Shea Whigham on 'The Quarry' and "Electric" Christian Bale Scenes
When Shea Whigham appears onscreen, the audience knows it’s in good hands. This rule of thumb also applies to film and TV sets, since Whigham is consistently well regarded by his fellow castmates, directors and crew. Even though he can lead and support across film and television, Whigham is very much an actor’s actor, and ego never enters into the equation. As a result, he’ll fly around the world to shoot a single scene with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Christian Bale and Josh Brolin.
In his latest starring role as “The Man” in The Quarry, Whigham teams with his friend Michael Shannon for the seventh time. He plays a fugitive posing as a preacher in a small Texas town. Shannon’s police chief character is immediately suspicious of him upon his arrival.
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“We look for something to do about every two years, it seems like,” Whigham tells The Hollywood Reporter. “This came up, and we’ll do anything with each other — from the smallest projects to Boardwalk Empire. He’s one of my closest friends, and there’s no better actor on the planet right now than him. We have a definite shorthand.”
Another frequent collaborator is Christian Bale. The two have shared scenes in American Hustle, Knight of Cups and Vice. Regarding Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, Whigham, who played Lynne Cheney’s (Amy Adams) troubled and potentially dangerous father, Wayne Vincent, reflects on a thrilling scene where Bale’s Dick Cheney admonished his character at Lynne’s mother’s funeral.
“Whether it’s Mike Shannon or Christian, there’s nobody better than these actors working today,” Whigham says. “You never know what Christian is going to do; he’s an incredible actor in the moment. The dressing down just happened. I didn’t know what was going to happen there. That was pretty electric, that day, when I remember back on it. There are no words to describe how good he is.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Whigham also discusses the latest on his role in Mission: Impossible 7 and his unusual experience on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups set with Bale.
First and foremost, how are things with you and yours?
Ups and downs, y’know? Just doing our part and staying indoors.
Out of curiosity, when everything was shut down, you weren’t on the Mission: Impossible set in Venice, Italy, yet, right?
No, I was one day away from leaving, actually. Tom [Cruise] and a couple other actors had left from London, and then I got the call that we all had to split. So I never made it over.
Your Quarry character is racked with guilt, which you illustrate in almost every single moment of the film. To help convey that, did you take some weight off?
Yeah, I did. Starting in January of last year, I did three films that were really personal to me back to back to back. So I came off of Small Engine Repair, and I wanted to keep the look of what I felt “The Man” was going through. It made sense to me to keep the weight off.
Did "The Man" mostly steal the preacher’s identity for refuge, or did he think he could gain mercy or absolution if he maintained the preacher’s efforts to some extent?
Well, I think it’s both. The first part is just about survival. That’s part of what The Quarry is about, in addition to being a psychological thriller. It’s also about the nature of faith, human violence and the lengths one would go to for survival. Then he finds his place, a home, so to speak. Can one be redeemed, or is it too late by that point?
Since he took on the preacher’s role almost immediately, it seemed like he came up with his plan on the spot in order to survive and deal with the guilt he kept racking up. Was he not that many moves ahead?
I don’t think the latter was on his mind at first. Once Bruno’s [Bichir] character said, “I have to turn you in and do the right thing” and the Man murders him, he looks in the back of the van for anything that will help him. He knows he’s going somewhere south in Texas, and he starts putting the pieces together. It was the only thing he could think of. He wasn’t going to stay. He wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but then he had trouble with the van. So he had to take on this identity and grow into it.
You and Michael Shannon have been credited on the same project seven different times now. Do you find that this sort of familiarity only helps your performance?
Oh, yeah. We look for something to do about every two years, it seems like. This came up, and we’ll do anything with each other — from the smallest projects to Boardwalk Empire. He’s one of my closest friends, and there’s no better actor on the planet right now than him. So it really helps. He’s such a giving actor, and he’s a gracious partner to be in scenes with. It always shows with us. We have a definite shorthand.
Did you model your sermons after anyone in particular?
My preacher character in True Detective was very good at his occupation. This Quarry character gives three different sermons, and there’s a lack of confidence that gradually grows as they begin to accept him. This character didn’t know what he was doing, so it didn’t make sense to sit in and watch someone like I did with the HBO piece.
Movies that deal with stolen identity often provide wish fulfillment for the character via their new identity. So I really appreciated how there was nothing glamorous about your character’s assumed identity or the life he led. What your character felt is probably what it’s really like to assume an identity. Was this something you recognized as well?
I first have to give a lot of credit to [co-writer/director] Scott Teems and producers Kristin Mann and Laura D. Smith; they put this thing on their backs. But yeah, other than the scene at the picnic where he finally thinks he’s been accepted, it is the weight of the world. I urged Scott to see how long we could hold this secret that’s rubber-band taut and not play the happy Hollywood ending. It would be what this cat is going through. Other than that little bit of breath that you take, we wanted to stay true to what we felt like he was going through with someone like Michael’s character on him every step of the way as he’s carrying this double secret, basically — what happened to his wife, her lover and the preacher.
You’re known for adding authenticity to every role. Your Homecoming director, Sam Esmail, affirmed this notion by saying, “I’ve never seen a guy so committed to expressing something genuine at every moment.” Where does your commitment to authenticity originate?
