With his gravelly voice and square jaw, actor Timothy Olyphant fits the image of the rugged Old West type. He played an 1870’s Sheriff on HBO’s groundbreaking drama “Deadwood,” and earned an Emmy nomination portraying a kind of modern-day Wild West lawman: Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, hero of the dramedy “Justified,” which just launched it’s fifth season on FX.
This week Timothy tells Rico about the differences between his life and his characters, his fearsome parenting style, and the proper way to discuss the topic of auditions.
Rico Gagliano: You’re known for being one of those hard, wild west style guys…
Timothy Olyphant: You talking about my kids? They think of me as a hard-bitten lawman type of guy.
Rico Gagliano: You walk into town with your six-shooters blazing?
Timothy Olyphant: “Brush your goddamn teeth!! Just brush ‘em!”
Rico Gagliano: I’m sorry for them!
There is also “Rango,” maybe a film that your kids enjoy, in which you play the voice of The Spirit of the West. So I think that people might be surprised to find that you are from Hawaii and Modesto and that you went to USC to study Fine Art.
I’m interested in how actors perceive themselves, as opposed to how casting directors cast them. Has this streak of roles surprised you? Do you see yourself as the spirit of the west?
Timothy Olyphant: Well, The Spirit of the West was a little out of the blue! But I am not unaware of the general perception of it all.
How do I perceive myself? I basically do a lot of driving. I drive my kids around, I spend a lot of time doing that and walking dogs. So I kind of perceive myself as “the help,” more or less.
Rico Gagliano: I guess the question is, are you surprised when you walk into an audition and people are like, “Yeah: that is the gun-slinging cool guy”?
Timothy Olyphant: First of all Rico, let me help you with your perception: I don’t audition; I think you have a misconception there.
Rico Gagliano: [lauging] You’re past that now.
Timothy Olyphant: I think, yes — let’s clear this first one up right off the bat!
Rico Gagliano: You make the rules.
Timothy Olyphant: Offers only, buddy!
I’ll audition, obviously. I’m joking.
Rico Gagliano: Of course.
Timothy Olyphant: Wait — you’re not supposed to say “of course” back. You’re supposed to say “Really? You still audition?”
Rico Gagliano: Really? Who would dare make you?
Timothy Olyphant: I don’t know you very well, but so far the jury is still out on you.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah.
Timothy Olyphant: But I… I don’t know the answer to your question, in terms of casting.
Rico Gagliano: Well, I mean you’re also the rare leading man who also does comedy stuff. You’ve been on FX’s “The League” and some other hilarious stuff, as well as playing some of these more dramatic roles. I’m just wondering when you get one of those dramatic roles, are you like “Wait, I’m ‘the funny guy!’ Do you really want me to be a hard ass?”
Timothy Olyphant: I remember being down at “Deadwood” saying “Hey, I can be the funny guy. What’s with this anger thing that’s going on?”
There was a while where I couldn’t get my hands on a role with any kind of gravitas. It was the other way. If you have any kind of success in one thing they tend to, God willing, send you some other opportunities that are just like that one. That’s kind of how it works.
Rico Gagliano: I have a frivolous question, since we’re talking about your “lawman” styles. One of [your “Justified” character] Raylan’s signature moves is the quick-draw with the gun. Have you actually learned to do that with any accuracy?
Timothy Olyphant: No. Not a clue.
In fact, I’m actually gonna do a thing for charity where we’re gonna go to a shooting range and shoot some guns. You know, you can go to this website where you can win an opportunity to come to the set, and we’re going to go to the shooting range.
When I agreed to do that, a couple of things occurred to me. First: “That’ll be fun, I’ve never been to a shooting range!”
Second thing that occurred to me is: “I wonder how good the background check is on this person who wins.”
Rico Gagliano: That’s right. Suddenly it’s just a free-fire zone; that’s not good.
