Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Although Shea Whigham has been steadily working in Hollywood for almost two decades, over the past couple of years, he’s really come into his own. A favorite of a number of capital-D directors, Whigham popped up in 10 roles last year, playing everyone from First Man’s Gus Grissom to the abusive father of Vice’s Lynne Cheney. He’s also appeared as a number of good, bad, and questionable cops in recent years, from Fargo’s dickish police chief Moe Dammick to Waco’s aggressive FBI agent Mitch Decker. Whigham can currently be seen on the big screen in Vice, and on small screens via recent appearances on Dirty John and Homecoming.
The A.V. Club: Your character in Vice isn’t a very nice guy. What was it like to play such a despicable character? What do you think really happened to Lynne Cheney’s mom?
Shea Whigham: I wanted to work with Adam McKay for a while now. I was a big fan of his even from when he was a writer on Saturday Night Live. Vice came up really quickly. I was doing something else, and I got a call, and I said, “Absolutely.” It wasn’t a lot of time to prepare. I love a lot of lead-in time. But I jumped in.
You have to honor a character, good guy or bad guy, because when you’re playing, in your words, a despicable character, a character doesn’t judge themselves. If you ask him, he would say, “I think I’m a decent person.” You just honor what’s going on. I will tell you this: The actresses playing my wife and daughters in it were incredibly brave, because we went to some dark places for that day in order to honor what he was like. They were so impressive to me.
I digress. I haven’t seen it. [This interview took place before the movie was released. -Ed.] Have you seen it?
SW: That scene in the house with the food and everything is tough, right? I definitely think there’s a direct correlation between what happened with my wife and what she had to deal with on a daily basis from me. And what happened, or what supposedly happened. Do you know what I mean? Do they go into that?
AVC: A little bit.
SW: Yeah, she couldn’t swim. And she walked into a lake. Adam knew where it needed to go in order to convey what was going on in the early stages of [Lynne Cheney’s] life.
AVC: How much time did you have to prepare for this, and how much time do you like to have?
SW: Originally, this had three scenes in it. I think two made it in. Sometimes you just have to jump in and let the muses take over. If you’ve got a director like Adam and you’re surrounded by Christian [Bale] and Amy [Adams], you’re in good hands. I had 48 hours on this, to be honest with you. We didn’t know if the schedules were going to match up. I was sitting at home on the fence, not because I didn’t want to do it—I did want to do it, badly—but it just didn’t give me enough time to figure [it] out. Sometimes it happens, though, and you just go with it. Most of the time—whether it’s Silver Linings Playbook, where I put on 30 pounds, or Boardwalk Empire—I want a lot of time. To me, that’s the most enjoyable part, the exploration prior to calling action on the first day.
AVC: What was it like to spend four years with Eli Thompson?
SW: In actuality, it was five and a half years. Because by the time Marty [Scorsese] shot the pilot... We shot the pilot, went away, and we came back and did five seasons of that.
For me, as an actor, I got a real taste of what it was like to spend a lot of time with someone, and the exploration there was incredible. My main director, Tim Van Patten, was the best I’ve ever worked with. Terry Winter and Howard Korder were writing, and the stuff they were coming up with was just incredible. It was as good an experience—film or television—that you can have. The lines have been blurred now anyway.
It was just an incredible experience all around on Boardwalk. I got to figure out Eli, and they let me go to places there that you just don’t get a chance to go to in two hours on a film.
AVC: Were you happy with Eli’s arc?
SW: Well, it’s funny, you know. The first season, on the seventh episode, I get shot. I thought, “This is it. I’m done.” We go to the read-through, and Tim Van Patten and Terry Winter and the writers show up outside the door to meet me, because I’ve already read the script. They meet me at the door, and I thought this is the walk they’re going to give me, dead man walking: “You’ve been great, this has been wonderful, but you’re gone.” And they all said, “You know what? You survived this.” I had thought that there’s no way, going against my brother, that I was going to survive this. But they let me survive that.
Then I remember, I read the last script, and it had me holed up in a broken-down apartment, my family’s gone, and I said to them, “I think Eli should die. I think Nucky should live.” They said, “No, that’s the way people are expecting it to go.” They said, “Eli should have to live with the fact that he no longer has Nucky.” That was devastating. I think it was the smart way to go. As Eli, I was always feeling like I should be on the cross because of everything I’ve done to Nucky and the family and everything. But I think at the end, to have to live with that devastation of knowing my brother’s gone, I thought it was powerful.
