traffic controller and what it was like to feel the shame and the guilt. So, no, there wasn’t a sort of re-enactment or trying to embody Peter as the character. The way things are in Germany or Russia and the way things are in America, you know, could be completely different and I don’t have that childhood in my back pocket of what it was like to grow up in the surroundings they grew up in. So, therefore, it was really tough for me to try and embody the character. And also me as an actor likes to have the ability of freedom to take the character in different directions if I have the opportunity to.
The emotional heart of this story is in how you and Arnold Schwarzenegger react to the events that unfold. Did you purposely keep your distance on set to feed into the emotion in that pivotal scene? How was it to working with Arnie?
Working with Arnie was awesome. I have been watching his movies since I was a little kid so he has always been an icon in film. We didn’t really work together too much except for mostly one or two scenes. The guy plays these sort of stoic, quiet characters but, you know, Arnold in real life is incredibly full of life, [an] individual who loves to crack jokes, loves to have a good time and, you know, he sort of carries that around with him wherever he goes. He’s an incredibly magnetic person to be around and so I had a great time working with him and after you’ve seen somebody for so long and you finally get to meet them – meeting him was awesome because it was so much more than I ever expected. I mean, the guy is just in such a good mood all the time and that trickles down on set and at work and the people around him, he’s just a wonderful person to be around.
You have worked with some of the most talented directors and actors. Kevin McDonald has described you as a star character actor. Is tackling the more artistically challenging roles the most rewarding part of the job for you and if you were given the chance to helm a multi movie franchise as maybe a character that wasn’t as multi-faceted as the ones you normally play, would that be something that would interest you?
Well, you know, that is a wonderful question, I definitely like characters that are a challenge to me, that I feel like I know a good part of the character but there is a whole other part of the character or 50% of the character that I don’t know. That to me sounds fascinating and interesting to dive into and sort of navigate my way through that. One of the things I like about not playing a leading role is that you do have the ability to dive more into a character as a character actor. Brad Pitt does an incredible job at it, he is a movie star but he plays really solid, interesting characters with so many dynamics to them. I mean, that is a wonderful compliment from Kevin but I don’t ever really think about it like that. It is more like if the story is interesting to me, the character is interesting to me. Whether it is going to do well or any of that stuff it is something that never crosses my mind.
I read a brilliant story about how you once gambled your entire bank account on a charity luncheon with Gary Oldman. If an aspiring actor were to do the same for a dinner date with you, what advice would you give them?
I mean, golly, that is a tough one. My best advice is the same as I give to anybody, is work your ass off and when you’re tired, keep working. The only thing I can contribute that I know for any small sort of success that I’ve had I gear it towards my work. I work really really hard at this and I have been since I was 20 years old and the best advice I can give to everybody is just keep working at it, work hard at it and when you’re tired, keep working and don’t stop, don’t give up, you know, just keep going. The luncheon that I had with Gary was more geared towards character development. I told him that when I first met him I said look, I’m a fan but I’m not here to blow you up as an actor. I am here to just ask you some questions on how you find your characters and relate that to how I am finding my characters to help me on the path to doing solid character acting.
You will star in season 3 of Fargo. Can you tell us anything about that and had you been a fan of the film and TV show before getting involved?
I’ve been a fan of every single thing the Coen Brothers have ever touched but yeah, I was a huge fan of the film. You know, I was hesitant to watch the show because I was kind of like, why would you even mess with such a great film? I watched the first season and thought it was the best show on television that year and when I watched the second season of the show I remember throwing down TV clicker and saying to myself, best written show on television. It was more so me that reached out to Fargo than it was Fargo reaching out to me. I told my manager that I was a huge fan of this project and if there is anyway for me to be apart of it I would love to and things came to fruition and, you know, one year later I got to hop on the show and work with Noah (Hawley) and Ewan McGregor and the wonderful cast that they put together this year.
Regarding your TV work in Halt and Catch Fire and now Fargo coming up – where you play characters over a longer form of storytelling in TV – what are the challenges and the benefits of playing a character over a longer period of time, as opposed to when you play a character in a role in film?
Well, I will say this, the one thing that I have loved about the most recent projects I have worked on in regards to television is that there is, even with Fargo, there is a new season and a new cast every year. So it is a new story with a beginning and middle and an end. Halt and Catch Fire had a beginning and the middle was undecided because we didn’t know how many seasons we were going to go, and now that we have the ending there is an ending to it. So, you know, even Godless, the Scott Frank Netflix series, that I did it ends. So it is one thing working on a project where you know where the show is going and where it is going to wrap up which gives you a sense of how you can arc a character. I found that to be very difficult with Halt and Catch Fire because you never really knew when it was going to end, when you were at your lowest point, when you were at your highest point, and so you found yourself just really sort of grappling to hang onto the character more so than you are to hang onto the character’s story.
That is a very interesting point actually because I was thinking of it more along the lines of you get more time to spend with a character on a TV show. But I didn’t think of it in terms of you’re not entirely sure where a character is going yourself in terms of the psychology of the character.
Yeah, if I could say anything to anybody that has got a TV show that hadn’t done one, if you don’t know where it is going the only thing that you can hold onto and walk into is your character, and for me that experience has been interesting just to really focus more so on Gordon Clark than where Gordon Clark is going and what he is doing, which I hadn’t done in the past.
Can you tell me about any other projects you have coming up in the future?
We have War Machine, that’s another Netflix film that David Michôd directed that’s coming out. Godless, another Netflix miniseries directed by Scott Frank that probably comes out at the end of the year, and an interesting sort of smaller role with Josh Brolin and Danny McBride in Whitetail Deer Hunter.
Originally published on April 4, 2017 for HeyUGuys.