Boyd Holbrook and Michael Shannon Bond Over Their Kentucky Roots
Years ago, in a chance encounter at a Lazarus department store in Lexington, Kentucky where he worked, Boyd Holbrook met the now Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. And it was their short conversation that would inspire Holbrook to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Years later, these two southern (or midwestern, depending on your persuasion) gentlemen would find themselves co-starring in a forthcoming drama about a motorcycle club (The Bikeriders, directed by Jeff Nichols). After receiving widespread recognition for his role as real-life DEA agent Steve Murphy in Narcos, Holbrook has not been able to stop. “I worked straight through the pandemic,” he told Shannon when the two cut it up over Zoom last week, before the announcement of the SAG-AFTRA strike. “Because every time you finish a gig, you’re unemployed.” Now, he stars in the newly released Indiana Jones film, directed by James Mangold, as well as the highly anticipated limited series Justified: City Primeval, out this week. So Holbrook called up his fellow Kentuckian to talk fatherhood, actors’ egos (or lack thereof), Mads Mikkelsen, and how to keep your kids occupied over the summer.—ARY RUSSELL
BOYD HOLBROOK: Hello?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Hey, Boyd. Are you doing a big day of this?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, like a Good Morning America type of thing.
SHANNON: Oh my god. You did that this morning?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, earlier today.
SHANNON: Wow. You’re looking good, man. You’re looking lean.
HOLBROOK: I am lean and mean, dude. I’m 158 pounds.
SHANNON: Sweet Jesus. Are you getting ready for a job or something?
HOLBROOK: I’m getting ready for a job, I think in October. It’s a real cool project, man. It’s with Sam Jackson. He plays the chef at a prison, uptight type, and I play this guy on a hunger strike who’s pretty emaciated.
SHANNON: Oh dear, is that affecting your moods? Do you get hangry?
HOLBROOK: Well, my wife’s in the city right now. She’s doing a summer intensive with Terry Knickerbocker. I got my kid upstate alone so it’s trying. You know how that goes.
SHANNON: Oh, being a single dad.
HOLBROOK: Just until August. But yeah, I had some ups and downs, man.
SHANNON: Yeah. How old is your kid?
HOLBROOK: He’s five.
SHANNON: Can you get him in some activities to keep him occupied?
HOLBROOK: I figured that out last week. Swimming in the morning, and I got him to a little daycare thing, so I’ve got a proper four hours a day to study and work.
SHANNON: You need some alone time. I mean, kids are delightful, but they’re very demanding. Until they grow up and then they’re like, “Oh, I don’t need you anymore.”
HOLBROOK: You’ve got two girls, don’t you?
SHANNON: Yeah, my 15-year-old, she just went to Paris for a month. She’s studying photography and art history. I look at her and I think, geez Louise, she’s like a little goddess or something. She definitely does not need my services any longer, but that’s how it’s supposed to work out. Because they’re not really yours. People have a tendency to think of their children as belonging to them or something, and you’re really just helping them get out and find their own life. So, the last time I saw you was in Cincinnati, I think.
HOLBROOK: Yeah, you wouldn’t wear a jacket.
SHANNON: Oh, right. Because we were all outside and it was really cold, and they were handing out those parkas to try and keep everybody from turning blue. I guess people at home should know, we’re talking about The Bikeriders, which is a movie that you and I were both in about a motorcycle gang. What were they called, Boyd, “The Vandals?”
HOLBROOK: They’re called the Vandals in our story, but they were loosely based off of some others.
SHANNON: Yeah, it’s based on a beautiful photography book called The Bikeriders. Jeff Nichols directed it and I think they’ve locked the picture. They seem pretty excited. It should be out in the fall, I think. So your hometown is Prestonsburg, Kentucky, right?
SHANNON: My hometown is Lexington, Kentucky, which means we’re both from Kentucky. Which is one of the reasons I think we’re having this conversation today, is because we’re both from the same place roundabout.
HOLBROOK: For me, we were both in the same place at a very important time.
SHANNON: Yeah. Can you describe that?
HOLBROOK: I remember it vividly. I had dropped out of college after working for UPS. They pay your tuition. You work the graveyard shift and all that, but you’ve got to go to class at eight. I lasted about a year and then I dropped out. I wound up moving into Lexington and working at a Lazarus department store. This is really when I started copiously acquiring movies and just watching everything. I had recognized you from, oh gosh, Vanilla Sky. Maybe two lines, but obviously you made an impact on me. I wanted to be an actor. And I just see an actor just come by in the store. I think your mom was probably taking you out to buy something. You had red track pants on and cowboy boots and a wife beater. I don’t know if you can call them a wife beater anymore, but that and a blazer. I think she was trying to spiffy you up or something. That’s how memory serves. I just asked you how to become an actor and it enlightened me. But it was fairly simple just to get into the theater. It dawned on me that that is the route. So my sister got me a job at a theater company because she knew a lighting director. She was going to Bowling Green at the time.
