From director Scott Teems, the dramatic thriller The Quarry follows a drifter (Shea Whigham) who, after killing a traveling preacher, decides to take his place at the local church, where he catches the attention of the small town police chief (Michael Shannon). Unsure what to make of The Man, Chief Moore is equal parts curious and suspicious, suspecting foul play that leads him to dig deeper.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Shea Whigham talked about his ongoing career history working with co-star Michael Shannon, having chemistry that just clicks, what it was like to shoot the killing scene, what makes The Man such an interesting character, and what he and Shannon did, after a long day’s work. Whigham also talked about joining the Mission: Impossible for parts 7 and 8, what attracted him to the Perry Mason reboot for HBO, and what he looks for in a project.
Collider: You’ve worked with Michael Shannon a few times now. Have any of the times that you guys have worked together on projects been intentionally sought out by the two of you together, or has it just been a happy coincidence?
SHEA WHIGHAM: No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence, seven times. Once or twice, maybe. We come together, it seems like, every couple of years. With this one, we wanted to find something to do together. He’s one of my closest friends, and he’s an incredibly generous actor. We found this through the producers, Laura Smith and Kristin Mann, who came to us, and we both jumped at the chance, especially in New Orleans, as well.
You can be friends and you can both be great actors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll click together. What is it that you like about working with Michael Shannon? Why do you think it works so well?
WHIGHAM: Yeah, you hit it right on the head. You never know what chemistry is. I don’t think we really question it. We don’t do a deep dive on it. It’s there, and I don’t want to ruin the magic of whatever it is that he and I have. We’re incredibly close, and he’s a great friend. I think that lends itself to being able to go to darker places on screen. When you trust someone because you have this history, I think it really helps.
Your character makes the decision to kill this other man and take his place. What was it like to actually shoot that and the scenes around that? How long did you spend shooting that bit of the film?
WHIGHAM: We knew we had to get that right. I said to Scott,” I’m not interested in playing a serial killer, or anything like that. It was an intense day, and Bruno [Bichir] was great. I said to him, “I’m just trying to get away from the situation that has just happened with my wife and her lover, at the top of the piece. I just wanna get wherever he’s going, until he says, ‘I’m gonna have to turn you in, you know that,’ it’s an impulsive killing. It’s not methodical. I’m not thinking about it on the drive, or anything.” But it was an intense day. He was all about it, which I was happy about.
It’s such an interesting premise, to watch a character who’s running from his own sins, and then committing this sin and impersonating someone who’s supposed to be absolving people of their sins. It’s such an odd, twisted idea. What do you think makes that so compelling to watch, and makes this character so compelling, as a result?
WHIGHAM: That’s a great point. I’m drawn to complex characters, who are not all good and not all bad. Whether I’m doing Boardwalk Empire or True Detective, or whatever it may be, you wanna watch characters get into a situation and watch them find their way out of it. That’s what the inherent drama is. It’s trying to watch a character get out of a predicament or a dire situation. That’s what The Man is faced with. The Man is carrying a secret. He’s carrying a heavy burden. It is a thriller, but it’s also an investigation into human violence and how far one would go to survive. And then, along with that, you find your place, and you finally find your meaning in your place and you’ve been accepted, and is it too late for redemption?
The characters in The Quarry are not individuals who reveal themselves through lots of chatting conversations with each other. So much of what they think and do is internal and a bit manipulative with each other. What are the challenges of conveying that to an audience, so that you get that across without a lot of dialogue?
WHIGHAM: It’s a throwback film. It’s a film like in the ‘70s, where characters, like you just said, don’t say a lot. The Man doesn’t say a lot, but he’s got a lot to say. Chief doesn’t say a lot, but he’s got a lot to say. Scott let this film breathe, and you don’t find that very often. You do, in pockets. Letting it breathe, and letting you to hold on the characters is the key. You have to really be solid in your wants. What does The Man want: Scott did a really great job with allowing us to hold on those moments. The only breath we get a chance to take is during the picnic scene, where The Man thinks that he’s accepted, and that maybe he’s gonna turn the corner with this secret that he’s holding, and then you’ll see what happens. You’re right on, in that these guys are holding secrets. They don’t say a lot, but they have a lot to say.
This is a pretty serious film with pretty serious characters. What was the vibe on set like? Because you and Michael Shannon have known each other for some time, does that keep things inherently lighter, even when it’s a more serious type of subject matter?
WHIGHAM: It depends. Mike and I both work pretty quietly. We don’t say a lot, on the day. Not that we’re opposed to that, but we don’t say a lot. And this one was a really difficult film to make. It had been 10 years in the making, to try to get this made with Scott. So, we would work really intensely, and then have a really nice bottle of red, at the end of every night, and rehash what happened during the day. But he and I, we don’t talk a whole lot, when we’re working.
It was announced that you’ve also joined the Mission: Impossible franchise. Obviously, all production is on hold right now, but for when things do pick back up, what can you say about your role and your involvement in that?
WHIGHAM: I can’t tell you that. I’m gonna be an agent. I don’t wanna get in trouble here. People tried to do this with me with Joker, and I never wanna say too much. I’ll just say that it’s gonna be incredible to be with of Christopher [McQuarrie] and Tom [Cruise], and those guys. I play an agent who’s not too sure about Ethan Hunt, at the top of the seventh episode, and we’ll see that I am possibly wrong about his character, as it unfolds through seven and eight.
You also did HBO’s Perry Mason reboot, which sounds like a really cool take on that. What was the appeal of that for you and what kind of a guy is that character?
WHIGHAM: That really was born out of Tim Van Patten is my best friend and the director on that, and I hadn’t done anything with him since Boardwalk Empire. And so, we got to talking and he took that, and I was really a fan of Matthew [Rhys]. Strickland is another complex guy. He’s a wily investigator. It really came out of just wanting to work with Tim Van Patten, but the piece itself is so beautiful. All eight episodes are great. And to be back with HBO, I’ve had such good experiences with Boardwalk and True Detective with them. I thought that Boardwalk still had legs, when we decided to end that. For me, that’s my favorite period to tell a story in, the end of the ‘20s and into the ‘30s. It’s New Year’s Even ‘31, into ‘32, for Perry Mason. It’s not gonna disappoint. It’s a really great series.
At this point in your life and career, what is it that you look for in a project and what is it that gets you excited about work? It sounds like you like working with people that you’ve worked with previously. Is that something that’s really important to you?
WHIGHAM: Yeah. It’s funny, for me, it’s not always about the script. It’s about the people involved. I know if I go to work with Tim Van Patten or Christian Bale or Mike Shannon, I’ll jump on that, whether it’s for one scene or whether it’s The Man in The Quarry. It really starts with the people and who I’m gonna have an experience with. I don’t consider it a job. It’s more of an experience. I wanna step on set with people that I’ll have that with. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, in that respect.
The Quarry is available on-demand.