Scoot McNairy will surprise you, both with his ability to steal scenes from stars like Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt, and with his remarkable strength: “I bench 450, I squat 700, and I don’t bat an eyelash at 500 pushups,” he explains with a laugh. “But you’d never know it from looking at me.” We'll admit he hides it well, but even that seems to be by design.
An unassuming actor nicknamed for scooting his butt across the carpet, McNairy grew up on a horse ranch outside Paris, Texas where he enjoyed fishing, hunting, and watching films. When he outgrew his small town, McNairy moved to Austin, and when he outgrew there, he headed to Los Angeles, where he hoped to work as a cinematographer. A few years later he was in front of the camera, and after enjoying key roles in the last two Best Picture winners, Argo and 12 Years a Slave, McNairy is set to star as computer engineer Gordon Clark in AMC’s new Eighties drama Halt and Catch Fire. We recently chatted with the actor about his new show, fly-fishing with his buddies, and why he always ends up back in Texas.
How does working in film mesh with living off a small dirt road in Texas?
It’s pretty easy, to be honest. If I have to travel to L.A. or New York for meetings and work, I just hop on a plane and cruise out. I feel like Texas gives me a place to go to take a breath of fresh air between jobs. It’s almost more of a vacation home than anything these days. My family and I have been traveling with work for the last three years, so it’s a nice weight off our shoulders to go back home.
Do you stay busy out on the ranch, or just try to relax?
We’re busy, man. We’ve been clearing fence lines, building a barn and an office, messing with the cattle. You don’t ever wake up thinking, “Oh no, what am I going to do today?” There’s always a list. You get out there and clear 500 yards of fence line and I guarantee you you’re going to be whipped. That’s not necessarily a hobby, but it’s work I enjoy doing.
So what’s your hobby out there?
Fishing. Fly-fishing is specifically my cup of tea, but that’s not much of a workout.
How long has that been a passion of yours?
Oh, I've been fishing since I was six years old. That’s what my buddies and I did growing up, and those are the same guys I go on trips with now. We go every chance we get. We always loved being out in the woods and camping and being in nature. Living on a ranch and shooting snakes and catching fish and hunting is a piece of my childhood that I don’t want to lose. There’s a blissfulness to it.
So why end up in L.A. at all?
I just loved the entertainment business and the process of making movies. I was pretty open to doing anything on set, whether that was cinematography or carpentry or something else. I didn’t know, but whatever my job was I wanted to be good at it, so I just weaved my way through and found myself acting at the age of 24. Then I decided to get really serious about it and make it a profession.
I figure you’d spend too much time outdoors to be cooped up in a theatre.
Well every kid likes stories, but I have dyslexia, so reading books was never something that interested me. I didn’t have the attention span for them. But films were these stories, these literal moving pictures, that I could enjoy and didn’t have to read. I just found myself watching tons and tons and tons of movies.
As such a fan of TV and film, is it tough to live up to the expectations of being the next new AMC show following Breaking Bad and Mad Men?
I don’t think anybody should have expectations in life, but Breaking Bad and Mad Men are such iconic, incredible TV shows with such great acting and writing. I don’t think we’ll be able to repeat that, and I don’t think we’re trying to. Halt and Catch Fire is something new and different. But like those shows, ours is a slow burn. It will take some time to get really going and find its audience, and once it does I think we’ll produce some hardcore fans.
Why was Halt and Catch Fire the right project for you right now?
I read the pilot and thought the dynamics were really interesting. My character, Gordon Clark, had something to prove to the world and to the people around him, and there’s always been something inside of me that believes I have something to prove. Maybe not to the world, but it was something I really related to.
After only doing films, is it strange to play one character for five or six years?
The way they’re going to design the show, my character will be changing drastically from season to season. That was what excited me about doing a series. I’ll still be Gordon Clark, but it won’t be the exact same character for five years. We’ll see him grow and develop, and we’ll see all different sides of him. I’m excited to dig into that.
Has the idea of Gordon becoming an iconic AMC character crossed your mind?
No, I don’t really think about it. I just take the work that’s in front of me and do the best that I can. I’m not really trying to strategically align myself for that one big role. I don’t think that’s how most guys do it. I mean, maybe it is... [laughs.]
Is part of you itching to stop talking to me and get back to Texas?
[Laughs.] I think you can answer that. Home is where the heart is and I’m always trying to get back there. But that said, I absolutely love my job and I couldn’t have a better career. There’s a yin and a yang to life and this is the best of both worlds.