Interview: TIMOTHY OLYPHANT

     April 14, 2009


Written by Matt Goldberg



Timothy Olyphant is the whole package. While he has movie star good looks, he has the versatility and range of a character actor and can disappear into a role. He had a massive 2007 playing the love-interest in “Catch and Release”, Bruce Willis’ foe in “Live Free or Die Hard”, and the enigmatic assassin Agent 47 in “Hitman”, but he has kept his roles grounded in reality and made his characters as fleshed out as possible. While perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO’s “Deadwood”, Olyphant is once again playing the Sheriff in Breck Eisner’s remake of George Romero’s “The Crazies” but that’s where the similarities end.



We spoke with Olyphant about his character, what attracted him to the role, how he’s become more involved with shaping his characters in recent years, what he took from his time on “Deadwood” and why a “Deadwood” movie is as good as dead.




So can you tell us a little bit about the character you play?



TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: What do you know so far? Nobody knows anything?



You’re the Sheriff and you’ve got a pregnant wife.



OLYPHANT: Yup. All true.



And you’ve got a best friend who’s your deputy.



OLYPHANT: Um-hum.



And you go crazy?



OLYPHANT: No, no. So yeah that’s true. All that’s true. (laughter)



So you’re going to be like fighting for survival for most of the movie or are you going to be fighting back turn into a bad-ass action hero by the end?



OLYPHANT: Well, you want to go see the film, but hopefully we have a bit of an arc to the story. You know he’s a little bit…I remember talking to Breck when we first started and it’s kind of like reminds me of the guy’s in a situation that he thought it would be kind of a cush-gig. And then when the shit hits the fan, you think, “You know what? This is not the job I signed up for.” I think he kind of starts from there.



What appealed to you about the character when you read the script?



OLYPHANT: You know the most appealing thing about the movie when I first read it was, well, first of all, the title. I just couldn’t get enough of that title. I thought that was great. And there was a pace to the movie that I really liked. You know there’s this kind of very nice, simple, things don’t seem right, things seem worse, things just get out of control fast. And there’s a nice kind of puzzle that has a nice little simple through line. You know the character to be honest with you when we first started he was not all that appealing, but Breck and I had a really nice collaboration about finding something that I really like.



Do you write your own sort of back-story of your character or ask for that kind of thing from the director in general or on this?



OLYPHANT: You know the last couple of jobs I’ve done I’ve weaseled my way into participating as much as they’ll let me. And so on this one I really got very involved and it’s been a really nice kind of back and forth with Breck from the moment we met and started talking about it. I don’t know if you’d get so detailed as like I get into the back-story but I get into the story a great deal. Like I said, the last “High Life”, “The Perfect Getaway”, this one, the thing on “Damages”, all of these movies I really got involved in a lot. A lot more than I have in the past.



Can you talk about some of the complication of having a pregnant wife during this madness?



OLYPHANT: It just elevates the pressure in the situation. You know what I thought was interesting about it was especially in the beginning of the movie is tapping into that feeling of being an expectant father. You know there’s this thing that I think no matter who you are or how conscious you are you just want to run. You just want to get out. I mean you could be married for 10 years and then the moment you’re wife’s pregnant you think “Oh, fuck. I’m stuck.” You just want out. You know there’s that terrible panic of “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” And even if it’s just a fleeting feeling, it’s there. And so we kind of tapped into that and allowed that to kind of heighten the whole situation, you know? Doing a job that you thought would just be rather easy. I remember equating it to kind of life guarding. You thought it was going to be a lot of running, adult swim. Everybody get out of the pool. And that would be just a great way to spend the summer, but when somebody drowns then all of a sudden you think, “Well, fuck. This is not the job I signed up for.” And you add to that you’re in a small town. You’ve committed to that kind of a job and now your wife’s pregnant and now that shit goes wrong and you just think, “oh my God just get me out of here. Just get me out of here.” And everything happens so fast that there is no getting out of it.



In the original it’s two volunteer firefighters with a past in Vietnam, both were Special Ops. Do any of your characters have that similar background or are you guys completely new to this because what they did is they relied on their skills to evade a country they were once fighting for.



OLYPHANT: Sure.



