Max Thieriot, who plays Clay Spenser on SEAL Team, heads behind the cameras for tonight’s episode, making it the second time he is directing the CBS drama.
“I love it,” he tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “I love the challenge. I love the hard work. For me, one of the most rewarding things you can do in this business is being able to craft a whole episode.”
But it’s not without its difficulties, especially when it comes to group scenes, which SEAL Team has a lot of, but especially now during COVID-19 protocols, which have changed the way things are filmed.
“Given the shooting schedules that we have now, I can’t go back and watch playback [while filming group scenes that I’m in],” Thieriot says. “And so, I’m trying to be present in the scene, but my head’s spinning, thinking, ‘The cameras aren’t on me now. I’m going to watch the cameras and see what I’m getting with all these shots.’ It’s a big juggle in those scenes, but it’s all part of it.”
Tonight’s episode sends Bravo on an unexpected mission to the coast of Africa for eight weeks, even as the individual team members deal with personal problems: Ray (Neil Brown Jr.) isn’t sleeping after having been tortured, Sonny’s (AJ Buckley) going to be a dad and has to break up with Davis (Toni Trucks), and Jason (David Boreanaz) is learning new lessons about supporting the team after they leave. Needless to say, none of them are one-hundred percent focused, which could result in some good storytelling ahead.
“There’s definitely some good drama coming up,” Thieriot shares. “These last five episodes honestly just build up throughout. They keep going and going and going, becoming more and more intense, more and more dramatic, and more action as it goes on to the point where I was jealous that I didn’t get to direct another one later.”
M&C also spoke to Thieriot about the special place that Clay holds on Bravo Team, and what he will take away with him from the series, which has yet to receive its pickup for Season 5.
Monsters & Critics: What keeps you coming back to directing?
Max Thieriot: You’re handed your script, and it’s what you get. But I think that’s also what’s challenging about it. You look at each script for its own challenges and you go, “Oh, this is going to be the hard part in this one,” or, “Man, I wish this was different.” They’re never perfect for you. And that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s going, “Okay, let me see what I can do with this thing,” and “I can’t wait to see what these words on this page becomes when you see it.”
M&C: You appear in more scenes this time around as an actor. How hard is it to direct yourself?
It’s not hard to direct myself, but from a directing standpoint, I honestly hate it. Not because it’s difficult. It’s mostly because I’m so nitpicky, hands-on, and obsessive when I direct each frame, each shot, each transition, and each movement that 99.9 percent of the people watching will never see, but I’m, like, just super nitpicky about all those things. And so, when you’re standing there and acting in the scene, it’s tough, especially in big group scenes, it’s harder. If it’s two people, like the stuff with me and Stella (Alona Tal), it’s not so difficult because I can set up the cameras going, “Okay, this is the shot. This is what we’re getting. All right, shoot it.” And then I can feel the performances and the scene as an actor and know, “Okay, we got that.”
The hardest thing is when you’re doing these big group scenes and, just given the nature of how we shoot this show, we do a lot of handoffs. It’s a lot of handheld cameras constantly moving. We’re panning over. We’ll start on one thing in one shot and then in take two, we’ll start on something else. There’s a list, a lot of different stuff that we do.
M&C: There’s always action in an episode of SEAL Team, but there’s also emotional scenes, especially this episode. Which do you prefer as a director?
Max Thieriot: I like both. The action scenes are fun just because they’re fun. You get to play with all the cool stuff and you get to use the cool camera rigs. We use an arm car and a drone, and you get to bring out all the fun toys. That being said from a purely cinematic directing standpoint for me, the dramatic and emotional scenes are the ones that affect me the most. When you accomplish a really great acting scene — and maybe it’s just because I’m an actor, I don’t know.
Action’s fun, but it’s like the more money you have to spend on the action, the more time you have to shoot it. As long as you can have 40 different camera angles and a bunch of cuts, you can build an action scene, but it’s hard to fake a great emotional performance, and you can get a great performance, a great emotional scene, an impactful scene from characters with really nothing. There’s no trickery, you’re not trying to fool the audience. You can do a little bit of camera movement to inspire or motivate somebody’s feelings a little bit. Action scenes are built out of a lot of cuts.
M&C: Clay hasn’t been with the team as long as some of the others, but he seems to have an instinct on what to do. And he seems to have a bigger say in things than a newer guy should have in my mind. How would you describe his position?
