On the hugely popular FX drama series Justified, actor Timothy Olyphant plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a modern-day 19th century style lawman who faces off against the criminal organizations in Harlan County, Kentucky. Having just kicked off its second season, things are sure to quickly heat up between Raylan, his nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and the Bennett family, headed by Mags (Margo Martindale), who are looking to fill the void left by the removal of the Crowder family’s criminal grip on the town.
During a recent conference call to promote the return of the series, Timothy Olyphant talked about the appeal of the show, the challenges of playing Raylan Givens, the strength of the writing, his duties as a producer this season, and the fact that he knew right away how special the role was. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: Well, 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 lot problems, as usual.
What keeps challenging you about playing this character?
OLYPHANT: The character is just a joy to play. It’s more just about the beast of television production and just trying to keep your head above water and 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. I think it’s good story telling. It starts, first and foremost, with Elmore [Leonard], and I’m a big fan of his. I think Graham [Yost] and the rest of the writers have just really sunk their teeth into it and done a wonderful job. It’s good stuff, and it’s hard to find good stuff.
Are there actors from westerns or cop shows that influenced your take on Raylan?
OLYPHANT: No. I really didn’t look past the books. After that, I tend to draw inspiration from whatever just 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 [Leonard]. And then, I had conversations with Graham [Yost]. And, there were some conversations with U.S. Marshals.
Have you gotten any chance to go to Kentucky and associate with life down there?
OLYPHANT: We are currently filming a great deal of the show out in Santa Clarita. In the summertime, you just head straight towards the sun and, just before you catch on fire, there it is. Our producers and locations managers are doing a hell of a job. They’ve got their work cut out for them. I haven’t actually visited that part of the country. I spent time with people and talked to a lot of people. Over the break, our writers all went down there as a group. A lot of characters that you’ll see this season are based on people they’ve met. I’m thrilled that it feels like we’re capturing it because, Lord knows, we’re giving it the old college try.
OLYPHANT: Last year, I just pretended to be a producer and I rather enjoyed it, so I thought I might as well get the credit. It’s really one of the great joys of the job, and one of the real challenges of the whole thing.
How does it feel to get to play a modern-day cowboy every week? Does it feel like you’re living out childhood games of cowboys and Indians?
OLYPHANT: I can’t take full credit for it. I’m really just saying the words and trying to bring it to life. It’s all cowboys and Indians, when it comes down to it. It’s child’s play, and I get a great deal of fulfillment out it. It just so happens, every now and then, that you put on an actual cowboy hat and it brings it all home. It’s always fun to play cops and robbers and, in this case, it’s more like cops and hillbillies. It’s a blast. It’s a kick to be able to play what they call a drama, but day in and day out, I think we’re making a comedy. It’s a lot of fun.
Raylan can be compared to a modern-day John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, who is rough around the edges and smooth with the ladies, and who has his own set of right and wrong. Have you ever thought about it like that?
OLYPHANT: Not until just now. You know, when I read the books, that was in the ballpark of what I was thinking. The books are great. The character is iconic.
This show is presenting a world that is really terrifying. How do you balance presenting something that we don’t want to see, in a way that makes it compelling, so that we really want to see it?
OLYPHANT: You know, it’s scary out there, and our job is to try to make that entertaining. That’s more or less the deal that we all signed up for. Life moves pretty fast and it’s pretty scary, but at the end of the day, the show’s about a guy who’s trying to do the right thing and get through the day with some sense of his reality intact. I think there’s a certain comfort in that.
How do you enjoy the opportunity to build a character over time in television versus building a character for a film?
OLYPHANT: In a film, you more or less know the beginning, middle and end, and you might have some wiggle room in there. But, this really is a journey and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed in on a part of that process. That is one of the real challenges for me, that I’ve really enjoyed. I don’t think of it as building a character. I just think of it as telling a story, and I don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s the fun of it. At the end of the day, the same things apply. I’m still trying figure out what is going on, from scene to scene, and basic rules still apply. 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.
OLYPHANT: The whole bunch of them are just fantastic – both the characters and the actors playing the Bennetts. Margo’s just the real deal. I don’t know what else is on TV, but I’m pretty sure that’s something special. It’s a pleasure to work with her and Jeremy [Davies], and all those guys. They’re just great, and I thought we were onto something special. The inspiration for the character came from Elmore [Leonard]. He had a character in one of his books that was a man, and Graham [Yost] wanted to make the character a woman. Margo is just such a fantastic choice. As far as the families and the history, that’s something that Graham and I were both really interested in exploring this year, in that Hatfield-McCoy kind of culture and styles. It’s been really nice, throughout the season, to keep deepening that history and peeling back the layers. You find out more and more as we go. As the story goes, we come back around and get a little deeper. The world we created this year is just really rich.
