FX’s hit, Justified [Tuesdays, 10/8C], features a classic hero – filtered through Elmore Leonard’s unique style – in Raylan Givens. I had the opportunity to take part in a conference call with the series’ star, Timothy Olyphant and, as you will see, he’s tough to put one over on. Like Givens, he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em.
Warning – Olyphant does use occasional strong language.
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Timothy Olyphant: What have I learned about Raylan from the second season? He’s not any taller than he used to be. I’m not sure. You know, I’m terrible at that. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m just trying to figure out what to do next, but he seems like he’s got a — as usual — he’s got a lot problems.
What keeps challenging you about playing this character?
Olyphant: God, so it’s – what keeps – I’m sorry, forgive me.
Challenging you about playing this character.
Olyphant: Well, you know, it’s really more about – the character is just a joy to play. It’s more just about the beast of – you know, of television production and just trying to keep your head above water and, you know, stay in front of it, and just remember how much fun it is.
Why do you think people keep tuning in to watch Justified?
Olyphant: Well, if they are like me, they think it’s really good. I’m proud of the show, you know? I think it’s good story telling, you know? It starts first and foremost with Elmore and I’m a big fan of his. And I think Graham and the rest of the writers have just really kind of sunk their teeth into it and just done a wonderful job. So, it’s good stuff, you know? It’s hard to find good stuff.
I’m here with my sister.
What – we were wondering if you had actor…
Olyphant: So, in addition to the 40, 50 people, people are also bringing their siblings and stuff? Is that what’s going on?
That is correct.
Olyphant: Wow, fantastic.
We are writing partners. We were wondering if there were actors from early, either westerns or cop shows that influenced your take on Raylan Givens?
Olyphant: No, I really didn’t look past the – you know, the books. After that, I tend to draw inspiration from whatever just kind of floats my boat for the moment. But, I really spend a lot of time with the source material and I read those books constantly, and spent time with Elmore. And then, it was conversations with Graham, you know? And it was some conversations with U.S. Marshals; things like that.
(I just) kind of get the feeling of you really have the rhythm of people in the backwoods and so forth, and these dialogue and so forth. First of all, remind again where you’re filming it, and then tell me have you gotten any chance to get around and just get more of a feeling to see if you just kind of associate with life down there?
Olyphant: I – to remind you where we’re filming it, we are currently filming it out towards – a great deal of it we film out in Santa Clarita, which in the summertime you just head straight towards the sun…
Olyphant: …and just before you catch on fire there.
And yet it feels so much like backwoods Kentucky when you think (about that)…
Olyphant: Well, I – that – you know, the – our producers and locations managers are doing a hell of a job. They’ve got their work cut out for them. And then, I think at the end of the day it comes down to the riding and the funny voices, you know?
Yes, and so have you ever had a chance to like talk – to visit that part of the country or anything to get more of a feeling of the rhythms (and that)?
Olyphant: No, I haven’t. I’ve – I spent time with people and talked to a lot of people. Our writers had a chance over the break to – they all went down there as a group. A lot of characters you’ll see this season are based on people they’ve met. And so, I’m thrilled that, you know, it feels like we’re capturing it because Lord knows we’re given it the old college try.
The first thing I wanted to say real quick is you are one of my all time favorite actors, so this is just an honor and a pleasure to get to talk to you.
Olyphant: Well, I like you already. Thank you. It’s very kind of you to say.
Now, I know you picked up a producer credit for this season, so what made you want to get involved on that level, and how much behind the scenes are you involved?
Olyphant: Well, last year I just pretended to be a producer and I rather enjoyed it, so I thought, might as well get the credit. It was – it’s really one of the great joys of the job and one of the real challenges of the job is, you know, kind of being a part of the whole thing.
You’ve made Raylan Givens probably one of the most interesting and dynamic characters in TV right now, and I was just wondering if any of that came from maybe a love of playing cowboys and Indians when you were a kid, or you know how does it feel basically to get to play a modern day cowboy every week?
