Not long after playing the closeted lawyer/gay rights crusader Bruce Niles in HBO’s The Normal Heart, Taylor Kitsch learned that he’d landed the role of Paul Woodrugh, a troubled motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol, on the second season of True Detective. He was such a big fan of the show—and its creator Nic Pizzolatto—that he put his career on hold for almost a year to wait until filming began.
“I wanted to be a part of True Detective in whatever manner possible,” Kitsch tells The Daily Beast. “Luckily, Nic had a guy in Paul who was such a rich character to dive into, which is such a treat as an actor.”
During the first few episodes of True Detective, we’re granted glimpses into Woodrugh’s mysterious past. He has scars across half his body, presumably from his time overseas working for a shady Blackwater-like outfit dubbed Black Mountain Security; he needs to pop Viagra to have sex with his girlfriend and looks pained when she performs oral on him; and he’s suicidal.
In Episode 2, we learn that Woodrugh has a penchant for overcompensation. “Oh, and this one fag, at the bank? Tried hittin’ on me. Almost clocked the guy,” he tells a fellow cop. The cop, perplexed, responds with, “Why?” and Woodrugh has nothing to say. Later, he breaks up with his girlfriend, exclaiming, “Fuck off! Who the fuck am I supposed to be? There’s nothing wrong with me,” and then heads to his L.A. apartment, where he stares longingly at a gay hustler from his balcony.
Needless to say, we had a lot of questions for Kitsch—whom you may recognize as Riggins from Friday Night Lights and Murph from Lone Survivor—and he did his best to try to answer them.
How were you cast on True Detective? It’s so secretive. I’m picturing a little person meeting you at the top of a hill overlooking L.A. with a briefcase containing a script.
[Laughs] Nic lives in Ojai, and I flew into L.A. from Austin and then drove up there about an hour and a half and met Nic at a dive bar out there. This was eight-plus months before we even hit camera. I guess I was one of a few guys he was interested in, and we litereally sat there for eight hours talking. We spoke about True Detective for maybe a tenth of it. He’s become one of my closest friends.
Who were you up against for the role? I don’t even want to know. But he’s been in my corner ever since that meeting.
You and Nic in a dive bar for eight hours sounds like plenty of drinking happened.
It’s basically an episode of True Detective. We may have thrown a couple back. We had food, then even ordered dinner later. I had one of my best mates come up with me to just see Ojai, and I said, “Yeah, it’s going to be a 45-minute meeting.” It came down to the fourth hour and I called him and just said, “Hey, man, you might want to just come in and have a couple with us.” We ended up leaving just before midnight. It was a good time. We tend to do that, Nic and I. He had just done a bit of press in L.A., and I missed one of my best friends’ birthdays because we were hunkered down in the hotel bar from 2 to midnight.
Are we talking whiskey here, or what’s the drink of choice? I had to drink light because if I’m drinking whiskey for eight or 10 hours I’ll be that guy, you know? I think it was vodka.
You live in Austin, and [Season 1 star Matthew] McConaughey is a Texas boy and there pretty often. Did he give you any advice?
It’s so funny. I’d never talked to him until we sat next to one another by chance on a flight from Austin to New York. We talked the entire three-and-a-quarter hours. I don’t think there was any advice. He just discussed his experience and how much he enjoyed working with Pizzolatto. He was interested to see what I was going to do, and he said he’d stop by the set—which he did, which was awesome. We were just picking each other’s brains and discussing what he had coming up. The guy’s just doing amazing work.
Your character, Paul, is such an enigma.
It’s really a credit to Nic. In the first episode, hopefully I gave you a taste of what this guy is, and the beauty of this eight hours is we can really let his story unfold naturally. It’s great because the writing is so good that it challenges you on how deeply you want to go as an actor.
Was that troubled starlet with the ankle bracelet supposed to be Lindsay Lohan who you pull over in the premiere episode?
I mean, I guess, yeah. [Laughs] It’s something that Paul wouldn’t be impressed by at all. It’s the first time you meet him, so he’s plugged in and working.
He has a very complicated relationship with his girlfriend. There’s the first sequence where he comes home and she’s ready to go, and he has to go to the bathroom. He is popping Viagra in order to get worked up enough to have sex, right?
Every character on this show is masking some demons, but it seems like Paul has more than perhaps anyone else. And he’s gone to very long lengths to pass as a straight guy.
Right. I think that’s something that’s just in himself. Who we are comes from our past—our upbringing (or lack thereof), and fatherhood, and what it is to be a man. With Paul, you really do see how much shame he carries, and it slowly unfolds throughout. I will say that in Episodes 4 and 5, you really see this guy fall. And the deeper we get into the season, the more desperate Paul gets for having to hold that secret and hide who he really is. It’s pretty fucking tragic to not be able to be free, or to hold shame about something like that.
He has scars along the left side of his body which we’re led to believe are associated with his time overseas in a Blackwater-like outfit called Black Mountain Security.
Right. Some of them are. The scars from his hip up to his shoulder are shrapnel scars.
There’s also a strange relationship between Paul and his mother that we see in Episode 2. She’s very touchy-feely, and it just plays as inappropriate and strained.
We see beats with my mom of where Paul has come from, and where the wounds started. It’s pretty diabolical, man—living and growing up with a woman in a one-bedroom trailer who was a dancer in Vegas. There’s a scene in Episode 5 that completely unwinds everything, including his entire relationship with his mom. He’s like a 10-year-old kid in that scene, though, if you think about it. It’s a beautiful thing when you see what happens when he goes back to his mom and tries to tell her certain things, and her reaction is basically what he’s been dealing with for the past 30 years.
Season 2 of True Detective did seem like a response to the criticisms of Season 1 in that it features a badass woman in the lead, and all of the men have serious sexual hang-ups and are also pretty emasculated.
I didn’t get that. Speaking for Woodrugh, I think this guy is capable of being incredibly masculine and is always on edge, but I think these characters are just so different, and it’s down to the beauty of his writing. With Season 1, it had its own energy with those two guys and they did amazing work, and hopefully they’re seeing the work we’re doing in a different light. We’re our own entities.
Did you bond with your fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams on set?
Yeah, we did. She’s rad. Paul’s sort of doing his own thing on the case, and I wish I’d shared more scenes with her, and with Colin. Just one-on-one would’ve been great. There are some fun driving scenes I have with Rach, but when Woodrugh is working, he’s pretty solitary. There’s a scene in Episode 4 where Paul just melts down in front of Farrell’s character, and I came out of that wishing we had more scenes like that between these characters because they’re both so fucked up and could seek help within one another. There’s a relatability factor there that’s really fuckin’ intense.
Are these rumors in the news about tension between you and Vince Vaughn on set true?
Remember when I said Nic and I were drinking in that hotel bar? I saw Vince that day while we were doing press in L.A., and it couldn’t be more untrue. All Vince and I do is laugh when we hang out—quite literally, we just laugh. I think someone’s just trying to grab straws or headlines because there aren’t any fucked up, negative stories about the making of this show. Vince and I actually had a good laugh over how much horseshit that is.