Scoot McNairy

Interview by Holly Grigg-Spall

Photos by Michael Mundy

“I wanted my career to build over the years and it has.
I have no complaints.

Scoot McNairyI’m the happiest kid in Texas.” — Scoot McNairy

Scoot McNairy is an actor and producer. His movies include Killing Them Softly, 12 Years A Slave, Gone Girl, Argo and Black Sea. In 2016 he will star in the much-anticipated Batman v Superman. You can also see him in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire when it returns for a second season later this year. He is from and lives in Texas.

The name Scoot McNairy may not ring any bells, despite the fact that the Texan actor has starred in two Oscar-winning movies of recent years (12 Years A Slave and Argo), which is, actually, just the way he likes it. But with roles in the much-anticipated Batman v Superman and David Gordon Green’s Our Brand Is Crisis things might not stay that way for much longer.

We caught up with Scoot on a break in his busy schedule to talk about mixing film with television, ambitions to direct, and having lunch with Gary Oldman.

Holly Grigg-Spall: You seem to have so much going on right now, how do you go about choosing your next project?

Scoot McNairy: After I’m done with one project, I go right back to the drawing board and start reading scripts. I have a list of filmmakers I want to work with and I track them to see what they’re doing next. Sometimes I just call a director I like and tell them I’m a big fan and want to work with them on whatever they’ve got going. Eight times out of ten they want to work with me, too. With reading scripts, it’s whatever strikes me or appeals to me. I’ll be thinking – here’s a character I haven’t done yet. You take so much time on these characters you have to choose ones you love.

Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the 2012 movie Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt and is directed by Andrew Dominik. The film was nominated for a Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ben Mendelsohn is an Australian actor from Melbourne. He has starred in Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly and the TV series Girls.

HGS: Of all of the characters you’ve played so far, which really stands out as a favorite?

SM: I really liked playing Frankie in Killing Them Softly. He was a fun character, kinda cartoony really. So that was a lot of fun. I loved working with Ben Mendelsohn in that role too. That guy is one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever been around. I had so much fun working with him. We had such fun on that movie. It was such a pleasurable film to work on.

Paul Greengrass is a British director. He has directed United 93, Captain Philips, Green Zone and two of the Bourne movies.

Paul Thomas Anderson is the writer-director of Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Master. He has been nominated for an Academy Award five times.

HGS: What filmmakers are on your list?

SM: I’d like to work with Paul Greengrass and Paul Thomas Anderson, but the list just goes on and on. I think I’ve set my sights on Paul Thomas Anderson, though.

HGS: You’ve worked with a lot of big stars and well-known directors – have any of them passed on advice about how to build a career in the business?

SM: I don’t think I’d classify it as advice. If anything they’ve passed along a lot of knowledge. When I’m on set I’m always watching and learning. I’ll listen to what a director will say to the DP or camera operator about setting up a shot. That’s the best education you can get. Especially as I want to direct movies too. So I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten advice, but I have eavesdropped in on everything that directors are doing and paid attention on set.

“If you work your ass off for ten years you can star in a movie with Brad Pitt
or have anything you want.
Bust your ass at anything that you do in life.”
— Scoot McNairy

HGS: Do you have plans to direct soon?

SM: I’m in the process of working on that right now. We’re going back and forth on a script with the writer.

Once I started producing movies, I realized I didn’t feel creatively fulfilled as a producer. The creativity in movie making comes from being a director. I was drawn to it for that reason. I want to have my vision up on that screen.

HGS: Would you ever want to act in a movie and direct simultaneously?

SM: The idea for me would be just to focus on directing and playing with the actors. If the role is right though and I can’t find someone to fill that role, then sure I would step in.

I mostly started producing because no one would give me a job. I’m trying to carve my career out the way I want it to be. You do your best to make it what you want. With the films I produced I wasn’t all that happy with what I saw on screen. You need to direct the film. I may not be great at directing, but I will have a stab at it.

