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True Detective’s Papania and Gilbough on McConaughey’s Chain-Smoking and Method Acting

Tory Kittlles and Michael Potts on True Detective. Photo: HBO

Throughout True Detective, which wraps up its first season on Sunday, two tough-as-nails cops have worked tirelessly to get to the bottom of a gruesome, seemingly unsolvable murder. I’m speaking, of course, about Detectives Maynard Gilbough and Thomas Papania, the two dudes interrogating Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson). We know precious little about Gilbough and Papania, save that they’re working on a case in 2012 eerily resembling the case Rust and Marty investigated back in 1995. They have a ton of screen-time — after all, the interrogations are the framing device for most of the show — but most of their acting is conducted via silent side-eye glances to one another. But now, at last, their secrets can be revealed! We talked to Michael Potts and Tory Kittles — who play Gilbough and Papania, respectively — and got all kinds of crazy behind-the-scenes info about True Detective: the scariness of on-set McConaughey, Papania and Gilbough’s reputation in the show’s universe, and what they’ve been scribbling in their notebooks this whole time.

How grueling was it to shoot the interrogation scenes?
Michael Potts (Gilbough): Those were 10- to 12-hour days for us, with few breaks. We’d do Woody for a day and a half, then Matthew for a while, then we’d get dinner and pick up with Matthew for a day and a half. They were very intense, long-hour days.
Tory Kittles (Papania)
: We kind of ended up doing the interrogation scenes like a play. They just said “action” and we just kept going. That first day with Matthew, we were into episode four or five, at least. We did 27 pages nonstop, and he was chain-smoking. They were smoke-filled days.
: Oh, man. Yeah.

McConaughey was smoking real cigarettes?
Kittles: Oh, they were real. They were very real. [Laughs.]
: There’s a particular brand he had asked for.
: Yeah, American Spirits.

Were the interrogations filmed in bits and pieces, or would you just do one long take with the whole thing in it?
Potts: We did the full-out scenes before we cut. It was like a play. And then if Cary or one of us wanted to do something different, we’d do it again. I remember we did each of those interrogations at least four times.
: That first day, we carried the McConaughey stuff all the way up to the m-brane theory without a single cut. That’s like, 30 to 45 minutes. And Woody and Matthew had long monologues, so it was really important for us to make sure we’re in the moment with them and living with them, so as to not throw them off.
: And we wanted to be present with them, because they were so engaged with us. I could certainly see that Matthew was seeing how we would sit, glancing at us. I remember one time, I changed the reading of a line, and he mumbled to himself, “Well, if he’s gonna do it that way, I need to do it that way.” They were adjusting to us. It was genuine interacting, and that’s what acting is supposed to be about. They were actively engaged with us and shaping their monologues on what we were giving them.

So McConaughey was cutting up those beer cans into tin men in real time?
Potts: Yeah, he was cutting it right there, so we got to watch him cut up the cans. They gave him a block of instructions on how to do it, and then he did it.

How in-character was McConaughey on the set?
Kittles: Oh, he was intense the whole time. He stayed in character.
: Even during the cuts. He was Rust Cohle during the whole day of shooting. It wasn’t until the end of the day that he went back to Matthew “Just Keep Livin’” McConaughey.

Would you avoid talking to him during breaks because he was still in character?
Potts: Oh yeah, I would avoid him. You recognize that the actor is working in a particular way and you respect what he needs, and he didn’t need me bothering him about, y’know, “How’d you get that tattoo?” or “What’s your shoe size?”

Was Woody Harrelson doing the same kind of Method acting?
: No. The cool thing about Woody was, as soon as you cut from a scene, he went back to Woody Harrelson, goofing around, having a good time, shooting the shit. And the moment the camera was up and ready, he’d slip right back into Marty. Effortlessly in and out, in and out, which I thought was very impressive.

Did you have to build out backstories for Papania and Gilbough yourselves, or did Nic Pizzolato give that to you?
Potts: I remember them telling us we were the new, young hotshot state investigators of 2012. There wasn’t anything deep into character, as I remember.
Kittles: So we did a lot of filling in the blanks. There’s a line where Woody says, “You don’t pick your partners,” and I think it’s the same kind of dynamic with Papania and Gilbough. I don’t know if I would’ve picked him as a partner.
: But I don’t think they would’ve gotten to be the hotshot detectives of the state if they didn’t work well together as a team.

When did they tell you how the show was going to end?
Potts: We had table reads just before we went to shoot particular episodes. It really took the course of the three months that we were shooting before we found out what the ending was. We had a table read the month before we shot our last two episodes, right, Tory? So we pretty much didn’t know until then what the last two were.
: Yeah, we didn’t get the last two for a while. Without having those last two episodes, I was trying to piece it together the same way an audience member would. Like, my own personal theories of who was gonna be involved, who is the Yellow King. At first, I thought it was going to be the minister, the one played by Clarke Peters from the first episode.
Potts: Yeah, pretty much Clarke Peters for me too, initially. And as more information got thrown in, I just left it alone. [Laughs] I just waited for it to wrap up.

What were you guys writing in those notebooks during the interrogation scenes?
Kittles: I would write a tally mark for each cigarette [Rust] finished. After he finished off the six-pack of beer, I’d write another line for each shot he’d take from his little flask. And then I would write specific notes about some of the things he was saying. And then, toward the end of it, I just wrote, “This motherfucker’s lying to us.”
Potts: Lines I was having a hard time remembering. [Laughs] Or at least my cues.

Talking To True Detective’s Papania and Gilbough