The hugely anticipated third season of HBO’s True Detective will soon attempt to recapture first-season magic and overcome hurdles left in the second season’s wake. While the shadow of McConaughey and Harrelson still looms large, Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff will tackle a different mystery, and the anthology series leaves the LA-adjacent concrete jungle behind to tackle a horrific crime set in the Arkansas Ozarks. Within the decades-spanning story, Scoot McNairy plays a father who suffers an overwhelming loss that inextricably links him to the macabre case.
Of course, you’ve probably seen McNairy in a lot of things by now. Between his many TV credits (including Halt and Catch Fire, Fargo, and Godless) and roles in notable films (Argo, 12 Years A Slave, Gone Girl), the native Texan’s career continues to hit new heights. This year should be a defining one for him with a leading return in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood also on tap. Yet McNairy still found time to talk with us about why True Detective was a particularly challenging experience for him. He was also an excellent sport about fielding multiple mustache questions.
Let’s start with me admitting that I’ve seen the five episodes that have been released to the press, but I can’t even begin to guess where your character ends up.
Well, let me just tell you the end of the show real quick.
Obviously, we have to avoid spoilers, so what’s it like to maneuver around a project that’s so shrouded in secrecy?
For me, since I’m familiar with what happens, obviously the show is highly anticipated, so I’m just excited for it to come out and see how it’s all put together. It will be a fresh sort-of watch for me as well, as I wasn’t involved in the other storylines and whatnot, so yeah, I’m very excited.
Season one was, many believe, one of the greatest seasons of TV ever released. It’s fair to say that folks had mixed reactions to season 2. Did you personally feel the pressure for a return to form?
Personally, no, I didn’t. I thought that season one was an incredible piece of television, and season two had its struggles, but for me, it’s a whole new story, whole new characters. It’s True Detective season three, but to me, they all feel like seasons that set themselves apart from each other, being that they’re different stories.
Your character’s tasked with a huge emotional burden. One would hope that no one could personally relate to his plight, so how did you climb inside Tom Purcell’s head?
It was tough, I won’t lie to you. I’ll just be honest with you — this role was really, really hard for me, and it’s something that I sort of tried to find the enjoyment in playing, but the burden and this weight that I carried with me throughout this shoot was really … well, I was relieved to finish the job. I have kids and pretty much just started there: “What if you took my kids away from me, and what would that feel like?” And my family did not travel with me [to Arkansas] for this job, so being away from them was where I started. From multiple conversations with [writer] Nic Pizzolatto, we fleshed out the characters and the ins-and-outs, but it was a tough character to sit with when you go home from work.
Since this season flows between decades, we also see him undergo a transformation. Did that feel organic to you, how he changed?
It’s somewhat organic, for sure. There was a lot of thought and research that went into guilt and shame and how people overcome that and get through that. It’s something that I hope I touched on as you see him through the decades. And I hope that it worked in a true way, but it was hard enough to dive into the idea of losing my [own] children, and it was even harder to dive into the idea coming to terms with [what my character actually went through]. And whether that translates or not, I hope it does.
You’re no stranger to working within a 1980s timeframe, a time of Satanic panic, which rears its head here. There are parallels to big real-life cases. Did you dig in to research on those outside crimes?
No, I did not. I do have a familiarity with the time period, being that I have done so many projects that root themselves in the late ’70s to the ’80s, and so I feel like I had a good understanding of the period. You throw Fayetteville, Arkansas into the mix — things are a little different there in the ’80s than they were in other places in the ’80s. So it was something that was on my mind, but in regards to the aspect of the case and other cases, no, I was really focused on [the] idea of my children. That’s where I kept going back to.
People are naturally praising Mahershala Ali’s tremendous performance, but the cast was solid across the board. What about a cast makes a set experience feel special to you?
Well, my experience working with Mahershala is, I don’t know, top 1 or top 2 of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had working with an actor. I don’t think we have the time to go through all the things I loved about working with him, but as an actor or a person, his spirit, everything. I just feel lucky to have worked with him. He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met, all across the board, on-set and off-set. The rest of the cast — Stephen [Dorff] brought a little sense of dry comedy to the role that lightened it at times, and Carmen [Ejogo], who I only worked with one day, I’ve always been a fan of her and her work, and I think she’s a fantastic actress.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that your mustache is pretty amazing in this season.
I mean, you’ve had some substantial mustaches, but does that help you get into character for a role?
I don’t know? [Chuckles.] I’m doing another role right now with a mustache. [Laughs.] Another role in the ’80s that I think will be my last for a long time. It’s more of what working with the creators and producers of the show, and that’s where we ended up here. I mean, it grows like a weed, and it’s not hard for me to grow out. But look, I was happy to get it off of me when I finished the job.
If you don’t mind, I want to hit on another mustache role here.
With Narcos: Mexico, you were almost completely unseen for this past season [as a narrator] but had that one scene at the end. What was it like to finally be able to visually connect with the audience?
You know, I left that in the hands of [showrunner] Eric Newman, who I think is a brilliant producer and showrunner. That was an idea that we toyed around with while I was shooting True Detective, and I wasn’t even going to do the voiceover, but it was something that came to them last minute. It made a little more sense for me to be narrating this story, versus Kiki Camerena/Michael Pena, because [he’s] dead at the end of the show, so he’d been narrating from the grave. It was something that we tried out, and it ended up working to plug me into that last scene, which just worked out in everyone’s favor. Nic and the people of HBO on True Detective allowed me to go and shoot that one little scene, so I’m very gracious towards them for that.
As Walt Breslin, how does it feel to follow up on Kiki’s legacy?
Good! This is a story that I’ve been following for 10 years. I’ve always had a fascination with the drug cartels. Look, the show’s an incredible show, and so I was excited to come and be a part of it, and those who talked with me about working on it the last season, we agreed together that it wasn’t the right fit. So luckily, it came around that the fifth season did fit, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it all.
I have a feeling that you and your mustache are gonna have a big 2019. You’ve got True Detective, Narcos, and you’re in Tarantino’s upcoming film as Business Bob Gilbert. QT is very secretive as well, but how’s the mustache factor there? Can you say?
There was lot of crossover, and I also shot the Tarantino movie in the middle of True Detective as well. I was locked into a certain facial look, and I told them I was in the middle of it and can’t shave my mustache for another production. That was fine with them, so unfortunately, you will be seeing a lot of mustache on me over the next year.
The third season of HBO’s ‘True Detective’ will premiere on January 13.