Kentucky’s Finest Antihero: Walton Goggins on Justified’s Chameleon Villain

Why is the drug lord of Harlan County so damn likeable? Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder on Justified, on his character’s moral compass.

James Minchin/FX

“All Shot to Hell,” was, as Walton Goggins put it, “a killer episode” of Justified. In a pivotal scene, drug lord Boyd Crowder responds to a threat: “Well, I have been called many things, but no one has ever called me inarticulate.” This is certainly true of Goggins.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Lithia Springs, Georgia, Goggins moved to California at age nineteen to pursue acting. In 1997, he hooked up with fellow Georgian, director and actor Ray McKinnon (O Brother, Where Art Thou), to form a production company, Ginny Mule Pictures. The company was to make movies that were uniquely southern. As Goggins puts it, “pictures about the archetypal not the stereotypical South.” One of them, The Accountant, a dark comedy won an Academy Award for best-live action short of 2002. That same year Goggins began as six-year runs as Detective Shane Vendrell in the FX series, The Shield.

In 2010, Justified, based on characters created by Elmore Leonard, debuted to critical raves. The show has won five awards, including two Emmys, and was honored with a Peabody Award for excellence in 2011. Set in drug-ravaged, poverty stricken Harlan County, Kentucky, Goggins’s character, is the doppelganger to Timothy Olyphant’s U.S. deputy marshal Raylan Givens. The combination of Leonard-type dialogue and Goggins’s measured delivery of the lines is a one-two punch.

Goggins spoke to us from Los Angeles last week, where he lives with his wife, Nadia Connors, who wrote and directed the acclaimed film about the environmental crisis, The 11th Hour, and his son Augustus. He will appear this summer opposite Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) in Mojave, written and directed by William Monahan (Oscar winner for his screenplay for The Departed).

I thought you were a hoot on Community as the lawyer for the estate of Pierce. How did that happen? Are you a fan of the show?

Yes, a big fan. I haven’t seen every episode—I’m so busy I’m sometimes late catching up to my own show—but it’s very smart television. I know Dan Harmon and Joel McHale, and I jumped at the chance to play a comic part like that.

It was a great moment at the end of the show when you stand up and yell, “You know what we should do??? SHOTS!” Would you go back?

Absolutely. I’d love to see what happened after that round of shots.

You worked with Steven Spielberg in Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained. Tell us the truth, who was more fun to work with?

I would never answer that! They’re both great people and colossal talents—giants in the lexicon of America cinema. I not only got to work with them but conversed with both of them at length. They’re at the top of their game, and working with them back to back changed me as an artist.

So you’re not going to choose between them?

Hey, this is Los Angeles after all. They’re here—they’re watching. I’m positive they read The Daily Beast.

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I’ll let you off the hook on that one. I want to get this out of the way: Do you know that several sites on the Internet have said that that you’re a distant cousin of Billy Bob Thornton?

No, as it happened I’m not. I don’t know how that got around, but I wouldn’t mind having his blood run in my line somewhere. He’s a real specific talent. In some ways, he’s a mythical figure for rural Americans. I admired his work for a long time I had a small part in a film he was in, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, and got to work with him in a film he directed, Daddy and Them, and then again in an independent film, Chrystal, where, according to one critic, I “played a character who has two basic skills: smoking weed and trying to avoid another DUI.”

I’m waiting to see Billy Bob show up on Justified.

Yes, I’d love it, but he has a new show on FX, Fargo. I’m hearing raves from those on the inside, and I expect no less.

Last week’s show, “All Shot To Hell,” was a sensational one for your character, both in terms of Boyd’s capacity for ruthlessness and for love. More than any other episode so far, this one gave you a chance to expand the range of the character.

Yes. Boyd is in the middle of growing pains. For me it’s amazing to see this character I love so much go through this pain. But it’s necessary for Boyd. For me logically, step-by-step this is where Boyd is. Not to deal with this and the way we have done it would have been a disservice to the series. Some have criticized this sequence, how long it’s taking to evolve, but I think I was necessary to do it this way. Logically this is where Boyd is, and to dispense with Ava’s incarceration or the impact of that incarceration would have been a disservice to the series in the long run.

You mean seeing Ava in jail, and, in the last scene, being sent to state prison?

Yes, I think it adds a tragic element and makes you feel the pain of a character who you might not otherwise think is human.

