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.”
These are the savvy instincts of an acting natural, and however in need of another 40 winks McNairy may seem, there’s never a sense that he isn’t precisely where he should be. It’s a characteristic in stark contrast to the demeanor of his “Touchy Feely” character, Jesse, the drifting beau of Rosemarie DeWitt’s abruptly skin-averse masseuse, Abby.
“I think I’m incredibly distanced from a character like that,” McNairy says. “I’m not somebody who’s 30 or 31 and lost. I’m very specific in what I want in my life, and I’m going after it, whereas Jesse is more of [the mindset], like, ‘Well, whatever happens happens. Who cares?’ I personally have never felt that way. I’ve made decisions, and said “I want this, therefore, I’m gonna go out and get it.”
“Scoot’s a consistently, insanely believable actor,” says Shelton, who also populated her eclectic “Touchy Feely” cast with Ellen Page, Josh Pais, and Allison Janney. “I’ve admired his work for years and I’ve longed to work with him. I think he possesses one of the most expressive and watchable faces I’ve ever seen on screen.”
Get used to that face. In addition to “Black Sea,” which is scheduled to drop in 2014, McNairy will also soon be seen in “Frank,” another Michael Fassbender co-starrer that’s “brilliant and weird”; “The Rover,” an Australian actioner with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson; and the aptly-titled “Non-Stop,” an airplane-set thriller with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.
“I feel like I have some really deep, interesting characters in me,” McNairy says, “and I’ve been gaining the courage to really keep shooting for more of those.”
Still, McNairy doesn’t quite know how those characters will continue to be delivered to viewers. Edwards says, “I really believe Scoot’s going to be one of the great character actors of our time, if he wants to be.” But is that what McNairy wants? Given the company he’s been keeping, surely he’s felt the itch of striving to become a Pitt- or Affleck-level leading man.
“I’m not really thinking too much about that,” the actor says. “I’m trying to take good scripts, with good stories, and figure out where I fit into those stories. Whether I want to stick with character roles or be a leading man isn’t clear, but I think I’m gradually making steps toward being able to make that decision when I get there. Leading roles are something that I think is around the corner for me, but financing is always a very important aspect of that. I don’t know if my name is valuable enough at this point that people are going to put $20 million on a film with me as the lead.”
Ah, yes—that name. McNairy was actually born with the first name John, which he says his mother still calls him when she’s “pissed off” at him. “Scoot” is a variation of “Scooter,” a nickname McNairy’s father coined when the actor was a boy. By the time he hit adolescence, “Scoot” had stuck, and there was never a consideration to nix it as his stage name. When asked if the Internet is accurate with its claim that the nickname sprung from young McNairy’s habit of “scooting around on his butt,” he says, “I don’t know if that’s correct, but it sounds like a fun little story to print.”
The name, of course, suggests that McNairy isn’t one to compromise. Presumably, there were some handlers somewhere along the line who urged the use of “John,” perhaps aiming to shape the actor into something he’s anything but: generic. The same unwavering trueness applies to McNairy’s chosen digs. For instance, if and when he hits the big time a la his multimillion-commanding co-stars, will this rugged Texan with the get-up-and-go nickname still keep his home down the dirt road, among his 15 neighbors?
“Yeah, sure!” McNairy says. “I love it out there. Every time you go home you feel like you’re going on vacation.”