‘True Detective’ Star Taylor Kitsch on His Character’s Big Twist and the Cult of Tim Riggins

The studly TV and film star opens up about his enigmatic True Detective cop, getting confused for Tom Brady, and giving up Gambit to Channing Tatum. [Spoilers]


Taylor Kitsch. For women—and men—of a certain age, the name conjures up an image of a brooding football stud, his long, greasy locks obscuring goalpost-high cheekbones and penetrating eyes. Yes, Kitsch’s Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights remains one of the most swoon-worthy TV characters in recent memory. And, following a film career filled with hits (Lone Survivor) and misses (John Carter), the Canadian ex-model, who once gave a whole new meaning to Derelicte when he spent several weeks homeless in New York, has returned to the small screen as one of the tortured cops on Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective.

And Kitsch’s highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh might be the most tortured character in the HBO potboiler’s second season (which is really saying something). Half his body is scarred from his experience overseas in a Blackwater-like operation called Black Mountain; he needs to pop Viagra to have sex with his randy girlfriend; and his trailer-trash mother is touchy-feely in a creepy way.

Last episode, Woodrugh broke up with his girlfriend in a fit of rage—“This is on you,” he claimed—before heading to his bachelor pad in downtown L.A., where he gazed longingly at a gay prostitute from his balcony. In Episode 3, it’s revealed that all this odd sexual behavior is a front for Woodrugh’s being deep in the closet, as he’s confronted by an ex-military pal and former lover.

“I think about you, man…What if I don’t want to forget, huh?” the ex-lover says. Woodrugh tells him to chill out, then snaps, throwing him on the ground, and yelling, “Fuck you, asshole!” when the man tries to tell the repressed cop about his feelings. Woodrugh is later led through the prostitute underworld by a gay hustler who—like Woodrugh—popped Viagra to have sex with women, only his sexy times were for the entertainment of the murdered city manager of Vinci, Ben Casper.

The Daily Beast spoke to Kitsch about Woodrugh’s reveal, why he lashes out, and much more.

Did you see parallels between Woodrugh and your character Bruce Niles in The Normal Heart, another gay man who had to hide who he was by day?

Totally, man. There’s a through line in that sense of not being able to be the guy that he is, what that means to him, and how deep that runs. It goes back to the desperation, and how tragic that is. When we really see how desperate this guy is, it’s heartbreaking. It’s so sad. God knows how much fucking energy it takes to hide behind all that. This case is really a backdrop for exposing who these guys really are. What’s so enthralling is the winding up and winding down of who these guys really are, and exposing that.

Why do you think Paul lashes out so violently against his ex-military buddy/lover?

I think when you’re living with something so long, and it runs that deep where it feels that’s what’s within himself, then it really would be the end of him. There is no real answer to what would happen if [it’s revealed], and I think that shame is so strong within himself that if he does answer to it, then it’s, “OK, now what? What the fuck am I going to do now?” I will say that some of my best work in my career is in Episodes 4 and 5—the repercussions of him answering to that call within himself. You’ll see the heartbreak and the weight that he carries, and what happens if he does answer to that.

There are parallels between Woodrugh and the gay prostitute he speaks with at the club, since they both need to pop Viagra to have sex with women. And just prior to that, we see Woodrugh lock eyes with Vince Vaughn’s character in the club and give a knowing look. Do these signs point to Woodrugh being an ex-hustler?

No, I think it’s storytelling exposing his needs and wants in a certain way. Even putting him in situations—albeit “working” ones—but he’s being exposed through these beats. There’s something that he’s investigating—no pun intended—within himself. It’s that “What if?” and it’s right in front of him. I think Paul sees this hustler and he thinks, “Well, if I bring this guy with me then I’m going one step closer to the path,” and that’s what happens. But Paul does come to a place in the road where he does react to that longing for it, and the beauty of that as an actor is the repercussion of that decision.

Were you at all apprehensive about playing this character? It’s a potentially problematic role if not handled correctly—a closeted gay man who lashes out violently against those who seek to expose his secret.

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I don’t know if I even thought about it that way. Obviously you’re scared about going to the deepest parts of these guys, but I get more of a high from that—of trying to see if I can pull it off and see how deep I can go. I think that’s such a tribute to the writing, how deep Paul is. Every actor is always looking for these guys to play. I don’t know. I fucking loved playing this guy. It sort of fucked me up to come out of it, but it’s so fulfilling, as well, when you feel you’re doing your best work.

How long did it fuck you up? Just a few weeks. I’m conscious of when I am in it, but what’s tough is you’re living in this bubble and in this deep, depressing state. This guy’s been through so much, and some nights you can’t help but take it home with you.

I’ve gotta ask: In Episode 3, is that supposed to be Cary Fukunaga—the director with the ponytail on the film set?

Oh, no way, I haven’t seen any of that yet!

The first time a lot of people saw you—with, perhaps, the exception of your awesome snake fatality in Snakes on a Plane—was on Friday Night Lights. There is still this major cult of FNL worship.

I mean, I’m walking around the streets of New York and a bunch of people came up to me today. People will say how much they love the show, and how they like Riggins, and Kyle Chandler, and all that. It feels like forever ago, personally, but it’s always flattering nonetheless.

John Cusack once said that when people date him, they expect Lloyd Dobler, Do you ever run into problems where when people date you, they expect brooding Riggins and get smiling Kitsch?

I think when you’re in a bar or something—when I’m at a bar in Austin, guys will come up. The beauty of Riggs, too, is it’s guys and girls, so it’s the ultimate flattery. There was a guy at the gym in L.A. and my hair is really short now. He had this long hair and he said, “Dude, I fucking grew my hair for you.” And I was like, “Uhhhh…what?” And he said, “Oh…Uh…I mean I grew it because Riggins had long hair, and he was getting laid all the time.” And I was like, “How’s that going for ya?” and he said, “You know, I think it fuckin’ works!” I thought that was pretty funny.

Have you ever gotten confused with Tom Brady? You guys kind of look alike with the short hair.

Maybe once or twice! But not a lot.

They recently announced the new Gambit film with Channing Tatum playing the Cajun superhero. You, of course, originated the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Did you get a crack at the part before they cast Channing?

Um…no, I didn’t have a go. Ever since we finished the movie, it’s never really been an option. But no, I wish [Channing] nothing but the best. It was a fun character to play, and I learned a lot working with Hugh [Jackman] and had an amazing time in Australia. I’m sure they’re doing their own thing with it, and I’m sure Channing will be great.

What else do you have coming up after True Detective?

We’re just kind of taking a beat. I waited a full year for True Detective to be green-lit, and I have no problem waiting for that next one. We love the track that we’re on, and it’s all about waiting it out for that next gig that you just have to do. It’s been flattering with a lot of good material coming our way. Did you become more patient with your choices of roles after John Carter and Battleship?

A lot of those were no-brainers to me, too—all the fights that me and [Andrew] Stanton had to try and get John Carter made. And Pete Berg, too. I was talking to Pete literally a couple of hours ago and we’re looking to do something together sooner rather than later. We had such an amazing time on Battleship and Lone Survivor, and the shorthand me and Pete have and the relationship we have off-camera is really good. It was a string of really good opportunities that were no-brainers. And Savages, too. I would do all of those all over again. In the sense of patience, the game is a lot different now than it was even four years ago. A lot of the good material is going to cable shows, and the last two years I’ve been working with HBO. It’s about trying to find that good material, and a lot of times it’s not being made into films. The game has definitely changed.