A lithe, handsome star with a mischievous smile and an unpredictable, hair-trigger screen persona to match, Timothy Olyphant has a spotty résumé, but since the late ’90s, he’s made a habit of stealing scenes at every opportunity. Though he’s specialized in playing the imposing, darkly funny villains of films such as Scream 2, Go, The Girl Next Door, Hitman, and Live Free Or Die Hard, Olyphant has starred as more traditional heroes, too, and adeptly moved from the big screen to the small one and back again. His breakthrough role as Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO’s Deadwood called on his full range of ability as his character mustered the strength and resourcefulness to square off against Ian McShane’s ruthlessly vicious Al Swearengen.
The old-fashioned, straight-shooting Olyphant of Deadwood resurfaces in the lead roles in two new projects. In The Crazies, a remake of George Romero’s 1973 non-zombie zombie movie, Olyphant plays a small-town Iowa sheriff who tries to fend off a population gone murderously mad. In the new FX series Justified, based on a series of Elmore Leonard novels and short stories, Olyphant plays Raylan Givins, a U.S. marshal who wears a cowboy hat and generally behaves like a 19th-century lawman in the modern world. When the shooting of a suspect in Miami brings some heat to his department, Givins is exiled to his old stomping grounds of Harlan County, Kentucky, where his past comes back to haunt him. Olyphant recently spoke to The A.V. Club about shooting his own stunts, In a longer version of this Q&A, Timothy Olyphant discusses filming his own stunts (and his own stunt failures), why a good film is like a good pop song, and why Elvis Costello kicks Aerosmith’s ass.
The A.V. Club: The common thread of The Crazies and Justified is that you’re playing a lawman of an older school. How are these characters similar, and where do they part ways?
Timothy Olyphant: You’re right. They definitely have a little old school to them, but Elmore’s [Leonard] got a lighter touch. Elmore’s got a humor and a twinkle in his eye as he writes. So I think my character on the show gives me a little bit more room to swing a cat, you know?
AVC: Have you ever discussed the role with Leonard?
TO: Yeah, I’ve spoken to him a couple times. He’s been great, and we haven’t always just spoken about the show. You know, if you pay attention, I find that sometimes you’re always talking about the work, whether you are or not. He’s been very generous. He’s just a cool cat. He can be as specific as, “You know, you don’t always have to wear the hat.” [Laughs.] He actually told me that the first time we met. That just tickled me. And then he said, “Maybe the wind picked up one day and blew it away.” [Laughs.] The guy is just one cool motherfucker.
AVC: People are going to see the hat, even if it isn’t there.
TO: Exactly. I just enjoyed the moment. And I know what he was saying. Maybe I’m overinterpreting it, but one of the things I love about his work is that he’s so… I find that there’s often so much more there than meets the eye. It’s so subtle and kind of cool and throwaway, hip dialogue. At his best, he’s so dialed into human behavior and human nature. What I liked about that whole comment, regardless of the specifics about the hat, is that there’s a part of him that’s basically saying, “You know, you can tell them all to fuck off.” That’s how I took it. “Just because they’re saying you have to be this, doesn’t mean you have to be this. You can be that. Don’t be afraid to just throw it all away and just go out there on your own.” I haven’t really thought of that until now. That’s the kind of vibe you get from him, which I really appreciate.
AVC: Writers and directors can be very assertive in their vision of characters. Do you find yourself protective of the roles you play?
TO: After Hitman, there’s definitely been a change in gears in that regard, and it’s really been unexpected how positive that experience has been. The last four movies, I think I showed up prepared to die on my own sword. Part of that is just one or two experiences where you think, “You know what, I could have made that suck all by myself. I didn’t need your guys’ help.” [Laughs.] Sadly, sometimes, you come out of these things and think, “Why do I listen?” I asked somebody about this actor the other day and they said, “She just kind of does her own thing. Sometimes, no matter what the director says, she just does her own thing.” And it’s funny, because for the first time, I kind of took that as a compliment. I thought, “Okay, great. She sounds fantastic.” Point being, on the last three or four jobs, I’ve been much more invested in what’s onscreen—not just my performance, but everything around me. I’ve really stuck my hand in everybody’s cookie jar. What’s been lovely about it is the relationships with the directors I’ve worked with and the other actors and the writers have been better than anything previous. It’s really been a fantastic result.
AVC: Why do you say Hitman was the turning point?
TO: It was really a great opportunity, and I really appreciate them giving me a chance to be in what was basically an international action film. There was a lot about it I enjoyed, and that I realized was a guilty pleasure. But there was part of it that, if nothing else, I walked away thinking, “Well, now I know what I don’t want to do.” There’s nothing like failure to get you up in the morning. So I thought it was… I was really pleased it was a success. They’re making another one, but there was definitely a part of me that was like, “What am I doing here? What is this I’ve gotten myself involved in? What am I trying to achieve?” That just kind of felt like it focused me a little. You have experiences like Deadwood and you think, “Did I take full advantage of that? Is this what I’m hoping that was going to lead to?” With Hitman, there are some wonderful things there. I was very fond of the director and a lot of the people that worked on the film. Like I said, it was a real learning experience. But it allowed me—when I moved forward to doing a little movie like High Life or A Perfect Getaway, or now, The Crazies, and certainly with Justified, all those projects since then—it motivated me to take a little more responsibility with what I was doing.