Olyphant: You know, I – it – I appreciate that. Thank you. I’m not – very kind words. I can’t take full credit for it. I’m really just, you know, saying the words and trying to kind of bring it to life.
The – you know, it’s all cowboys and Indians when it comes down to it. You know, it’s kind of the fun of the job, it’s child’s play, and I get a great deal of fulfillment out it. It just so happens every now and then you actually put on an actual cowboy hat and it kind of brings it all home, but you know this one’s fun. You know, it’s always fun to – you know, cops and robbers and in this case it’s kind of more like cops and hillbillies, and this one’s a blast.
You know, it’s such a – you know, the tone of the show, the tone – you know, Elmore’s cool, you know, and Elmore’s funny. And it’s a kick to be able to play what, I guess they call a drama, but day in and day out I think we’re making a comedy, so it’s a lot of fun.
My husband and I were talking the other day and we came to the conclusion that the expression, all women want you and all men want to be you, applies to Raylan.
Along that same train of thought, you as Raylan can be compared kind of to a modern day John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. That rough around the edges, smooth with the ladies, cowboy with his own set of right and wrong. Have you ever thought about it like that?
Olyphant: Not until just now. No, you know, it – he’s – you know, when I read the books I kind of thought, yes, that’s kind of in the ballpark at what I was thinking. The books are great. You know, the character’s iconic. It’s funny, you know, and Elmore – what I remember liking about the books, in terms of what – Elmore kind of took a – took one of those characters and, you know, handed him an ice cream cone, and I thought that kind of made it really special.
I – you know, in a way this show is presenting a world that is really kind of terrifying. It’s terrifying to me that this world kind of exists. I’m wondering how you guys balance sort of presenting something that maybe we don’t want to see, and yet presenting it in a way that makes it compelling and that we really want to see it. There’s almost like an irony there, don’t you think?
Olyphant: I do. You know, my – off the top my head answer, it’s scary out there. Our job is to try to make that entertaining. You know, that’s more or less the deal we’re all – you know, that we all signed up for, you know? It’s – life moves pretty fast and it’s pretty scary and – you know, but at the end of the, you know, the show’s about a guy whose, you know, trying to do the right thing and get through the day with some sense of his reality intact, and I think there’s a certain comfort in that, you know?
What we – what we’re curious about is the fact that you’ve decided to take a departure from your past work on film to shoot this television show and, you know, it’s really – it really has a feel of a film. How do you enjoy building character over the time in television versus building a character for a short film in that capacity?
Olyphant: Well, the fun of it is – you know, really is – you know, I – in a film you more or less know the beginning, middle, or an end and you might have some wiggle room in there, but this really is a journey, you know, and I’ve been very fortunate to be kind of allowed in on a part of that process. So, that is one of the real challenge here for me that I’ve really enjoyed, which is – you know, it’s – I don’t think of it as building a character. I just think of it, you know, we’re just telling a story and I don’t know how it’s going to end, and that’s kind of the fun of it.
But for me, you know, at the end of the day this – it – the same things apply. You know, I’m still trying to scene to scene figure out what it is I’m doing and basic rules still apply. And you’re just – I think, you know, the tremendous upside here is that it’s such a great character, and it’s really tough to get your hands on a great character.
Now, in Season 2 we meet Mags Bennett and her sons, and they’re wonderful…
Olyphant: Oh, (isn’t she great)?
…family – isn’t she wonderful?
Olyphant: Yes, she’s just great.
And I like the idea of someone having a family business moving into fill a criminal gap that’s left by another family business that has lost its leader. I also like that Mags and Raylan have a history, so I was wondering if you could speak to that relationship and the impact it has on the season? And also, maybe tell us a little bit about what it’s like to work with Margo Martindale?
Olyphant: Well, all right look, first of all you snuck in about three or four questions there, and don’t think the rest of the group didn’t notice.
