Interview: 'Justified' co-star Walton Goggins
There's a rich TV drama tradition of characters who are supposed to die in pilot episodes who prove so popular that they're resurrected between the time the pilot is shot and when it airs. On "Hill Street Blues," beat cops Hill & Renko were supposed to die a stunning death in a shooting, but the characters proved so likable that they were just badly wounded. In the "ER" pilot, Carol Hathaway's suicide attempt was supposed to succeed, but the producers realized Julianna Margulies added a valuable ingredient and let the ER docs save her.
And on FX's "Justified," Raylan Givens was supposed to kill his old friend Boyd Crowder, just as he did in "Fire in the Hole," the Elmore Leonard short story on which it was based. But producer Graham Yost saw that "The Shield" alum Walton Goggins was so magnetic as Boyd that it would be a waste to kill him - and Leonard, often irked when adaptations deviate too much from his work, approved.
As Boyd, a demolitions expert, onetime white supremacist and religious leader, and a born liar - even he's not sure sometimes whether he believes the ridiculous things he says - Goggins is every bit the charismatic equal of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, and he's again memorable as the series returns for its new season Wednesday night at 10.
Goggins is also a very smart, articulate guy (he produced the Oscar-winning short film "The Accountant" back in 2001), so I was eager to talk to him at press tour a few weeks ago. We spoke about the evolution of Boyd, his contributions to that, and also quite a bit about what happened to his character at the end of "The Shield," so read at your own peril if you haven't seen that finale but intend to one day.
(Also note that I had to cut out a number of exchanges about things Boyd does in the first three episodes of the new season, so there may be a few abrupt transitions in the transcript.)
Am I going crazy, or has Boyd’s accent evolved over time?
It has evolved over time because he’s evolved over time. In the pilot, I wanted this guy to love words. I wanted him to love words and I wanted him to wrap his mouth around words. And there was one scene early on that I just started playing with and kind of tweaking. And Graham let me have carte blanche, gave me autonomy with this guy. And in the pilot I was able to introduce this guy in the way he sees the words by saying, in the middle of his speech, "Well you, know we were talking about this target and it was an innocuous target, you know what that means? That means harmless." And Boyd was a showman. He was a bigger than life kind of showman in that pilot episode. And then when they came back and they said, "Would you stay?" I said, "If we can do something else, because a guy has a near-death experience, then he’s going to find God, you go to God and you’re going to experience a high level of humility." And so with that we were able to bring him back and make him very quiet and very humble. Those next 4 episodes for him (when Goggins was busy filming "Predators"), I was just able to pop in for a scene here and there, but he was very quiet. And then once he found his next stage, he was really able to start to get big again and more precise because the message was more precise and the Bible was more precise. He wasn’t quoting himself; he was quoting the Bible. And this season... he’s just kind of in a spiritual turmoil. And he doesn’t really understand any of it. He’s just trying to be known. He’s looking for nothing and that’s dangerous. So his voice would reflect that.
One of the things that Raylan asks him in the pilot is basically how much of this white supremacist bullshit do you believe? And there’s always seems to be an element of performance to what Boyd is doing, at least from the outside. For you though, how much sincerity do you think is there in these different guises that he adopts?
I think that he was spot-on in the pilot when he said that, and there was a discussion (with the producers) about Boyd and the things he was saying. I said, "I won’t do this. I’m not going to say those things unless (he's not sincere)," and Tim came up with that line. And he said, "Well, let me point it out in this way." So then when he made the spiritual conversion, the trick was to keep the audience guessing, to be ambiguous about what he believes and what angle he’s playing only to at the very end, in the finale to say, "Wow that guy believes that, man! This is really painful for him. You know he’s capable of really feeling something."
But when you’re playing a guy, especially in those middle-late phases of the first season where you’re trying to keep the audience guessing, how sincerely do you play that?
You have to play it like playing someone that’s drunk. You’re drunk. You have to play it as earnestly and as heartfelt as you possibly can. It’s tantamount to violence on "The Sopranos." All you had to do is have Tony kill one person at the beginning of the season, and then you just put him in a room with someone else that he disagrees with. It’s the tension that’s kind of built up just by him being in that room whether or not he’s going to pull the trigger. So the same thing with Boyd. If you have him do one thing where he lies about something or says something that he doesn’t necessarily believe in, and then you have him fervently believe in something, then you never really know if he believes in it or not.
It's funny: you watch the pilot and it's hard to imagine that this character is ever going to stick around as a regular part of this world. It’s like one of these guys is going to kill the other guy, and that’s how it’s going to go - and that’s not at all how it’s gone.
You know what I look for in television? You know what I like? I’m a big fan of "Boardwalk Empire," and "Mad Men," like everybody else. I was a fan of "The Shield" for this very reason, especially later on. But what I look for is characters that I have no idea what they’re going to do next. And if you can construct a scenario so that a character can kind of be that way, like the Michael Pitt character on "Boardwalk Empire" - I really don’t know what he’s going to do. I have a feeling that I know and then he does something different. And the same thing with Boyd Crowder. I’m very fortunate to kind of be in that situation where I’m getting to play this guy that you just don’t fucking know. And that’s so interesting to watch.
