From Breaking Bad to Black Mirror, he has starred in at least one of your favorite shows—and in the new dark comedy film Game Night, the towheaded Texan once again marries creepiness and charisma
A lot of the characters you’ve played are innocent-looking guys who turn out to be sociopaths. What is it that attracts you to those roles?
I’m drawn to characters who aren’t quite what they seem, because that feels more authentic to me than someone you look at, immediately size up and feel you know what category to put them in. I don’t think people are really like that. And it’s more fun to connect the dots and try to figure them out yourself.
Your Breaking Bad character, Todd, is arguably one of the most evil characters on the show. Do you relate on any level?
Yeah. I mean, that’s the only way you can give a somewhat honest performance. It’s substituting and playing little mental and emotional tricks on yourself, but you have to do your best not to judge the character you’re playing. That happened once: I realized, Wow, I don’t like this person at all. I’m not going to say which character it was, but it was a real person, and it was shocking. And then it’s a different experience when you watch it. Hopefully it didn’t affect the performance.
Do you feel you have to like at least part of a character in order to play him truthfully?
You kind of have to love your characters in some way. You have to attempt to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s got to make sense to you.
So if Todd hadn’t been born into a family of white supremacists, do you think he might have had a chance as a decent human?
I think so. One of the episodes of Breaking Bad that stands out for me is the one with Aaron Paul’s character at some tweakers’ house, and there’s a little redheaded kid. Remember the episode with the ATM machine? I think there’s something akin to that little kid in Todd, because there’s something childlike about him. There are true monsters out there that were always destined to be monsters, but most times there’s a reason.
Is it safe to say that a lot of your work is hard for your parents to watch?
Most recently, after they saw Black Mirror, my dad kept saying, “That look in your eyes. That look in your eyes as that captain.…” That’s all he could say. And obviously they hate it when my character dies. Breaking Bad was such a long time ago, but I think that one was probably strange for them to watch.
Have any of the parts you’ve been offered given you pause?
Two come to mind. Pennywise—I got that call and just didn’t want to go there. I didn’t care what the scenario was, really; I just…no. And then there was a part in this movie Suburbicon as one of the bad guys who try to kill the kid. I was like, “I can’t kill another kid right now.” [laughs]
Well, speaking of kids, you’ve been acting for pretty much your entire life. What was the movie or TV show you saw as a kid that made you say, “I want to do that”?
I watched Lonesome Dove before I could talk. I was drawn to it as a toddler, having very little understanding of what was going on. But as I got older and started acting, I realized how good Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are. It’s so honest and authentic. And it’s a great book on top of that. I love Larry McMurtry. My father and his side of the family are all cowboys. I grew up riding and roping, so being in that world was pretty easy to imagine.
And you found out you’re a descendant of Stephen F. Austin, the so-called Father of Texas.
Yeah; I feel like my dad knew that throughout my childhood. Then my mom started doing Ancestry.com, and my dad all of a sudden snapped to and was like, “Oh, wait a second.” He had a book on the piano that directly ties us to Moses Austin, Stephen Austin’s father. Why would you wait until now to give us this piece of information? [laughs] Thanks, Dad.
Did your Hollywood career as a kid give you any street cred with your classmates back in Mart, Texas, and did it affect your first forays into dating?
Well, I didn’t get Friday Night Lights until after I graduated. What I mainly remember are the trips when I would go out to Los Angeles and not get a job, and all my friends would be like, “Oh, what movies did you do?” Plural, like I did two or three movies in a couple of months. I was like, “Well, I auditioned for several things.” As far as dating, I was never in either place long enough. It felt like I was perpetually playing catch-up. And I’m from such a small town: There were 40-something people in my graduating class. It was a very small pool.
Is Mart anything like the Dillon, Texas of Friday Night Lights?
It’s very similar to Dillon, just much smaller. One stoplight. Aside from the size, Dillon was pretty much the world I grew up in. On Friday nights, don’t count on going anywhere in town, because no one’s there. And even down to the old guys watching the junior varsity games so they know which players are coming up.
There are true monsters out there that were always destined to be monsters, but most times there's a reason.
On Fargo you play possibly the world’s most dedicated husband, opposite your now fiancée, Kirsten Dunst. What did you learn about devotion and marriage from Ed?