With that being said – well, first of all there – the whole bunch of them are just fantastic, both the characters and the actors playing them. Margo’s just the real deal. I just – she should be picking out dresses, you know, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s just a – it’s – I don’t know what else is on TV, but I’m pretty sure that’s something special. And it’s a pleasure to work with her and Jeremy and Joe and, you know, all those guys, Bradley playing Coover. They’re just great, and I just thought we were onto something special.
You know, the inspiration for the character came from Elmore who has written some stories about Raylan and he had a character in one of his books that was a man, I think he was calling him Pervis Crowe, connected to the Crowe family. And Graham wanted to make the character a woman and Margo is just like such a fantastic choice, you know? So, it feels like something that you just don’t see.
And as far as the families and the history, I mean that’s something that, you know, Graham and I were both really interested in exploring this year in that sort of Hatfield-McCoy kind of culture and styles. And I think that you know what’s – it’s been really nice, you know, it’s what was alive in Elmore’s original story – short story with Boyd, and we tried to kind of keep that alive, and also kind of deepen it.
You know, it’s really nice throughout the season we keep kind of deepening that history, kind of keep peeling back the layers. You find out more and more as we go, little hints that we leave as we tell the – as the story goes we kind of come back around and get a little deeper. And it’s just the world we created this year, I think, is just really rich.
Hey, Tim. Thanks so much for your time.
Olyphant: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Olyphant: For your time – I’m sorry, I finally broke down and just like said, you’re welcome, and I’m sorry. I meant…
(I’m going to worry you to death).
Olyphant: …I have to admit I saw Jay-Z play over New Year’s and at about an hour and 20 minutes into the show he just looked at the audience and said, “You’re welcome.” And I just thought that was the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, and I think I’m guilty of just doing it myself. So…
Oh, listen, I have to (unintelligible) – I couldn’t stop watching it. I watched all three episodes back-to-back…
Olyphant: (They were the best days).
…without (seeing), and Margo Martindale, just to circle back to her, I was at the TCA and I actually asked her. To me she’s Tony Soprano and Paula Dean had a baby and (birthed) Mags Bennett. And you know so your family, the Givens family and the Bennetts, there’s history, but it seems from me watching your work that there’s some caring. She cares about you. She’s proud of you. Am I wrong?
Olyphant: No, I think you’re onto something. I mean, I – you know, Elmore’s world is always, you know, less about good guys and bad guys as – you know, people who respect each other and people who don’t, you know? It comes down to who’s cool and who’s an asshole. And I think that division is often more important than who’s breaking the law and who’s trying to keep it.
And you know I think that it’s always a fun choice. You know, it’s always a interesting dilemma and situation when you genuinely like the person, respect the person, but are at odds, and plus she’s just so fun. I don’t know if it was a choice so much as just a reaction. As I was working with her, I just find myself so fond of her and her work and, you know, you’re like, “Well, I guess Raylan likes her.”
That’s what I’m going with.
One of my favorite things about the show is the Boyd/Raylan relationship, and I was wondering if you could talk about how that’s changing this season, and what it’s like working with Walton?
Olyphant: Well, Walt’s fantastic, you know? I mean, Walt’s just – anytime he’s on the call sheet I know it’s going to be an easy day for me, because I just sit back and let him do all the work, you know? When you’ve got someone who’s going to take the take, moment to moment, keep you on your toes, it just – you know, I remember years ago your acting – my acting teachers saying, “Just work off the other person.” Well, when you’ve got someone like Walt it makes it real easy to do it.
As far as his character, you know, it’s really great. You know, we had a lot of fun with him this year. He – you know, he’s, as Elmore said, he’s one of these guys where I don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth, but I can’t stop listening to him. He’s one of those guys who just seems like he could be whoever and whatever he needs to be, given the situation.
And, you know, Walt can speak more eloquently about the character than I can, but I – you know, we really had a lot of fun watching him sort of start out with him sort of lost in the woods, and kind of regain his footing and find his way and come back to life. And he’s in a completely more kind of dangerous and compelling way this year than last year.
