‘Boardwalk Empire’s’ Shea Whigham digs deep into character

Shea Whigham can be seen in films such as "The Wolf of Wall Street" and TV series such as "Boardwalk Empire."
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

He played the yacht captain warning Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort of “chop” in a surreal storm scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He was the crinkled, shaggy haired assistant to Mayor Carmine Polito in the Oscar front-runner “American Hustle.” He played the life-on-track brother of Bradley Cooper’s life-derailed character in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Shea Whigham is one of those actors whom you can easily miss until you realize you haven’t missed him at all.

Whigham has dozens of acting credits to his name, indie and big-budget films alike.


And yet he still flies under the radar.

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So here he is at the Mexican restaurant Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, cutting into his quesadillas, while chatter from other patrons swells around him. His shout of “Happy Birthday” to a nearby customer as friends sing the celebratory tune goes overlooked.

No one asks for an autograph. No one asks for a fan picture. No one talks to him about his most prominent role yet for the last five years — Eli Thompson, the younger brother of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and former sheriff of Atlantic City on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which is heading into its final and fifth season.

Whigham’s low public profile despite a steady stream of work is something of his own doing. The Florida native doesn’t have a public relation’s team at his beck and call. He tends to avoid interviews because for him, the work consumes his agenda.

“It’s always about the project itself than a character for me,” Whigham said. “It’s all experiential.”

With almost every role, Whigham takes on a new look, sometimes leaving him unrecognizable. His face seems to change with every new beard or part of the hair that takes him into character and out of his real-world, slicked-back look.

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“Yeah, I’m a hair actor,” he said jokingly.

Whigham has been building a career that proves he is anything but. After graduating from Purchase College of the State University of New York, he landed his first big break, a role in Joel Schumacher’s 2002 film, “Tigerland.” Since then he’s been fine with “backing up” actors such as Sean Penn (“This Must Be the Place) and Matthew McConaughey (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) and taking work that includes a recent guest-starring role in the new HBO dark drama “True Detective.”

In the series’ third episode, Whigham portrayed Joel Theriot, a preacher leading the Friends of Christ congregation in rural Louisiana in a sermon similar to an old-fashioned tent revival. His part originally consisted of five lines.

“I said, ‘I need something to tap into,’ and they wrote a sermon for me,” Whigham said. “It was the most difficult thing I had to really learn. It’s one of the scarier characters because you want to do it right.”

And he did. Extras from the set were so convinced, they asked Whigham where they could attend church services. He laughed it off, promising to let them know if he does become a preacher.

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Between sips of Pacifico, Whigham makes it clear he doesn’t like to speak much of his life outside of acting. He did confirm he’s a husband and father of four children. His agent is his brother, Jack Whigham.

But he’s clearly more comfortable talking about tapping into character. The combat boots he wore in “Tigerland” — the same pair he’s wearing at Casa Vega, with a Burberry suit and pastel-colored shirt — are what got him into the right frame of mind for the role, he said. Slicking his short hair and combing it to one side are what helped him to feel Eli Thompson in “Boardwalk.”

“Yeah, I guess it is hard for me to let go,” he said of acting. “I don’t ever call it a job, what we do.”

Whigham described Eli as “the Everest” of his career so far. He’s unsure when, or if, he’ll find another role like Eli: knowing a character’s likes, dislikes, tics and even favorite meals. But with the end of the award-winning series has come more roles, including one in “Knight of Cups,” a forthcoming release from director Terrence Malick.

“I can’t script my career better than what it is,” Whigham said.


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