Halt and Catch Fire airs on AMC. The show is set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas during the personal computer revolution. The pilot was screened at the South by Southwest film festival in March 2014. It is the first ever show to premiere on Tumblr.

HGS: You are currently working in both television and film – at the moment AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire – what are the differences between the two genres and what do you like about television? It’s kind of unusual to be doing such big movies and television too.

SM: The only difference for me is the pacing. With movies, it moves so fast that you have little time to think. You know the beginning, the middle and the end before you start work. With TV you don’t know what will happen to the character along the way and you have to hang on to what you do know in the moment. You will likely have to adjust to something you didn’t originally think your character would do. Working on a movie you have a lot more time to work out these things about a character beforehand.

I really wanted to work for AMC, because I have so much faith in those guys. The development of my character has been a little bit collaborative. We have long conversations about what he’s doing and why he’s doing this and where it’s going. You have to have a conversation with the person who is writing for the character. There are details I have to know. The specificity is really important to me while I’m working. I like to know every little detail about the character.

Working on this TV show though, it can also feel just like working on a movie – except it’s a 500 page movie instead of a 100 page movie.

HGS: What appealed to you about Halt and Catch Fire specifically?

SM: I really enjoyed the pilot. The characters were very clear. There were some things that I saw in my character Gordon Clark that I also see in myself. He was dealing with the same things as I was in my own life at that time. I could identify with Gordon’s frustrations. Plus I grew up in Dallas and in that era so I felt I had an understanding of the time and place.

HGS: As an actor, working hard on character development must sometimes be somewhat therapeutic. Do you feel that way?

SM: Yeah, it can be frustrating when you get a script with a character that is very similar to the last one you played though and it’s a great character you are drawn to, but you want to experience something new. You don’t want to do something you have already done. You have to constantly be challenging yourself.

Gary Oldman is a British actor who has starred in Sid and Nancy, JFK, The Fifth Element, two of the Harry Potter movies, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

HGS: Would you say you particularly admire any other actor’s career trajectory?

SM: Gary Oldman. He’s always been someone who really interested me. His characters are always so powerful and so extreme. He’s got a great thing going. He’s really talented and really fascinating.

So…seven years ago I bid at an auction to go to lunch with him. I think he was dreading the lunch a bit, to be honest. I walked into the restaurant and right away I said that I was a fan, but not that kind of fan. Really I just wanted to ask him about his character development process. And so he was like – great! We must have talked for 3 hours about how he created his characters for his movies. Then he talked me through how I was creating my characters. He helped me focus my efforts. He told me not to try to focus on twenty character traits at once, but to choose just three. He said to stick to the three basic ones and the rest will come naturally.

I paid $3000 for this lunch at the auction. I actually had told my manager (who is also my best friend) not to bid more than $2500 for this lunch as I didn’t have much to spare and needed to pay rent. But he bid up to the $3000 and I was like – Man! I needed that $500 for rent. My manager paid the extra $500, so I could still pay my rent. He thinks it was the best money we could have ever spent, because he knew I needed to work that stuff out at that time.

“With Black Sea, it’s twelve men in one location, underwater in a submarine. The frustration and tension between the men builds and eats them up individually.”
— Scoot McNairy

HGS: To your mind, what is the key to making it in the business, aside, of course, from being talented?

SM: Know what you want and go after that and only that. On top of that, it’s about hard work. If you work really hard at something every day, and I mean seven days a week then within ten years you will be good at it. There are many talented people out there, but it still takes hard work. You have to enjoy the work and then it doesn’t feel like work, most of the time. I can’t tell you how many vacations I have cancelled for an audition. I’ve put my nose to the grindstone. If you work your ass off for ten years you can star in a movie with Brad Pitt or have anything you want. Bust your ass at anything that you do in life.

