How Scoot McNairy Became One of the Busiest Actors in Hollywood

Scoot McNairy - Los Angeles premiere of Netflix's Narcos Mexico Season 2 - Getty -H 2020
Michael Tran/FilmMagic
In a wide-ranging conversation, the actor reflects on working with Quentin Tarantino, 'Halt and Catch Fire,' 'Narcos: Mexico' and 'True Detective' season three.

Over the past decade, few actors have been as busy as Scoot McNairy, but now that the health of the world has forced everyone to slow down, McNairy is finally able to take stock of the work he’s done. McNairy first became a name to watch on the indie circuit as 2007’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss and 2010’s Monsters garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards. But 2012’s Killing Them Softly really unlocked the floodgates for McNairy as Softly filmmaker Andrew Dominik eventually referred him to Ben Affleck for a role in Argo, which went on to win Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards in 2013.

At his Argo audition, McNairy shocked Affleck when he reminded him that they’d already worked together on a 2006 Axe Body Spray commercial. The two actors teamed up again in 2014’s Gone Girl and 2016’s Batman v Superman.

“I think [Ben] was very, very good to me in sort of championing me. I don’t know how much influence he had on the other jobs, but I assume that he did,” McNairy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So, I just felt really lucky and grateful that I had anyone supporting me. It’s really hard to get people to get behind you in the business, so you don’t take anybody for granted that does so. So, yes, I was and am very grateful to him.”

After two electric scenes with Brad Pitt in Softly, McNairy has also gone on to work for Pitt’s production company, Plan B, on three more projects including another Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, War Machine and Blonde — Dominik’s first scripted feature since Softly.

“Plan B, Dede Garder, Brad and Jeremy Kleiner have just been really, really great to me by just thinking of me for projects,” McNairy explains. “They’ve thrown some really great, interesting work my way. I am fully aware that, yes, they’ve been very, very good to me and have taken care of me. I’m still in contact with Dede, and I talk to her a lot. She’s a really close friend of mine.

This week also marks the one-year anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and McNairy is now reflecting on the fact that he’s the only actor Tarantino has ever cast without meeting first. Since McNairy had a small role as Business Bob Gilbert, a character in the film’s fictional recreation of the real-life TV show, Lancer, McNairy credits Timothy Olyphant for bringing him up to speed on the proceedings.

“Timothy Olyphant saw me when I walked on set, and I was sort of a deer in the headlights because I wasn’t able to read the script. And so, he walked over to me and was like, ‘You didn’t read the script, did you?’ and I was like, ‘No,’” McNairy shares. “He goes, ‘All right, cool. Let me sit down and explain to you what’s going on.’ So, he sat down and chatted with me for about 25 minutes in the morning to sort of give me the lay of the land. He was really great.

In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, McNairy also reflects on Monsters, Halt and Catch Fire, Narcos: Mexico and True Detective season three. He also looks ahead to his work as Rod Rosenstein on The Comey Rule, which premieres on Showtime in late September. He can currently be found on HBO Max’s first original series, Love Life.

Since this week is the one-year anniversary of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, how did the role of Business Bob Gilbert first pop up on your radar?

I think my manager found it and knew that they were casting for it. And the normal circuits of how it works got me in there, I think. I put an audition on tape, mailed it in to them and didn’t hear anything for, like, two and a half months. And then, a week and half, two weeks before the show started, they called me and said, “Hey, they want you, and you work in two weeks.”

And they only provided you with the sides for Business Bob’s scene?

Yeah, my manager requested the role and the sides, and yeah, those were sent to me and put on tape. Just sort of your classic process.

Were they the real sides?

Yeah, what I auditioned for is pretty much exactly what I ended up doing in the movie, I believe.

Was Business Bob loosely based on a real actor or character to your knowledge?

No, not that I know of. You know, it’s funny. Timothy Olyphant saw me when I walked on set, and I was sort of a deer in the headlights because I wasn’t able to read the script. And so, he walked over to me and was like, “You didn’t read the script, did you?” and I was like, “No.” He goes, “All right, cool. Let me sit down and explain to you what’s going on.” So, he sat down and chatted with me for about 25 minutes in the morning to sort of give me the lay of the land. He was really great.