So how far in advance do you want to know things then if that’s the case?
You know, I tend to not to like to know. I didn’t know anything on "The Shield." We didn’t really know more than really an episode out. But with this show, I know what I need to know. The thing that’s so refreshing about this show and why it hasn’t digressed into some kind of rote pat format for me, it’s that I don’t know how Boyd Crowder is in love. I don’t know how Boyd Crowder is with a CEO of a coalmining company. I don’t know how Boyd Crowder is punching a fucking time clock. So every single day when I show up to work, I have no fucking idea how it’s going to go down. And it just kind of reveals itself. And a nugget kind of just kind of gets placed there and that’s an actor’s dream.
I want to ask about that. I remember Shawn (Ryan) saying after we saw "The Shield" finale that he didn’t want to tell you what Shane did until he absolutely had to, because he didn’t want you to be playing anything (in earlier episodes) informed by that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And he didn’t. And I don’t think that Boyd kind of has that problem on this show, even though I know a little bit more - probably 2 or 3 episodes more than I did with Shane - because he’s so wily and so rascally that it’s like riding a fucking bull. You don’t know where he’s going to move.
Can I ask what your reaction was when you got that final finale script?
I was doing Spike Lee’s movie ("Miracle at St. Anna").
You were in Italy for that. That’s right.
And I got the script sent and they delivered it to my room, and I like was shaking, trembling knowing that everyone else had already read it. And I was alone and I wasn’t with everyone. And they read it that day. And no one had reached out to me. And it was like, "Why wouldn’t you fucking e-mail me, man?" And I was like reaching out to everyone. "Hey, what’s going on?" And radio silence. And then I read it and honest to God Alan my reaction was reading it and I got through it and I read what happened and I did this (Goggins stands up, furious): "Fuck this! Fuck all you people! Fuck all of you! I’m not fucking doing that! There’s no fucking way I’m doing that. There’s no fucking way!" (he sits back down, perfectly calm again) That was it, man. That was my reaction.
And I went and I had a glass of wine and I had 2 glasses of wine, and then I came back up. Because you know for me it was, "You want me to say the n-word. You give Shane all the shit, right? You make him do and say anything," and what I felt like I wanted to do is to have all of those things and still have the audience conflicted about how they felt about him. Still have them see it from his point of view. And I thought, "Well, if he makes the decision to kill his family, he’ll never recover from that. I mean, how can you ever fucking forgive that?" And I’ve overcome so many obstacles to have people like to spend time with Shane. And then the second time I read it, I thought, "Oh my God no. This is the greatest gift in the world. Not only have you given me an obstacle to overcome, but you’ve essentially let Shane be the moral kind of victim of all of this. He’s the martyr. He’s the ultimate martyr for all of this life and he is the one who is going to sacrifice himself and his family — his piece of it for penance for all the crimes they’ve committed. And I didn’t know until we were watching the fucking show with 400 people, and I didn’t even tell my gal and I didn’t tell my mother. I told no one. And I’m sitting there with her and we’re watching it and he’s in the bathroom and he’s writing the note and they’re outside the room. No one even thinks how the fuck is this going to happen. And then it happens and you could hear a pin drop. There was silence. And the next thing I heard was weeping. And I thought, "It worked. Oh my God it worked. Oh, they’re going to love him. Oh they’re going to love him. " So a big load off.
I had a similar experience. (FX) screened the last 2 episodes for critics, it was basically the exact same thing. I’m taking my notes and writing, "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. They wouldn’t go there. Oh my God." And yeah, everyone walked out of there just shaking.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Me too man. Me too.
And it’s always been Vic’s story and suddenly you’re like, "Wait a minute. It's Shane's story, too."
Yeah, yeah. It changed my life, Alan. I mean, it changed all of our lives. To be fortunate enough to have an opportunity to say words that are that good and to be a part of a story that was that well-crafted. And it was very hard for me to decide to go back into television again. My partner Ray McKinnon and I, you know, we make movies and we had sold a show to AMC called "Rectify." It was a show about a guy who spent 21 years on Death Row - this monk-like existence, knowing nothing about the outside world by his own choice - and he’s released. And it’s this guy who’s this spaceman who’s been away, and there are the politics of this town and the death penalty, and I thought that that’s where I was going to go. That’s how I wanted to get back into television and they wound up not doing it at the last minute. And then the opportunity came up to continue with Boyd and I was just so... "excited" is not the right word. I was so curious, I suppose, about where this would go for him.
What is it like working with Tim? Because my sense of (Michael) Chiklis was always that he was relatively easy-going and Tim I’ve always seen as very opinionated on everything. He’ll let you know if there’s an issue.
Yeah. Well, Tim invited me here, with FX and with Graham so it was a decision by all of them to reach out to me. And he has given me, and because I’ve demanded it, complete autonomy with Boyd. And our conversations creatively are a lot of fun actually. We just sit, and I know him now. I really know him. He was a friend before, but I really know him now and Boyd really knows his Raylan. And it’s just like butter. It’s like a river that’s flowing without any rocks in it. You know, it’s just easy and it’s just on a level grade... We do really well together.