One – the one thing that I – strikes me with Raylan is that to me he sort of seems like an extension of Elmore Leonard, as Leonard has never really dove fully into Hollywood. He’s always sort of been on the edge, you know, keeping – staying at arm’s length. And the character of Raylan himself in the mythology of the show is also sort of at that sort of keeping his past, his family, you know, everything in Kentucky at arm’s length.
And I was wondering if those similarities between Rayland and Elmore have occurred to you, and if so do you ever sometimes go to Elmore and say, “Hey, if you were Raylan what would you do in this situation? How would you react, look, smile, you know, walk,” et cetera?
Olyphant: I can’t – I’m not – I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t think I thought of it as – I don’t know if I was ever as insightful as you just were, and I appreciate what you said. I think you’re on to something. I – and as far as my relationship with Elmore, you know, more or less all I’ve done is kind of chat with him. You know, I don’t think I’ve asked too many specific questions, in terms of where would you – you know, what would you do, where would you go?
And I think my – what I’ve really taken advantage of is just the opportunity to be around him and to listen to him, to shoot the shit with him, and just to – you know, it’s amazing what you can learn from that. And he’s a cool customer, you know, and I think a lot of what – a lot of the answers to some – you know, the questions that I may or may not have are kind of right there just listening to him, you know?
He – these characters and these stories he tells are – you know, they really are an extension of him. And, you know, just hanging out with him you just get a vibe and I just try to copy that.
There are moments in the show that are unlike anything else you see on TV, whether it’s a grenade launcher, blowing up a building, or the question of whether or not there was a bullet in Raylan’s gun when he points it a Boyd. What are some of the moments you – when you said this is great television?
Olyphant: Oh, you know, I’m not a huge fan of every episode, but there’s not an episode that goes by without me finding – there’s something – there’s always something and I’m like, “That’s just – that’s good drama, you know, it’s good storytelling.”
It’s – you know, the examples are – I think are countless. You know, this season, I mean, God, where do you start. You know, it’s everything from something small. It’s Art telling me I should get an Uzi and it’s walking into Mags store and asking her, “How’s business.” You know for me, from an acting standpoint, it’s fun to be in a scene where me asking Mags, “How’s business,” is both so conversational small talk, and yet feels so loaded.
And I think that’s part of the brilliance of Elmore Leonard, and it’s very difficult to kind of replicate week after week. And I think our writers just do a fantastic job, which is he seems so – it seems like small talk. It seems like he’s just kind of meandering, but really everything is kind of like a bullet, you know, headed towards a very – something very specific. And those moments are a blast, you know?
I could just go on forever. I mean honestly, it’s – the job is a – just a joy, you know, day in and day out it is – I never – I’ve never left that set and didn’t think to myself, “That was great. That was just a great scene. It was a great moment. It was a great performance.” Not mine, I mean I’m just talking about the ones around me and it’s – you know, it’s – I put in these long hours on this puppy, but it’s – at the end of the day you just always walk away going, “God, you know, there’s something to be proud of. It was pretty cool.”
I’ve been a fan of yours since you played the creepy Tarantino film student in Scream 2, so this is a big deal for me.
Olyphant: Oh, (unintelligible)…
But, my question to you is you and Deadwood sort of kind of started the whole western coming back to the forest being the cool genre, and now we’ve got you in Justified, as well as True Grit coming out. And what do you think it is that’s made – it’s kind of like the vampire genre, it’s kind of come back around to being cool again. What do you think it is that keeps us coming back to like westerns and that kind of story?
Olyphant: Well, I mean first of all, you know, I just showed up to work on Deadwood. You know, David Milch, that’s his baby and that was something. I mean, you know, that’s a genius at work just turning a genre on its head, and it was really something special to be a part of.