There’s a scene in the movie where Leo’s character, Rick Dalton, rehearses his lines with a tape machine that has his scene partners’ lines already recorded by himself. Apparently, you set up a more modern version of this technique while on the True Detective set, right? 

Oh, that was the actual recording of the self-tape... It was standard. If you have two cell phones, one of them you can hook up to a speaker and one of them can record. And so, I would just record the other person’s lines and then leave the gaps in between so that nobody else had to read with me off-camera in order to send in the self-tape. But the gaps between the lines is something that I’ve always done. That’s how I’ve been learning my lines for, I don’t know, 20 years. Just record it, so you can sit there and rehearse the dialogue with yourself.

Once you’re on set, will you grab a castmate to rehearse your lines whenever it’s possible?

Man, I’ll ask anybody. I always have my sides on me, and if anybody will run them with me, then they’ll run them with me. But yeah, I generally like to run it five or six times with somebody before we even walk on the set just to hear it out and hear what they’re doing and whatnot.

After you sent your tape in and were eventually cast, you never met Quentin until you were on set, and if I have the story right, that’s the first time he’s ever cast someone without meeting them first. Has this ever happened to you in the past?

Without meeting them in person? Yes. But usually, there’s a phone conversation or a Skype call or a couple meetings before it happens. You may not necessarily meet them in person, but I hadn’t talked to Quentin or even met him until the day I walked on the set. So, yeah, it’s amazing. I’m incredibly lucky, too.

What was the vibe of the set like?

It was great, man. He’s incredibly charismatic and sweet and nice and funny, and that sort of goes all day long. He’s just really, really entertaining. I think we’ve all been entertained by Quentin, as an individual, for, I don’t know, 30 years. But to actually see him hold court and whatnot was really fascinating to watch. He’s a really, really interesting guy and incredibly talented. And it was just great. I think we shot over two days, I believe. It was quick, in and out. I think a cell phone had gone off the day before I got there, and that was a really, really big deal. And so, you had to take your cell phone and put it into a bucket before you could walk onto the set. That was a first.

[The following question contains spoilers for Halt and Catch Fire.]

Moving to Halt and Catch Fire, your character, Gordon Clark, had one of the most unique sendoffs I’ve ever seen. What do you remember most about shooting that sequence where his life flashes before his eyes?

I remember them telling me about it. I think it was [co-creator] Chris Rogers, [co-creator] Chris Cantwell and [writer-producer] Zack Whedon. And I think Chris told me it was Zack Whedon who came up with this idea of a coma or him sort of fading out, where his life flashes before his eyes. I remember shooting it, and I thought it was incredibly beautiful, incredibly creative and thoughtful in how they orchestrated and designed it. It was really cool. I knew the show was ending, and having your character die in the last season of the show is something that sort of gives you closure to the show, to the role and to everything. It was great, man. I had such a great time working on that show, working with all of those people and with the Chrises. It was one of my first series I ever did. So, it’s definitely one of the most memorable to me.

Is there a Halt and Catch Fire group text?

Oh yeah. We still chat with each other. For sure. I think everybody’s schedules are pretty busy, but we try and get together when we can.

You guys are all doing incredibly well, but Mackenzie (Davis) is already a movie star. Did you see this coming a long time ago?

Yeah, I’ve always thought Mackenzie was incredibly talented, ambitious and just a wonderful person. So no, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that it would be happening for her. She deserves everything that’s coming to her.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Hollywood feels much smaller once you’re in it. Considering that you and Kerry Bishé played husband and wife on two different projects (Argo and Halt), do you agree with that premise?

Yeah, I’d say the world is really small once you’re in it. It just feels like the older you get, the more you start running into people all over. But I guess it makes sense over time. You meet and meet and meet new people, so there’s more people for you to run into. But no, I definitely think the business is really small. If you work with somebody once, there’s a good chance you’re going to work with them again over the lifetime of your career, if you’re lucky. Once I’d come on board Halt, the Chrises told me that they cast Kerry to play my wife. So, I knew it going into the show, but yeah, I was really excited to work with Kerry again.

