Shea Whigham is trying to be present. The 54-year old actor has just finished shooting an intense project and is relishing in his newfound freedom, taking the opportunity to switch off his phone and spend some quality time with his loved ones. “I just took my family to the beach”, he tells me as he appears on my computer screen, a broad smile hiding behind a grizzly, out-of-office style beard. “I’m not always present when I’m working, so I figured I better be now.”
The undisclosed project, which he later hints could see him playing early 19th century mountaineer Jim Bridgers, isn’t the only film that has (literally) knocked the wind out of Shea, with the new Mission: Impossible-Dead Reckoning Part 1 (out in cinemas now) seeing his determined federal agent Jasper Briggs chase Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt across the globe, through the twisty waterways of Venice and a top speeding trains in the Norwegian countryside. Though, after a decades-long career working with some of filmmaking’s greatest players (Scorsese, Stone, Chazelle, and Herzog, to name a few), it’s nothing the seasoned character actor can’t handle. On the contrary—this is Whigham at the top of his game.
This is your first time featuring in a Mission: Impossible movie. How did you end up falling into the role?
I happened to bump into Christopher McQuarrie at an awards show a few years back. He was nominated and I was nominated and we were in the line to get into the ceremony, and I said to him “man, I’m not gonna be too cool for school here…I really love your stuff, going all the way back to The Usual Suspects.” And he mentioned that he had watched me in Homecoming, and that he wanted to write something for me in the next Mission. Now, if I had a nickel for every time someone said that and it came to fruition I would be extremely wealthy. So the seasons pass, and then, in December, I get a very cryptic text:
“Is this still you?
And I’m thinking to myself that this is either really, really good or really, really bad. And he says:
“I’m going to be calling from a European number.
And I do, and he says “I got someone who wants to speak to you.” It was [Tom] Cruise. And, man, there aren’t too many things that still bring me to my knees, but that buckled me. And we had a great conversation—he asked me if I wanted to be in not one Mission, but two. I told him I was all in.
Based on these films, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is seemingly the world’s fastest man, and you had the task of chasing him across the world. How was that experience for you?
Not to be facetious, but it’s pretty cool to be in the same sequences that he’s famous for. He’s known for running. I didn’t know I was going to be in a lot of that, so I was training by drinking ‘vino’ at night. I wasn’t really in the greatest shape but we still chased his ass all the way across the Grand Canal [laughs]. It was great. The whole experience is pretty mind blowing for an actor.
Had you done much stunt-work before this?
A lot of fight scenes. In Boardwalk Empire I had one that travelled room to room and weapon to weapon, and we worked hard on that. I’ve never been big on gunplay though, that’s never really been my thing. I took it seriously when we did the training for it [for Mission] but for me, the driving was the be-all-end-all. When Tom trusted me to do that in the back alleys in Rome, that was cool. A lot of that stuff didn’t make it, but we did a ton of driving.
Walk me through your thoughts and emotions as you’re about to shoot a scene on a speeding train in Norway.
60 miles an hour, screaming through the most picturesque valley you could possibly imagine. Because that’s all Tom and McQuarrie find: the tallest buildings, the most picturesque locations to shoot in. It’s the first time I had really truly dropped in and met Tom too, so I was coming after him hard. That was the first stuff we shot, and I remember telling him: “I want you to come after me, man, I want you to really come after me hard.” And he was like: “everything’s gotta be safe—”, and I said, “yeah yeah yeah, but REALLY come at me.” [Laughs] and we did. You have to be careful not to do much when you’re on top of a speeding train screaming through a Norwegian valley—it does a lot of the work for you. Truly exhilarating.
What did you take away from that?
The stunt is one thing, but it’s the experience of being up there with Tom. McQuarrie was up there too, directing from what we call a clam shell. I didn’t know McQ [McQuarrie] that well at the time, but to see him experience it as we experienced it and then by the end of the day—and I mean a long, cold day…I mean, freezing…I mean, when you can see the face isn’t moving, and it ain’t no botox or anything like that—to hear him, our director, say that it was one of his top three days of filming that he’s ever experienced? Those are the things I take away from it.
I’m curious as to how you were able to build on this character.
When I took this on I told McQ and Tom that I didn’t want this to be a status quo guy chasing the hero of the film. Briggs has to think he’s going to catch Hunt no matter what, and I have to play that in every scene that I’m in, even though we know he’s Ethan Hunt. I referenced Midnight Run a lot in this. I love that film, and those guys were chasing DeNiro and Grodin across the United States. I thought to myself, how would I enter a party that I don’t have an invitation to? How would I try and catch his ass in a car when my car has been stolen? I never play a character to be memorable, I don’t believe in that, I try to fit into the fabric of whatever film I’m in, but in doing that there are some funny situations that arise.
You also had these really amazing comedic moments in this film. Was it fun for you to flex your comedic chops?
