Every once in a while, an actor finds a role that fits him so perfectly, the audience is reminded just how rare that is. Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in FX’s new drama Justified (premieres tonight, 10 p.m. EST) is one of those performances. Elmore Leonard fans will recognize Givens as the lead character in two of his novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, and the novella Fire in the Hole, upon which the pilot is based. It finds the Stetson-wearing, some might say trigger-happy lawman reassigned from Miami to his native Kentucky — where his first case involves a reunion with an old coal-mining buddy named Boyd (The Shield’s Walton Goggins), who’s now a bank-robbing, church-bombing white supremacist. When they first greet each other, they hug. It’s one of Olyphant’s favorite moments in the episode, which explains why the actor, who for years had been hoping to get his hands on a Leonard character, is the perfect man for the job. The sense of humor he showed yesterday when we sat down with him for a Bloody Mary is another…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you read reviews?
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: Yes and no. I peeked at these. It’s a bit silly. The things I’ve seen have been quite lovely and amazing. You kinda read ‘em like, “Who are they talking about? It sounds awesome.” Someone at FX, they cc: me, so I’m getting emails throughout the day, and the subject of each email is “Oh My God. Have you seen this review?” So apparently, they’re all very good.
Yes, Time’s critic isn’t the only one with a man-crush on you. Though our Ken Tucker phrased his as “I knew from this moment on that I’d kinda fallen in love with a new TV show.”
I know about that Time one because at the premiere of the show, [FX president] John Landgraf read a portion of that review out loud to the audience. And then professed his own crush. It was really quite awkward for a while, then it got better when I realized this is going to be worse for John Landgraf than it is for me. The more he went on, I thought it would haunt him more than it would haunt me.
What do you consider Raylan’s signature move?
He shoots people. That’s a signature move. We try not to kill too many people. The thing with the character that’s consistent with the books is that he’s just one of these guys that was born 100 years too late. So he fancies himself a bit of a cowboy. There’s this wonderful passage in one of the Elmore books where Raylan’s in the Marshals office, and he’s standing out in the hallway staring at a poster from when the Marshals first started. It’s an old cowboy with his Stetson and the mustache and the gun on his hip, and Raylan’s asking himself if he measures up with those guys, if he’s kept the tradition, if he could have made it during that time. I thought it was a great little insight into the character. Then I went down to Santa Anna, Calif. to visit the Marshals’ office a few weeks before we started shooting, and the first thing I was struck by was a poster in the entryway of an old cowboy — the exact image that Elmore had written about. You realize the Marshals have this wonderful tradition that they’re quite proud of. Almost every one of them, when I asked them why they became Marshals gave an answer that was something to the effect of “I didn’t even know what the Marshals did when I signed up. But the pay was good and they give you a gun. So I figured why not? Give it a try.” They’re a really funny group of guys and girls. They really are kind of fancying themselves cowboys, s—kickers, guys that are out there running around banging down doors.
Describe Raylan’s sense of humor.
He has one. I think that’s a big part of it. This is part of getting the joke with Elmore: His characters are funny but they’re not trying to be funny. They don’t acknowledge they’re funny, they’re just sort of dry and cool. Elmore was talking about one of the first times he was riding around with Detroit cops, if I’m remembering correctly. He was saying he was really struck by how funny they were, but none of them were acknowledging how funny they were being. They were just doing it in order to sort of handle and defuse the situation, the tense job at hand. So part of the key to the show is I’m always trying to find out where the joke is and at the same time, you don’t want to put a magnifying glass on it. You want to just trust it and be willing to throw it away, and if someone says something funny you just move on. I have the most fun with Nick Searcy [who plays Raylan’s boss, Art Mullen]. He’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s such an easygoing, relaxed veteran actor that I can just throw s— out knowing that he’ll just pick it up and keep it moving. Walt Goggins is the same way. Natalie Zea [who plays Raylan’s remarried ex-wife, Winona] is the same way. Wonderful actors across the board, but those three in particular I feel like there’s a game being played really between the actors as much as the characters, where when they say “Rolling,” I think to myself, Let me see if I can f— him up on this one. Let me see if I can throw somethin’ in there unexpected — also knowing to pay attention because there’s a good chance they throw it right back at me or they get to throw one first. It’s a kick of a show to do.
Executive producer Graham Yost gave the show’s writers each a bracelet that says “WWED” — What Would Elmore Do. Did he give you one?
I’m not gonna wear one of those f—in’ bracelets. [Laughs] I don’t have the heart to tell them – although I’m about to tell you. [Laughs] And I preface this with they’ve done a wonderful job. The writing on the show is really quite fantastic. However, every time I read or hear about these bracelets, “What Would Elmore Do,” I think part of the joke is, Well he wouldn’t wear those f—in’ bracelets. [Laughs]
They don’t really wear them do they?
I don’t know. Graham’s got one on. He always shows me his bracelet, What Would Elmore Do, and I keep wanting to tell him, “He wouldn’t wear that bracelet.” But he has a bunch of those bracelets, the rubber green, yellow, Lance Armstrong, Save the Whales. So it’s one of many. He’s got a lot going on on his arm. I gave all the writers bracelets that said, “Don’t forget to brush” ‘cause I think that’s equally important. Because by the way, that’s what Elmore would do. [Laughs] Oh, God bless them.
