Shea Whigham lives by a mantra: Stay humble and stay hungry. One of the greatest character actors working today, you would likely recognize him from his roles in Oscar-nominated films like Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Vice (2018), or Joker (2019). He is also one of the most prolific actors working today: In 2018 alone, Whigham starred in seven movies — including Bad Times at the El Royale and First Man — and three TV series.
"I want to have my work hopefully beget other work," he explains. It was from one of those TV series that he landed his latest role in Mission: Impossible. Whigham was at a Hollywood party — "I go to one a year" — that Christopher McQuarrie also happened to be attending. "We kind of saw each other like a long-lost love across the room," recalls the actor.
"I'd never met him, [but] I said, 'I'm not going to be too cool for school here. I love your stuff' — I still remember watching him win the Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects — and he said, 'I've just seen Homecoming.' He said, 'I'm going to write something for you.' And I said, "Oh, I would love that,' never thinking anything would come out of it. In December of that year, I got a call from him and Cruise. 'How'd you like to join the Mission Family?'"
In Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, the seventh installment in the blockbuster spy franchise, Whigham plays Jasper Briggs, an agent dead set on tracking down Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. The film arrives on the heels of the actor's other big summer role in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, in which he lends his voice to Captain Stacy, the father of Spider-Woman. ("My kids can't see a lot of the s**t that I do, so for me to be able to do something that they wanted to see, that was pretty cool.")
"You always have an expectation of what it's going to be like whenever you're going into a film or a television series. And some of them are met, and others exceed," the actor reflects on his decades-long career. "When you do Boardwalk [Empire] with Scorsese and Tim Van Patten, it exceeded that. True Detective exceeded. Silver Linings Playbook, I had some high expectation of De Niro and David O. going in, but that exceeded everything. These guys being the cinephiles that they are and their love of cinema, for me, it's the best."
Below, Whigham shares with A.frame five films that shaped him into the actor he is today. "As a quick aside," he notes, "I'm going to throw out Godfather I and II right away. Those would be on top, and for me, it begins and ends with that. So, let's just put those aside."
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
The films that impacted me, I either knew exactly where I was when I saw them or they made me want to become an actor. So Jaws, I remember the impact that it had on me as a seven or an eight-year-old living in Florida. I remember vividly being afraid to go swimming in a swimming pool, much less the ocean that we were by. Because that's the impact. And that was the first big film that I remember my babysitter talking about. 'Everyone's talking about this film. We can't wait to go.' So, my love for Spielberg started then.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet | Written by: Frank Pierson
My father and mother showed me Dog Day Afternoon when I was a kid. You got to remember, you couldn't get films then. You had to wait for them to come on television. And I remember they showed me that, and I was so taken with [Al] Pacino, and [John] Cazale, and the realism of that. And I just remember the humor. When he asked Sal, 'What country would you want to go to?' And Cazale said, 'Wyoming.' And I just go, 'I want to do that. I don't know how to do that, but I want to do that.' I had such a visceral reaction to that film.
I was a closeted actor at the time. I didn't tell anybody, because I didn't know how to do it. I kept that to myself, that I really wanted to do what Pacino, and Gary Oldman, and De Niro did. I was in junior college, and I loved the poets — Shelley, and Byron, and Keats — and I ended up in a poetry class. But I was doing stuff from Pacino. The teacher was like, 'You know, this is not acting class.' That's when I told my parents, 'I'm going to make a run at this thing.' And I got into the State University of New York, and you get lucky sometimes, man. I had a couple of instructors there that really took me under their wings and told me what it means to be an actor. They were working with Pacino, and they were working with the early directors, and they were on Broadway, and chose to teach. So, I got lucky.
Directed by: Jonathan Demme | Written by: Ted Tally
I'm training at SUNY, and I remember the theater that I went to to see Silence of the Lambs. Me and a couple of friends from my company went, and I just thought that was the perfect film. I remember being stunned by the performance from [Anthony] Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and Demme was the perfect director for that. It scared me, it riveted me, and like any great film, it made me want to enter that world, you know what I mean?
Like, I wanted to be a bank teller in Dog Day Afternoon. I wanted to become an FBI profiler after seeing Silence of the Lambs. I talked to Hopkins when I worked with him later on, about how he's only on screen 21 minutes, and he just dominates it. He's all over this film.
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
This is like '94. I get out of school and I'm a doorman in New York City. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were married at the time, and I'll never forget, Willis comes downstairs one evening at about 6:30 and he asks me and the other doorman who had been working there forever and knew Bruce well, he says, 'What are you guys doing tonight?' He goes, 'If you get off, you want to come over and watch this? We're doing a premiere of this thing called Pulp Fiction that I did.' I was dying, because I knew I wasn't going to be able to go. When I got off that night, I ran over to Lincoln Center and I stood outside the ropes and I watched Sam Jackson come out, and Bruce Willis and Tarantino come out, and it was like I was a kid looking inside the glass window.
That was the night a woman fainted in the audience when Uma got plunged, and they had to bring in medical personnel and stop the film. I went to see it right after it opened, and I couldn't believe what I saw. I wanted to do that. I look for that passion that cinephiles that love cinema have, and that's Tarantino. When I came out to California, I remember I went into the Valley and I tried to figure out where they shot everything.
I ended up working with Bruce later on, and Sam Jackson's become a good friend. I told Bruce, 'You know, man, we have a connection a little bit.' I said, 'I held your child at one point when you needed some help.' It was really nice to revisit that.
Directed and Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
I call it a Sunday afternoon at 2:00 film. Meaning, if you're flipping around on a Sunday afternoon, no matter if you want to watch something else, you stop on that. No Country for Old Men is, again, the perfect film for me. I love the Coens, and I have a real love for No Country.