Max Thieriot: I think Clay’s still sort of finding himself. Clay is clearly the youngest guy on the team, but he’s also naturally the most able leader outside of Jason. I think that it’s one of those things that you can’t necessarily always teach and that you just have. And I think that it’s like street smarts versus book smarts, sort of an old-school thing of you can learn all the tactics and know all the things out of the book, but the reality is like when the bullets start flying, can you execute the way that you need to in the chaos? Clay naturally has that, like Jason naturally had that when he became team leader.
M&C: And so, you’re saying the other guys recognize that in him.
Max Thieriot: I think so. I think the other guys look at Clay like he’s the new guy, but they also look at Clay like he’s potentially the future. Clay’s also reliable, personally, for all of them. He’s somebody that they all feel like they can talk to and lean on. And, clearly, in a lot of these moments given what we will see with Theo (Kurt Yaeger), I think it’s the one place that Jason has sort of lacked. He has shut himself off a lot to that part of himself because he feels like if he doesn’t then he’s exposing himself to a weakness that might ultimately impact them on the battlefield.
I don’t know if Clay just hasn’t learned that yet or if he’s able to cope with it. I’m not sure, but it’s interesting. There’s an interesting dynamic. I think, too, that you’re finally seeing the trust from Jason in Clay. That’s a prominent thing that we will dive into throughout the rest of the season.
M&C: Do you think Clay has second thoughts about staying on Bravo, giving up his shot at becoming an officer, especially now with what’s going on with Ray, or maybe even more because of what’s happening with Ray?
Max Thieriot: No, I don’t think he has second thoughts of becoming an officer. He had these really high aspirations when he became a Navy SEAL. His dad was a Navy SEAL and Clay thought, “I’m going to be committed to being a SEAL and I’m not just going to become a Navy SEAL, but I’m going to become a better Navy SEAL. I’m going to go to SEAL Team Six.” For Clay, it’s always been about proving himself and then one-upping everybody. It’s been this cocky, arrogant thing that he’s always had like, “Cool, you did that. Well, I’m going to do it better.” I think finally what’s happening is Clay is realizing, “Being a SEAL is a who I am. Why do I keep trying to push myself to be more than I am and do things that aren’t me just because I’m trying to prove myself to everybody else?”
I think that he’s finally starting to realize who he is, and his biggest fear is not letting down his teammates. I think that Clay feels 100 percent capable on the battlefield. I think it’s just at home that he doesn’t feel 100 percent capable, you know? And now what he’s struggling with is looking at relationships. He’s a product of the type of relationship between his parents. His biggest struggle at this point is he lived his life thinking, “I can’t do this.” And just when he gets this glimmer of hope from Ray that, “Oh, maybe it’s possible,” now Ray’s situation is on the rocks. And so, I think he’s looking at him like, “Well, crap, maybe I was wrong, and I just set myself up for this huge let down because it really isn’t possible.”
So, I think that his biggest struggle throughout the end of the season is figuring that out. But I think, ultimately, hopefully, Clay comes to a place where he realizes that no matter what other similarities there are between guys, similarities between relationships, or how guys fight on the battlefield, at the end of the day, each individual is their own individual person.
I think that Clay ultimately has to come to the fact that he’s going to be who he’s going to be. He’s not going to be Jason Hayes in the battlefield. He’s not going to be Ray Perry at home. He’s not going to be Ash Spencer (C. Thomas Howell). He’s going to be Clay Spencer, and whatever that is, is whatever it’s going to be.
M&C: The show hasn’t been picked up for season 5 yet, so when you look at the four seasons, if you don’t get another season, what will you take away with you?
Max Thieriot: The work and life experiences. I’ve had a great time working for CBS. I’ve had a lot of fun here and certainly going from my last show [Bates Motel] of 10 episodes a year to 22, it’s no joke. It’s a grind. It’s a lot of filming, but beyond that is getting to work with the people I work with and creating another family in the work environment. One of the biggest things by far is the relationships and this community of veterans that we’ve come to work with and have become such a part of the show and are such an inspiration to all of us. And the stories that I constantly get on a regular basis from people who are serving, to people who have served, to moms of guys who were overseas, to people with kids who have watched the show that now want to become SEALs that are doing projects and raising money for different veteran charities and organizations. It’s a lot of really good stuff for the heart and the soul. That’ll be my biggest takeaway.
SEAL Team airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/8c on CBS.