The first time I saw you was in 2010’s Monsters, and a couple years later, I heard Affleck singing your praises in an interview, which amounted to three films together (Argo, Gone Girl, Batman v Superman). Could you feel a shift in your career once he supported you as openly as he did?

Yeah, I’m not aware of that article or interview where Ben said those things. But with that said, yes, I think he was very, very good to me in sort of championing me. I don’t know how much influence he had on the other jobs, but I assume that he did. So, I just felt really lucky and grateful that I had anyone supporting me. It’s really hard to get people to get behind you in the business, so you don’t take anybody for granted that does so. So, yes, I was and am very grateful to him.

We just talked about Hollywood feeling small, and I don’t think the point can be better illustrated than the Axe Body Spray commercial you guys did together in 2006.

(Laughs.) When I left the audition room after auditioning for Argo, I reminded him as I was walking out. I said, “Oh yeah, Axe Deodorant.” And he was like, “No fucking way, that was you!? No fucking way.”

As far as Monsters goes, Gareth Edwards has said that you filmed in “cartel country.” Did things get pretty dicey at certain points?

Yeah, for sure. But you kind of feel unsafe every once in a while on any film set. (Laughs.) But yeah, we were a really small crew of, like, seven people, and so there were a couple of hairy situations we ran into in Guatemala and a couple other situations. But for the most part, no. A couple of situations here and there, but granted, how much time that we were down there, no, we didn’t run into that much. And the people of Mexico were all really, really, really kind individuals and really great people. When I worked on Narcos, the Sinaloa Cartel came to set one day when we were shooting on location and just sort of sat there and watched us. They just said, “We’re letting you know that we’ve allowed you guys to be here, so you guys carry on.” I know they’re noted for doing some awful things, but they didn’t seem to be… If you don’t bother them, then they don’t bother you. But Monsters was really one of the funnest movies I’ve ever worked on. I had such a great time.

Since its release in 2012, I’ve been a part of the Killing Them Softly choir, as it’s criminally underrated. Last year, I talked to Mendo (Ben Mendelsohn) about your time together on that set since I want to see you guys team up again with dishwashing gloves. 

(Laughs.) Fucking love Mendo.

And he told me a story of how you guys lived together during filming and that you got on each other’s nerves, which you can recognize in the car scene on the way to the stickup. Would you like to offer your vantage point on this experience?

100 percent correct. The two of us met, we made friends really quickly, we moved into a house together really quickly, we were living together and we were working together. And it became this sort of tiff between the two of us. We’d get in these little spats at the house, and we’d be riding to work together, in the same spat, and then, we’d go to work and be in the same spat at work. I love that about Mendo. He dishes it out a lot, but he also can take it a lot. So, 65 percent of it was us having fun with each other, and the other 35 percent was probably frustration. But I think as Ben says, “It’s always great when two people that are working together are getting at each other because that’s usually when the goods come.”

After working with Brad Pitt on Softly, you were eventually cast in Plan B’s 12 Years a Slave, War Machine and Dominik’s Blonde (2021). Around the time of 12 Years, did you get the sense that Brad had become your latest champion a la Ben?

I don’t 100 percent know. However, with that being said, Plan B, Dede Garder, Brad and Jeremy Kleiner have just been really, really great to me by just thinking of me for projects and stuff. They’ve thrown some really great, interesting work my way. So, I’m not quite sure, but I am fully aware that, yes, they’ve been very, very good to me and have taken care of me. I’m still in contact with Dede, and I talk to her a lot. She’s a really close friend of mine.

As expected, your work on True Detective was excellent. Was that role quite the juggling act since you were essentially playing two different characters via 1980 Tom and 1990 Tom?