AVC: You mentioned that recently the lines between film and TV have become increasingly blurry. A show like Homecoming, for instance, speaks to that blurring, with Julia Roberts starring and its cinematic aesthetic. Can you talk about how you got involved, and how familiar you were with the source material before you started doing it?
SW: I’ve always wanted to work with the best directors. Directors lead you to the best material and thus the best actors. With someone like Sam Esmail, I loved his stuff. He and I have talked. He’s like Cary Fukunaga on True Detective. Same thing, we talked, and he had something come up, and I did that. Same thing with Sam.
I’m not sure if everyone saw me [as Thomas Carrasco] when they first read it on the page. Sam saw it, and Sam knew. I told Sam I had a way in on Carrasco. Amazon took a real big leap with me on that. I had a feeling I knew how to play him.
I’d always wanted to work with Julia, who’s the biggest star. I knew Bobby [Cannavale] very well from Boardwalk. I’m very thankful for that, because they let me do exactly what I wanted to do with Carrasco. I said to Sam that the key is that he’s not a sleuth. He’s not a private eye. He’s just a guy who either gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to complaints. That’s the beauty of watching an individual who’s trying to do the right thing be in over his head. That was my initial way in. Sam is a generational talent. He knows Kubrick, Hitchcock, and De Palma intimately. He was just bold in the telling of this story. He went for it, and I think he’s being rewarded handsomely for that. But it was a big leap, stylistically, the way he wanted to shoot this.
City Of Lies (2019)—“Frank Lyga”
Narcos (2017)—“Agent Duffy”
Sicario: Day Of The Soldado (2018)—“Andy Wheeldon”
AVC: Thomas Carrasco is not a cop, but he’s a bureaucrat. You’ve also played a number of cops, like in City Of Lies, Narcos, and beyond. Why do you think people cast you as a guy with some bureaucratic authority, or some police authority?
SW: I don’t know, but that’s interesting. I know each one of these guys is different. I’ll just take Frank Lyga off the top of my head, because that was the Johnny Depp piece you were referring to. That was a very interesting piece, because I’m playing Frank, and Frank had not been heard of for a long while. I’m going to give you a convoluted answer here, but it’s kind of interesting. I couldn’t find Frank. Frank didn’t want to be found. He didn’t want to talk about what had happened to him in the inciting incident leading into the film.
So I’m doing Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, and I’m in the middle of these mountains in New Mexico with Benicio [del Toro]. Benicio has a guy there who works with him on every piece that he does. I had a shaved head at the time, because I had a long wig for Frank, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m playing this cop. This guy, you wouldn’t know him.” And he goes, “Well, I was in LAPD for a long time. Are you playing Frank Lyga?” And I go, “Yeah, I am.” And he goes, “I know Frank! Do you want to meet Frank?” And I go, “Yeah, I would love to meet him! I’ve been trying to meet him.” He sets us up at a Denny’s on a Tuesday I’ll never forget, at 11 a.m., way deep, deep in the valley. I sat down, and I just said to Frank, “Frank, I’m going to give you as fair a shake as I can. That’s my offer to you.” We started there, and that’s how Frank Lyga happened.
You try to get as deep as you can with him or the Narcos cop out of Miami. It always comes back to what the character wants. What do you want? You’re like a miner. You’re mining for what do you want, what do you need? It always goes back to that.
AVC: You also play a cop in the upcoming Joker movie. How much can you say about that?
SW: Can you hear the silence over the phone? I can’t say anything other than it’s going to be incredible, in my opinion. I had a chance to work with Joaquin [Phoenix] and Bill Camp, and be directed by Todd Phillips, so that’s as good as it gets.
AVC: Let’s talk about Vice Principals. What’s the difference for you in tackling a more comedic role versus a more serious role? Is the approach different?
SW: That came from Danny McBride and David [Gordon Green], who I’d done All The Real Girls with. That was my second film, I think. Danny and I had talked about working together, and it had been almost 15 years.
Again, you’re always looking for a way in, whether it’s a heavy drama or comedic role. I remember, on the page, he was written rather snarky. I was really cracking open the script, and I said to Danny, “You know, I think the way in for that is just that I really love your character. I’m married to your ex-wife, and I love your character.” That kind of turned everything.
