When Taylor Sheridan was 11 years old, he caught a wicked case of pneumonia that left him bedridden for weeks and unable to enjoy the 200 acres he lived on in the small North Texas community of Bosque County, just an hour west of Waco.
Though he looks back on his childhood fondly, being sick and stuck with nothing to do but watch the three channels on his TV set was the foundation for what he does today.
“I watched a lot of old movies,” Sheridan, 47, who has just been nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar for “Hell or High Water,” recently told Business Insider. “Clint Eastwood movies, a lot of John Wayne films, a lot of movies that celebrated the region of where I lived. Soon after, we finally got cable, and the whole world opened up.”
Sheridan’s meteoric rise as one of the top screenwriters working in Hollywood — thanks to his acclaimed scripts in the last two years, “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” — is unique.
After spending over 20 years as a struggling actor, he finally landed a steady role playing Deputy Chief David Hale for three seasons on “Sons of Anarchy.” But when it came time to renegotiate his contract in 2010, Sheridan found himself at a crossroads.
“They had one idea about what I was worth, and I had a very different idea,” he said.
The grind to make a living as an actor had delivered its death blow. Fed up with making the weekly salary rate for “Sons of Anarchy” — which after taxes and paying his agent wasn’t enough for him to make a living, so he had to also teach evening acting classes to pay rent — and with a baby on the way, Sheridan saw the negotiations as a wake-up call.
“How can you tell your kid you can be anything you want to be if you’re not trying to do the same?” he said. “I imagine myself being 40-something years old and I can’t go to his baseball game because I got a Windex commercial or something.”
So Sheridan quit “Sons of Anarchy” — and acting.
This is when Taylor Sheridan’s career in show business could have ended.
Not wanting to raise his child in a big city like Los Angeles, he moved his family to Wyoming, where he interviewed for a ranch manager job.
“I was going to be the head wrangler at a ranch in Wyoming, and the reason I didn’t take the job is because I couldn’t have my family there — the family had to stay in town,” Sheridan said. “I just wasn’t willing to do that.”
Instead, Sheridan took up screenwriting.
“I just sat down and thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this, but I’ve read 10,000 scripts in my life and most of them were not very good, so if I just don’t do all the things that bothered me as an actor it will probably turn out OK,'” he said.
His first script was “Sicario,” a thriller he wrote on spec that’s set on the US-Mexico border and follows an idealistic FBI agent who is brought in to help take down the Mexican cartels, but instead finds she’s the pawn in a plot of a CIA officer to take control of one of the cartels by having its leader assassinated.
“I didn’t expect the movie to ever be made,” Sheridan said. “Every writer has written a spec. It’s the first thing you write, and it basically stands as a means of ‘here’s an example of how I tell stories.’ It’s almost like a business card.
“So ‘Sicario’ essentially was that. You dream it will be made. You hope. But realistically you can’t care.”
Sheridan threw the script in the drawer and wrote a script that would be easier to sell: “Hell or High Water,” then titled “Comancheria.”
Like “Sicario,” it would explore Sheridan’s fascination with the modern-day American frontier. But this time he wrote something closer to home. He used a crime caper to examine the impoverished West Texas towns he came across when visiting family in Orchard City a few years ago.
“I was driving by empty house after empty house — it was just abandoned. And this one place that I think had the best hamburgers in America was gone,” he said. “The idea of all these places being gone, and then there was this terrible drought, it just became natural that I wanted to explore that.”
He set the story around two brothers who decide to embark on an ingenious bank-robbing spree to save their family ranch, which is a victim of the mortgage crisis.
Though “Hell or High Water” sold first, ironically it was “Sicario” that got to theatres first, thanks in part to top talent like Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro.
But “Hell or High Water” could lead to Sheridan receiving Oscar gold.
Released last summer, among the dead weight of bloated sequels and failed blockbusters, the movie instantly built a rabid following and Oscar hype for Sheridan. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are incredible as the brothers, while Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances in years — which has also nabbed him an Oscar nod — playing the Texas Ranger who is on their trail.
In both “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” Sheridan displays a gift of telling original stories through genres in which we think we’ve seen it all. And though in “Sicario” the story is extremely clever, in some ways the visionary skills of director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins are what you remember most when you walk out of the theatre.
In “Hell or High Water,” director David Mackenzie lets Sheridan shine — especially his dialogue, which is some of the best you’ll hear in modern movies.
Sheridan’s success seems even more remarkable when he admits that the finished scripts for both “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” were first drafts. Asked how this is even possible, Sheridan goes back to his former career.
“What I did as an actor, I was the guest star, I was the 10th banana on the series. My job was to push exposition. I was the one that shoveled the implausible parts of the scripts. That was my job,” he said. “So for me, it was very easy on the page to see if I tried something and it didn’t work. For me, structurally it needs to be seamless. I’m not someone who puts the whole thing down and goes back to fix. I want it perfect as I go.”
Sheridan has completed the script for the “Sicario” sequel, “Soldado,” which will come out this year with Josh Brolin returning as the CIA agent and Del Toro as the assassin. And he’s finishing up his directorial debut, “Wind River,” the conclusion of his American frontier trilogy, which will also open in 2017.
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jon Bernthal, it looks at a murder at a Native American reservation.
“There’s a theme that exists in all three of these movies, which is failure of a father, and that theme is explored in its most acute sense in this one,” he said. “I don’t want to say resolved, but I was really fascinated by how someone moves on from a tragedy without ever getting closure.”
Sheridan is aware of the importance of “Wind River.” “Sicario” put him on the map, and “Hell or High Water” could earn him an Oscar, but it will be his work in the director’s chair that will prove if he can go forward telling his stories through his own lens.
“I was lucky with Denis and David. They were very protective of the scripts,” Sheridan said. “But with ‘Wind River’ I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. If that one doesn’t work, there’s no pointing the finger at anyone but me.”
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