Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning's Shea Whigham On Chasing Ethan Hunt And Paying Homage [Exclusive Interview]


his post contains spoilers for "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1."

You know that feeling when you're watching a movie or show and a very specific kind of recognizable actor shows up, causing you to go, "Hey, it's that guy!" as they immediately liven things up with their screen presence? Shea Whigham might be the dictionary definition of the character actor extraordinaire, popping up in all sorts of auteur-driven vehicles, big-budget blockbusters, and various roles in prestige television throughout the decades. There's not a single production that hasn't benefited from his skills as a performer who prides himself on the chameleonic ability to disappear into his roles. As he so succinctly puts it, "I want to be able to fool my friends" and make sure they don't see him when they're watching one of his performances — they only see the character.

In a recent interview (conducted over Zoom before SAG-AFTRA's official announcement of their strike), I had the opportunity to talk to the new addition to the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. Throughout the course of our conversation, I talked to Whigham about the joys (and challenges) of chasing after Ethan Hunt for an entire movie, which scene was the most "intense" for him to film, how much the character of Jasper Briggs changed over the course of production, and even some hints of story threads that were left out of the movie — perhaps to be explored further in "Part Two."

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'I'm big on paying homage to films that I love'

When you got to deliver the line of dialogue that Ethan Hunt is "the mind-reading, shape-shifting, incarnation of chaos," did you have the presence of mind that you were making your mark in this franchise and following in the footsteps of great actors like Henry Czerny and Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin before you, who all got their own lines describing the aura, the mystique of Ethan Hunt?

You know what was truthfully going on that day? I'll tell you the truth. We were on an Osprey, and it was the first time that particular aircraft had been used in a film. And so when they put the back down behind me, we're screaming over the desert in Abu Dhabi. That was as intense as anything I've ever done. So I know the mythology and the history of the films, but at that moment, it was intense with the Osprey.

You've talked before about how Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie gave you the space to bring in and come up with different aspects of your character. Was there anything specific that you brought to Briggs that you can name off the top of your head?

Well, I told them that there has to be a reason why I'm chasing [Ethan]. Otherwise, it's not going to play for two and a half hours, to have egg on my face in every country, that I just miss him. So I just wanted to ratchet that up without explaining anything. I didn't want to explain it, other than going into, possibly, the next one. But also, man, I wanted to honor the "Midnight Run" of it all, "The Fugitive" of it all. I'm big on paying homage to films that I love, and so we sprinkled some of that in there and I just wanted to make Briggs a wild card. By any means possible, he'd tried to take Ethan in, with it being real and personal underneath.

'In true 'Mission' fashion, I'm not at liberty to say...'

I do feel like, watching the movie, there's something between Briggs and Hunt that's left up in the air. Degas (Greg Tarzan Davis) has that line to your character about this being personal between you and Hunt. Was there any previous version of this movie where that was made more explicit, that you do have some sort of backstory with Hunt?

In true "Mission" fashion, I'm not at liberty to say [laughs]. But I'm sure that — yes, yes. Yes.

With your character, how much exactly did he change over the development of this movie? I'm sure, like you mentioned, aspects were cut or shifted over to "Part Two," that sort of thing. How much exactly did he evolve?

Yeah. If you've seen my work, I love the process of finding a character. I love that more than the actual shooting. Or when I was doing plays, I loved the rehearsal process and the discovery. So for me to find — I don't know how much I'm giving away if I say certain things, but when we're entering the party in Venice and how I enter the party, or what I do to the guys that I think might be Ethan in the first act of the piece, those kind of things just popped up. And then it starts to carry itself through the whole film. Hopefully it's not just for a laugh. I have to still play it serious, even though there's a lot of levity. So for that, yeah, it was ever-evolving, man. That's what kept me interested in Briggs.

As an actor, how do you handle that process of not having everything in a script prepared beforehand? You can't learn your lines weeks ahead of time, you're sort of on the fly with these movies.

I love having the script and letting it get in the bones, really marinate. Because then, what you don't want to do is try to force something on it. So if you have something ahead of time, you can ruminate on it, let it live in you. Sometimes you're getting up in the middle of the night and something comes to you. But I will say, we were on this long enough that I had time. Those things just, they came to me. When I tell my boss, when I tell Henry [Czerny] at the end of the piece ... you start to know your characters and you can't force that. If you force it or try to be funny or wink at the camera, it doesn't work.

I don't mean literally wink the camera. I mean, you just don't want to get caught. You never want to see the actor working. You know what I mean, Jeremy? You never want to see me working really hard to try to be funny or try to be serious or try to be — but I really enjoy it. I can't wait to get back on the floor with McQ and Tom and the rest of the gang. It's a talented bunch, man.

'I want to be able to fool my friends'

Are you the kind of actor who develops your own backstory for your character? Even if that doesn't necessarily show up on screen, do you do the legwork to come up with that sort of thing?

Well, it's twofold. I'm the type of actor that doesn't like to talk about my process. You never really — other than if I'm talking to a group of students or something. I think to talk process, it's like going and seeing David Copperfield and standing behind the stage the whole time. I want something there between me and the audience. Otherwise, they're thinking about what I do and how I got into a certain role. The answer to that question though is yes, a tremendous amount of research and legwork goes into it. Like I said previous, I love that part of it. I love the discovery, man, and see how close you can get to Briggs or Eli from "Boardwalk" or Preacher Theriot from "True Detective."

I want to be able to fool my friends, you know what I mean? It kills me if my friends go, "Oh, I see you up there the whole time." But if they go, "For a second, I lost myself in you as Jasper Briggs," that's what you're looking for. Just that little corridor, man, of, they believe you're Eli or whoever.

That's actually something I've really appreciated about your career. I feel like you're one of our great character actors currently working right now, and you don't really discriminate between movies with, say, Adam McKay or Damian Chazelle versus these big blockbusters, "Fast and Furious," "Skull Island," and now "Dead Reckoning." So what made you want to join "Dead Reckoning" in the first place?

Right off the bat, its Tom Cruise and McQuarrie. I'd been huge fan of Chris's, and you know how you have those seminal moments, Jeremy, where you know where are when you see — I remember when McQuarrie won the Oscar for "Usual Suspects." When that hit, it blew a lot of our minds. I remember him winning that, and I've been tracking his stuff ever since. And Tom — we all have a secret list of people we want to work with as actors, and Cruise is right at the top of that list. You can say Cruise and Gary Oldman, and so I got a chance to work with them. And then, to do something I don't usually do. Usually, my stuff is much more intimate, what I do, what I love to do. And those boys told me, "You can carry what you do into our piece," that was the challenge for me. I love that.

One last quick thing: I appreciated your work on "Perry Mason" so much, and it's just heartbreaking how that show got canceled.

Man, I appreciate it. I'll be honest, I'm shocked anybody ever knows my s*** [laughs]. So when people — I appreciate that. Yeah, we're gutted, man. We were gutted when they let that go, but we'll find something, we'll keep digging, you know?

"Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One" is in theaters now.

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