AVC: What attracted you to The Crazies?
TO: It started with the read. It was a quick read, really a simple and entertaining read. It felt a little bit like a good pop song. It’s really entertaining, right from the jump. We know who we’re making it for, and the people are going to enjoy this one, not to mention I was pretty giddy over the title. I thought, “Like any good pop song, that has a good title. That’s a good song. It’s got a good hook, and there’s an undercurrent there. It’s about something.” I went online and read about the original. There’s a three- or four-minute clip online, and it just cracked me up. I don’t know the [George A.] Romero films that well. Everything I read about Romero and the original film made me much more interested, made me think “There’s really something cool here, and I understood why Participant is involved.” [Participant Media is a production company that tends to back activist movies. —ed.] Breck [Eisner] and I both seemed to come at it from the same angle. We thought “To some degree, we’re making a popcorn film, a genre film that kids are gonna love.” At the same time, I thought we could make a little bit of a Cormac McCarthy film here. Take that with a grain of salt, but that was kind of a cool idea.
AVC: It seems like A Perfect Getaway would also satisfy your idea of a perfect pop song.
TO: Well, bottom line with A Perfect Getaway was, I thought “I’m going to have a lot of fun at work.” That part was gonna get me an opportunity to play and have fun. There’s something great when you read something and you have some sense of, “I know what to do here. Give me a little room. This is going to be a lot of fun.” And then when we got Steve [Zahn], “Well, now it’s going to be a ton of fun, because there’s somebody who’s going to be so fun to bounce off of.” I do think, they’re both simple, well-crafted B-movies. The quality of the actors I got to work with on that made it seem like I was getting away with something.
AVC: Much of the inherent suspense in horror films has to do with camera angles, sound effects, etc.—a lot of things that don’t become clear until the editing stage or after. When you’re shooting a scene, do you think about how scary the scene will come across?
TO: I have a pretty good vibe for what plays, you know? When Breck [Eisner] and I were shooting some of those sequences, I thought, “No, this plays.” I walk away from the day going, “That worked.” Breck and I had a real collaboration with setting up all those sequences and the whole deal, so usually I feel pretty dialed into what’s working, what are the moments, where’s the humor, and what are the subtle, little things. And at the same time, I know when they don’t work. For example, take that sequence upstairs in the baby’s room. [A pair of “crazies” attack Olyphant’s character in his house. Olyphant gets stabbed, then uses the blade sticking through his hand against his adversaries. —ed.] We rehearsed it. It was a long fight sequence. It ended with the same result, with two crazy people dead. I walked back to the makeup trailer and said, “It just doesn’t work. It’s just boring.”
I went and asked to see Breck, and they said, “It’s funny, because Breck wants to see you.” I went into his trailer and he said, “I don’t know how to break this to you…,” and I said, “I hate it too.” So we sat and re-crafted it right there that morning. That might be one of my proudest contributions to the film. I walked away saying, “That plays, and it allows me to have some fun. It allows me to have a moment, standing across from that woman, knife out of my hand. It gives me something to do.” That’s going to make people feel uncomfortable. That’s going to make people laugh. There’s something to that. Breck and I had a lot of fun with that, basically every day, making it up as we go.
AVC: So using the knife stuck in your hand was your idea?
TO: The way it was written in the script, as I recall, was basically, once I took it out, maybe I cut her? But it’s one of those things where, “Really? It hurts her more than it hurts me?” [Laughs.] I feel like it’s a moment you might just miss. I don’t buy it, and it doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t make me go “Oh man, that’s fucked-up.” With [David] Milch, when we were doing Deadwood, he was aware of the audience. He was aware of what he was doing to them. He’d stage something and he’d say, “No, no. I want it to go three times as long as that, because I want the audience at home to be uncomfortable. It’d be okay if a few of them had to get up and leave the room, or they want to leave the room.” He was aware of what he was trying to do there. I’ve been really lucky to be in a position to be a part of that. I could spend the next 15 minutes patting myself on the back. [Laughs.]
AVC: Another interesting connection between The Crazies and Justified is the opening scenes, where you’re given a tough choice about whether draw a gun on someone and fire, and the decision is questioned afterward.
TO: With Justified, that scene is right from Elmore. We’re not making that shit up. That opening sequence is essentially inspired by one of his books that features Raylan as a lead character. Pronto is about Raylan Givins protecting his bookie. There’s a Miami gangster who’s going to kill the bookie, and the only way Raylan knows how to deal with it is, he tells the gangster he has 24 hours to get out of town or Givins is going to shoot him, because he doesn’t know another way to solve the problem. That’s where that comes from. And likewise, in Elmore’s next book, Riding The Rap, which is the other Raylan Givins book, Raylan is dealing with the fallout of those decisions. As it says in the book at one point, Raylan is the kind of guy who can’t walk into someone’s home unless he’s invited, but he can give someone 24 hours to leave town or he’ll shoot him. To me, that’s the beginning of a great character.