You know, this one, I don’t know – you know, I don’t know what I’m doing here, honestly. But, I read this fantastic interview with Walter Mosley in the L.A. Times where he talked about our show, and that first – that right of the bat just meant the world to me that Walter Mosley, you know, about our show. He was talking about – what I thought was if he’s watching the show – he was saying that, you know, the westerns were basically about – were made during a time where people really believed in America, and that Americans believed in something very clear about good and evil – you know, good versus evil.
And as that got a little more foggy, you know, the westerns kind of went away. And he thought – he was really curious now to take this guy Raylan Givens who appears to be born maybe 100 years too late and stick him in a modern world, and start asking those questions again.
I just really was using that as an excuse to talk about Walter Mosley knowing my show, but I don’t know if it addressed your question at all, so forgive me.
I thought Justified was the best new show last year by far, so much appreciated. Just real quick, I think Raylan is, certainly if he’s not there yet, he will be like one of your – kind of one of those iconic like TV characters.
But I’m wondering, do you – are you starting to sense that either from, you know, people who just run into you, or even U.S. Marshal’s, you know, do you actually hear from them? You know, are kind of getting those shockwaves about this guys – this character Raylan Givens? You know, he’s a player, you know, people are starting to recognize him and connect with him.
Olyphant: Well, I really appreciate that. I – and – it’s very generous of you. Look, I knew when I read the thing I was like, you know, just, you know, close the deal before somebody else gets a whiff of this thing. Because I – you know, I trust I know a good part when I see one, and usually when is see one I have to wait for like seven people to pass in order for it to come – for me to get to it. You know, it’s really – and they’re not going to because it’s just good, you know? It’s – so, I mean I knew it was a good part. I knew it was good writing. I knew it was – I knew Elmore, when done right, is – you know, I just – I love it.
So, you know, beyond that I can tell you, you know, people who’ve – you know, when I run into people on the street and I try not to, you know, I try to remove myself from the general public as much as possible with – I have an elevator that goes straight to my room in the building, so I don’t have to see people. But, I – no, I’m just kidding, I can’t even tell if anyone’s listening anymore.
I – people have been very generous. People have been very complimentary. And I know the difference between someone coming up to you on the street and saying, “Hey, you’re that dude, right. Yes, that’s what I thought.” And I know the difference between that and somebody coming up and saying, you know, “Big fan of the show. Big fan of that character.”
And, you know, that – you know, that’s – it’s nice, you know? You’re out there telling stories, you’re hoping to find an audience, and it’s very appreciated.
You and Natalie Zea have amazing chemistry both off-screen, I listened to the entire Hatless commentary and was rolling, but…
Olyphant: How did that go? The…
Olyphant: …commentary was all right?
It was fantastic.
Olyphant: You’re the best, thank you.
Some quality acting getting pointed out to me by you. But, this season we do see their dynamic shift from what we had in Season 1, and Natalie accredits that to you being a ridiculous flirt.
Olyphant: I don’t know what she’s talking about.
It’s in an interview, I read it. It’s online.
Olyphant: Well, just because she said it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Well, you – how can you – can you put into some sort of how you guys’ dynamic has shifted from this new season with your relationship on-screen changing?
Olyphant: You know, – well, you know, I – she’s fantastic. I mean, you know, the same things I said about working with Walt Goggins, I’d say about working with her. You know, it’s just – and this year, you know, I – the list goes on and on this year, you know, Margo and so on and so forth.
They’re just great and Nick Searcy, by the way I’ll throw him in there too. He’s just a pro. He’s just not as good looking as she is, so I’m less interested in that storyline. So, you know, I – you know, I thought the – you know, Graham is the one who I think started the idea of the – this – you know, these two, the ex-wife and he’s – he had the idea of having these two get back together.
And I think what that – it started as just that. It was just like, you know, a broken relationship, but there was still some sort of, you know, sexual kind of tension or something. But, you know, after we shot the stuff it just seemed like there was a lot more going on there. It was a lot more interesting. And so, when we got together, Graham and I, before the – we went back to the – back to work here, you know, that was a relationship that I think we were both really interested in exploring.
