True Detective Season 3: Scoot McNairy Proves His True Crime Bona Fides

Scoot McNairy, one of TV's most useful and intriguing actors, is excited about True Detective Season 3 and wants you to be too.

When HBO and True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto were looking for an actor to portray the raw pain of a father who loses a child for True Detective Season 3, they undoubtedly wanted someone with some true crime experience. Thankfully, in choosing Scoot McNairy they unknowingly found the world’s biggest true crime fan.

In addition to enjoying modern true crime favorites like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, McNairy (Narcos: Mexico) has seen every episode of classic forensic science documentary series Forensic Files. No really, every episode. All 406 of them (he thinks at least). 

“I remember about two years ago I started to see reruns and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think I’ve seen them all.’ Embarrassing,” McNairy says. 

Despite all the hours spent watching Forensic Files, McNairy’s career is anything but embarrassing. The Texas native has become something of a television institution in recent years, scoring big roles in AMC’s ’80s computer drama Halt and Catch Fire, Netflix’s Western Godless, and season 3 of FX’s anthology series, Fargo. That’s not even to mention the film work in movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Gone Girl.

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Simply put: the people loves them some Scoot McNairy. Now HBO is going to take away his kids.

Not really, mind you. But on True Detective Season 3, McNairy plays Tom Purcell, one half of a couple whose children go missing. It’s an inherently heavy subject made even heavier and more disturbingly real by McNairy’s astute portrayal of grief. 

We spoke to McNairy about what it was like to imagine that grief, his charming true crime obsession, and what to expect from True Detective Season 3’s “tragic” ending. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers!

DEN OF GEEK: What was it about the role of Tom that spoke to you?

Scoot McNairy: You know, it’s hard to say how you sort of pick the roles because for me there’s one little thing or two little things and sometimes it can even be like a line or a couple of scenes that I just fell in love with. For Tom, it was this idea of losing my kid, which is something I thought about but I’ve never really embellished on and really thought about it. The more and more I thought about it, the more and more that I wanted to play this role.

That’s just something I kept going back to and back to and back to. What would it be like to lose your kids? I’ve got kids and my kids are my everything, I mean, they’re everything to me in my life. To take that away was more of like “where would I be without them?” That was just sort of a feeling or emotion that I wanted to dive into – to explore in sort of a sick, beautiful way. Not that I didn’t have a huge appreciation for my children before but (the role) really gave me clarity on how much these kids mean to me and how much those kids meant to me on the show, as well. My wife and I have a daughter and a son so we weren’t too far off from the show.

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Had you been, had you seen or been familiar with the past seasons of True Detective when you got the role? 

Absolutely. I’m a huge, huge fan of the show and a huge fan of Nic and his writing. I was just was really excited to be a part of anything, really, that Nic had going on. I just got lucky that it was True Detective.

Speaking of Nic, what was it like to interact with Nic as a director this time around?

It definitely didn’t feel like it was his first time directing. The guy’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly smart, and also incredibly knowledgeable on detectives and crime and how all that works. I sort of consulted with Nic regardless of who was directing the show on the character throughout the entire season. He had directed four and five but I feel like he was there to chat and talk to throughout episodes one through eight, you know?

read more: True Detective Season 3: Creator Talks Similarities to Season 1

It was a great experience. He’s incredibly smart. Knows his shit well. I can recall one scene when there was sort of an interrogation type thing and I wanted to stand and I felt like Tom would be standing and Nic was like, “I’d love for you to stand and I think that’s beautiful for you to stand. Unfortunately, it’s protocol that no one is allowed to be interrogated standing up. They have to be sitting down.”

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The little bitty things of the knowledge that this guy has. I mean, yeah, he definitely held my hand through this shoot. 

What was it like to work with the other directors like Jeremy Saulnier (who directs episodes 1 and 2) and Daneil Sackheim (who directes episodes 3, 6, 7, and 8) Was there any adapting that needed to be done working from director to director? 

Yes and no. I’ve been fortunate to be on both kinds of TV shows. On Halt and Catch Fire we had a different director coming in every week, which took a while to get used to and adjust to, but I got a lot of experience with that. In Godless, Scott (Frank) came in and directed all seven of them, every one. This, True Detective, sort of met in the middle. We had three different directors for eight episodes and so it was a little bit of both. All three of the directors, Nic, Jeremy, and Dan, they’re all fantastic in all different aspects of it and different ways. 

Dan Sackheim, sometimes would come in with a scene that’s eight pages and somehow do the shooting where he would divide that one scene into three separate things. I just thought that was brilliant, how he dissected these scenes, and sometimes he put them all together. Jeremy was incredibly visual and wonderful to work with. He was a great person to really see us off and set the tone and then Dan and Nic came in and cracked it out of the park. 

A big deal for this season is that it’s a return to the American South for True Detective. You are often tasked with portraying Southern characters. What is that like for you? Is that something that you enjoy? Is it hard to represent and depict a region as big, diverse, and as interesting as the South?

Well, I’m born and raised in the South, so there’s definitely a certain sense of familiarity. Of all the eclectic characters, and the diversity of people that I’ve met down here, there is a certain calling or longing to play these parts, or be a part of these stories. Just because I know it so well and I spent so much of my life down here in the South. 

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read more: True Detective Season 3 Review

With that being said, I’ve been in California for 12 years and have a different perspective than my upbringing, and so now I feel like I can look at a lot of these characters that I play in the South from a different point of view, To me that makes these Southern characters more intriguing and a lot more fun for me to play, and dive into, and wiggle around and what not, if that makes sense. 

Do you have an interest in the kind of true crime phenomenon that seems to be a big deal in pop culture currently?

For sure. I’ll confess to you, man, I’ve watched every single episode of Forensic Files. Late night, you know what I mean? I remember about two years ago I started to see reruns and I was like, “Oh my God, I think I’ve seen them all.” Embarrassing. But now, the court sort of dramas, The StaircaseMaking a MurdererThe Jinx, all of those that ask what drives humanity to do some of the things they do. It’s very rare that it’s just a spontaneous thing for these people. It’s all rooted in their upbringing and their past and whatnot, and so as an actor I’ve always had a fascination with crime drama because I’m more fascinated with who these people were and what their upbringing was more so than I am about the crimes they committed. 

That makes sense. Yeah. I think Forensic Files might be one of the best series that’s ever aired on television. 

Ever. Aired. And it’s so quick and they never get away. God. 

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What are you most excited for people to see this season when they watch True Detective Season 3? 

The show is just so poetic without hitting you over the head with being poetic. I thought it was really brilliant how Nic wrote this script, and how it jumps around from time period to time period, and the way it sort of rips your stomach out at the end. I can’t really talk abou that, but the transition and the turn that it makes, to me, it was just such a … the show is so tragic. God, it’s such a tragedy.

read more: True Detective Season 3: A History of the Occult in the Ozarks

There’s something so beautiful about it in the end. You just don’t see it coming and that’s what I’m most excited for people to see. The sort of transition from the beginning of the show to the end, and the way the characters interact and the words that they say to each other, I just thought, were so beautiful and so well done.

Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad