Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, 'Mud,' a charismatic fugitive who befriends Ellis and Neckbone. "Mud is the guy that you want to hang out with on an island in the middle of a river," explains Nichols, who wrote the role with the actor in mind. "Matthew McConaughey was born to play Mud."
McConaughey joined the project because he liked the script, admired Nichols's previous films, and connected with Nichols's vision for the Mud story. He was also intrigued by the character Mud's lyrical speech and physicality. "Mud is always on the move. Mud is always doing something. I liked that," says McConaughey.
"Jeff and I have similar sensibilities about what we like about films," says McConaughey. "He's a linear thinker. If anything changes, he's able to see how it changes other things. I naturally think that way as well. A lot of directors are just about the moment and they can make these parts all work together in the editing room. Jeff as the writer and director is already making the cuts in his head. He is seeing the edit point. He's making the movie as he's going."
McConaughey didn't feel the need to embellish Mud as a character -- his identity was already strong in Nichols's story. "Jeff's writing is good," continued McConaughey. "He's confident with the material. He is good communicator. He doesn't go overboard with it, either. For a young director going into his third movie you can definitely have a feeling that 'I've got to do more, direct more,' which happens with lots of young directors. He doesn't feel the need to implement himself in places that are not necessary. That may sound simple, but in reality, it is not for a lot of people."
McConaughey worked closely with the two young actors on the set, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, whose characters are literally Mud's lifeline. "Ellis learns about love through Mud. Mud is, in his romantic beliefs, very youthful. He's never grown up and become practical. For him, the honeymoon is never over."
McConaughey was impressed with the natural abilities of Sheridan. "He knows what he's doing. You don't catch him 'acting' when he is in front of the camera." McConaughey and his family spent time with both Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who plays Neckbone, camping near Crockett's Bluff during the shoot. "Jacob is easy to work with -- and talented," said McConaughey. "He's got a real identity and he's got the confidence to be himself. He's able to be natural in front of the camera."
McConaughey was serious about preparing for his role, practicing on a dirt bike and ultimately doing most of his stunts. He "felt comfortable with the Huck and Tom environment" and was eager to work with the young actors. Most of all, says McConaughey, he had to get inside Mud's character. He knew he could do it because he knows "how to be someone who loves with all his heart."
"Mud is an aristocrat of the heart; he's committed to this love with Juniper," says McConaughey. "The main work I needed to do was with his speech and thought process. His mind is racing all the time. He's also a guy where the reach is better than the grasp. He's always trying to get Juniper, but I think if he ever really ended up with her, part of him would die. He's a dreamer and a poet."
McConaughey was glad to finally work with his friend Reese Witherspoon, although they only spent one day of the eight-week shoot on the set together. "Reese was the person I pictured as Juniper before we even began. She and I have been looking to do something together, so hopefully this is the start of more work together."
During the lead-up to filming, McConaughey became particular about a key element of Mud's wardrobe: a worn yellow "lucky" shirt Mud wears throughout the story. Costume Designer Kari Perkins gave him a shirt to try, but after wearing it for a while, the usually easygoing McConaughey showed himself to be almost as superstitious as his character when he decided it just didn't feel like the right lucky shirt. Perkins painstakingly washed, sanded, soiled, scratched and tore a different button-down shirt for McConaughey until it looked weathered enough to reflect Mud's personality and on-the-run way of life. McConaughey deemed it lucky, and the show was on.
Renowned actor, writer and Academy Award winner Sam Shepard plays 'Tom Blankenship,' a reclusive man whose houseboat is opposite the shore of Ellis's. For Producer Sarah Green, one of the most exciting moments in making Mud was getting a call from Shepard's agent. "She said, 'This never happens, Sam's pretty particular about the work he does and usually has something to say about what his character says or does. He asked me to tell you that he would be honored to play Tom Blankenship, and to please tell the writer not to change a word.' Jeff and I both consider Sam one of our greatest living writers, so calling Jeff with that news was pure joy."
"When I saw the script, I thought it was just amazing," Shepard says. "One of the best scripts I've read in a long, long time. [Jeff] very clearly knows what he's after, and yet he is open to what presents itself in the moment, which is a great thing."
Shepard also enjoyed working with his young co-stars, Sheridan and Lofland. "They are, thank God, untrained!" he says. "You can't manufacture these kinds of kids in Hollywood. They are true, Southern, rural boys that hunt and fish and drive boats and do all the stuff that is written in the character. They didn't have to learn any of it. They're great kids."
Elkhart, Texas native Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) was cast early as 'Ellis,' having worked with producer Green on Malick's acclaimed film. Much of the story revolves around Ellis's point of view. Tye describes Mud as a story "about a boy who misunderstands love."
"Ellis has been trying to figure out love. He hasn't really experienced anything. He's been on the river his whole life and he's living in his own world. A bunch of bad things happen, and he goes through a lot of emotional experiences," explains Sheridan.
Working with Sarah Green again after his positive experience in The Tree of Life was important to Sheridan. "She's friendly and she likes to get to know everybody. She creates a good vibe on the set and she really cares about what she does."
About Reese Witherspoon, Sheridan says, "She is very down-to-earth on top of being a great actor who can turn on a dime and get into character very fast. It's unbelievable to watch."
To fit the look for his role, Sheridan stopped washing his hair for two months at the request of Jeff Nichols. "The first week was really tough, because I'm always clean and I like to wash up and take two showers every day, one in the morning and one at night," Sheridan says. "It was killing me, but I overcame it."
One of the most memorable scenes for Sheridan and the crew involved covering him with snakes. Sheridan wasn't afraid of snakes and, after discussing the scene with Jeff and the snake wrangler, was up for the challenge. Once the snakes were crawling all over him, however, he began to question that decision. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, there's snakes on me,' and it kind of bothered me," he says. "I don't really like snakes anymore. One of them crawled up on my chest and face, and it stunk really bad. I didn't like it too much."
"When we were shooting this little kid with serpents all over him, even though we know they are harmless, you can't help but think 'What are we doing?'" says producer Aaron Ryder. "You realize how absurd this entire business is!"
Jacob Lofland is from Yell County, Arkansas, and is making his acting debut as 'Neckbone' in Mud. "Neckbone is Ellis's sidekick," Lofland says. "He's the right-hand man of Ellis. When we meet Mud, Neckbone doesn't really like him. He thinks he's a little strange, and that he shouldn't be hanging around with him. Then towards the end Neckbone starts warming up to him and they really become friends."
Lofland has enjoyed his entrance into the filmmaking world. "The people have been really normal compared to what I expected, to what you hear about in movies. They've been really cool and nice, nice people."
"Jacob is an incredibly talented and charismatic actor. His natural abilities bring humor and comic relief to the film," said producer Lisa Maria Falcone.
Sheridan and Lofland, who are the same age, spent a lot of time together both on and off the set. Both enjoy outdoor sports and video games. Lofland, who is home schooled, spent time with Sheridan studying and discussing Huckleberry Finn on the set, visiting museums and historic sites in Arkansas, and doing science projects. The on-set tutor, Joe Conway, taught both boys to play chess. But immersing the young actors in Mark Twain was a highlight of their sessions. "The boys became very animated when we started talking about how the themes of sacrifice and friendship in Huck Finn related to the story they were portraying making Mud," says Conway.
Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon has been in all three of Jeff Nichols's films, starring in both the critically acclaimed Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter and now in the supporting role as 'Galen,' Neckbone's uncle and guardian, in Mud. "I didn't want to break my streak [in Jeff's films]," said Shannon. "Jeff is wickedly talented."
Sarah Paulson came to the project by way of Shannon, who is a longtime friend and acting colleague. In Mud, she plays Mary Lee, Ellis's mother, who has decided to break away from her husband, Senior. In Mud, Mary Lee is significantly younger than her husband, but the character is still in her early 40's. The age difference was a stretch for Paulson, but a challenge she was glad to accept.
"When I got to Arkansas, Jeff said, 'we'd like to try to age you up. How do you feel about wearing absolutely no makeup?' I'm sure I blinked at him like five times. A lot of times, you'll do a movie where they want the 'natural look,' and you'll do the 'no-makeup makeup,' which is actually a lot of makeup. I'm actually wearing, in this movie, zero makeup. Nothing on my skin, no concealer, no under-eye coverage. This is the first job I've ever had where the more exhausted I can be, the more beaten down I can look, the better for the part. I've never done that before."
Ray McKinnon, who makes his home in Little Rock, plays 'Senior,' Ellis's father. McKinnon was introduced to Nichols through Nichols's father, who owns a furniture store in Little Rock and recognized McKinnon when he came into the store. He convinced McKinnon to attend a Little Rock screening of Nichols's Shotgun Stories. McKinnon, who had been skeptical, was won over. "In Jeff I found a very earnest, very talented young writer and director," says McKinnon.
McKinnon then worked with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon on Take Shelter, portraying Michael Shannon's older brother. In Mud, Nichols wrote the part of Ellis's father with McKinnon in mind. Ray is happy to be teaming with Jeff again in inhabiting the complex southern man, 'Senior' in Mud.
For McKinnon, having a chance to work with young actors sealed the deal. "Part of the reason I do what I do is I get to pretend to be somebody else," McKinnon says. "I thought this might be the last time I get to play the father of a child that age."
McKinnon and Sheridan bonded on the set. "I love Ray," says Sheridan. "He's like a father to me, he's just a good guy. He always gives me tips and likes to talk the scene over before he does it."
Of his character, Senior, McKinnon says, "He's a guy who is rooted in a place and in a belief system, and it's very difficult for him to adapt and change that belief system. That's his flaw and also in some ways his strength. He's in a place where he's not sure what to do in this society that he doesn't understand, and on top of that his wife, who is able to adapt and change, is doing just that. And he's seeing that and sees the handwriting on the wall that she's outgrown him, and something's got to give. He has sadness and he has rage, and with his son, it's one place where he feels that he can be a good father and guide his son in the right way -- the way that he was taught. But that doesn't go well, either. So at the end of the day, he is forced to change too."
Like Sarah Paulson, actor Paul Sparks heard about Jeff Nichols and Mud from Michael Shannon with whom he co-starred in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Sparks, who plays the sinister, immaculately groomed bounty hunter 'Carver,' heard praise about Nichols and his new project from the famously low-key Shannon. "I've known Mike Shannon a long time, and so I knew Jeff and I knew his work, and I'd seen Shotgun Stories and I was a fan. I wanted to be a part of the film. Jeff was as good as advertised."
Joe Don Baker plays 'King,' the leader of the revenge-seeking headhunters. "He's a self-made man used to giving orders, and everybody following him, whatever he says. He's really hard-nosed, and he's out for revenge because Mud did something to him, and he ends up losing nearly everything because of the revenge."
"I've played hard-noses before, but [Jeff] wanted hard-nosed with no humor, no lightness, no nothing, just stoic. So it's not really like any character I've ever played, which I liked."
Academy Award-winning actor Reese Witherspoon, a champion of Southern stories, found Mud irresistible, and looked forward to finally making a film with McConaughey. Mud marked her first trip back to Arkansas since she starred in Walk the Line. To get ready for her role as 'Juniper,' Witherspoon studied photographs of girls and women at motocross events, noticing their dress, hairstyles, tattoos, makeup, and attitude. "[Juniper's] got something magnetic about her," Witherspoon says. "She is able to get things to go her way whenever she wants, so I tried to find pictures of women like that. But honestly, trying to find characters that are reflective of this character in movies or in contemporary literature is difficult. I think that is part of the reason why I was interested in making this film, because there aren't a lot of authentic Southern filmmakers. I think this will be interesting for people to see how a lot of this country lives."
Like McConaughey's Mud, Witherspoon's Juniper relies heavily on the two boys in the film. Most of Witherspoon's scenes include Lofland and Sheridan. On working with Tye Sheridan, Witherspoon says, "He is remarkably composed for such a young man. He is very thoughtful, he is very quiet, and I think he is incredibly talented. He is just very natural, and it's a pleasure to work with him. He brings a lot of dignity to the role."
On working with newcomer Jacob Lofland, she says, "He is the real deal! He is really from Arkansas and you can hear it in his voice. Him being in Mud reminds me of how I was found in Nashville when I was 14 years old to do a movie. I think he is having a very similar experience, like, 'I can't believe this is actually happening!' He brings a lot of humor to the movie because he is just so authentic and country."
On Juniper's distant romance with Mud, Witherspoon says, "I think that's one of the best parts of the script, that it's a relationship that is discussed between lots of different people, but not between the two people who are having the relationship, so you don't know what the nature of it is and you're kind of left to figure it out for yourself. Most relationships, I would say, are indecipherable and really it's the perspective of the people around you that inform it. And I think that's how we piece together what's happening in their lives."
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