First of all, that’s coming from the highest — from Sam. For lack of a better thought about this, I think it’s just to see how close I can get to the individuals that I’m playing and how deeply I can step into their skin. Each one is a challenge, and I look forward to that. Half the time I feel like I probably don’t get it, but I do enjoy the challenge of it.
Your career fascinates me because you can lead and support in both film and television, and yet you’ll still fly around the globe for a single scene with Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges or Christian Bale. What’s your overall philosophy when it comes to your career choices?
I don’t always take roles because of the script. A lot of times, it’s the people involved. Like anyone, I have a checklist of people I want to work with; you mentioned Jeff Bridges or Christian Bale. I think I’ve done three things with Christian [Vice, Knight of Cups, American Hustle]. It’s never about ego with me or how big my part is or not. It’s always about the experience of it all. To be able to do Sicario: Day of the Soldado with Josh…. Originally, I had another scene [that was cut] in Soldado with Benicio Del Toro, who I’ve done something else with [Oliver Stone’s Savages]. And then it becomes about the script as well. I’m not saying that it’s not important. It also starts a lot with directors. HBO’s Perry Mason started with Tim Van Patten. I wanted to work with Tim again, my best friend. I hadn’t seen all the scripts yet, but you take a leap of faith. You know you’re in good hands with someone like Tim, Christian Bale, Jeff Bridges or Mike Shannon. You know it’s going to be a great experience.
Your funeral scene with Bale in Vice was one of my favorite scenes of 2018. When Bale’s Dick Cheney character threatened your character, it sent shivers down my spine. How did that scene feel in the moment?
Adam McKay loves actors, and he allows for ideas to pop up. Whether it’s Mike Shannon or Christian, there’s nobody better than these actors working today. You never know what Christian is going to do; he’s an incredible actor in the moment. We have a nice thing together. The dressing down just happened. I didn’t know what was going to happen there. That was pretty electric that day, when I remember back on it. There are no words to describe how good he is.
Your performance as Carrasco on Homecoming season one was widely praised. What comes to mind when you reflect on shooting that memorable warehouse scene with motion sensor lighting?
Again, that’s Sam Esmail. I can’t take credit for any of that. It’s all Sam. With Carrasco, we wanted to be as honest as we could be with him and his search for the truth. I also appreciated the situational comedy that he gets himself into — without playing it. That’s the key; you can’t play it. That and the glasses…. But it’s all Sam and the set designer. They just did an amazing job. Every actor will tell you, when you have that behind you, you have a chance. That was an amazing day when I saw it come together. You find things in the moment as well. A lot of times, people won’t allow the passage of time, such as me looking at each box and bringing them down. Sam knew the value of that, and we were also going to get some levity and the feel of Carrasco by doing that. That was a really special day, and he took his time. We shot that all day.
I collect Knight of Cups stories any chance I get. Would you mind sharing your experience with Terry Malick and Bale on that set in 2012?
How much time do you have? (Laughs) So, I was doing Boardwalk Empire, and Tim Van Patten and Terence Winter were great about letting me jump off and do The Wolf of Wall Street, Savages with Oliver Stone…. Then, Knight of Cups came up. I had worked with Werner Herzog before that [on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans], and I just couldn’t believe I’d be working with Werner and now Terry. So Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten said, “We’re going to give you a day to fly, two days to work and then you gotta get back on a plane.” Then I heard from the Knight of Cups producers that there was no script. Terry Malick eventually said, “You’re from Wyoming, you grew up with Christian in school, he went off to become a writer and you work with your hands.” So I put my character in a place in Wyoming, I have three kids and I’m a certain kind of carpenter. I was nervous because I hadn’t worked with Christian yet at this time; I hadn’t done American Hustle with him yet. So I got there on the day, and we were waiting for magic hour to happen for my scene. We were in Venice, California, and we were going to be on a street corner. I didn’t even come out of my trailer because I was so nervous. I stayed in my trailer and peeked out as they were eating lunch. I was just too nervous to go out there and see Terry Malick and Christian. Finally, they said, “Terry wants to see you,” and I said, “Oh shit, okay.” So, I went out, and Terry was like, “Hey, how are you, Shea?” He was so sweet and amazing. Then, he goes, “So, listen, how do you like Chicago?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ve been there, Terry. I like Chicago.” Then, Terry goes, “Maybe instead of Wyoming, you’re from Chicago,” and I’m thinking, “Uh-oh.” So I went back into my trailer to do all this work on Chicago, and I called Mike Shannon to talk to him about it, because that’s where he’s from. So we went out to shoot it, and I was working with Terry’s three grandkids. They were playing my kids, and his daughter-in-law was playing my wife. So I’ve got all this pressure on me. We got to the street corner, and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] was shooting it; he’s the DP. We got to the street corner, and Terry was like, “Actually, I think you’re from Wyoming.” Then, I went, “Oh my God!” And Christian was just cool as a cucumber, man. So I didn’t have time to even think about it. When you see the scene, his grandkid is running in the street, and I’m grabbing him.... We’re on a steadicam, and it was one of the most magical experiences that I’ve ever had on film. I wish we could take another 20 minutes, because there were all kinds of unbelievable things and circumstances happening.
The Quarry is now available on digital HD and VOD.
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