04.05.11

Justified: Talking to Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins

FX’s hit western/crime drama has reached new heights in its second season. Allen Barra talks to co-stars Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins about their on-screen partnership.

The music that accompanies the opening credits of FX’s Justified, developed from the fiction of Elmore Leonard, cues you that you’re in uncharted territory. The song, “ Long Hard Times To Come,” by Gangstagrass, melds two distinct musical styles, traditional Kentucky bluegrass with urban rap, just as Justified melds two dramatic genres, the urban crime story with the classic western. Now in its excellent second season, the show’s central figure, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, wears a Stetson for emphasis, and his boss’ office showcases a poster from the cult favorite Tombstone for emphasis.

Boyd is the doppelganger Raylan can’t escape.

The territory is Harlan County, Kentucky, a meth and welfare-gutted coal mining community that’s on even longer, harder times now than it was in Barbara Kopple’s searing, Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A. (1976). The Raylan character first appeared in Leonard’s 1993 novel Pronto. Deputy Marshal Givens has earned the enmity of the Sicilian Mafia in Florida and of the Cuban American drug cartel by gunning down a mob kingpin, Tommy Bucks, at a open air Miami restaurant after giving him 24 hours to—you guessed it—“get out of town.” Tommy Bucks (as in “big bucks”) is far from Raylan’s only shooting, though, like the previous ones, it’s ... justified. (“Let’s just keep it simple, huh?” he tells an investigator. “He pulled first. I shot him.”)

Too hot for the Miami district, it’s Raylan’s turn to get out of town—back to Harlan County, where he grew up, assigned to break up “The Dixie Mafia,” the network of gangs who manufacture and sell (with ties to Florida) meth and oxy in homemade laboratories. For Givens, a return to Harlan County is a return to everything he fought hard to get away from. Nearly every “gun thug” (the term is borrowed from Kopple’s documentary) he confronts is someone he played baseball or hunted squirrels with as a boy. Raylan knows that every shooting will stoke a blood feud the next time he’s in those woods.

An occasional episode takes place in or around the marshal’s office in Frankfort, but inevitably the cases draw him to backwoods Harlan, and, increasingly, with each episode the series inches farther away from Elmore Leonard’s pungent but pulpish sensibility to impart a sense of dread, murkier and more complex. If the last few episodes don’t quite suggest Faulkner at his darkest, they are at least as disturbing as the country noir of Missouri novelist Daniel Woodrell, whose characters in Winter’s Bone seem kin to the folks of Justified’s Harlan County.

In the crumbling neighborhoods and strip mine ravaged countrysides of Raylan’s youth, the past isn’t even the past; old times there are not forgotten, and the family feuds and bad blood are worsened by a failed economy and a nightmarish spiral into a drug culture. In this Harlan County, you can go home again, and home is hell. 

Justified, which was honored with a Peabody award last week, is stirring the kind of word-of-mouth excitement among its followers associated with the first years of The Sopranos and Mad Men—FX has already announced it has renewed it for a third season. Justified’s creator, Graham Yost, is, like Leonard, one of the show’s producers, and has co-written, with Leonard, 21 of the series’ 26 scripts, but the show has no single auteur, unless it’s Olyphant himself. A generous actor and superb reactor, his scenes with each of the show’s many characters set the tone and pace of each episode. They include his sly and tolerant boss Art (Nick Searcy), his irascible father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), whose own illegal activities have earned him an ankle bracelet, and, most recently, Mags Bennett (Margot Martindale) as the jolly and monstrous methadone matriarch.

Justified’s wild cards are its female leads, Raylan’s ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), who divorced him because “I couldn’t stand waiting for the phone call” and Ava (Joelle Carter), who tells him “I’ve had a crush on you since I was twelve years old.” Winona has left her shifty second husband, Gary, who makes real estate deals with gangsters; Ava was married to the abusive son of Bo Crowder, a local drug boss, until she divorced him with a shotgun. No helpless heroines, these two; they load guns with the same facility they fry up a chicken. Fans of the show have been taking bets as to which woman Raylan will wind up with. 

