Since breaking through in indies like “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” and “Monsters,” Scoot McNairy has established himself as one of the go-to character actors. In addition to his stint on “Halt and Catch Fire,” he regularly steals scenes in “Killing Them Softly,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Gone Girl,” among others. He does the same in David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand is Crisis,” a political satire about a campaign consultant (Sandra Bullock) leading a team, including McNairy’s former ad guy, to help save the re-election volley of a hated Bolivian pol (Joaquim de Almeida). But McNairy argues the film could take place in any industry, despite what it says about Ugly Americanism abroad.
You live in Texas, as does director David Gordon Green. Had you two met before?
When I moved to Texas I knew David lived there. I emailed him out of the blue to say, “Hey, my name is Scoot McNairy, I’m an actor, I’m a huge fan of your movies. I’d really love to work with you. I don’t know if you know who I am.” He emailed me back two days later: “I know exactly who you are! Absolutely I’d love to work with you!” Two years later we’re working on this.
Green jumps around a lot, making tiny indies like “George Washington” and studio comedies like “Pineapple Express.” And yet he has this weirdly chill air about him.
The guy is a workaholic. I remember one time he was sitting looking at some papers. I was like, “What are you doing? Are those notes?” He said, “No, a friend of mine wrote an essay for a university. I’m just proofreading it and giving him notes.” I was like, “Geez, man, you just never stop.” He’s constantly reading, constantly watching movies. He works all the time. He’s a literature nut. And obviously he loves it. It’s unbelievable how much he packs into a day.
His smaller indies have this very handmade quality to them. Do you sense he has to change much when working on a studio film?
Kind of. You come in there and find the shape of the scene. You play around with it. You keep doing the same thing and take it in some random direction. You think it’s just an exercise, but then so much that winds up in the movie. He likes to explore the oddity of these scenes, find out how weird they can be. What David likes more than anything is when actors make mistakes. He creates an environment where we can make mistakes.
It really feels like a party sometimes, where everyone’s ad-libbing over top one another.
Honestly so much of that stems from Sandra. She’s so down to earth. It’s a trickle-down effect, with David being the Captain of the ship and her being the Lieutenant. We couldn’t have a better person to keep a certain energy up on set. She’s so funny and much funny stuff she did didn’t even make it into the movie. It’s amazing to see her take after take after take after take.
David described your character as the most arrogant character in the movie. He has this exasperated, whiny quality, like he’s a fish very unhappy about being out of water.
He is a fish out of water. He’s an ad guy. He’s really there to set up the commercials and take care of the billboards. But it’s his first time on a political campaign. In his mind he think it’s the exact same game, that it’s just a different product he’s selling. But he cannot keep up with Jane. He’s very tone deaf to what’s going on around him.
How much did you view this as a political film? Like “Veep” or “In the Loop” it also functions as a workplace comedy about bureaucracy.
Politics can certainly be funny. Donald Trump has been incredibly entertaining. But with this film I think politics is really the backdrop. I felt going into this that I was doing a political movie, but through shooting it and all the conversations we had, it now feels like it could have been set in any industry. It’s less about politics and more about people, and what it’s like to win and what it’s like to go after something, regardless of the outcome. Jane is someone who’s all about winning. The heart of it really about believing something and selling something to people, whether it’s right or wrong, and seeing how you can convince someone this this is what you should do, even though all you want to do is win.
It’s a very human quality to narrow-mindedly pursue an end goal without thinking about the consequences.
Look, you fall into it, I fall into. It’s just a human trait to want to conquer, to win. A lot of things get lost along the way. You forget what the overall purpose is. That human trait takes precedence over the actual cause and effect of what you’re trying to get done.