Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Character: Shea Whigham

With his bug eyes, short stature, and uniquely raspy, southern drawl, Shea Whigham has asserted himself as one of the best, most revered character actors in contemporary film (in my world, at least).

Whigham has made a career playing hilarious and terrifying supporting characters (or, in some cases, both). Whether he’s starring in one of television’s most popular dramas, or appearing for roughly 20 seconds mumbling different variations for the word “whoa,” Whigham always stays imprinted in the viewers' mind.

Because of his appearance, Whigham typically manages to get a laugh from the audience, no matter what he’s doing. Fair enough, but for me, he’s gone from being “that guy” that’s popped up in various flicks, to an actor that will singlehandedly propel me to see a film. I love Shea Whigham, and here’s why you should too.

Five Essential Roles
All the Real Girls (2003)
In David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, Paul (Paul Schneider), a self-described womanizer, falls for Noel (Zooey Deschanel), which his best friend (also Noel’s brother), Tip, doesn’t appreciate all too much.

As Tip, Whigham embodies all of the characteristics he’s come to be best known for. Initially, Tip is a kind, small-town bumpkin. He wears his jean jacket tight and his long hair high. But after Paul and Noel start dating, he goes from the envious buddy (envious of how often his friend gets laid), to the protective older brother. This lends itself to several tumultuous scenes, which ultimately helps the movie end how it must end.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)
Whigham is in two very brief scenes of Werner Herzog’s mad-ass-crazy corrupt cop flick, the first of which steals the entire picture.  After slapping Eva Mendes around (off screen), Whigham is bum-rushed by Mendes’ cop boyfriend (played with miraculous mania by Nicolas Cage), who insults Whigham’s heritage. What follows is one of the most hilariously executed “monologues” of contemporary cinema. 

Whigham steps away from Cage and very calmly says: “Whoooa, whooa, whoa whoa whoa whoa, Terry. Whoa. Big mistake. Aw yeah. Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Big. Mistake. Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa…whoa. OH YEAH.”

I’m often criticized by my friends for not having an open enough sense of humor in regards to film. I don’t find funny movies funny, I’m often told. This is because most comedies (and virtually all sitcoms) try too hard for the joke, which, to me, detracts from the proposed humor. Whigham isn’t going for the joke here; he’s just a puny, whacked-out thug, talking in grunts. That, my friends, is comedy.

Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
Sherriff Eli Thompson
Whigham has hit moderate acclaim as Steve Buscemi's ignorant, diminutive brother, Eli, in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. In season one, after Eli was shot while collecting money, his character took on a new emotional depth, far beyond the wimpy sidekick routine that the material had previously allowed.

But it was in season two that Eli was given his moment to shine. Plotting ruthlessly (and rather uselessly) against his brother, proved to be some of the most exciting moments in the series. What makes this work is that Eli is simply too dumb to know he’s being played. Played by his brother, by the guys looking to push his brother out – everyone.

Whigham is known for playing seemingly aloof characters, which is all well and good, considering how skillfully he plays them. But none are more effective than his Eli. “Ignorance is bliss,” certainly does not ring true here.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Dwayne “DJ” Corliss
Appearing for a handful of scenes as a jailhouse snitch willing to lie on the stand for a modest payout, Whigham’s DJ is by far the best part of the completely decent Lincoln Lawyer. In fact, watching a relaxed, deadpan Whigman on the stand as he rats out Ryan Phillippe’s character, marks one of the best scenes of Whigman’s career.

“Are you incarcerated at this time?” Josh Lucas’ prosecuting attorney asks DJ. “Um… no, now I’m just in a courtroom.”

Later, when Matthew McConaughey accuses him of being a snitch, Whigham, with his insanely long sideburns and perfectly slicked-back hair, holds up his hands and replies, “People talk to me, I’m a friendly guy.”

DJ’s antics manage to get a few chuckles from the people in the courtroom, and they got even more from the people in the movie theater. I’d like to think his dialogue was improvised (“Uhhh 1989... I was high a lot, I can’t – I can’t recall much.”) but that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

Take Shelter (2011)
Whigham isn’t in Jeff Nichols’ terrific thriller that much, but he’s an ever-effective voice of reason in the brief time he is on screen. As Dewart’s best friend, Curtis, slowly begins to lose his sanity, Dewart initially instills a sense of calm admiration, drunkenly complimenting Curtis on how “good” his life is.  Later, as Curtis begins to go off the rails at various construction sites the two work on, Dewart urges his friend (with genuinely pitiful concern) to seek help.