I don’t get a lot of shots at comedy, so I’m a sucker for that, man [laughs], any chance I get for comedy I’m gonna take it. The thing is, you never want to try and be funny, it falls flat. Remember in Indiana Jones when the guy’s trying to fight Indy and he just pulls his gun out–boom– and it’s over? That was a bit of the inspiration for how I approached the comedy in the film.
Your character went through an arc in this movie. What do you want from Jasper Briggs in the next instalment?
You gotta look for things to play. It can’t be, “just go and run and chase Tom.” I latched on to something very personal between Briggs and Hunt. We don’t say it, we don’t have a monologue or a soliloquy to explain why I’m chasing him. It’s personal. I hope the exploration of that will continue and we find out, “Ooooh, this is why he wants him so bad.” I never like to hit anything on the head in my work. I want to bleed it out, little by little.
You’re also in Across The Spider-Verse [as Captain George Stacy], which is one of my other favourite films of the year. That was your first experience playing an animated character?
Yeah. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the brains behind that. Phil just said “listen, come in. We love Boardwalk, we love Joker, and all these things that you do, and we want to bring that into what we’re doing.” They wanted to play it real. I had never done anything like that, but that was a gift. We got to really play in there, we bought Hailee [Steinfeld] in after a couple of sessions with just myself, and we did a father-daughter pass at it. I was amazed when I saw the final piece.
That whole team are geniuses.
Let me tell you. People throw that word, “genius”, around a lot. I never throw that word around. These guys? These guys are geniuses at what they do. They’re working on another level, and they’re fun to work with because I was throwing all kinds of stuff in — me, having a teen daughter myself — and they loved it.
I also actually worked with Jon Watts, who directs the live-action Spider-Man films, on his first film ever, which was the tiniest feature. I ended up getting a call from the guy’s who do the Spider-Man films, and they were looking at him to direct those, and I said, “this man, Watts, is amazing, and you need to go ahead and hire him,” and they did. So that’s a weird connection we have.
You’ve worked with auteurs on pretty much every level, and that includes people like Jon Watts and Justin Lin. Do you look for that throughline in the filmmakers you work with?
Sometimes you just get lucky. Boardwalk Empire changed everything for me. I did five seasons of that and jumped off and caught the old guard. I caught [Werner] Herzog, [Terrence] Malick, [Oliver] Stone, [Martin] Scorsese — twice! — and I caught the young guard of Jon Watts, Damien Chazelle, Justin Lin, Cary Fukunaga on True Detective. I knew I wanted to work with the older guys, but with the young guys I sat down with them early on to see what they were about. I’m a sucker for passion. I can be easily coerced into doing a smaller film if they have what I think are the goods.
These are two of the best blockbusters of the past year, but some of the big superhero films aren’t quite landing the same way they were, not at the box office and not with fans either. Do you think we’re coming into a new era of the blockbuster and what do you think that looks like?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I know I love what Nolan does. I love what Tom and McQuarrie do. I love the practical. For me that’s what’s interesting to work with. If you’re on a speeding train, you’re still in it with Tom and I’m still able to really act with him and have some connection. I’m not acting in front of a green screen, not to say that I wouldn’t do that. I’d jump both feet in if I did that as well. I couldn’t do it any other way. But I’m really looking forward to going back to [Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning] part two. We’ve shot about 40% of it, and I can’t wait to go back and see what those guys have been cooking up in the kitchen.
What’s the most recent lesson you’ve learnt about your craft?
Try to stay hungry. I try to keep lifting the stones to see what’s under there, and to see what other men and women who I really respond to are doing — Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale, Toni Colette — I try to see stuff and be inspired. I never want to phone it in. I always want to stay curious. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that.
Do you ever think about the legacy you want to leave behind as an actor?
Yeah, on my tombstone: He never phoned it in. [laughs] No, I would want it to say that I was generous in my work. I’ve always tried to maintain that. I would rather my scene partner be better than I am. Maybe that holds me back, I don’t know, but I want to always be there for the person I’m working with. That really lifts a production up. I work heavy and I work in character, but never at the expense of someone I’m with.
I guess the hope is that the person you’re uplifting has the same idea for you as their scene partner, and that it makes for an amazing final project.
It’s got to be organic. I just got through playing a character named Jim Bridger, and I never go: “Call me Bridger. I must be referred to as Bridger.” You can’t force something on others or they’ll turn away from you. But I do like to see how close I can get, whether it’s Briggs in this film or Eli in Boardwalk—really just slipping into the skin of that character. If I don’t get there, it’s frustrating.
Who’s your hero of cinematic fiction?
The one I go to all the time is Don Corleone. Just the way he carried himself. And of course, it’s because of Brando.
The Don was an honourable man.
I like him! I’m not saying he’s always honourable, but there’s a code there. I love those movies. I go back to it every year and take something from that film, especially acting-wise. Sometimes you use Sonny in your stuff, sometimes you use Michael, a lot of times you use Fredo—with Eli, I was constantly thinking of Fredo, and John Cazale is my favourite character actor ever—and then you got the Don. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Like this interview? Then you might enjoy this piece on the star power of Tom Cruise.