How is the Raylan/Boyd relationship changing in Season 2, and what has it been like to work with Walton Goggins this season?
OLYPHANT: Walt’s fantastic. 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. When you’ve got someone who’s going to take things moment to moment and keep you on your toes, it reminds me of my acting teachers saying, “Just work off the other person.” When you’ve got someone like Walt, it makes that real easy to do it. As far as his character goes, it’s really great. We had a lot of fun with him this year. As Elmore [Leonard] has 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 just seems like he could be whoever and whatever he needs to be, given the situation. We really had a lot of fun watching him start out lost in the woods, and then regain his footing and find his way, and come back to life. He’s in a completely more dangerous and compelling way this year than last year.
How do you think Raylan sees Boyd?
OLYPHANT: I honestly don’t think he sees him as a friend, in terms of their relationship. All we’ve told you, according to my scripts, is that they have a history. There’s an understanding between them, but beyond that, I think that’s it. Their worlds collide. Given what he does, and given what my character does, they’re going to keep running into each other.
OLYPHANT: Natalie is fantastic. The same things I said about working with Walt Goggins, I’d say about working with her. They’re just great, as is Nick Searcy. He’s just a pro, but he’s not as good-looking as she is, so I’m less interested in that storyline. Graham [Yost] is the one who started the idea of these two getting back together. It was a broken relationship, but there was still some sexual tension. After we shot the stuff, it just seemed like there was a lot more going on there. It was a lot more interesting. So, when Graham and I got together, before we went back to work, that was a relationship that we were both really interested in exploring. I 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 curious. I want to know how that works. And, if he tells me he’s in love with her, then I’m really interested.” 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.
What are some of the moments that have made you stop and think, “This is great television”?
OLYPHANT: I’m not a huge fan of every episode, but there’s not an episode that goes by without me finding something where I’m like, “That’s just good drama. It’s good storytelling.” The examples are countless. This season, where do I start? From an acting standpoint, it’s fun to be in a scene where me asking Mags, “How’s business?,” is both conversational small talk, and yet feels so loaded. That’s part of the brilliance of Elmore Leonard, and it’s very difficult to replicate, week after week. I think our writers just do a fantastic job. Those moments are a blast. I could just go on forever. Honestly, the job is just a joy, day in and day out. I’ve never left that set and not thought to myself, “That was great. That was just a great scene. It was a great moment. It was a great performance.” Not mine, but I’m just talking about the ones around me. I put in long hours on this puppy, but 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.”
Deadwood, and your work on that show, started the whole western coming back again, and now there’s Justified, as well as True Grit. What do you think it is that keeps westerns cool?
OLYPHANT: First of all, I just showed up to work on Deadwood. That was David Milch’s baby. That’s a genius at work, just turning a genre on its head, and it was really something special to be a part of. I read this fantastic interview with Walter Mosley, in the L.A. Times, where he talked about our show. He said that westerns were made during a time where people really believed in America, and that Americans believed in something very clear about good versus evil. And, as that got a little more foggy, the westerns went away. And, he was really curious about this guy, Raylan Givens, who appears to be born maybe 100 years too late, and stuck in a modern world, asking those questions again.
OLYPHANT: I really appreciate that. That’s very generous of you. I knew when I read the thing that I had to close the deal before somebody else got a whiff of this thing. I trust that I know a good part when I see one and usually, when I see one, I have to wait for seven people to pass, in order for me to get it. I knew it was a good part. I knew it was good writing. I knew that Elmore [Leonard], when done right, is just something that I love. Beyond that, when I run into people on the street, they have been very generous and complimentary. It’s nice. You’re out there telling stories and you’re hoping to find an audience, and it’s very appreciated.
Every character that you play, whether in this show or in films, just seems completely unique and different. Is that because of your choices as an actor, or is it the quality of scripts that you get offered?
OLYPHANT: I don’t know. I’ve been really lucky, especially the last two years. I’ve been working for a long time and I’ve just really been allowed to work, with very little of the baggage and the pressures that can come with my job. Year after year, for quite some time now, I’ve just been allowed to keep doing it and just get better. When you do it for 10 or 12, or however many years I’ve been doing it, if you’re not good by now, then I think that’s going to be about it. I’ve really realized how much I enjoy the job and, at this point in my life, I show up to work with a real interest and a real commitment and a level of confidence. I’m not looking for answers when I show up to the set. I’m just asking the questions, over and over. I think I’ve been given some great material. In the last couple years, I did a small movie called High Life that went to the Berlin Film Festival, I did A Perfect Getaway, I did The Crazies, and there’s this TV work that I’ve been able to do, like with those guys in Damages. They’ve just been really great roles, and I’ve been able to have a meaningful dialogue and collaboration with the filmmakers on each one of those projects. Each time, it’s led to work that I’m really pleased with and proud of.