But perhaps it’s Dewart’s final scene, in which he publically accosts and physically attacks Curtis, that is his best. In his brief time in the film, Whigham goes from being a comforting presence, to a concerned friend, to a feared enemy.

Take Shelter contains many unsettling moments, mostly in the mind of Curtis’ subconscious. But in the film’s reality, I was never more afraid then during Dewart's attack on his friend. I had no idea what he was going to do next. It’s that kind of suspense that an actor, role permitting, should try to keep the audience locked into.

The Best of the Best
Tigerland (2000)
Private Wilson
From the onset of Joel Schumacher’s incredibly small, but no less brilliant, boot camp film, Pvt. Wilson has it out for Pvt. Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell). Wilson doesn’t like Bozz’s insubordination, his smooth charm, his intimidating intelligence, and so on. So, in his not-so-typical psychopathic repression, Wilson elects to do something about it.

In one scene, Wilson frantically attacks Bozz, then, after getting his ass kicked, calmly demands an apology. He’s the kind of PTSD-ridden soldier who identifies war as a drug. Problem is, he has yet to fight in any war. His war is in his head. We never find out why he is the way he is, but we fear Wilson every single moment he’s onscreen.

Late in the film, Wilson, during a training exercise, attempts to shoot Bozz at point blank range. The gun misfires. Wilson is sent home, everyone else is sent to Tigerland, an incredibly rigorous training facility. I won’t say how or under what circumstances, but know that Wilson does indeed show up again, the result of which is one of the most horrifying encapsulations of internal hell that I’ve ever seen.

Because Tigerland was such a low budget film, and because newcomer Farrell (justly) took most of its hype, I didn’t really take notice of Whigham until a few years ago. When I realized he was Pvt. Wilson, my respect for him as an actor increased tenfold. A great performance by one of the most versatile character actors in the game.

Other Notable Roles
In Wriscutters
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
First Snow (2006)
Wriscutters: A Love Story (2006)
Pride and Glory (2008)
Fast & Furious (2009)
Machete (2010)
The Conspirator (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. The only thing I've seen him in is Lincoln Lawyer, and I don't remember that film too well. Will try to see one of his other films.

  2. I discovered him in All the Real Girls due to my interest in David Gordon Green when he used to make good movies.

    I didn't hear much about him until Boardwalk Empire and he's great as Eli. I also liked him in Take Shelter. Dude is awesome.

  3. @Tyler He's hysterical in Bad Lieutenant, despite being in it for about 30 seconds.

    And Tigerland is a serious ass-kicker of a film. I've never known a person to not like that flick.

  4. @thevoid99 Glad you like him! And yeah, how sad is David Gordon Green's career now? George Washington is one of the best debut films for a filmmaker that I've ever seen. Then All the Real GIrls, Undertow, Snow Angels.... all great.

    Dude seriously sold out.

  5. Oh my god! I forgot he was Private Wilson! Freaking psycho.

  6. @How Now Brown Thao? Yeah dude, he's a goddamn maniac in that flick. PRIVATE FUCKING WILSON!!!

  7. Yeah, you said that maybe no one will know who he is- I remember him from Boardwalk Empire and Take Shelter. Great actor, but he's had only supporting roles, and I don't think he will do anything better or bigger- maybe I'm wrong!

  8. @Aziza He's had a few starring roles in really bizarre, silly horror flicks. But yeah, I think he's much better suited as a supporting character. But who knows...

  9. He's in Take shelter too? Awesome. I didn't even know the guy's name until I read your article. I saw Lincoln Lawyer and I loved his performance there, what an underrated movie that is.

  10. @Sati. You know, that is a pretty underrated movie, I enjoyed most all of it. Not great by any means, but perfectly decent. I LOVE his scene on the stand. Dude has me rolling everytime.

  11. Must-see Whigham is SPLINTER, in which he plays a Bogart-esque convict on the run, who takes refuge in a convenience store beset by bogies. He's in THE CONSPIRATOR, briefly but memorably, and almost unrecognizably in BLOOD CREEK.

    1. I love his work in The Conspirator, but with Splinter and Blood Creek, you've given me two new Whigham flicks to check out ASAP. Thanks for the recos, and thanks for stopping by and commenting!