But the relationship that gives off the most heat is between Raylan and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder, Bo’s surviving son. In an early episode, Raylan tells Art that he and Boyd  “weren’t what you call buddies, but you work a deep mine together, and you learn to look out for each other.” 

Raylan’s and Boyd’s lives seemed to be similar track through high school, then, as Boyd said in last week’s episode, The Spoil: “At 19 I went to Kuwait, and Raylan went to college and the marshals service.” 

When he confronts Boyd one-on-one, Raylan seems to be looking into the abyss, and lately the abyss is looking back. Boyd, an ex-con who blew up a black church with a rocket launcher, has a swastika tattooed on his arm. Raylan asks him what he has against Jews. A bemused Boyd replies, “The truth is, I’m not really sure I’ve ever met a Jewish person.”

Boyd is the doppelganger Raylan can’t escape. “Would you shoot me?” Boyd asks him with a grin. A poker-faced Raylan tells him, “You make me pull, I’ll put you down.” And if the relationship weren’t complicated enough, in the final episode of last season, it was Boyd who saved Raylan from the hit men sent by the Miami mob.  (“Sounds like a love story to me,” says one female character, after Raylan tells her of his past with Boyd.) 

Raylan and Boyd are TV’s hottest characters. Olyphant, born in Hawaii, packs the soul of a character actor in the body of a leading man; like his costar, Goggins, he’s a man of many parts. A stage-trained veteran who finally scored big as the real life western sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO’s enormously popular Deadwood, he also functions as the show’s producer and has a flare for light comedy—you can hear his voice as “The Spirit of the West” in the animated film Rango and on April 21 he reprises a guest role on The Office

I spoke to both men while they were on the set of Justified, where they had just wrapped Episode 9, “Brother’s Keeper,” which both actors regard as the high point of the season so far. It airs tonight.

You’re now one of Justified’s producers. What exactly does that mean?

Timothy Olyphant: Being a producer is one of the great mysteries in life. I step well over my job description, looking into every area of the show. The whole process fascinates me. I just poke my nose into everything until somebody tells me to get the fuck out of the way.

How do you get along with Elmore Leonard?

Olyphant: He’s a hoot. I worried for a while that I wasn’t quite his idea of what U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens should be, but I’ve been gratified by his comments. He gave me some books to read for background, including Stinking Creek by John Fetterman, a classic about miners in Kentucky. 

Has Leonard ever offered you any advice on how to play Raylan?

Olyphant: Only one time. Obviously, he likes the iconic imagery of the modern U.S. marshal wearing a Stetson, but he told me, “Don’t be afraid to lose the hat. There’s a lot more to Raylan than just the hat and the gun.”

I’ve been groping for someone to compare Raylan to. I think you might say he’s part Clint Eastwood tempered by a dash of Jimmy Stewart.

Olyphant: OK, I’ll take it. But I think there’s a lot more to Raylan than the showdowns. I like the situations where he gets to resolve the issue with psychology instead of pulling his gun.

One of my favorites episodes is where you convince a lifer who’s holding a shiv to guard’s throat to give up by offering him fried chicken and bourbon.

Olyphant: Spicy fried chicken.

What I love best about Justified is the unsettling atmosphere—you never quite know from one episode to the next, or even one scene to the next, which character is giving his allegiance to who, or where a friend’s, or even a family member’s, loyalties lie.

Olyphant: A lot of that has to do with Graham Yost. He gives us a lot of room to work within the scripts. You know, there’s a tendency when you do something really good to keep repeating it, but for this show I wake up thinking about the one we just did and say, “The hell with that.  Let’s do something different this time out.”

A lot of the scenes seem to have an improvisational quality. Do you work for that?

Olyphant: Oh, all the time. We always try for that feeling, especially in the scenes with Raylan and Boyd.  Walton—man, talk about an actor who’s committed—is always pushing the limits of the script.

Do you two spend a lot of time talking about your scenes?

Olyphant: Constantly. When we’re not on set, sometime we’re on the phone talking over a scene. We say, “Let’s get together and work this out, see if we’re on the same page.” I know it’s going to be a great day when I see his name on the call sheet.

