Taylor Sheridan had carved out a nice career for himself as an actor. He wasn’t a star, by any means, but he worked steadily for years, with recurring roles on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, something a lot of actors would kill for. But he didn’t feel creatively fulfilled, so he started writing screenplays and came out with a bang: Sicario, the riveting, gut-punch of a film starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro that chronicles the U.S. and Mexican governments’ war against the drug cartels. Sheridan currently has two other scripts in various stages of production: the forthcoming Hell or High Water, directed by Starred Up‘s David Mackenzie and starring Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, and Wind River, his directorial debut, which will star Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner.
We spoke to Sheridan recently about making the transition from working actor to successful screenwriter, the seemingly endless war on drugs, the journey Sicario took from page to screen, and a possible Sicario sequel, among other things.
I saw Sicario in the theater whenever it came out and really loved it. So one of the first things I did after walking out of the theater was to Google the name of the screenwriter and as it turns out it was written by you, a guy whose face I’m familiar with from Sons of Anarchy. It was a bit of a surprise. How did this whole thing come about?
Well, you know, it’s been a really long journey.
I imagine so. And I imagine there’s a good story behind it.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what was the turning point, but I’ve just been this actor. I’ll walk you through the whole thing. I’ve been very fortunate to make a living as an actor. That’s not very common. But I was going to have to get lucky to get rich, you know? [Laughs.]
Yeah, I get that being a character actor isn’t exactly a traditional route to great financial success.
I was doing what I did. Now, I’m a good-looking guy, but I’m not real good-looking, and there’s a whole lot of people that are. I was fine with what I was doing, but creatively I was feeling very limited. Also, I’d became fascinated with the notion of possibly being able to tell a story with no exposition at all. At the same time I’m a bit of a history buff and a bit serious about world affairs and it was the height of the Mexican drug war, but people weren’t really talking about it. The atrocities that I was reading about were not really being discussed, which was fascinating because Mexico’s our closest cultural neighbor, it’s our physical neighbor, and we’re the ones buying all this crap.
That we are. We’re the marketplace where the goods are purchased.
It exists as a result of us. We drive the demand.
That we do.
So when I was on Sons of Anarchy I was friends with a number of the writers on that show and I became fascinated with the development of story. There were little things that I did as an actor, a choice that I made that actually affected the story and gave the writer an idea, and I watched it take off and take on a life of its own. So I started to think about what kind of character could allow you tell a story in the landscape of the drug war. You have to think about a traditional story, you’ve got a good guy and got a bad guy. The good guy is going to go fight the bad guy. The bad guy’s going to almost win, and then he’s going to lose. We’re going to feel good because the good guy won.
But you can’t tell that story about this real world, so I had to find a way to give a sense of a conclusion in a story and still have the reality and bleakness of nothing’s been solved. How can a hero win and keep absolutely nothing? The notion was to really test the audience’s idea about what a hero is, who is the hero, and that you could make the audience feel disoriented and as unsure about what’s right in this world. The reality, the difficulty of finding a hero in this world.
The world presented in the film?
Yeah, of the drug world. The cartels. There are no heroes. But there are a lot of victims. Now, there are individual heroes, people who have dedicated their lives to fighting it, but they’ll sit there and tell you the same thing I’m telling you. The only thing that has an effect on the drug war is the demand.
So you were intrigued by telling a certain kind of story and the drug war and all of its intricacies was something you were captivated by. Thus, Sicario was conceived.
I just wrote the movie I wanted to see. That’s it.