Raylan Givens' ex-wife Winona doesn't appear in person in any of the Elmore Leonard stories that introduced the character who's now the hero of FX's "Justified." She's mentioned in passing a few times as Raylan laments how she left him for a real-estate salesman, but that's it.

"Justified" gave the character flesh in the form of actress Natalie Zea. But for a while in that first season, Winona threatened to become as irrelevant as she was in the books - to the point where Zea suggested it might be best if she and the series parted company. Fortunately for all involved, things changed quickly, and as the series prepares to start its second season (a week from tonight at 10 p.m. on FX), Winona is just as present and vital as the other supporting characters, and is trying to figure out if the night she and Raylan spent together near the end of the first season is going to lead to more - and if either of them want it to.

I spoke with Zea a few weeks ago at press tour about Winona's evolution, about her early frustration, working with Timothy Olyphant, and more.

Had you read any Elmore Leonard before?

I had not. I ordered some books, but I actually waited even until we finished up the first season. And I did so because I’m a narcissist and I knew that there’s not a lot of me to get to know (in the books).  So I have "Riding the Rap" and "Pronto," and I read those - which was entertaining but it didn’t really tell me much because we’ve gone in slightly a different direction.

Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve read those.  Does Raylan even talk about his Winona in those?

No, not really.  There’s some bits and pieces here and there.

And Winona is in the first few episodes of the series very minimally.  I mean a couple of episodes you’re just not even in it at all.  So early on, how were you getting a handle on the character?  What were you being told?  What were you doing?

Not a lot.  I think that everyone across the board was trying to sort of figure out how she fit into this world.  And it’s still a challenge.   They’ve done extraordinarily this year because we’ve all really gotten involved in a pretty collaborative way in terms of storyline, in terms of purpose, you know?  So I think it’s going to make more sense that she’s in this world this season because last season it was a struggle I think for all of us to understand... why?  You know? 

Now Tim is someone who's never had any problem making his opinions known. How is that working on the set with him, especially given that he does sort of have the title (of producer) and chooses to exercise it.

It works only because he’s often right and we agree about 95% of the time. The 5% of the time we don’t, I win generally, which is very gracious of him.  I can’t imagine how miserable it would be if our opinions differed greatly because he’s very strong-willed about making sure that everything is exactly the way it needs to be.  So I mean it works for me. 

In those early episodes in the first season, you guys have to establish a back-story, a chemistry and be plausible as 2 people who really cared about each other once upon a time.  How did the 2 of you get to know each other and how did you work at establishing that on-screen?

It was just sort of fast and loose.  We, I think, have a pretty natural chemistry to begin with.  And he’s a ridiculous flirt so that helps.  We didn’t really have to try all that hard and we made sure to... I was about to lie. I was going to say we were in constant contact throughout the season talking about script and character and stuff but we weren’t.  That was this year.  I got in touch with him over the summer because I wanted to get a head start.  I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t peripheral.   That there was a purpose.  So I knew that he would be the best person to go through initially, so we kept a constant correspondence over the summer and still anytime I get a new script we make sure to touch base.

Well, was there a point in the first season where you were sort of asking yourself, "Well, okay, now what?"

Yes.  About halfway through I actually assumed I would be let go. So I approached the producers and said, "Listen, I understand if you’re done, can I go ahead and go now because it’s pilot season?"  And they said, "Absolutely not."

And yet you did "The Defenders" pilot in a way that seemed like it was going to set you up to be in that.

Well actually no.  (The "Justified" producers) were so lovely and said, "No, you absolutely can’t leave. We need you . We love you. We don’t want to let you go."  To which I said, "Great."  I just wanted to make sure I was taken care of. 

And there’s so much time in between, during hiatus and between the seasons that I had to do something.  I was going to tear my hair out.  And the casting director for "The Defenders" called up and she said, "Look, we need a favor.  You can do this. We’ve talked to FX.  They’ve said okay, and FX has been really cool about it." So it got picked up and they said, "Would you be willing to do more?"  And I said, "FX won’t let me do 2 (series)," but yes I would love to because that was such a wonderful set.  It was so much fun. 

Yeah. But I remember watching that and hearing from people, "Is Natalie leaving the show?" And I said, "I don’t think so..."

No, no.  FX is really good about it, though there's a limit.

Yeah, they let Tim do “The Office."

Right, right.  But they understand that for 13 episodes, you’ve got most of the year to do other things.

So I’ve only seen 3 episodes so far but it does feel like there is quite a bit more of Winona.  Does it feel to you that she is more integral this year than last?

She is.  And that’s going to become even more so the later into the season we get. 

Okay.  What does she see in Gary exactly?

That’s been the big question.  And I too was concerned about viewers asking that question because I was asking that question.  And (writer) Sarah Timberman and I talked about it at the beginning of the season because I think it’s important.  I think that if it’s the elephant in the room, it needs to be addressed - it needs to be answered.  And I like the answer. Her answer was that he was the anti-Raylan.  He was everything that Raylan wasn’t that she needed.  But there needs to be more.  And the more is at this point she doesn’t know what she sees in him and that’s why it’s not working. I think that’s more realistic.  I’m with the audience.  I don’t know.  I don’t get it.  I can’t believe I ever did that.  What a crazy thing I did.  Let’s move on and get back to the original.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com