Created by Nic Pizzolatto, the HBO series True Detective has returned for an eight-episode third season that plays out in three separate time periods, as it explores the case that has haunted Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), throughout the years. When a young Arkansas boy and his sister mysteriously vanish in 1980, enduring questions about what happened set Hays and partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff), along with parents Tom (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), on a long journey to make sense of it all.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Scoot McNairy (whose excellent work in the season is often heart-wrenching) talked about what he knew about the season when he signed on, why he wanted to explore the headspace of this character, how much more challenging this role was than he could have ever imagined, and how he developed the accent he used. He also talked about how he came to Narcos: Mexico and what the next season will cover, along with his experience working with director Quentin Tarantino on Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Collider: I’ve seen the first five episodes of Season 3, and you do really tremendous work in this. What were you told about this season, the case and your character, before you signed on? Did you have any idea what this journey was fully going to be?
SCOOT McNAIRY: No, I didn’t. I had a rough idea. Around the time I came on board, I feel like they only had maybe five episodes, six and seven were rough, and eight wasn’t even around. I didn’t know what was going to happen. To be honest with you, I think I asked him one question, which I won’t tell you. I said, “I just need to know this answer.” And he said, “No.” I was like, “Okay, perfect. I don’t need to know the ending. I just needed to know that one answer.” I didn’t know that much about it. I knew about the character and I knew a little bit about it, but it wasn’t until we got there, on the ground and in pre-production, when everybody was there, that I sat down with (show creator) Nic [Pizzolatto] for about two hours. He gave me the odds and ends of this character, and then certain parts of the character, he was like, “You don’t need to worry about that,” or “You can let go of that.” Nic really held my hand throughout the shoot. He was definitely somebody who was constantly there for you, and you could go into his office and ask questions. He was very, very involved in the day to day details of every shoot. Having him there, I felt very comfortable of certain things that I didn’t know, and that I didn’t want to know.
It definitely can’t be easy to live in the shoes of a man who’s lost both of his children. That’s a level of grief and anguish that you just can’t imagine. Did you know what that would take, going into it, and did you really have to consider whether or not that was a headspace you wanted to live in for awhile?
McNAIRY: It’s funny that you ask me that. That’s a really great question. I was interested in exploring the headspace. I have two kids, so this thought comes across your head, from time to time, and then disappears. I didn’t know the headspace I was going to have to sit in for six months. As much as I want to say that I had a really great time shooting, and I did, there was also a side of me that went home, at the end of the night, that was ready to finish the job because I hated sitting around constantly thinking that I didn’t have my kids anymore. That was something that was really, really tough for me. Going through this shoot, it was something I wanted to explore, but once I got in there and I started to explore it, it was something that I wanted to stop. I was ready to be done with it and move on. It was tough. I’m not going to lie to you. It was a really tough role for me. It was personal, and it was something that I didn’t know I was getting myself that heavy into until I was there and I was in it. I had a great time doing it, but I was ready for it to be over.
It’s tough when the only other person who knows what it’s like for a father to lose both children would be those kids’ mother, but these parents clearly don’t have the best relationship. What was it like for him to be trapped, in that way, where the only person that really understands what he’s going through is probably the last person he’d want to talk to about it?
McNAIRY: That’s a tough question for me to answer. Everybody grieves in different ways, and I just can’t imagine anybody that’s gone through that and lost a kid, or their kids, and the hell and the torture of the rest of your life, just having a void that you can never fill. It’s totally tragic. I just don’t wish that upon anybody. Having sat in that for six months, I can’t imagine sitting in that for the rest of your life. That would be total hell.
What was it like to have someone like Mamie Gummer to go through all of this with?
McNAIRY: Mamie is a fucking fantastic actress. She really just shows up to work, and lays it down and leaves, which I was super blown away by and had a great time working with her. Mamie doesn’t have any kids. For me, I had to make it personal. I think the relationship between us is that you don’t know how people will react when there’s a tragedy. Some people go silent, some people become very verbal, some people hide, and some people laugh. It’s all over the place. Just the fact that you’ve lost your kids, and then the fact that you’re not getting along with your wife, is just hell. You can see it all over the character’s face. He just can’t move forward with his life. He’s trying everything, and he can’t.
I can’t imagine how hard this entire experience must have been, to go through as this character. It seems like you could have just used a hug, at the end of the day, each day.
McNAIRY: Nic said, “Every time Scoot walks on set, it’s like this stray dog that everybody just wants to take home and care for.” Nic came up to me, after a few scenes that we shot, and that’s the first thing he did. He just walked in the room, grabbed me and hugged me. I don’t think that he was excited about the scene. I think that he was more thinking, “Scoot needs a hug.”
Because it’s so authentic, how did you develop the accent that you used?
McNAIRY: I’m from Texas, and the character spent the majority of his time in Texas with a little bit in Louisiana. I live in small town in Texas, and I kept seeing this guy pop up at the car wash, all kinds of times. It was before we started making the show, and I took pictures of him from my van. Then, I started seeing him around town. So, I based the character off of that guy. I never got to hear him talk, but the look of that guy was based on this guy that I had seen around town. Then, I just wanted to muddy up the accent, like the people that I talk to out here. I can kind of understand them, but when I walk away from the conversation, somebody else says, “What did that guy just say? I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.” I liked that I could understand him, but somebody who wasn’t from here couldn’t. So, I wanted to muddy it and make it a really thick accent, where some words you don’t understand, or you can’t really quite make out, which to me was very authentic to some of the people that I’ve met in the town.