I loved playing that. I wish we could have gone more seasons. We did two back to back, and that would have been one that I’d have loved to keep playing. You have to approach each one as its own. You have to be open in your approach to it, given what you’re dealing with. I never have one single approach, other than you break it down. Some take longer, and sometimes I think I’m never going to find the character. At the last minute, it might come through.
Carrasco took forever. Carrasco was like microsurgery for me in Homecoming. It took a long time. If you’re not careful, these characters can become caricatures very easily. So you’re always trying to find the truth, whether it’s comedic in Vice Principals or Homecoming or even with Eli in Boardwalk or Preacher Theriot in True Detective season one. You’re just always looking for truth, if that makes sense.
AVC: Is something like True Detective or Fargo, where it’s an anthology series, more challenging because it’s a limited run? Would you rather spend more time with a character?
SW: I’d never done television prior to Boardwalk. I leaped at the chance to work with Mr. Scorsese and Tim Van Patten, the guys from The Sopranos. They had just come off The Sopranos and this was their next show. And I got into that, and I loved it. I think we had a lot of story to tell. We could have gone longer than the five seasons.
I love storytelling. I don’t approach it from—like with Fargo, I don’t approach it as like, “Oh, this is an anthology,” or, “This is only going so far.” You’re following the breadcrumbs with the character and what the story’s giving you. You can never know what can happen. The work you’re doing is with showrunners that are at the peak of their career. [Cary] Fukunaga goes from True Detective to Beasts Of No Nation to James Bond. He’s directing a new Bond. You’re dealing with these guys, and anything can happen with your character, so you’re not getting out too far ahead in that sense of what the character is. You’re just honoring whatever they give you. Noah Hawley, with Fargo, he’s incredible. He’s like Sam [Esmail], he’s like Terry [Mallick]. These guys are incredible.
AVC: Is that what drew you to First Man? The director?
SW: Well, yeah. Damien Chazelle is an incredible talent. I’ll say this: I went on an incredible run of Fukunaga into Van Patten into Chazelle into Adam McKay. Sam Esmail is bookended there. And then you throw Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog there in the Boardwalk days. It’s not lost on me how lucky I’ve been with these guys.
AVC: It does feel like you’ve been in a lot of really marquee stuff recently. Does it feel like that to you?
SW: If you’re doing Boardwalk, and Martin Scorsese says, “Can you come do this thing in Wolf Of Wall Street for me?” then you do it. You know what I mean? He’s a producer on Boardwalk, so you jump at any chance to do that. I’m a huge fan of [Todd] Phillips’ early documentaries, much less The Hangover, and when he comes and asks you to work with Bill Camp and Joaquin, you don’t even say, “When?” You just say, “Tell me where.” Then you jump right in. Again, I’ve been lucky. I think if you worry about the work, that’s what leads you to some of these directors and actors. That’s the only way I know how to do it. Just let the work speak for itself.
AVC: You’re in the upcoming Modern Love TV series. How are they adapting the column into a television show? And what do you think it says about the state of love today? That show has a crazy cast as well, including you.
SW: I worked with Julia Garner, who’s one of the best young talents, and I got directed by Emmy Rossum, who is, ironically enough, Sam Esmail’s wife, and a great actress in her own right. She was unbelievable to be on the floor with and to be under her as a director. I loved that piece. We just finished it, and it’s still staying with me. It was a beautiful experience, it really was.
I’m a romantic. I still love to go to the theater and see what Bradley [Cooper] did with A Star Is Born. I thought it was unbelievable. I just saw Roma. I love going and being moved in the theater still.
AVC: Who do you want to work with who you haven’t worked with?
SW: The people that come to mind are the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson, and a couple of guys out of Mexico—[Alejandro] Iñárritu and [Alfonso] Cuarón. That would be, for me, the Rushmore of directors right now.
AVC: I can see you in a Coen movie, for sure, 150 percent.
SW: Oh, man. From your mouth, right? That would be fucking amazing. Love those boys.
AVC: You’re a young guy. You’ve got plenty of career in front of you.
SW: You’re kind. Thank you for that. Not to get violins in the background here while I’m talking, but it’s just head down and constantly being awed by Joaquin, or what Sam Rockwell’s doing now. These guys in my age group, like Christian Bale, who I’ve done several things with. Colin Farrell, who I know intimately. Julia Garner, I was blown away working with her. I can’t stress enough how lucky I am.