I thought it really showed how Justified is different from what is referred now days as “procedurals.”

Which I think is a good thing.

I do, too. This has never been a normal procedural cop show.

Well, after all, this was developed by Elmore Leonard.

I want to get back to that in a minute. I love the language of the show, the way the actors put distinctive spins on just about every line. And I love the way Boyd calls Ava “my fi- an-cée.” It sounds very courtly and respectful—I mean, this from a guy who’s on the verge of becoming the drug kingpin of the state of Kentucky. It seems like you have Boyd speaking in a cadence.

Thanks for saying that. Mike O’Malley [playing Detroit mobster Nicky Augustine] said to Boyd, “I love the way you talk, using forty words when four will do.”

In the last week’s show, Boyd kills a man [Lee Paxton] who was going to testify against Ava, telling him that everyone will think he killed himself, that “The people of Harlan County, rich and poor, will marvel at your debasement and banality and take your suicide as the last act of a coward because a small town never forgets. They will spit venom when they hear your name … And death will not be the end of your suffering.” Is it all in the script or do you ever add to the dialogue.

I think the writers would say I add an extraordinary amount—they give me the freedom to come up with a lot of my own stuff. Sometimes I do a little, sometimes I do a lot, but always reciprocal and respectful. What I bring to this character, they look to me for guidance, as if they are asking “Where are you in your head with Boyd?”

Everyone on the show still cares very deeply about what we do. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes not, but it’s all for the cause of creative risk.

Don’t you think it’s appalling on some level that you are getting us to root for Boyd?

Boyd’s an antihero—why do we root for them? I don’t know on a cultural level why we needed them. Maybe the good guy wasn’t enough anymore—we’re all fallible. Boyd does have a moral compass—not yours or mine—but he does have one.

Last week opened up some new areas, most notably when Michael Rapaport [as Daryl Crowe, Jr., a would-be rival to Boyd’s burgeoning empire] shows up in Boyd’s bar. I thought sparks flew in that scene.

Yeah, I was really pleased on how that came out. The truth is I was really nervous—intimidated is the right word—when I heard he was coming on the show. I’ve admired his work for a long time. I think I was twenty years old when he came on my radar in that movie Quentin did the script for…

True Romance?

Yeah. To get to work with him put a big smile on my face.

So, tell us, what does Boyd really want? Is there an end game to what he’s trying achieve? Does he want to rule Harlan County? To take Ava and get out of Harlan county? To be the emperor of Kentucky?

It’s really been all of these things at one time or another. Boyd’s a chameleon. Fortunately he’s learned from his experience and is able to give voice to how he feels about it in a way that very few characters on TV do.

He’s gone from a racist svengali to born-again Christian to non-belief to finding love and companionship, and very reticent at the beginning but found that maybe there is something here. And comes to believe not only in love but in upward mobility and being legitimate and leaving this life of crime far behind. He dares to believe he could be a father even, let alone a husband and embracing that—that they could live the way other people live. But that wasn’t for them. And this season has been about freeing the love of his life and the toll that takes on him and the toll Ava’s incarcerations has taken on her.

And I think there will come a place where Boyd will have something to say about all this violence.

What’s remarkable to me is how you and Timothy have taken the characters well beyond the ones first conceived by Elmore Leonard. In fact, he told me a few years ago he made changes in the characters in his last book based on the way you guys played Raylan and Boyd. I interviewed him a year before he died and he told me that you two came up with facets of the characters that he hadn’t even thought of.

I hate to ask, but what is life after Elmore like?

There are so many talented people who are saddled with the task of recreating Elmore on a weekly basis—we’re all driven by that, trying to get as close as we can. It’s not our just our loss, we’re a comma in Elmore’s very long paragraphs. But his work will live one. What an incredible man.

I don’t recall a case of a writer changing a character after seeing what the actors did.

I will put that away in a box and tell my son that one day. Thank you.

Speaking of your son, in your Oscar-winning short film The Accountant your character has a very funny line but one that resonates: “Our children are going to grow up thinking there should be sugar in their cornbread but not their ice tea.” Do you think that will be true for your son?

Nah, I’m raising him right. The other day we got in the car and I had a CD on, and he said, “Dada, is that James Brown?” And he’s only three. Man, I wanted to hug him.