So does this have any of that?



OLYPHANT: We don’t have that kind of history with the character, which would be nice. It’s a nice thing. You get why they did it with the original, but at the same time we are conscious that it’s not about the average Joe who is in a situation. It is about the Sheriff, so you do have a guy who’s capable but we don’t get into that.



You were talking about lately you’ve been more active in terms of designing your character, have you found that to be an overall richer experience in the final product?



OLYPHANT: It’s been great, yeah. It’s been really great. I had a great time. It feels like a nice run here of really satisfying jobs. Satisfying jobs. Performances, I feel like I’m taking a little more ownership. I feel I can stand by them a little bit more and not in a situation where I’m like “Well, that’s what it is and that’s what they told me to do.”



Is this sort of a similar feeling on films as it is to like a show like “Damages” or “Deadwood” when you’re doing these characters for hours and hours and hours and build them over time?



OLYPHANT: Well, “Deadwood” was a different situation and to some degree may be a big inspiration to it. In “Deadwood” I was doing what David told me to do. And if there’s some collaboration there it wasn’t necessarily that conscious of a collaboration. I mean, David’s operating on such a genius level. That kind of awe in him and you’re trying to keep up. But to some degree part of that experience was a lot of time went by and you start thinking “What would David do?” There’s without question that was an incredibly valuable experience. I feel that it took away from him…it was amazing to be around a guy for that three years, day in and day out, there was no off button on the genius switch and he was always improvising. Not improving like…he kind of operated like he had all his little pieces. He had all his little characters and like a little kid. And if there was any kind of curve ball, he would take that into some opportunity. Or he would have an amazing scene and then he would say, “What else can I throw in there?” and it took a long time to get used to it. You always thought he was joking. It always seemed like it was too outrageous or too bizarre to work. And it was unbelievable. It was just unbelievable to do that.



There’s been rumblings of a “Deadwood” movie back and forth for awhile. Is that completely dead at this point or does it still pop up as a possibility?



OLYPHANT: I’ve been operating under the assumption that it was never going to happen ever, so I’m not one of those…when that came up I just…



You were never brought into any of those discussions?



OLYPHANT: No, the people from HBO called and asked if we would be interested in doing a movie. And we said, “Sure, put it together”. That was literally the end of the conversation. It’s like we’d be happy to do it. Get everybody around and then we’ll let you know if it works.



Is it too late now or if they did pull it together would you still be open to the idea?



OLYPANT: I can’t imagine that it’s possible. I mean, it’s so hard to get…I remember trying to get Jennifer Garner together for like two days to do re-shoots for one day and it was impossible. It’s impossible. The movie’s over and you’re just trying to get two actors together for one day. I mean, what have you got? April, May, June? Have you guys got a free day? And it was fucking ridiculously hard. So they’re talking about after something’s over trying to get a cast of a dozen together. Those people are working. I just don’t think it’s realistic. I don’t think it was ever realistic. God bless them. I mean I don’t know how big of an effort they made, but I’ve never had more of a conversation with them than just that. You know, “You guys let us know, meanwhile we’re looking for work.” So the moment I was freed up and you start looking for work again. Until somebody pays you, there’s no job.



What was your first reaction to “The Crazies” makeup since it’s so drastically different from the original when they didn’t have any makeup or prosthetics at all?



OLYPHANT: I think it looks great. Yeah, I think they did a great job. I think it looks great.



Did seeing it kind of like help sell it for you a little bit more?



OLYPHANT: Oh no, I mean either way you’re still doing what you’re doing. You still have the same actions. You’re still fighting the fight and it doesn’t go 0-60 in two, three seconds. There are stages of it so I think there are a few times during the movie where you really see that. Breck was always kind of breaking it down in four stages of the virus. And the first thing was sort of unrecognizable—physically. But you just pick little things up. And then it gets to a place where you—I don’t know what you guys have seen—but you know where…the veins and the bleeding. It’s pretty horrific, I think. They really kind of…it’s like they’re strained almost. There’s like a permanent kind of strain. It’s almost like some sort of rabies or something. Their bodies and backs are kind of arched and their veins are popping out and their blood vessels are popping and eyes are sort of blood. But it’s pretty fantastic looking. The images…the movie from what I’ve seen is just gorgeous. It’s just unbelievably gorgeous. You see the stills, you can’t believe it’s a horror film because it really is stunning.