SHANNON: Oh, wow.
HOLBROOK: So I’ll be forever indebted to you and grateful for that.
SHANNON: Oh, thanks Boyd. Well, giving that advice, I always tell people, “Well, this is how I did it. I’m not sure if you would enjoy it or not, but this is how I did it.” I’ve told a fair number of people what I told you. I don’t know if many people have followed up on it, but the fact that you actually did…
HOLBROOK: Oh, I actually ended up working at a theater company, a little tiny theater where they did Charlie Brown and The Story of Jenny Wiley. So I got to know my tribe there and I felt like I was at home for the first time. I wasn’t even doing any acting at that time. But then I got into New York and it opened up more.
SHANNON: Talk about that a little bit. Because the way I came to New York was with a show that I had already been doing in Chicago and London. I really got lucky because I can’t imagine coming to New York City without some sort of calling card. I see people doing it all the time and it just seems like it’d be phenomenally difficult.
HOLBROOK: Well, I was kind of the same mentality like you’re having, but about going to Los Angeles. I wouldn’t go anywhere near Los Angeles without a credit or something on my resume. It wasn’t just like, falling off the apple cart and you’re some brilliant actor. They train for this, and I started realizing that. But I’m a hillbilly from Eastern Kentucky. My dad’s a coal miner. I talk funny. Coming to New York, people point that out really quickly. I thought, “I’m not going to be an actor. I’ll be a writer/director.” I saved up as much money as I could and I got into NYU’s extended film program. You can do a course on 16 [millimeter], on editing and lighting, directing, writing. It’ll take you about a year-and-a-half to do all that. So I did that and then found out about William Esper’s program. I desperately wanted it, but I didn’t know how to fit in at the time. So that was a lot of my navigation, of just not being able to feel like part of the club for a while.
SHANNON: But do you think anybody does? I mean, anybody in that William Esper acting class is like, “Oh yeah, I’m the one who belongs here.”
HOLBROOK: Well, yeah. Being an actor, you’ve got to be a pretty sympathetic person and to have that sort of bravado just doesn’t fit.
SHANNON: You do see cases from time to time that people have very large egos. I think that’s kind of the misconception about actors, is that they’re really vain and they’re always thinking about themselves. But I find a lot of times the opposite to be true. I think we’ve both had run-ins with people that seem a little more concerned with themselves than everyone else around them, but it’s pretty rare. I think sympathy and empathy, that’s really the name of the game, trying to understand how other people tick.
HOLBROOK: And you started out by going to Chicago and getting in that scene?
SHANNON: Yeah. Well, my dad lived in Chicago, so I’d go up and visit him when I was a kid. And then eventually I just started doing non-equity theater in Chicago, which is a hard life. There’s no money. A lot of times, noy many people would come see the play, but I was just hooked on it. I mean, that’s what I tell people: “If you want to do this, it’s got to be because you can’t imagine doing anything else. If there’s anything else you might enjoy doing, you should go do it.” To get to the point where you can actually pay your bills with this stuff is some kind of miracle, really. Are you feeling pretty secure now?
HOLBROOK: Well, yeah. I mean, if there’s anything you want to turn down and let me know about…
SHANNON: Well, that’s a separate conversation. [Laughs]
HOLBROOK: I’m starting to work with directors for the second time, and that seems like job security because every time you finish a gig, you’re unemployed. But I worked straight through the pandemic. I did that because my boy’s five now and I don’t want to be on the road all the time. I want to work a little bit less, make more money. Maybe you get these experiences too, but somebody’s got to pass on something before I get a look at it. I want to do my best work, and you do need great writing to do that.
SHANNON: That doesn’t always coincide, money and great writing. But it sure doesn’t hurt that you’re in this big Indiana Jones [and the Dial of Destiny] movie. That’s a lot of fun, huh? Did you shoot that during COVID?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, I basically went over to London and did Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for nine months and then went home for a couple of weeks and went back for another nine months to do Indiana Jones with Jim Mangold. You’ve got to work with him.
SHANNON: Oh, yeah? Isn’t he doing this [Bob] Dylan movie with Timothée Chalamet or something?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. You should play Woody Guthrie.
SHANNON: Oh, shit.