When I met with Noah Hawley for the first time, I needed to make sure Ed wasn’t just a doormat—that there was some real love there. There was a line in the script that likened Ed to a cow. I asked Noah, “Is he not very intelligent or what?” He said, “No, his true nature is not inherently aggressive or violent. He’s someone who wants to graze and be happy, basically.” I started thinking about different people who have that unflinching devotion, and my dad is one of those people. Once you’re in, you’re in, no questions asked. It doesn’t matter what you did, you call him, he’ll be there and he’ll figure it out. There was something I immediately understood about that. So that was a very weird love letter to my dad.
The cow motif is also apt considering the fact that Ed uses a meat grinder to dispose of a corpse. Pivoting off that, who or what scares you?
Well, not to get political, but the first thing that comes to mind is our president. He scares me. And, I don’t know what you’d call it…online outrage. It’s intense. It’s not that new, but in the past however many years there has become this need to find someone to vent all your frustration and rage and anger to—and it happens daily. That’s pretty scary to me.
You’re not on social media. Was that a conscious decision?
Not really. I signed up for Facebook when I was 18, when I first moved to Austin and started Friday Night Lights. I remember spending an hour and a half on it once. You get into this hole, and then you snap out of it, like, What just happened? Where did that hour and a half go? I realized I didn’t want to spend my time online. Maybe I recognized that there’s something enticing about it. In terms of Twitter and Instagram and everything, I would rather be where I am and read the news—which is now coming from Twitter. But yeah, I’m not built for it.
I guess the feeling that we’re moving further away from basic human connection, and the false portrayal of yourself that happens online. It’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but that is scary to me, thinking about kids growing up counting likes and everything. It’s definitely going to alter their perception and experience of the world.
Your episode of Black Mirror couldn’t have been timed better, with the #MeToo movement and your character’s toxic masculinity. Basically, you play a butt-hurt gamer who imports his co-workers into a Star Trek–like game and abuses them. How did you do research for the part?
I watched a lot of documentaries about gamers and video game programmers and that sort of thing. I was more interested in that kind of isolation and that need to escape reality. I think there are a lot of people—and they don’t have to be Trekkies or gamers or whatever—who understand that. I felt strange finishing work some days because I knew Cristin Milioti had to go to some dark places. But I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture, because I didn’t want to come in with any judgments. The character is not a good person, but there’s a reason he became that, and that’s what I was trying to figure out.
Let’s talk Game Night, which follows three couples at a murder-mystery party that goes way off the rails. Are you into games? Do you get competitive?
Yeah, definitely. Some good, clean fun. I love playing poker. Recently this HQ game—have you done that? It’s an app where, like, hundreds of thousands of people get on live, and it’s trivia. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it.
Game Night seems like it was a fun set. How much was improvised?
There was a decent amount, but the script was so funny to begin with. There were little moments here and there, but it was probably 85 percent scripted. I was shooting Black Mirror when I got the script. I got to my first scene and was like, “Yeah, I want to play Gary, the creepy cop neighbor.” Having the freedom to experiment and play around with a scene is something I really enjoy. Everything isn’t so chiseled out, where you feel you know how it’s going to go or should go; it’s not great when you’re in that place. I think that’s one of the reasons Friday Night Lights worked. Everyone tested the waters in the first few episodes, and then it became a game to see who you could crack up.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
Something possibly in psychology or…English literature. Those are probably majors I would’ve chosen. I don’t know. I love writing songs and playing music. I don’t play out too much anymore, but I did when I was living in Austin for Friday Night Lights. It was kind of accidental. We would have all these great house parties where musicians would come over and play. I wrote a song, and everyone was like, “You guys should start a band.” We were called Cowboy and Indian, which wasn’t the best name. We played a lot, probably from 2012 to 2014. And I loved it. Now it’s been such a long time. I’m more interested in recording. I’ve got a lot of friends who are making such great music, and I’m like, “Ah, let me in there.” I enjoyed it, but it would probably take me a little while to warm up again.
I grew up listening to what everyone listened to in Mart: popular country radio stations. I always go back to John Prine. I love his songwriting. And the Stones if I want to kick it up a little bit. When I moved to Austin I discovered Townes Van Zandt, and that was a pivotal moment. Learning about him changed the way I look at music, and even at movies—just the devotion he had to songwriting. He was obviously tortured, but he reworked what I thought you could accomplish.
You turn 30 this year. How are you feeling about it? Is it scary? Is it a relief?
I feel like I should be 30. I guess when I was younger I always felt older than my age. Thirty feels right, you know? I haven’t given it too much thought. Now I’ll be thinking about it.