Interview: Scoot McNairy on 'Halt and Catch Fire'
Scoot McNairy had a resume of TV guest spots and indie movie roles when he appeared as one of the two leads in the minimalist creature feature "Monsters." The low-budget film didn't exactly set the global box office on fire, but it served as a calling card for its director, Gareth Edwards.
It also positioned McNairy for a run of character actor ubiquity with memorable roles -- if you happened to see the films -- in "Killing Them Softly," "Promised Land" and "Touchy Feely." He has also become a Best Picture lucky charm with important parts in "Argo" and "12 Years a Slave."
McNairy transitions to TV leading man status in Sunday (June 1) night's premiere of AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire."
In the '80s-set computer drama, McNairy plays Gordon Clark, formerly promising computer wizard who has put many of his ambitions on hold to try to live a more stable life with his wife (fellow "Argo" veteran Kerry Bishe) and kids. Frustrated and disappointed at the direction his career has taken, Gordon gets recruited by newly arrived hotshot Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) for an ethically problematic project that might be his second and last chance.
You've perhaps already seen my chat with Lee Pace about Joe's motivations and his skills.
Now, here's my conversation with McNairy about what drives Gordon, about reuniting with Bishe, about his own technical acumen and about the impact of "Monsters" on his career.
Check out the full Q&A...
HitFix: My first question: Are you and Kerry sort of attempting to re-create the '80s, one project at a time?
Scoot McNairy: Absolutely not. We're trying to, I guess, re-create ourselves as actors I would say. I would say that this is far distant from the relationship that we had in "Argo."
HitFix: Still, this is a foreign world obviously and a foreign time, is it nice to have a touchstone who you've worked with before in almost a similar context?
Scoot McNairy: Always. I love going back and working with people that I've worked with before because there's a certain sense of comfortability.
HitFix: Now, my reaction to watching this pilot yesterday was I have absolutely no clue what's happening but I'm kind of gripped by whatever the heck it is.
Scoot McNairy: Then I think it did its job.
HitFix: Well, how much of that is your reaction when you actually get the script for this? Do you have a clue what you're actually reading?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah. I mean in regards to the pilot, we had actually a lot of prep time to really kind of get underneath it and create the characters. As the season goes on, and it's such a fast shooting schedule, you find yourself a little bit more trying to hold onto it. But no, it's exciting. It's kind of like you get to see each episode as it comes to you, like where the character's going and how you can manipulate that and also stay true to it.
HitFix: On a tech level, it strikes me that you could be really, really smart about technology right now and still have absolutely no clue what's happening in this version of tech 30 years ago. Are you a techie person now? Do you have any interest in the history of technology?
Scoot McNairy: I don't think I'm... I'm not really a techie. I don't think I did have any interest in the history of it until the show. And then a lot of it's, you know, it became really fascinating to me and interesting. And some of the things that I'd known about before got explained in clarity from doing the show. So that part of it was interesting and fun.
HitFix: What kind of things were those?
Scoot McNairy: Terms. Mostly like what the actual computer processing unit actually does. What a microprocessor actually does. What a semi conductor silicon does, semi conductor, what are these things actually doing? Which was before, I knew what they were, but I didn't know what their function was and how they worked. So yeah, I mean I still don't know that much, you know what I mean? But I'm definitely a lot more educated than I was.
HitFix: What is your retention on information like that? Does it go in one ear and out the other after you learned it or did some of it stick?
Scoot McNairy: My whole life I learned by doing and learned by watching. So if I can take apart a car engine then I don't need help putting it back together. So if I can touch it and actually do it, then... but if I read about it it doesn't, it goes in one ear and out the other. I have to actually physically touch it and see it.
HitFix: So can you take apart a car engine and put it back together?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah.
HitFix: Nice. And so what can you now do with old computer bits and pieces that you maybe couldn't do before?
Scoot McNairy: Well, so much of it's hardware. And so the tools like soldering irons and breadboards I don't have any of that stuff and don't really mess with it, so I wouldn't say that I could build a computer. My soldering skills aren't much better, but I was doing that before with installing alarm systems in cars and car stereos and messing with amplifiers and speakers so I had a little bit – but I never really cracked open the amplifier to…
HitFix: But you have some skills it sounds like that are sort of vaguely related?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah. I mean at the same time some of the skills that I have I kind of look at more like, "This is common sense," but to the skills that I have, but I guess that's because I have them.