HOLBROOK: As a child, were you a ham? Were you acting out in front of the family and stuff like that?
SHANNON: You know, I really wasn’t like that. I was really kind of introverted and quiet when I was a little boy, and the notion of ever becoming an actor was not in my brain anywhere. But this is about you, man. Don’t do this, please.
HOLBROOK: Hey, listen. I’m curious, man. [Laughs]
SHANNON: I took my daughter to see Indiana Jones.
HOLBROOK: Oh, you did?
SHANNON: Yeah, we both went on Monday. I picked her up from camp and I said, “We’re going to go see Indiana Jones.” I really loved what you did with that part. It was really interesting. It was very distinctive and you really made some choices. It’s easy with a part like that to just be like, “All right, where do you want me to stand?” But I’m fascinated to hear about your approach.
HOLBROOK: Well, I brought up Jim. He really is incredible. When he gave me a call about this, he’s like, “Listen, I don’t want to offend you.” I don’t know if he meant that it’s a small part or it’s playing a neo-Nazi. I read it. I’m like, “Man, this is Indiana Jones. This is the last one. I really want to do this, but how are you going to play this character? Why is this guy not off in Haight-Ashbury smoking a spliff or something?” But that’s why I love acting, man, because you start combing through it and figuring it out and making it yours. This guy, nobody else will have him. He just wants to be in this club and he’s so dumb that he thinks he’s getting on this enterprise that’s going to take off. So somebody didn’t love him. I started out wanting to do some John Cazale thing, really cosmetic, high forehead.
SHANNON: Were you a fan of Mads Mikkelsen going into it?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. I’ve seen Pusher II. The Hunt is incredible.
SHANNON: Did you see Another Round?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. My wife is from Copenhagen. There are some directors out there that are great. And Mads is another one who’s just unforgiving about who he is, and that’s an amazing quality.
SHANNON: Yeah, I would love to work with him. What was he like on set? Is he quiet? Is he mellow?
HOLBROOK: Well, we were kind of COVID buddies, just cutting up most of the time, talking about the state of the world that was going on at the time and how cuckoo that was. We were in London and Scotland and Sicily, and this was all COVID, everything is protocols. And then we get to Morocco and it’s like nothing ever happened.
SHANNON: Oh, boy. So you got to go to Sicily, huh?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. We started on the east of the island and went all the way west.
SHANNON: Tell me more about this TV show you’ve got, Justified. Is it a spinoff of the original one?
HOLBROOK: I think it’s not. It’s just a limited series. It’s taking that character Raylan Givens, who’s Elmore Leonard’s creation, and interfacing him in his most famous crime novel, City Primeval. Quentin Tarantino calls and says, “Hey, I want you to play the character Clement Mansel.” And then Quentin couldn’t do it but I still stayed on. I loved every minute of it, man. It worked out the way it should have. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that show. It’s fucked up, but it’s funny. They’re great characters and amazing writing.
SHANNON: It’s a western, right?
HOLBROOK: I was really timid to watch it because I am from Harlan County, a county over. So I was always like, “Man, it’s kind of making fun of us hillbillies.” I thought the show wouldn’t hit the tone right, but it’s great.
SHANNON: Timothy [Olyphant], isn’t he from Kentucky?
HOLBROOK: No, that’s just the character he plays. I think Tim’s from the West Coast. You worked with Tim too. Small world, huh?
SHANNON: Well, I just rubbed elbows with him a little bit on Amsterdam, but I sure do like him. There are a lot of actors from Kentucky.
HOLBROOK: I know. It feels like Boston’s got a lot of actors too, somehow.
SHANNON: Yeah, Boston does. What’s going to be keeping you busy once you’re done doing interviews and stuff?
HOLBROOK: I’m going to go take my son over to New Jersey. We’ve got an appointment for Jim’s movie, the Bob Dylan thing [A Complete Unkown]. And then we’re going to head back upstate tomorrow. I live about 45 minutes west of Woodstock.
SHANNON: Do you see any bears up there?
HOLBROOK: Yeah, there’s some black bears, little cubs and stuff. Do you live in Brooklyn?
SHANNON: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn, but I actually spent most of the last week in Kentucky seeing my mom. [Holbrook’s son enters] Oh, hey buddy. Look at you.
HOLBROOK: Say hi to Mike. He’s discovered games.
SHANNON: Oh, yeah? Games of a video nature?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. He’s five-and-a-half going on ten.
SHANNON: Well, let me let you get back to him then.
HOLBROOK: Mike, I appreciate it, bud.
SHANNON: No problem. I was tickled that you thought of asking me to do it.
Art direction by Benyamin Arno