AVC: What is it like to develop a character who’s so open-ended? The Leonard books can only take you so far, it would seem.
TO: This one, I’m all over. The way I looked at this when the opportunity came up was, instead of asking everybody what they were thinking of doing with the show, I asked myself what I would like to do with the show, and for better or worse, just trusted my gut on what makes those Elmore pieces tick. I was a huge fan of them. I’m asking a lot of questions. I’m annoying. I’m reading those books over and over. I think they’re getting sick of it.
AVC: So you’re pretty committed to—
TO: As my acting teacher once said, [Impersonates acting teacher.] “Tim, you’ve got to commit.” I’m committed.
AVC: Justified’s setting in Harlan County, Kentucky is significant, given the area’s history of coal-mining strikes and violence. How does this affect the show?
TO: The short story [“Fire In The Hole”] was really about Raylan coming back specifically to deal with the situation in Harlan, coming back to see his old buddy who’s now a white supremacist blowing up churches and robbing banks. It’s all about chickens coming home to roost. Still, being a U.S. marshal is a federal deal, so we can start there and then go wherever we want. Those books… he’ll spend a third of one of them in Italy. So I thought, based on the books, we had a lot of room to invest in [Harlan County], those people and his upbringing. But at the same time, it was cool to take that guy and put him in a foreign land. I discovered [Quentin] Tarantino before I discovered Elmore Leonard, but once I started reading Elmore Leonard, I understood how he got to Tarantino. He loves to take these people and put them in other places and talk about the little things that matter to people.
AVC: So how committed are you to Justified? Do you have a certain endpoint in mind?
TO: This is the problem, Scott. This is the fear of a television series: When will it end? The other thing that really scares the shit out of me is when something really works for television—and this is true of most media—they’re just going to beat it to death, and be too afraid to kill their babies. The answer is, you cross that bridge when you come to it. I’m in it for the long haul.
AVC: Do you have some reluctance to commit to a TV show for that reason?
TO: I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, if you told actors that you wanted to do a TV series and it was going to run three years and that’s it, you’re done, I think the line would get a lot longer, without question. It’s really easy to fall into this habit of, “Ahh, I don’t know what I’m going to do next.” You think every job is your last job, but there’s another side to that, which is that it never gets any better than when you first get a new job. It’s the most fun. When somebody says, “You got the job,” that’s the most fun, and from that point forward, it’s so exciting, but part of the fun is when the job is over and you move on.
The danger with success in television is “Haven’t we shot this episode before? Didn’t we shoot this scene two years ago?” I think it’s really hard to just take the risk from season to season and not be afraid to give the audience something completely different, and trust that they’ll come with you. Do you want Aerosmith albums over and over and over again, or do you want Elvis Costello, who’s basically like, “Okay, I’m glad you liked that, but fuck off, I’m going over here. And you can come with me or not. I really don’t care.” God bless Aerosmith. I like some of it. It’s like—remember that review in Rolling Stone years ago? I think it was AC/DC’s Fly On The Wall. It was something to the effect of, “AC/DC has now successfully released the same album seven times in a row.” [Laughs.] So, do you really need them all? No, probably not.
AVC: You have a background in athletics, which would seem to give you a skill set that other actors don’t have. Has that ever come in handy in your career?
TO: Well, I get to do my own stunts for the most part, which is really fun. It’s fun to be able to do that stuff. It’s a nice break at work to mix it up with stuntmen. They’re the coolest. They’re like actors, but they’re not complaining. Back to that thing we were talking about, with that sequence with the knife [in The Crazies]. By being able to do a lot of it, it gives me an opportunity to also be a part of the creative process with some of it, you know? If you can really get in there and do it and rehearse it and mix it up and help choreograph it, you can find moments that are entertaining and about the character, as opposed to, “Show me what we’re going to do and stick me in there when the cameras need me.”
AVC: Have you ever been in a situation on set where you thought maybe you shouldn’t be doing this?
TO: Well, after the fact. In A Perfect Getaway, they dropped me from a fucking mountain. [Laughs.] That was probably a bad idea. That was the stupidest thing I ever did. At the end of the movie, I jump from this small cliff and land on [Steve] Zahn with a knife. It was like 10 or 15 feet. So they rigged it all up and I came onto the set. They’ve already tried the thing out. Don’t ever forget this. This is a tip to all the young actors out there. Tell them to show it to you first. So I get rigged up and climb up this fucking cliff, and I’m attached to a rope that’s holding me. The camera’s down on the ground, and on “Action!” I jump, and the rope is supposed to stop me two or three feet from the ground. It all went great until the rope didn’t stop me. [Laughs.] Oh my God, did I hit the ground hard. It was one of those things where you hit the ground and go flying right past the camera. My left leg… I felt like it was telling me that there was oil nearby, like it was one of those divining rods. I had a little buzz go up my leg. Your eyes just begin to involuntarily water when something like that happens. All these people came running over, and I remember my famous first words were “Just back the fuck up.” [Laughs.] “Give me a second.”
AVC: I hope that was the take they used.
TO: Yeah, that was the take they used. Sometimes it’s better to just say, “No, I won’t do that.”