HitFix: Because I assure you none of those things you just listed being able to do seem like "common sense," necessarily.
Scoot McNairy: Yeah. It's when you get into the innards of it of like the disk drive and stuff and like I don't understand how the needle or the laser can actually take information and read it. I understand that it's all on on/off switches and it's thousands and thousands of them, but it's still a mystery because I can't really touch it. Something's happening inside there that I can't physically do, it's doing it itself and that's hard to…
HitFix: You say that when you actually read something it's maybe more in one ear and out the other, what was the research process like?
Scoot McNairy: The research process in regards to this, I mean I wasn't going to go out and try and learn how to engineer a computer. I mostly researched engineers and their personalities and what their feelings were like in regards to building something and having somebody else build something and how they felt about it and the collaboration of them an nd also like whether they were happy people, frustrated people or people with chips on their shoulder. I kind of took bits and pieces from the engineers that I talked to and kind of tried to – and then took on my own, how to build this character. I think I brought a side of anger to him that wasn't there in the show that they kind of picked up on and ran with it.
HitFix: What are you sort of able to personally relate to in terms of this creative person who feels like maybe his moment of genius past and now he's living a substandard life?
Scoot McNairy: I mean my closest relationship to it is I was born and raised in Dallas. And so I knew kind of the world and the backdrop, which gave me a certain sense of comfortability, which was really fun for me too to kind of go and see things in Bosworth's office that like my dad had in his office. So Bosworth's character kind of really reminded me of my father and that's probably the closest relationship to it, but at the end of it the show is about the personal computer boom but it's also about relationships and family. And you just kind of dig your way through that and half the conversation that we have are real conversations that people have all the time at home, which I think makes it really true and honest and watchable.
HitFix: Now, Gordon and Joe are to some degree set up as binary characters, binary opposites. Where there any sort of changes you made to your character when you saw what Lee was doing and sort of how you guys interplayed?
Scoot McNairy: No. I mean the only thing I could think of is that I really wanted to start off the show with Lee's character being much more dominant then Gordon. And that's something that would give him a place to grow and become a more of an alpha male and more of a dominant character, but I wanted to start him off as really, really weak. So that was one thing I just paid attention to. I wouldn't say that I focused on it.
HitFix: And you mentioned the anger. Where did you see the anger? Is it internally directed anger or is it the world as it were?
Scoot McNairy: No. One of the engineers had told me, which was kind of a quote that I really ran with, which is I said, "Did some of these engineers have chips on their shoulders?" And he said, "Absolutely." He said in the hiring hiring, back in that time, you looked for somebody that was either fired or his ideas were so out there that no company wanted him. And he said, "Those are the people that we wanted, people with a chip on their shoulder or who had been fired because those people have something to prove and they think outside the box." And so I think that I took the kind of somebody having a chip on his shoulder and having something to prove to the world is one of the foundations of the root of the character that I started to build on.
HitFix: Now, did your Texas roots did they sort of let you know immediately what this guy sounded like?
Scoot McNairy: No. Gordon is actually from Berkeley but he lives in Texas now, but he was born and raised in California. So there's not much of an accent there.
HitFix: I was going to say I didn't notice but I wasn't sure if there was sort of something that maybe if I were from Dallas I might have recognized.
Scoot McNairy: I mean if you hear a little bit of accent it's probably just my Texas accent coming out.
HitFix: He could've been just somebody who acclimated very rapidly. We're roughly the same age and I watched this and sort of bits and pieces of the '80s setting sort of resonated with me sort of from my childhood. Was there any of that with you?
Scoot McNairy: Absolutely. I mean mostly the Clark home. There was just certain articles in there that like the afghan blanket and seeing things from my childhood, the TV, things that I actually had, my parents had when we were a kid. That was kind of really a blast from the past. Walking around that house was like, "Wow, I kind of feel like my dad with two kids." And the architecture of the house, the furniture, all that stuff, it's like the little things that I can see that really, really kicked me back to that time period.
HitFix: Did you have a Speak and Spell as a child?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah.
HitFix: Because I was struck by the noise that the Speak and Spell made when it turned on. I was like "Ah my goodness, that just flashed me right back..."
Scoot McNairy: I still have a Speak & Spell. I was using it just before we came down here.