When you say you have complete autonomy over Boyd, what exactly does that mean?
Meaning that, the writers are laying out their story and Boyd has to fit in their story and I’m certainly not a part of those decisions unless it’s something that I think doesn’t ring true for Boyd. Or what I think they lean on me for is to say, "Okay, well this is kind of his experience. This is what he’s going through. This is him kind of meeting (a woman)," and then I can step in and say, "Well, then this is how Boyd might go about doing that. If he’s going to fall in love with someone, how can we see behind the curtain? How can the audience can see him for the first time be vulnerable? What is Boyd like vulnerable? And if Boyd is going to fall in love with somebody, he’s going to be the guy who’s going to recite poetry. He’s going to leave poetry around the kitchen. He’s going to fashion a rose out of a napkin. He’s going to do something with simplicity but something with flair and elegance because he’s a poet. At his heart, in his core, he’s a fucking artist, man. He’s an intellectual poet who happens to be a really bad guy who does bad things, you know?"
But beyond your reservations about the racist things Boyd says in the pilot, which were alleviated by the idea that Boyd was lying about everything, have there been times when you’ve seen the script and you’ve said, "Hell no"?
There have been. But it’s never been necessary for me to say, "Hell no." It’s been about, "You know what, guys? I disagree with this. I really disagree with this. And if you want to go in this direction, then I think we have to kind of go around this corner." And they trust me. I mean I’ve been making movies for 10 years before.
You’ve got an Oscar on your shelf.
Well, that, but other features we just finished - we got nominated for 2 Independent Spirit Awards. And I’m proud of all of them. And I’ve spent the better part of 2 years in an editing room, all told, and so I don’t come at this lightly. And they know this about me and I’m really proud of this, I don’t give a note out of ego— ever. I only give a note based on story and based on believability for me. And they know that and they respect that and that’s why they involve me in the process. I think I’ve earned my right at the table and they’ve graciously kind of given me that offer.
And how different an experience is that arrangement versus working for Shawn, who's like, "This is what we’re doing and that's it"?
Well, it’s it’s apples and oranges. Because I would not have wanted to say anything to those writers on "The Shield." What am I going to say to you? The story was larger than any of the characters. But with this show, with Raylan and with Boyd, it’s different and it begs a different attention. "The Shield" was serialized by its very nature. From the first word on the page, it was destined to be an 88 hour movie, you know? So because this show didn’t start out that way, and was going to be more procedural, and because the history that these 2 characters have was one of the catalysts to give this show an opportunity to be serialized, I think they’ve depended on both Tim and I to participate.
I want to go back to "The Shield" finale and what happens with Shane and the family for a minute. First of all, I often ask actors when they’ve played a scene that’s particularly tough on the audience what it was like filming that day. And they’ve often like, "Oh, it was just another day on the set." But when you were doing the family meeting and all of that, what was that atmosphere like?
It never was just another day for me on the set. I mean, it was my last day. They purposely did that. So it was the very last day. And it was, honest to God, I’m getting emotional right now thinking about it because I haven’t thought about it in a long time. It broke my heart. It broke my heart because I was saying goodbye. First and foremost I was saying goodbye to the crew. And they were really like family. And I know people say that and make that comparison all the time, but for this show in particular - as I could imagine for The Sopranos or anything that requires you to leave your heart on the fucking mat every single day - these people witness it. And they help you bring it forth. So it was really sad to say goodbye to them. And then my cast members, even though Michael and I talk all the time and Kenny and I talk all the time. I see these guys a lot, it was hard to say goodbye to looking at them every day and working with them every day because I so enjoyed watching them.
And then most importantly it was sad to say goodbye to Shane. It was sad to say goodbye to this guy who I put on his leather jacket every day, you know, for 7 years and the thought that I was never going to get to be him again, it was just so painful. But in hindsight the fact that he died made that healing much quicker for me, because I didn’t have to think about where he was in the world and what he might be doing. It was over. It was done. And I could walk away from it, you know? And it seems silly I guess for an actor to say that. I mean, there are a lot of fucking really, really important things going on in the world, but it is my art and it’s our art, it’s your art, it’s what we do. And you’re providing entertainment for people. I grew up with a family of storytellers and watching my family prepare to get up to tell a story, which would last for 30 minutes, I would just get ready and say, "Okay, the next storyteller’s getting up. What’s this going to be?" We provide an escape for people. It’s like reading a novel or anything else. It’s that medium and I’m just so fucking proud to be included in this group of people, man. And all that’s sincere. That’s not bullshit.
The other thing is about that scene, from time to time one of my readers will ask, "Does Mara know?" When Shane calls the family meeting, is it just to give them the drinks or is it to discuss it with her and let her choose to participate?
I think it’s probably to discuss it with her, you know? No one’s ever asked me that question and I’ve thought about that. I don’t think that she went into this unwillingly. I think that she was a willing participant. Yeah.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com