You probably know his face, and have enjoyed his work. But Shea Whigham lets his on-screen characters do the talking, so you may not yet recall his name. However, Shea is as relevant and gifted as they come, an actor’s actor who handles drama and comedy with the deft skill and immeasurable talent of one of our generation’s very best.
Originally from Florida, and born into a very sound and sage family, Shea parents exposed him to a wide array of movies, and inspired his love for books and poetry. A natural born daydreamer at school, he soon found himself drawn to pursuing an acting career. He moved north to attend Purchase College, State University of New York, and thereafter began honing his skills treading the boards on the New York theater scene.
His big break came in 2000, playing Private Wilson opposite Colin Farrell in director Joel Schumacher’s ‘Tigerland’. Following that he has amassed a list of very impressive roles, most notably as Eli Thompson in HBO’s much loved and lauded ‘Boardwalk Empire’, for which he won a SAG Award. He also played Joel Theriot in the first season of ’True Detective’, and a string of other memorable characters including acclaimed performances in ‘Fargo’, ‘Narcos’, ‘Vice Principals’, ‘Waco’ alongside longtime friend and collaborator Michael Shannon, and in the 2018 Amazon series ‘Homecoming’, where he played Thomas Carrasco to rave reviews opposite Julia Roberts and Bobby Cannavale.
Shea’s very much in demand and back-to-back with projects for the next few years, starring in the seventh and eighth installment of the Mission: Impossible film series alongside Tom Cruise, and reprising his role of Pete Strickland in the second season of HBO’s Perry Mason. And right now, marvel in wonder at his formidable portrayal of Nixon henchman, psychotic, committed, and darkly charismatic G Gordon Liddy in the Watergate series ‘Gaslit’ on Starz, reuniting with Roberts and also sharing the screen with Sean Penn. To get a measure of Shea’s commitment to his craft, just watch the opening scene of the series, which reaches its climax in its finale on June 12.
An array of charismatic, unforgettable roles has led to him being called the greatest character actor of our generation. And while his movies have amassed $5 billion at the box office combined, he’s happy not to have the personal profile of some of Hollywood’s leading men, and to let his work do the talking.
“It’s hard for me to really talk about myself,” he says. “I’m not being cagey, it’s just hard for me to be out there. I think there are only so many characters that we have in us, so I want to maintain a mystery. Not to be mysterious, but to be able to play characters. I think it’s important. I appreciate it when I don’t know everything about someone. But if people respond to the work, it’s a gift.”
As far as directors go, Shea has worked with some of the most legendary of our times, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone, David O Russell and Robert Rodriguez. In addition to those, he’s also worked with the next generation of auteur filmmakers, including Adam Wingard, Damien Chazelle, and Jeff Nichols.
Here, Shea answers the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are, discussing family, the craft, and his greatest mentor and fear. Check out the filmed conversation below, and keep scrolling for the written interview and portraits, featuring a scene-stealing appearance from his own treasured 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
Who the f*** are you?
I’m a son, I’m a brother to Jack, son to Beth and Frank. I try to delve into the arts if I can. I’m a husband, a father, who’s from Tallahassee originally. My old man was a quarterback at Florida State, a big guy. He was a really interesting guy, both my parents were. My mother’s a librarian, so I read a lot growing up. I grew up in Florida and then kicked around until I found my way to New York.
How are you feeling right now?
Truth? I’m tired. I’m coming off of nights on ‘Perry Mason’. Emotionally, I’m pretty worn down. But I was pretty invigorated by what we just did with the photoshoot. I really enjoyed that.
We’re doing some stuff on ‘Gaslit’ to try and get it out there. Then I’m going straight from Perry into ‘Mission: Impossible 8’ with Mr Cruise. Sometimes it lines up for you like that. In the early days, you wished for that. And then it happens for you.
It’s all about the work, and working with the great directors because that leads you to the best work. I feed off of other people’s enthusiasm. I really think it starts at the top, if you have a director that really knows what they want, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion. And the same with me, if I step on a set and I’m in character as Liddy, for instance, you hope that people start to pick up on that, and it just starts to happen.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in Tallahassee. My father was playing football, but wasn’t a jock. He was really well read. He became like a John Grisham lawyer, he didn’t charge African Americans and Hispanics. He was really an interesting guy in that respect. And my mother was a librarian. I lived in Tallahassee for the first five years, then moved down to a small place called Lake Mary, Florida, between Orlando and Daytona Beach. So culture-wise, I’m not so sure, but it was a good place to grow up.
I grew up with my father putting on ‘Apocalypse Now’, and he’d be like, “I don’t know anything son, other than they say this guy, Brando, is the greatest actor on the planet.” He’d put on Scarface, “Pacino, they say he’s…” And I became a cinephile. I’m young. I’m looking at ‘The Godfather’ probably too early, to be honest. I just remember watching him watch it. I remember watching a book in my mother’s hand. As you get older, you try to pass that on.
What excites you?
