When Scoot McNairy isn't working, he's off the grid. The 35-year-old actor, who can soon be seen opposite Rosemarie DeWitt in Lynn Shelton's "Touchy Feely" (opening in select theaters this Friday), keeps a home with his wife, actress Whitney Able, in a rural town of about 15 people in his home state of Texas.
"Yep," the actor says when calling in from London, where he's shooting "Black Sea," a submarine thriller with Jude Law, directed by Kevin Macdonald. "We live off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Our phones don't even work."
McNairy doesn't divulge exactly where this town is, or what it's called, but he does say he owns a good bit of land off that dirt road, land that isn't just home to him and Able, his co-star from 2010's "Monsters," but "a bunch of cows," and whatever construction project the tried-and-true Southern boy might have in the works. ("I spend some of my days just building a barn, or a barbecue smokehouse, or a smoke pit," McNairy says.)
The thing is, McNairy doesn't have much time for all that lately, as he's rarely not working, and rarely off the grid. And if he's not on your radar yet, he will be. In the next year-and-a-half alone, the actor has at least seven films lined up, beginning with "Touchy Feely" and continuing with Steve McQueen's buzz-building epic "12 Years a Slave," which opens Oct. 17 and puts McNairy in the company of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt, among others. There's also an AMC TV series, the Texas-set "Halt & Catch Fire," set to debut in 2014.
Of course, you may well already be familiar with McNairy. If you've followed his work since his breakout year of 2007, then you're aware of his indie favorite, "In Search of a Midnight Kiss," a black-and-white, New Year's Eve-set romance that McNairy starred in and co-produced. The film came after years of work in TV commercials (including a Levi's ad in which he rode a mechanical bull), and was made, McNairy says, "somewhat out of frustration."
"Me and the filmmaker, Alex [Holdridge], were both just trying to get some films put together, and having a really hard time with it," McNairy says, "and 'Midnight Kiss' was something that came about when we got together and said, 'Let's just make our own movie.' I don't think either one of us knew it was going to get the life that it got [it won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Indie Spirits, among other industry trophies], but I definitely think it was a step toward the next goal. So it was a great lift-off point."
If "Midnight Kiss" was the launchpad, then "Monsters" was the propeller. Though it didn't arrive until three years after the former film (years McNairy largely filled with guest spots on TV shows like "Bones" and "The Shield"), "Monsters," a low-tech, allegorical sci-fi gem helmed by visual effects artist Gareth Edwards, delivered on the promise of "Midnight Kiss"—that McNairy was no one-hit, on-the-fringes wonder.
"It scares me to think of what would have happened to my career if I hadn't had Scoot in 'Monsters,'" says Edwards, whose career has certainly taken off, as he's well underway in directing the forthcoming "Godzilla" remake. "I put so much pressure on him. We were improvising an absurd sci-fi movie with real people in the middle of drug-cartel country, and he never got fazed. His performance was so believable, I would often be filming and see him do some subtle mannerism, and I'd think that he'd stopped 'acting.' So I'd go to switch off the camera, then suddenly realize he was still playing the part. He was so natural I couldn't tell where the character ended and Scoot began. That film would have been dead in the water if he hadn't put his heart and soul into it like he did."
Edwards wasn't the only one who took notice of McNairy's gifts. In 2011, the actor auditioned for director Andrew Dominik, who soon cast him as Frankie, the (unofficial) co-lead of "Killing Them Softly," Dominik's second collaboration with Brad Pitt, following "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Watch "Killing Them Softly," and it isn't Pitt who stands out, nor Ray Liotta, nor the late James Gandolfini, nor any other member of the film's male-dominated, all-star cast; it's McNairy. In Frankie, McNairy crafts a fully-formed, sympathetic, foolish, doomed criminal, who's memorable from his tearful expressions to his pseudo-Boston accent.
"The accent was something I sort of made up," McNairy says. "My own take on a Boston accent, I guess. When I went in and read for Andrew, I felt there was no chance I would ever get that job. I just kind of threw this really outlandish character out there, and he really took a liking to it. I worked really hard on that character, probably more so than I've worked on some other ones, and maybe that was because I felt there was a lot more riding on it. I was surrounded by such an incredible cast, plus I was working on a film that I knew was going to reach a wider audience. Working on an independent film, you're not really quite sure it'll reach any audience, you know?"
McNairy even sounds a little restless. He admits that his wife woke him up about 20 minutes before our phone call, in whatever London hotel the two have been been put up in, and it's likely the actor is often sleep-deprived. "Killing Them Softly" seems to have marked the opening of the flood gates for McNairy, who appeared in two other prestige dramas last year, Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," with Matt Damon, and, of course, Ben Affleck's Best Picture-winning Hollywood hat-tip, "Argo." In the latter, McNairy played Joe Stafford, the skeptic among the fact-based film's group of Americans trapped in Iran. Again, McNairy managed to steal the spotlight, using character-actor devices like glasses and a comb-over to complete the realization of someone whose psyche he'd already actively evaluated.
"Joe Stafford was a character I didn't have too much information on," McNairy says. "What I did have was mostly based on what I heard from the people who were [in hiding] with him. He was unavailable for questioning. So I gathered what I could, and after that, I kind of took it upon myself to make the defining point be that he's doing all of this for his wife [played by Kerry Bishé], and really make her the reason for all of his decision making."