While he has his share of fans in and out of the industry, Sean Bridgers is a name that might not immediately ring bells with the casual film and TV fan. His face is a different matter. If you’ve watched anything that’s gritty, funny and violent over the last decade, chances are he’s been in there somewhere. Deadwood? That’s him as the astoundingly simple Johnny Burns. Rectify? That’s him lurking around the fringes as the sinister Trey Willis. His roles in Justified and Midnight Special were smaller but no less memorable. And then there’s his highest profile turn so far in the Oscar-winning drama Room, playing the reprehensible Old Nick, the seemingly innocuous man who kidnaps, impregnates and confines Brie Larsson in a garden shed for 11 years.
These days, Bridgers is tearing up the screen as one half of the most unscrupulous writer/producer duo Hollywood has ever seen in the TV remake of Get Shorty. His Louis is a Mormon heavy and the mostly ignored voice of reason to Chris O’Dowd’s Miles, a low-level gangster who dreams of making it as a big-time producer in Hollywood. Louis is a man who tries to be reasonable but generally ends up shooting someone, or at the very least, breaking one of their bones. In Bridgers’ hands, he’s probably the best thing about the whole show. We caught up with Sean as the show heads into its second season for a chat about stealing scenes as Louis, the impending return of Deadwood and the importance of not being an asshole.
Were you at all worried about the idea of remaking something with such a cult following?
When I got the script, it just said “untitled Davey Holmes project” so I had no idea that they were remaking Get Shorty. I don’t think I would have been worried either way. Fargo proved that you can take a story like that and make a TV show out of it. I just read the script with no knowledge that it was Get Shorty and it was great. It was funny and it was quick. When they said it was Elmore Leonard, I thought, “Of course it is!” The pace and the movement and the dialogue is so consistent with his writing. I’m not really in a position to worry about things like that [laughs]. I look at the character and if it’s well written, and then I look into the details of who’s doing it etc. First and foremost, it’s gotta be a good story. And it definitely is that.
What’s interesting about Louis is that he shares a lot of common ground with other characters you’ve played, particularly Johnny Burns from Deadwood, but with a tiny bit more common sense.
I enjoy playing the fool. I don’t know what that is exactly. I often feel like an outsider anyway in most situations and Louis certainly is that. He doesn’t quite fit in the Mormon world and he doesn’t quite fit in the gangster world so he’s very much someone who’s trying to find himself, almost in spite of himself. He’s a very American character in that he’s a big brew of contradictions. I just love playing him and I try to stay open to whatever the writers come up with. These things kind of happen organically. Chris and I didn’t really know each other. Our chemistry together, that’s not forced, that just happens. And that informs the character too.
He seems to be the most relatable character in the show. Even Chris’s character Miles does a lot of things where you think, “Wow, I’m not sure I would have done that.” Louis feels more like a voice of reason.
Yeah, I know. Louis is very much the person who’s going, “Really, we’re doing that?” Chris is a great leader of the show in that way. He’s got that energy about him in real life. I’ve been out drinking with Chris a few times and he’ll say things to people, not in a rude way, but in a very honest way and I’ll think, “I’m not sure I would have said that.” What he says is always true and to the point and never malicious but I’m still not sure I would have said it. I think it’s an Irish thing.
When you came on board, was the show already signed up for series or was it still at the pilot stage?
It was already signed up for series. It was really strange. I live in North Carolina, so I put myself on tape and send it out to New York or Los Angeles or wherever and if someone wants to meet me then I fly out and meet them. Sometimes I get hired from the tape, sometimes I don’t. In that case, I loved the script and I loved the character but I didn’t think I’d get it. I didn’t think there’d be any interest in me for it because the way he was described in the script was not at all me. He was a real, big bear of a guy. I almost imagined him as a James Gandolfini character: a big bear of a guy in cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts. I’m not that. I’m 5’10 and a buck-70. But it worked out great. Like I said, I just put myself on tape for these things. Some of them are great and some of them are drudgery. You just do your due diligence and start from there. You try to have some fun with it, send it off and see what happens. In this case, they called maybe a week later and asked me to get on a plane and before I knew it I had the job and the job was going straight to series. I’ve never experienced that before. It was a whirlwind two weeks. I’d agreed to do a movie in Canada so I wasn’t stressed about work and then this came down the pipe. It’s been a real joy.
When you’re auditioning in isolation like that, putting yourself on tape and sending it off, is it harder to get a sense of the character or what they’re looking for?
That’s a really good question. I don’t have any feedback, but I’ve done this for a long time so I have a pretty good idea. The most important thing is to read the script and think about the character. The character’s gotta be a version of me in some shape or form. I think about the psychology of them, what motivates them, what are they afraid of, those kinds of things. Then I just do it in the key and tone that I’d want to do it. Then I watch it back and if I’m happy and don’t see myself acting, then I send it on and hope they like it. The trick of that is that if I’ve truly done what I wanted to do and given a performance that is honest and true and what I’d do if I got the job, then I’m ok with whatever the outcome is. I spent years as a younger actor trying to be what I thought they wanted, but they don’t always know what they want.
Do you ever get to the point where you’ve gone through your processes and delivered a performance you’re happy with, but you have a feeling that you wouldn’t enjoy the job if you got it?