Yeah, but it wasn’t as hard as what Stephen (Dorff) and Mahershala (Ali) had to juggle with three characters in three different eras. No, we had a really great team of hair and makeup artists. It was also a really great show and script to be a part of. So, not necessarily. 10 years have passed with the two characters, and it’s one of the things that I love about the show. Over these 35 years, you really get to see how much people change over time. I thought [creator] Nic (Pizzolatto) , as a writer, did a really good job at showcasing that, explaining that and also bringing the realism to that. So, no, it was fun. I enjoyed playing the same character in different time periods. It’s something I’ve only been able to do once before on Halt.

When you were on set with Dorff, did you guys expect the audience to theorize about your characters potentially having a romantic relationship?

To be honest with you, no. That may be a seed that Nic sort of planted. And I also don’t know what he had said to Stephen. But that was not a conversation that had ever really come up or was talked about with Nic. Maybe that is Nic trying to withhold that information from me intentionally; I don’t know. I haven’t really asked him about it since, if that was his true intention. That was something that I heard, but it’s not something that me, Stephen or Nic ever talked about. At least, they didn’t talk about that with me.

Nic ultimately rejected the theory on Instagram, and he’s never really been shy about shooting down fan theories.

Yeah, I was going to say… I think it’s something that was sort of speculated through the audience viewership and not something that he’d ever really thought about.

I thought your introduction on Narcos: Mexico season one was pretty ingenious. You weren’t originally supposed to narrate the season, right?

I think their first initial thought, if I’m correct, is that Kiki Camarena (Michael Pena) would be narrating from the grave. I think that Eric Newman, the showrunner, had molded over and over in his mind, and it just didn’t sit right with him. The thought was, “If this guy is dead at the end of the story, then how is he telling the story?” Once I was cast to come into this, I think the new idea that they had was, “Oh, well, here’s this new character coming. Maybe he could be the one who’s telling this story.” So, it’s definitely something that came at the last minute before the show was locked.

Narcos doesn’t mess around and shoot Albuquerque for Mexico. Both versions of the show have strived for authenticity by way of locations that actually correspond to the story. Did that set feel more immersive than most?

I mean, it was awesome and crazy. It’s Mexico. It’s full-on down there. I was breaking some glass one day, and I was like, “That’s real glass!” And they’re like, “Yeah!” and I’m like, “Oh, okay. Maybe they’ll put in the sugar glass next.” And they put it right back in. You just slam another piece of glass, and the glass goes in the other actor’s eye. It’s awesome. It’s like making movies the way we made them back in the ‘60s and ‘70s where the shit’s real. We didn’t have as many tricks down there. We just sort of did it as is. So, it was awesome, man. It was really fun filmmaking to be down there, to be doing that in Mexico and working with the filmmakers I got to work with.

Do you get the impression that you give better performances when you’re in a real environment as opposed to a soundstage?

100 percent, man. As a kid, I just didn’t like being inside. So, working on a soundstage is never really as exciting as working at a real house, a real mountain or, obviously, a real river or location and whatnot. So, fortunately, I feel like I’ve been really lucky as most of the jobs I’ve done have all been on location. I haven’t really worked that much on a soundstage. But yeah, your environment’s right there; it’s right there in front of you. You can react to everything around you because it’s real. I find that to be rewarding when you’re in the environment, and it’s less work for you to do as an actor.

Your Narcos character, Walt Breslin, pursued a goal so intensely that he ultimately ended up being reassigned behind a desk. Is there an experience from your own life that you channeled in order to capture how Walt felt by season's end?

Yes, the fear of also having to work behind a desk or having to be indoors for 8 hours a day. That would be a nightmare for me.

Overall, I thought you did tremendous work throughout season two. Are you returning for Narcos: Mexico season three, which supposedly started shooting in secret?

Not sure, really. There's been a lot of talk, but as you know, nothing’s certain until it’s certain. And even then, it can fall apart.

You’ve talked a lot about your struggles when you first came to L.A. and how you were living in your car and couch-surfing. At this current point in your career, are you finally able to say no? Or do you still feel like you have to say yes to almost everything because you remember those early days?