If I can read something in one sitting, a script, that’s got me. If I’m not getting up and I’m not getting a drink. Something like that really excites me. They just don’t come along very often. Eli in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ doesn’t come along very often, when Scorsese’s coming to television, along with Tim Van Patten and Terry Winter, who are coming off ‘The Sopranos’, and it all comes together.
What scares you?
I would say outliving one of my kids. My father comes from a family of seven, and his younger brother was a lawyer with him, and we lost him. And my grandmother, Milly, I remember she said, “Son, there’s nothing worse than outliving one of your kids.” And I think that’s what scares me.
What’s your proudest achievement?
Staying married! I better say having kids, right? Maybe just surviving in this business.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
I had a friend, Paulie Herman, who passed about a month ago, and I sat with him until he died. I had done ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ with him and ‘American Hustle’, and I got a call from David O Russell about three weeks ago, and he’s like, “Paulie’s not doing well, he’s in bad shape.” I went over there to Santa Monica and I sat with him, and then the next day I sat with him, and it was an influx of beautiful people coming through. I sat there in silence with Mike Tyson, who Paulie had helped. Jimmy Caan came through, Bob De Niro came through. It was magical, to the very end, but hard.
Who is your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
I’ve touched on it a little bit, probably my father. There was always real sage advice being offered, but letting me find my own way. I wasn’t an academician. I didn’t care about school. I remember every time we would get to the start of school, I would pick the desk next to the window, and just daydream. That’s all I did, daydream about movies and getting out. But he would let me find my own way, me and my little brother who means the world to me. He raised us on the poets of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and the philosophers of [Robert] Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell. It wasn’t religion-based, it was none of that. It was more just, how do you try to stay humble? Lifting the stones and seeing what’s under that one. Be curious, be infinitesimally curious.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
If I could meet anyone, it would be Percy Shelley. As a matter of fact, when we were doing Mission: Impossible 7, we were staying right at the top of the Spanish steps, when we were in Rome. And I would walk down every day, the Keats Museum was right down at the bottom, where he wrote and ended up passing. Lord Byron had an apartment where he wrote, right across the way. I just love the stories behind all that.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
I’d say these boots right here. I try to take something from every character that I end up playing. I had a pair on my first film ever, ‘Tigerland’ with Colin Farrell. I took a pair of boots and I wore them out. And then I got another pair working on ‘King Kong’, so these are the ones. They ground me.
What music did you love at age 13, and do you still love it now?
At 13, I don’t know. But I know that when Nirvana hit, it was around ‘88, and I remember where I was when ‘Teen Spirit’ came on MTV. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet [Dave] Grohl and pepper him with questions of earlier Nirvana, him and Kurt [Cobain] living in an apartment and eating corn dogs. So that was the stuff I was listening to right around there, a little bit older than 13.
What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
Recently, the most inspiring book would be ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt. I say that because I admire the fact that she writes a book every 11 years, she’s written three books in 33 years. There’s something about that I respect immensely, so we’ll go with ‘The Goldfinch’.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
I’m not going to go with ‘The Godfather’, because that to me is the gold standard. If it’s a Sunday afternoon at two in the afternoon. and you’re flipping around, which films can I not turn off? It’s definitely ‘The Godfather’ I and II. But I’m going to shock you here, and say something like ‘The Goonies’.
I mean, I’m a [Francis Ford] Coppola guy. I’m a John Cazale guy, he was five for five. When I worked with De Niro, I was too nervous to speak to him for the first couple of weeks of ‘Silver Linings’, and then I did a scene with him, and then the next day it was, “Where are you from?” And then by the end, I was asking him [about] ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’. And I said to him, “Can I ask you something, Bob? Is it true that during ‘The Deer Hunter’, you put up your salary as insurance, because John [Cazale] was dying of cancer?” And he looks at me and he goes, “Yeah. That’s true.” And those are the things that to me are why we do it. We’ve got Cazale and Meryl Streep dating, he’s dying of cancer, and De Niro wants him in it bad enough that he goes, “We’re going to put that [his salary] up against it.”
What’s your favorite word or saying?
Let them off the hook. My old man used to say that all the time. I told this story recently, I was doing ‘Tigerland’, Scorsese’s coming to television for the first time [to make Boardwalk Empire], and he brings me to New York and we read together for a couple of hours. He says, “You’re my guy.” I get back down to where I’m filming. And it’s a long story, but the short is he says, “I can’t go with you. They’re not going to go with you.” And I remember I call my old man, and I’m completely devastated, and he goes, “Let him off the hook, son, when you talk to him. You never know when these things come back around.” So I don’t walk around saying that, but I try to impart that on my kids.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
That he never judged. He never sat in judgment of you. That would be cool. You can tell me anything. You try to get more understanding as you get older. I think you have to, especially playing characters.
Finally, a quickfire five favorites.
1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
I’m going to go with the Florida State Seminoles, because my father played there.
My wife’s spaghetti bolognese. That’s my death row meal. If I’m dying and they come in, I want a nice Napa Cab, and a spaghetti bolognese.
I guess a bit of wax!
‘Gaslit’ is streaming now on Starz
Grooming by Brent Lavett using Lavett and Chin