Oh yeah. I don’t want to name names, but I was on a show and they didn’t pick up my contract. I was really pissed because I have three kids. But my wife reminded me, “You didn’t like the show. You were bored. You would have been bored to death doing it.” Like most instances over the 20 years we’ve been married, she was right. As a result of that, things opened up. You get the job you’re supposed to get. But it can be a real drag when you’re on something that isn’t going well. I had several years after Deadwood where I guest starred on lots of TV shows. Some of them were a lot of fun and some were not. I went through a period where I didn’t really love being an actor. There were times when there was a bit of drudgery and I couldn’t wait to be done because it didn’t feel like anybody cared. You’re just a cog in a machine. It fed my kids and I’m grateful but if I didn’t get things periodically that reminded me of how much I enjoy being a part of storytelling then I might have to find something else to do.
I think that’s true of most creative professions. There’s always going to be a time when the love for it wanes. The idea that it’s always plain sailing is a fairy tale.
Even for people who outwardly seem like it is always plain sailing, you still can drive yourself crazy with your own expectations. I have to remind myself of that all the time. It’s really about doing the best you can and enjoying it when you can and letting the rest go. I’m really enjoying it right now. I’ve been working on some little things and I’m about ready to fuck off for a couple of months. There aren’t too many people who can. I’m lucky.
After having such an amazing breakthrough with something as beloved as Deadwood, was it hard to then go through a string of roles that were a bit more of a slog?
I didn’t really have any expectations. When Deadwood ended, it was disappointing. I don’t know what it is about me, but I didn’t expect that it was going to do a lot for me in terms of opportunities. I think maybe some other people did, but I didn’t. I loved every minute on that set and I feel like that was the greatest education I ever got, as an actor, a storyteller… in every way. That character, Johnny Burns, was a pretty specific character. I suspected, correctly, that a lot of people would see that and think that’s who I was. Elements of him are me, but there were people on the first year of Deadwood who would slow down when they spoke to me and simplify their language. That’s not their fault. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains, they’d never met anyone from there. I have my accent, but of course I accentuated it with Johnny. I didn’t expect that it was going to propel me to anything, but it did open up my whole world in terms of quality work and how to approach my work. Working with Ian McShane was just a joy, every single day. And not just his work, but I got to see him come up with it over and over and how he handled himself on the set and what a pleasant person he was. The energy he created allowed everyone to do their best work. And that came from the top, it came from David Milch. Everyone was free to be a part of the creative endeavour. When Deadwood ended and I found myself on these shows where nobody cared, like, “The formula’s written. Just say the fucking thing, hit your mark and let’s go home.” I was like, “What? Don’t we want to make this awesome?” I spent three years on a set where all everyone wanted was for it to be awesome.
Was that infuriating? I’m assuming that everyone would have given their right arms to be back on Deadwood and these people whose shows are still up and running are just phoning it in.
That’s so true. I suspect that if you asked anyone who was in Deadwood, they’d say the exact same thing. It was infuriating but I can only be infuriated so long and then I just get melancholy. You keep on trucking and good things come your way. My focus has always been to keep getting better. And you can get better even working on something you’re not sure about. You just commit to making it as good as you possibly can.
Speaking of Deadwood, I’ve been dying to talk to you about the movie.
Yeah, the script, as you can imagine, is really, really great. It’s ten years later, but we’re back into it. There are still issues that are unresolved. I can’t wait, especially to see everyone again.
It must have been like a high-school reunion.
It really was. It’s the only show I’ve ever been on where once you wrapped your scenes for the day, the cast didn’t just disperse and go home. People hung out. If I had a couple of scenes in the morning and was done by three o’clock, I’d often just hang out and watch other scenes. Why wouldn’t you watch Brad Dourif?
Have you got a shooting date set?
Not exactly. I know all the deals have been done and I think we start in October. I’ve had wardrobe people calling me and all the other things that people do when we’re ramping up to start work. It’s real!
I was getting worried. It seemed that every time things would seem to be about to get started, I’d read an interview with Timothy Olyphant saying it wasn’t going to happen. But then I heard elsewhere that he’s a notorious pessimist.
I don’t know that Tim’s a pessimist. He’ll certainly take the piss out of you. He’s not going to give people the satisfaction of confirming anything. Or me either. Back when I was doing Get Shorty and the rumblings about the show were really getting loud, I asked Tim, “What do you think? Is it going to happen? I’ll do it if you do it.” He said, “If I do it, you better f***ing do it.” All he’d say other than that was, “I really hope it happens.” But he didn’t give me any indication that it was going to happen. He had to know. Without his deal and Ian’s deal being done, there’s no show. But Tim’s a great guy. I love him dearly. It’s the same on Get Shorty. Chris is a great partner and Ray Romano is a ridiculously nice person to the core. That makes things really easy when there’s no bullshit to contend with. I’m of the school of thought that every human being does their best work when they’re relaxed. I don’t care if you’re a brain surgeon or a performer or a school teacher or a bus driver, you need to be relaxed and alert to do your best work. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to do and it can be a grind. The history of television is full of shows that derailed apart because the cast couldn’t get along. It’s stuff we shouldn’t have to deal with. Working with someone who’s an asshole is irritating because this should be fun. It’s like, “It’d be great if you could just not be so much of an asshole.” We’re getting paid to play make believe.
It seems like “Don’t be an asshole” is pretty important if you want people to ever work with you again.
Yeah, but you still gotta be good. “Be good and don’t be an asshole.” Have you got kids?
Yeah, a son.
That should be your life advice. Be good and don’t be an asshole.
So, speaking of Deadwood, we should talk about your beard work.
I use a company called the Smoky Mountain Beards Company out of Jefferson North Carolina. I use all their stuff: their cleaner, beard conditioner and softener, their wax if I want to look fancy. They’re doing really well. It’s a homegrown operation started by a guy with a prodigious beard and it’s reasonably priced. Their softener is great because my beard is starting to go grey and those grey hairs are wiry. If I don’t use the conditioner every few days, my beard is like barn hay.