And as is said to Graham, if one of my buddies comes over to the house and tells me he’s fucking his ex-wife, we might not talk about anything else for the rest of the evening. I’m just – I’m curious. I want to know how that worked, so – and if he tells me he’s in love with her, then I’m really interested.
So, we had a lot of fun with that relationship this year. I think it’s really one of the more interesting things we’ve done.
So – one of my friends did want me to tell you that she thinks your accent on the show is beautiful. I’m going to tell you that.
Olyphant: Well, thanks. I kind of like yours.
Well, thank you. So, I love the dynamic between Boyd and Raylan, and I want to know, do you think that Raylan accepts Boyd as like an old friend? Does he go after him more so because he thinks he knows him and maybe wants to prove that he can like almost save Boyd from the criminal road he’s traveling down, or…
Olyphant: No, I don’t. I mean, I honestly don’t think I see him as a friend, you know, in terms of their relationships. I see it for just as – I think all we’ve told you, according to my scripts, is they have a history. And I think there’s a knowing this. I think there’s an understanding between them. But beyond that, I think that’s kind of it.
I think after that it becomes about it’s fun to see them – their worlds collide, you know? And I think given what he does and given my character, you know, what my character does it’s – they’re going to keep running into each other.
Moderator: We have time for – I’m sorry to interrupt, we have time for one more question.
Olyphant: Have you thought about this question…
Olyphant: …because this is it. I mean, everybody’s got questions…
Olyphant: …and if you’re not – you know what I mean?
I know. I better not suck.
Olyphant: Just don’t ask me like, you know, what do you think of your haircut this year, or anything like that.
All right, hold on, let me cross that one out.
Olyphant: Okay, good. (I’m an expert).
So, every character that you play, whether in this show or film, it’s just seems completely unique and you’re always one of the most interesting to people to watch on screen. Is that (unintelligible)…
Olyphant: Well, so far I love your question. I don’t know where it’s leading, but so far I don’t think that anyone should be complaining.
All right, good. Now, is that because of your choices as an actor or is it the quality of scripts that you get offered, or both?
Olyphant: Now, that’s just a setup.
Olyphant: It started with such a nice compliment, and then you want – then the question is, should I deserve all the credit for what you said is consistently great work, or should we give credit to writers?
You know, (unintelligible)…
Olyphant: That’s really what it comes down to you asking, right?
No, there’s some – there’s actors out there who completely stink, you know?
Olyphant: That’s – yes, I imagine that’s true. Sure. I mean, you know, some people just aren’t trying. You know, I don’t know, I’ve been really lucky. I feel like, especially the last two years – first of all, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been working for a long time and I’ve just really been allowed to work, and with very little of the baggage and the pressures that can come with my job.
I’ve just been able to year after year for quite some time now, you know, get to the set and be in a film and not have – and just be allowed to keep doing it and get – and just get better. Just kind of, you know – you know you do it for 10, 12, however many years I’ve been doing it, if it (weren’t) – you know, if you’re not good by now then I think that’s going to be about it.
But, I’ve been allowed to, you know, go to work and the last couple of years I feel like a combination of two things. One, I’ve really kind of realized how much I enjoy the job. And at this point in my life I kind of show up to work with a real interest and a real commitment, and I guess a level of confidence in terms of asking myself, you know, I’m not looking for answers when I show up to the set. I’m just asking the questions, you know, asking questions over and over.
And I think I’ve been given some great material. I mean, in the last couple years I did a small movie, High Life that went to the Berlin Film Festival. I did Perfect Getaways, The Crazies, this, the TV work I’ve been able to do, stuff like with those guys in Damages. They’ve been great roles. They’ve just been really great roles and I’ve been able to have a dialogue, a meaningful dialogue and collaboration with the film makers on each one of those projects.
And each time it’s led to, you know, work that I’m really pleased and proud of.