HitFix: Just to brush up on the fundamentals?
Scoot McNairy: Just to brush up on some of my vocabulary.
HitFix: But you did have one when you were a child?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah. Absolutely.
HitFix: And was there sort of a tech fascination that you had at the time? Because for many of us that would've been sort of the first thing like that that we had.
Scoot McNairy: I was fascinated with digital clocks. Anything that was old in the house, from when I was a kid that would be something from the early '70s, and that was the only thing my parents would let me take apart. And I like to take apart things and look at them and look at the breadboard. And obviously as a kid I didn't really understand any of it, but if I couldn't -- like a clock you could take apart you saw a bell and a little things that's like, "Oh, okay the bell hits this trigger, it fires the battery and the thing goes back-and-forth and it rings the bell. Okay, that's how that works. I have no interest in it anymore." And a Speak & Spell it's like I didn't take apart one of those but I took apart many things like it just to look at the insides.
HitFix: When you look back, you sort of look at "Monsters" as being a sort of career pivot for you, a big career moment?
Scoot McNairy: Sure. I mean yes and no. At the time we're just doing a movie, we had no idea what it was going to turn out like. And obviously you're well aware that the filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, is a genius. And I don't think that the industry or the public have seen what his actual true capabilities are yet. So I just feel really incredibly lucky to have been able to cross paths with him at such a young age. And I feel like he's going to be one of the great directors of our time, of our generation. And so whether it kickstarted it or not I can't really tell. It's so muddy. I's such a grind. You just kind of keep hitting it and keep auditioning and keep looking for work and trying to find jobs that are going to carve out your career. And I just feel incredibly blessed that I was able to run across him and work with him.
HitFix: But then you sort of did have a two-year or three-year stretch where you were to suddenly popping up in practically every little movie it felt like. It probably didn't feel like to you like you were in every little movie but…
Scoot McNairy: Sure. Yeah. I mean it was a long process. I've kind of made those films and then they didn't come out for almost a year and a half, two years later. So there was a waiting period there for sure, but with that being said those people that I worked with afterwards, they had never seen "Monsters." I think as time went on I just kinda... and I'm still growing as an actor so I just think that constantly being able to keep learning and not believe that you know everything and keep learning and keep working hard.
HitFix: So what was the allure of a regular TV role for you at this point?
Scoot McNairy: Honestly the script. The pilot was really intriguing; I really identified with the character and I loved the writing. It was really real and grounded and nothing forced. And I related to the time period and the script. And as well as AMC. I know that they're putting out really good product so I was really excited to go and work for a network that's not making a procedural show, but moreso a really long, long 12-hour movie.
HitFix: Had you had anyone on your team as it were who had been trying to push you towards something more procedurally, more networkie?
Scoot McNairy: No, they've been really pushing me towards television. And I was kind of pushing back for a really long time, for years. And then this thing came along and it was really interesting to me and I said I'd love to give it a shot.
HitFix: And sort of everyone talks about the grind of the hour-long drama workday and schedule and all of that. Does it compare to anything that you've done in the indie world or is it sort of unprecedented as its own thing?
Scoot McNairy: It's still a grind. The indie world it's a grind it too but it's just a different kind of grind. It's more you're struggling creatively to figure out how you're going to get something with no money. Whereas this is you're struggling creatively with no time, you know, everything's so quick. But with that being said it was a learning experience for me and I learned a lot and it definitely made me better at what I do and I hope that it betters me as an actor and a person.
HitFix: How quickly do you acclimate to the process? Like how fast was that learning curve?
Scoot McNairy: About halfway through. I felt like it by Episode 6 or 7 I started to get my feet wet. And then by the end of it I felt like I started getting the hang of things and so I'm excited to go back for Season 2.
HitFix: I was going to say does the end of it make you go okay now get me into Season 2, or did it make you go okay now I need to store up my energy for Season 2?
Scoot McNairy: Yeah, because he has a clear kind of past as a leaning post to lean on. And before it was kind of like you knew things about the character, but the writers didn't,or they were thinking something different. And so now you at least have 10 episodes that gives you some clarity on who this guy is. And I'm discovering it too as we're doing it and as we're shooting. I'm making new discoveries as well and those will help in future seasons as bulletpoints for the character.
"Halt and Catch Fire" premieres on Sunday, June 1 on AMC.