Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, has a quiet amiability which belies the intensity of a man who yearns to clean up Harlan County, USA, the hell hole of unemployment, meth labs, and racism where he grew up. Olyphant has garnered an Emmy nomination and won the praise of the author who created Raylan, Elmore Leonard.
Raylan is a lawman for our time who works not for the ideology-tinged FBI but the most dangerous arm of American law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Marshals Service. His tan Stetson connects him symbolically with a century of movie and television good guys, but, as the color indicates, Raylan can never quite be the unvarnished hero. His ties to Harlan through blood, marriage, and history constantly draw him into dangerous compromises which blur the lines between lawman and outlaw.
Tonight marks the premiere of the sixth and final season of Justified, and fans will be glued to their seats wondering which, if any, of the show’s characters will survive the Marshals office’s final assault on the drug-ravaged, welfare-gutted hills of Harlan County.
Timothy Olyphant spoke to us about these and other topics from his home in California.
Sorry to start out on a sad note, but Elmore Leonard died almost a year and a half ago. I know everybody loved to see him on set, and he enjoyed being there. What is life like without Elmore?
We were all affected by his passing because he always had some interesting observation to make and was always there if you had a question for him. But I don’t think our attitudes about the show changed any when he was no longer with us. We’re all very much aware that it was his world, and we’re just lucky to be living in it.
Didn’t everyone wear bracelets with a tag that read “WWED?” for “What Would Elmore Do?”
Graham [Yost, the creator of Justified] and the writers wore them. I didn’t have one, but I didn’t need it. I was always thinking about what Elmore would do.
Did you read any of the Raylan books and stories?
Read and reread. The only thing better than reading Elmore is rereading Elmore.
As far as I know, your relationship with Leonard produced something unique in all of American literature: he told me when I interviewed him three years ago that in the first of his Harlan County stories, Boyd was a good bit older than Raylan. He told me that after watching you and Walton Goggins [as Boyd], he reworked the characters, making them the same age and turning them into doppelgangers.
I don’t know of any other writer who changed his work after seeing actors play his characters. Elmore said the Raylan of the last several stories was really based on your interpretation, that you had thought of things about him that he hadn’t. I mean, Raymond Chandler loved Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, but he didn’t change the way he wrote about Marlowe because of Bogie.
I really appreciate that he said that, but it’s not the kind of thing your think about when you’re playing the character. You can’t get too self-conscious about the way your character is written about in books. I’ve got to say, though, that it was a weird feeling reading Raylan [Leonard’s last Givens book] and realizing that the character I was reading about was influenced by the way I had played him. But when we were filming, the only thing I thought about was showing up, hitting my mark, and saying my lines. But the fact that I impacted Elmore makes me feel good.
Last season it seemed that Raylan was moving closer and closer to the dark side. In this season’s first three episodes, he seems to have pulled back a bit. Is Raylan more focused now?
I think that’s fair to say. At the end of last season Raylan made a concentrated effort to adjust to circumstances, to pull himself back from the uncharted territory he was moving into. After all, there were a lot of big developments. His boss Art [Nick Searcy] was shot and nearly died. He had a new boss, Rachel [Erica Tazel], and his ex-wife and a baby daughter waiting for him in Florida. But he has to take Boyd Crowder out, his final assignment before he leaves Harlan County forever.
You mentioned the character of Rachel. I think with Rachel we’ve got an intriguing element here that we certainly didn’t have when Art was Raylan’s boss—sexual tension, perhaps spiced by the fact that Rachel is a black woman in a position of power in white supremacist Harlan County. Is there something brewing between Raylan and Rachel?
Well, these characters were created by Elmore Leonard, so there should be.
But you’re not going to tell me?
No, but remember last season Rachel told Raylan that one reason she put up with his bullshit was because he was “easy on the eyes.”
A huge thing for me was the addition of Sam Elliott to the cast this year as a real nasty guy. My only question is why did it take so long to get Sam Elliott on the show?
Man, he seems like a natural in Harlan County, doesn’t he? The first time I saw him working, I thought, “Why are we wrapping the show now? We could do another couple of seasons just with him.”
Actually, he made an earlier appearance on the show.
When was that?
During the first two seasons there was a poster from the movie Tombstone hanging in the marshal’s office. One of the men on the poster was Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp.
[Laughs] I’ve got to tell him that.
I’ve got to ask you a tough question here. As you said, we’re talking about a world that Elmore Leonard created. That means that we really don’t know who is going to live or die by the end of the show. I’m not asking you if Raylan lives or dies, but you know, don’t you, what happens to Raylan at the end?
Yes, I do.
If Raylan lives—and I’m not assuming that he does, I’m just saying if—what do you see him doing after he leaves Harlan? Does he go to Florida to be with his wife [Winona, played by Natalie Zea] and baby?
I don’t know that Raylan can ever completely leave Harlan County. His family and friends are buried there, and one way or another, it’s always going to be with him. But last year he told Winona he would give it all up—the Marshals Service, everything—for her. He would do that for her. I think he meant it, but knowing Raylan as well as I do, I just don’t know if he can do that.
You’re credited as executive producer for the show. Are you clear about what the producer’s role should be? Does this mean you’ve thought about directing?
No, being a producer is still a bit of a mystery to me. I try to pay attention to every aspect of the show, but for the most part I think the others see me as a glorified cheerleader and a big pain in the ass.
Directing? It’ an appealing thought, but as far as I can tell it’s a lot of work. Producing is easier. You can tell someone else what to do and then go home.
I asked you this a few years ago, and you didn’t know what to answer. I want to try it again. Let’s picture a Twilight Zone kind of set-up where aliens come to earth and kidnap Seth Bullock from Deadwood in the 1870s and Raylan Givens from Harlan County in 2015, then takes both marshals to another planet where they’re pitted against each other. Who would you put your money on?
All I can say is that I think the guy who played Raylan would give a more nuanced performance. He got better with experience than the guy who played Seth Bullock.