My wife made me ask this question, but I know that millions want to know the answer: Will Raylan wind up with Ava or Winona? This is especially important since it looks like Ava and Boyd are getting closer.

Olyphant: (Laughing) How do you know there isn’t going to be a third choice?

OK, suppose there was a Twilight Zone kind of time zone warp that had Raylan Givens and Deadwood’s Seth Bullock gunning for each other. Who would you give the edge to?

Olyphant: Oh, man, that’s an unfair question. That’s just not fair to ask that.

Beast: Tell me this. Does Raylan ever get out of Harlan County?

Olyphant: I don’t know that it would matter even if he did because I think he will take Harlan County with him wherever he goes.

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Goggins, born in Birmingham Alabama and raised in nearby Douglas County, Georgia, was inspired by an aunt and uncle, Joan Long and Mark Gordon, who were active in Birmingham theater.  He formed Ginny Mule Pictures with friends, the actor and director Ray McKinnon and the late actress Lisa Blount. In 2002 they won an Academy Award for best live action short, The Accountant. Goggins was also a producer for McKinnon’s 2004 film Chrystal, starring Billy Bob Thornton. Like Olyphant, he had his first big break as a lawman, albeit a corrupt one, in the FX series The Shield.

Boyd Crowder is the most fascinating ex-con I’ve ever seen on television. How much of him is in the script and how much of him is from you?

Goggins: There’s a lot of Boyd in the script, but Graham [Yost] and the directors always let the episodes find their own rhythm, and they allow us space to fill in our characters.

Along those lines, I noticed in one episode Ava sees you reading a book and asks what it is. You tell her, Of Human Bondage. Whose choice was that?

Goggins: Definitely mine. Maugham is one of my favorite writers. I carried The Razor’s Edge with me when I traveled through Cambodia. And I named my new son Augustus Somerset.

Who are your other favorites?

Goggins: Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor ...

I think you were born to do a film version of that incredible Flannery O’Connor novel, Wise Blood.

Goggins: Oh, man, sign me up. I understand those characters.

Raylan and Boyd seem to be moving along similar lines when they were teenagers–both had fathers with criminal associations and they worked in the mines together. What put them of different paths?

Goggins: Remember that Raylan went to college. Boyd is self-taught—Boyd’s still finding his way.

Do you and Timothy ever get so deep into your characters that it rubs off when the camera isn’t rolling?

Goggins: It happens. In Episode 12, which is coming up in a few weeks and might be the best one ever—he said something that pissed me off just before the take. He did it on purpose, and I carried that anger right into the scene. It had a real electric quality to it.

You mean Tim pissed off Walton?

Goggins: No, Raylan pissed off Boyd. We were getting into character. He said something as Raylan that wasn’t in the script and caught Boyd by surprise. It was great. We have these terrific scripts that are diving boards, platforms for taking off on what we’re going to do. The actors are invited to the table—they let us be part of the creative process.

Both Raylan and Boyd seem to be suppressing a lot of anger. Winona even tells him, “You’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.” The same thing might be said of Boyd.

Goggins: A lot of Boyd’s anger comes from what happened at the end of Season One. Boyd’s transgressions led to the death of 18 of his men were summarily excluded by his own father. He needed to pay a penance for that. The bottom of a well wasn’t deep enough, it took going to the bottom of a mine.

Is Boyd envious of Raylan?

Goggins: (Laughing) Well, now that Boyd’s renting a room from Ava, you might ask if Raylan is a little bit envious. And Boyd might be on better terms with Raylan’s father than Raylan is.

Boyd isn’t envious of Raylan—Walton is jealous of Tim because of his good looks. I’m not jealous of anyone else. I’m happy. This business has given me opportunities I never dreamed of and contacts I never thought possible.

I have a three-month-old son [with Nadia Conners, co-director and writer of the 2007 critically acclaimed documentary about the environment, The 11th Hour]. I’m in Daddy bliss.

Editor's Note: The Walton Goggins interview has been changed from an earlier version because of a followup interview--the two discussions are now compressed.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.