There’s two sides to that question. Yes, I can say no to projects. Some of the stuff that comes my way I’m just not interested in. It’s just movies or scripts that I just wouldn’t go see, that I’m not that interested in. And it’s mostly just based on that: “Oh, I wouldn’t really go see that movie.” But there’s also another side to it too. Like, you sit around for long enough, and I don’t want to sit around. So, after two or three months of sitting around, you say to yourself, “Okay, well I want to go work.” I enjoy myself on a set and working and playing around and exploring characters and exploring blocking and ideas and dynamics of the scene. It’s something I really enjoy doing. So, to sit around and say, “Okay, I’ve got nothing in front of me that’s good,” — I think my attitude more so is, “Let’s take this other thing right here that’s not that good and let’s try and make it good. Let’s do it, let’s get to work on it and get creative and try and make this show or project good.” And so, there’s a certain sense with some people where it’s like, “Well, you know, that person’s overexposed.” You know, crucify me for just wanting to work. I really enjoy my job; it’s what I do, and I’d like to do it as much as I can or am able to do.

Christopher Cantwell’s The Parts You Lose is a really beautiful film. How was that experience and reunion with Chris, Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead?

It was great. I enjoyed the entire time I worked with Chris Cantwell and talking to him. And I just think he’s a really great guy. He has a really kind heart, and he’s a really smart individual. Aaron Paul is somebody I’ve known for, I don’t know, 25 years out here. So I was excited to go work with Chris, Aaron and Mary. I think the film’s really good. If Chris called me up tomorrow and said, “Let’s go work on something,” I would jump out of my chair to go do so.

I rarely root against your characters, but this role was an exception. What did you and Chris discuss as far as your character is concerned?

Chris and I spoke about the character, and we both agreed to not worry about making this guy likable. We leaned more towards mainly making the viewer hate him but maybe hate him so much that you begin to feel for him. Like, it’s not his fault; it's just the life he has been dealt.

Regarding The Comey Rule, the release date has now been changed to late September, but were you as perplexed as everybody else when the show's premiere date slid to after the election?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, the country is so polarized at the moment. So divided. Naturally, that bleeds into large corporations protecting their interests. However, [creator] Billy Ray worked so hard to get this thing done before the November election, and he was promised to get a certain release date. I'm glad everyone was able to agree and that the show will air sooner.

Peter Sarsgaard recently told me that when he plays real people, he pretty much approaches them like they don't exist. Since you played Rod Rosenstein, did you take a similar approach, or did you go down the YouTube rabbit hole and whatnot?

Tough question. I find that it is different for me each time, each job, and each role. Sometimes I like to talk to them, sometimes I don’t. I followed the Russia investigation very closely, so when this job came along, I really felt like I had a lot of data on the players involved. Rod was not front and center in the media on a day-to-day basis. So I was really interested in looking at his body of work. He was the longest serving U.S. Attorney in history, and certain things made him stand out among those in Washington. I did find myself going down a rabbit hole by watching interviews and speeches that he did. I watched some of them over and over. I also had a collage of photos of him with all these different facial expressions. I would just go through them and wonder what the hell this guy must have been going through during all that chaos.

Do you prefer playing real people from the distant past since the audience typically doesn't have a frame of reference for them via video, audio, etc.?

They all are a bit terrifying to play, whether or not the audience has a frame of reference. You still have a responsibility to the audience, the story and the filmmaker to make it real and believable. The audience may not know this person, but it just has to be really specific to me and the director. All I have control over is doing my best to make it real.

Ana de Armas told me that Blonde is quite the movie, and of course, you reunited with Killing Them Softly filmmaker, Andrew Dominik, for it. On a side note, this conversation continues to prove that your peers love doing repeat business with you — whether that's Affleck, Pitt, Cantwell and now Dominik. How was your second experience with Dominik?

I really enjoy working with Andrew. Obviously, he is a very talented director. He is also very entertaining to work with, and I love all his films, so I am happy to have the opportunity to work on anything he is doing. As far as "repeats," I’m not sure. I do like working with people I have worked with before because we know each other, and there is a certain comfortability. Just feels like you just cut through the fat much quicker.