A 2007 independent movie, In Search of a Midnight Kiss starred Scoot McNairy and Sarah Simmonds, directed by Alex Holdridge. It won the 2009 Independent Spirit Award: John Cassavetes Award.

Raindance is an independent film festival and film school playing in multiple cities including London and Los Angeles.

HGS: In 2007 we met at the after party for the premiere of In Search of a Midnight Kiss, which is a wonderful indie movie, at the Raindance Film Festival in London, England. How has your life changed since then and what surprises you most about the changes?

SM: You know, I remember that party! We were in that booth and there were only like 30 or 40 people in this little bar. There was a guy there too who wrote a review that basically got us the distribution deal for that film. He still comes to stay with me and we hang out.

Well, so I live in Texas now, on a farm. I couldn’t be happier where I am in my career and in my life. I can live in Texas and still do what I love to do. The exterior of my life and the interior of myself have not changed. I still have so much to learn. I have so many more projects to do and characters to play. But the characters I play and my personal life don’t collide. My life is still the same as it’s been for 30 years.

Kevin McDonald is a Scottish director known for documentary Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland and The Eagle. In 2000 he won an Oscar for his feature documentary One Day in September about the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

Directed by Kevin McDonald and written by Dennis Kelly, Black Sea is about a submarine captain in search of treasure at the bottom of the Black Sea. The film stars Jude Law, Scoot McNairy and Jodie Whitaker.

HGS: One of the movies we can see you in now is Black Sea with Jude Law, how did that project come to you?

SM: My manager told me about the movie and I was like – this will be directed by Kevin MacDonald? The guy who made Touching the Void and King of Scotland? That Kevin McDonald?! I’d seen Touching the Void like one hundred times. I was so excited about meeting with him just because I love that movie and wanted to talk about it, regardless of whether I’d get this role. But Black Sea, it’s twelve men in one location, underwater in a submarine. The frustration and tension between the men builds and eats them up individually. I really wanted to work with Jude Law as I’ve kept up with his career. He’s an incredibly charming fella and he knows his shit. He’s a fantastic actor and a great guy to be around.

Gone Girl is a thriller novel written by Gillian Flynn that became a New York Times best seller. The movie adaptation stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, directed by David Fincher.

David Fincher is the director of Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, and the Netflix series House of Cards. He has been nominated for the Oscar twice and won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

HGS: You’re also in the much lauded Gone Girl, were you a fan of the book?

SM: I listened to Gone Girl on tape when I was making Black Sea. It took me two or three chapters to get into it, but then I was hooked. I loved the cutting back and forth between the male and female characters. With the audio book they have a female voice for the woman and male voice for the man, so you can really see the movie playing out between them. It was extremely eerie and scary. On top of that it will be great to see Fincher putting his personal spin on things.

“I couldn’t be happier than I am now. I wanted my career to build over the years and it has. I have no complaints. I’m the happiest kid in Texas. ”
— Scoot McNairy

Batman v Superman will star Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman, with Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luther, written and directed by Zack Snyder. It is slated for release in 2016.

Zack Snyder is a director and producer, known for 300, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel.

HGS: And you’re also in the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie. I guess this will be your first blockbuster, in a sense, so what has that been like?

SM: It’s been great. I’m still in the middle of it actually. Zack Snyder is awesome. He was one of the director’s on my list. Working with him has been great. It’s not too different working on a studio movie, except there’s more people and more money and more time. In regards to the process that I go through as an actor, it’s exactly the same.

Snyder has so much energy. I’ve never seen someone with such energy before. He’s shooting and writing and editing and then goes to the gym twice a day. He’s incredibly energetic and I don’t know how he does it. It’s contagious. I was going to the gym every day as well.

HGS: What are your hopes for the future?

SM: Well, we’re in the future right now! I’m hoping that it doesn’t pass us by! I want to keep doing this. I couldn’t be happier than I am now. I wanted my career to build over the years and it has. I have no complaints. I’m the happiest kid in Texas.

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