We have the DP of High Tension, the French film.



OLYPHANT: It’s unbelievable how good the movie was. I’ll tell you it’s a really fun movie and it really does feel like this hybrid. I mean you guys were asking about it before, but there are times when I feel like we’re making some kind of action film. It feels like that’s what the set feels like. It feels like that’s what the role calls for. There are other times where it feels some sort of “No Country For Old Men” kind of vibe. There’s some really nice scenes. There’s some really nice characters and nice relationships and when you take it out of all of the activity and you’re just sitting with these characters, it’s real simple and it feels like it has a real nice…I just like the voice of it, you know? It feels like we got away with something at times. It feels like there’s some scenes where you think I can’t believe we got away with that nice scene in the middle of this movie. And without actually stopping the film, I think we did a nice job of really getting when you do have these scenes and you’re exploring the character you’re still moving the character and the story forward, you’re not slowing the movie down in order to have them. And then you have these scenes that are just nasty. Just scary. Just downright fucking scary. And they’re fun, you know? It’s always like that. You always try to find the where can you find the humor in it without losing the truth of it? It’s been good. It feels good. It does feel good.



A movie with a scope like this, is it difficult to keep the tension with just like the wide berth of the landscape and the amount of people around you or does the director kind of nail that down for you?



OLYPHANT: No, I mean as far as I’m concerned that’s partly my job as well. I think Breck and I have had a nice…we’ve been working on this and having an on-going dialogue about this for a couple of months, so it feels like before we started shooting he and I were really on the same page and it’s been a fantastic collaboration. This movie first came to me like a year ago about this time because I was doing a movie in Puerto Rico with Steve Zahn and I asked Steve what do you think of Breck having worked with him on “Sahara”. And Zann was like he’s fantastic. He’s fantastic. He’s like, I love him. He’s great and you’ll love him. He’ll love you. You guys are going to be great. And as I’m fond of saying he was half right. He loves me. (laughter). But that was like a year ago, so when I got back from Puerto Rico, I think in May mid-May end of May, I sat down with Breck about this project and then it feels like the last 2-3 months we’ve had a really kind of been rolling up our sleeves and getting into it and I’m sure the phone calls and the e-mails and we’ve constantly been bugging him about what about this? What about this idea we can flesh out there?



What needed to change? You said you weren’t exactly thrilled when you first got it. Was it the too stereotyped small town Sheriff type?



OLYPHANT: Well, you know I just didn’t feel there was a character. I felt like there were hints of a character. I thought that Breck…and I think plus he’d rather not tell you or rather not me tell you we both…I didn’t think there was a real character there. And so the conversations became…we saw a movie that you really got. I get how something’s a little funny and we can’t quite figure it out and shit gets worse and then before you know it, you have what you see tonight, which is all of a sudden this military presence and confusion and mass hysteria and then it just gets out of control from there. But what I didn’t feel is I didn’t feel that there was a real…and you have this character, my character is from the jump is integrated in every single part of this. You really watch this guy go through the whole deal. You know, we’re half-way through the movie and I haven’t had a day off, so it’s a lovely situation in terms of my involvement and the character’s involvement. But what I didn’t get was I felt like I had a cliché. I felt like…I get that he’s the Sheriff and I get that he’s in a spot but I don’t get where he’s coming from. It would be great if we knew before the movie started on Day One who this guy is and then committed to that and watch that flesh out. And that’s where this idea, and it’s always kind of hard to tell what’s in there it’s just about kind of bringing this out and this idea of being a guy whose father was the Sheriff and whose father’s father was the Sheriff and watching this unfold and him kind of trying to figure out if he took this job for the right reasons and if he’s the right guy for the job.




Click here to read interview with Danielle Panabaker, Radha Mitchell, and Joe Anderson





Click here to read interviews with Director Breck Eisner, Production Designer Andrew Menzies, and Special Make-Up Designer Rob Hall




Click here to read about Matt’s visit to the set of “The Crazies”



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