Are you still shooting?
Good, because I’m sure they’d be writing you a great scene.
I hope they take this in the spirit it was given. Don’t forget to brush! I’m doing a talk show. I might bring that bit. I’m sorry, but I think that plays. I’m very proud of it.
Here’s a question I bet you haven’t been asked before: What does Raylan watch on TV when he gets home to his hotel room at night?
I haven’t. I don’t know. [Thinks] I don’t know.
And there goes your Emmy.
[Laughs] I just blew it?
You clearly haven’t thought enough about this character.
The fact that I was that close, by the way, is quite a small thrill by itself. I was thatclose, if I had only answered that one question, I think I might have got an Emmy nod. That right there is very flattering.
It might also help if you stop by my colleague Michael Ausiello’s office and say hi before he does his Dream Emmy Ballot for the magazine.
When are the noms? Is your office close? Will you at least tell him that I was hoping I could stop by, and that I’ll try to think of something that he watches on television, if that’s what’s gonna clinch it…. I bet he liked Magnum, P.I.
There we go!
I bet you Raylan would sit back and watch a little Magnum, P.I. and think that guy’s got it made. He’s his own boss. He drives a Ferrari. He has a mustache. If he just wore a hat. Imagine Magnum, P.I. in flip-flips, short shorts, Hawaiian shirt, big ‘stache, and a hat. That would’ve turned that show into the gayest show in the history of television. Did Magnum wear flip-flops, or did he wear shoes? Did he wear sneakers?
I’m picturing tennis shoes.
He probably did. Maybe like some Stan Smiths. Some classics.
Let’s get serious for a moment. How do you look at your career?
Honestly, I feel like I spent the last 10 years just trying to work, just get my hands on the best material I could. I’d like to say that it was quite calculated and genius, my ability to take one step forward and two steps back… I’m sincere in this respect, I feel blessed that I was allowed to work for 10 years fairly consistently without my life becoming a wreck. I didn’t inherit any great success and the problems that came with it, and yet I was able to keep working and supporting myself and later a family. I’m crazy fortunate. And now with this show, I’m about to wreck it all. [Laughs]
It’s interesting though: Fans think you’re incredibly cool, I’m assuming producers think you’re incredibly cool but—
But I’m unhireable. [Laughs]
No. What I’m saying is you haven’t gotten that role that lands you in People’s Star Tracks. You don’t have paparazzi following you, and I get the impression you like that. If you could have any movie role you wanted, but it came with that kind of attention, would you be willing to make that trade?
In the last two years, I can say that there have been roles that could have been game-changers — that could really have changed my life in a way where I would inherit those kinds of things that I’m very weary of — that I would have gladly accepted or tried to get, without question. I can’t get anymore grounded than I am now. I’ve always liked my job, but I’m a little bit more clear about what it is I’m trying to achieve when I’m at work. With that feeling comes the itch to want to get my hands on parts and projects that I would be extremely excited and proud to be a part of. Whereas in the past, I think that going to work was enough. I’ve had some really fun jobs, but I’ve had lots of parts in movies that I’ve never seen. I mean no disrespect to them. It was really fun to go act, but I’m not calling my friends and saying, “I couldn’t be more proud of this picture. You should go see it.” I was just like, I’m really thrilled to be working. The last two years, I’ve been more vested, more committed to parts than I’ve been in the past. My relationship to each of the filmmakers has been really gratifying. Each one felt like an opportunity to invest more and just have more fun than I ever have. Which I always thought was part of the deal with this profession. I remember years ago being on the set of Dreamcatcher and not only did I have such great admiration for Morgan Freeman and was just thrilled to be around him, I was struck by the fact that he seemed to be having perhaps more fun than I was at his job. And I thought, Well, that’s very promising.
And the Toronto Film Critics Association named you a runner-up for their Best Supporting Actor prize for last year’s A Perfect Getaway.
I couldn’t believe that. I was just saying I thought the movie was only playing on airplanes, and then I got that email. Apparently, it was playing on flights to Toronto. That was really lovely to see that.
You’ve never done a mainstream blockbuster romantic comedy. Is that because it’s not something that would interest you, or do people not think of you for those roles?
I don’t know what people are thinking of me for. I’d love to do a balls-out romantic comedy. I’d love to do just a balls-out comedy, too. I don’t know what this show’s gonna do. But I really feel that if the show’s successful, this is, All right, let’s see what you can do now. Ninety-some percent of the actors out there are just trying to get some work. And then there’s a small percentage of people who are choosing things, that are saying, “Well, I think I want to do that next.” I’ve spent the last 10 years in the former. That’s not a woe is me, it’s my own doing to some degree and you just get what you can. If this gives me those opportunities, then we’ll see if we can do some romantic comedies and some other things.
Watch Justified tonight and get to know Raylan Givens. Come back to PopWatch next Tuesday when Olyphant fills us in on what’s to come this season. Check out our recap of the premiere on Ken Tucker’s TV blog.