Timothy Olyphant: Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: Speaking of the show, let’s talk about what I think grabs a lot of people: the tone. It’s based on the stories of the late crime-novel master, Elmore Leonard. And it’s got Leonard’s mix of clever, profane verbal comedy… which suddenly smashes up against violence and psychological drama. You also are a producer on the show — What do you think is so enthralling to us about that mix? Why does it grab us?
Timothy Olyphant: Well, I can tell you what I like about it.
Elmore is cool — I’ve always been attracted to that. People who are funny that don’t acknowledge being funny. I just think that’s the definition of cool: People who’re funny that don’t acknowledge being funny — they’re cool!
I also think that it is just the way people in those types of professions are, and I’ve always found that fascinating. I’ve been unfortunate enough to be at the scene of a crime, or the scene of a really horrific thing, and if you can steal a moment there and listen to the way the cops are talking, or the firemen are talking, it really is not how they’re often portrayed; they’re often times very unemotional. And every now and then they’ll say a joke to one another that… kind of makes your jaw drop.
Rico Gagliano: There’s been a lot made lately of male anti-heroes, these morally ambiguous protagonists: Walter White on “Breaking Bad, Don Draper on “Mad Men,” maybe all of this starting with Tony Soprano. Raylan is definitely many shades lighter than those characters, he’s got more of a sense of humor, but he still kind of fits their profile — he’s got a very dark past. What is going on that we’re suddenly so fascinated by these guys on TV?
Timothy Olyphant: I say — and this includes television, especially in the last decade or so I guess — but movies are like dreams right? You’re watching people live out these fantasies that most of us cannot do. And what fun to be Tony Soprano and say “Oh — there’s that guy; pull over, I’m gonna beat the s*** out of him, and I’m gonna get back in my car and go about my day.” Who doesn’t want to do that? That’s fantastic! And then go to their therapist and talk about it? That’s… I mean everyone goes to their therapist and says how they want to beat the s*** out of someone!
Rico Gagliano: It’s true — although it’s interesting that in shows like that, almost immediately after that primal need is expressed, there has to be the push-back against it.
Timothy Olyphant: Well, what makes these great characters is the contradiction. I just re-watched “The Sopranos,” and… you know, he’s the head of the New Jersey mob, he’s beating the s*** out of everybody, everybody is afraid of him — but his mother brings him to his knees. That’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking for the contradiction.
And on our show, when they offered me this job, the thing that bounced off of the page was that [Raylan] gave a guy 24 hours to get out of town or he’d kill him. And he did it… and then he told another guy that you don’t come in someone’s house unless you knock first.
That’s fantastic. And then bashes his head against the steering wheel when the guy talks back to him!
Rico Gagliano: Yeah; some sort of gentlemanly grace existing with this brute force.
Timothy Olyphant: There you go — I appreciate you saying it. I mean — exactly: You don’t know what he’s gonna do next. He seems so relaxed and relatively at ease and confident, but then there are these flashes of anger and violence that come out at unexpected moments. That’s what you’re looking for: The unexpected, yet the inevitable.
Rico Gagliano: All right: we have two questions that we ask all our guests of honor. The first one is, if we met you at a dinner party, what question shouldn’t we ask? What’s the question you’re tired of answering?
Timothy Olyphant: You know… I guess it’s a cop out to tell you I can’t think of one.
Rico Gagliano: It is, kind of. You didn’t like it when I asked you about auditioning, so we learned that.
Timothy Olyphant: It’s never the question, it’s the person asking that’s the problem…
Rico Gagliano: So just don’t be me at the dinner party asking, basically!
Timothy Olyphant: All I’m saying is there’re certain people at a dinner party that can ask me whatever the hell they want, you know what I’m saying? I’m just happy they’re there at the dinner party. Then there are other people, it doesn’t matter what they ask, I just want them to shut up. I’m not alone here, right? Everyone understands what I’m talking about.
Rico Gagliano: I’m sure everyone across America is nodding in agreement. The second question we have — it’s more of an order really — tell us something we don’t know.
Timothy Olyphant: You don’t know what I’m thinking right now.
Rico Gagliano: That is absolutely true.
Timothy Olyphant: BOOM! Done!