The actor: Walton Goggins, an Alabama-born, Georgia-raised character actor who in his 18 years in the business has worked on blockbusters, indie classics, cult films, and one of the best TV series of all time, The Shield. As The Shield approaches its final episode, the 37-year-old Goggins looked back at his signature character—a crooked cop perpetually in over his head—and a career filled with unexpected opportunities.
The Shield (2002-08)—"Shane Vendrell"
Walton Goggins: To be given an opportunity to be in a story that lasts for seven years and has a beginning, a middle, and an end is once-in-a-lifetime, and I'm so grateful. And fortunate. Think about the friends I've made. Michael Chiklis is my big brother. Kenny Johnson is now my brother. Some of the friendships of these past seven years will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The A.V. Club: Are you sad to see it end, then, or excited to have the opportunity for something new?
WG: I think with any significant change in a person's life, you have to take a certain amount of time to grieve. Watching the final season every week is part of that grieving process. But I miss it, yeah, I miss the people. And I really miss Shane Vendrell. I miss wearing his leather jacket and showing up at work and talking in his voice. But now it's slowly becoming a celebration of those seven years, and this world we've all been living in. It's slowly turning from grieving to being thankful for the past, and looking forward to the future. The Shield has given me something to compare all other experiences to, and to kind of calibrate my expectations, so I'm not disappointed. Because it would be real hard for anything to live up to this.
AVC: Shane Vendrell seems like a great challenge for any actor, because a lot of what your character does is acting: saying one thing to his boss, another to his wife, and another to his friends. To a certain extent, The Shield is a show about putting on different faces for different people.
WG: Well yeah, it's a show about communication and miscommunication. It's a show about information, and more importantly, access to information. And power. Access to information, more often than not, equals power. It's really that simple.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2007)—"Marlon Frost"
WG: I've been offered other roles on television for seven years, but I felt very strongly that if you wanted to see my work on television, you needed to tune into FX. I didn't want to disrespect my peers on The Shield, and I didn't want to disrespect the character I was playing, to be quite honest with you. I held that pretty sacred. But CSI called and offered me this role that didn't have much dialogue, and I thought, "Wow, this is really interesting." I'd say the biggest difference between CSI and The Shield would be the difference between traditional and non-traditional. CSI is a traditional show—a television show. And I think that on The Shield, what we've tried to do with varying degrees of success is non-traditional—to make a movie, really. We've just been making an 88-hour independent movie.
The Apostle (1997)—"Sam"
WG: That was like The Shield too, in that it really changed my life, and was an experience never to be repeated. Different worlds for those two characters, but the impact on me has been the same.
AVC: What was it like working with Robert Duvall, as a director and as a fellow actor?
WG: It was like working with a myth. It was like, "Oh my God, how many corny lines can I say to Robert Duvall when I meet him?" You know? For me, on a personal note, having come from—on one side of my family, anyway—a conservative Baptist upbringing, and having a problem with that personally… The Apostle gave me the opportunity to realize that while there may be something wrong with the messenger, there's nothing wrong with the message. It allowed me to make peace with that part of my life. And then to say words with Robert Duvall, on his passion project? It doesn't get much better than that. He's been number one on my "people to look up to" list for a long time.
AVC: At that point, you hadn't really done a whole lot in your career. So how'd you get that gig?
WG: I'd done small parts in movies and some television stuff, but certainly not art, like The Apostle. I was actually doing a movie for HBO at the time, so when I was called in on The Apostle, I had a full beard. And I knew that the character was clean-shaven, and was supposed to be young. I was 24 at the time, but I looked 30 with all this facial hair, so I said, "Do you mind if I leave Mr. Duvall a note? Can I just say 'hello' to him at the end of this take?" Then I said, "I know I have a hairy face, Robert Duvall, but I promise you, I do look 24 without all this hair on my face, if you'll give me this opportunity." The casting director, Ed Johnston, started laughing. He got a chuckle out of it. And I got the job, man! When you say The Apostle, I think of the first phone call from Robert Duvall. It was a message that I kept on my phone for three years. "Hey, Walton! This is Bobby Duvall!" It was unbelievable.
In The Heat Of The Night (1989-92)—various roles
WG: I think I had four different roles on that show, and I was killed almost every time. Once I escaped death, but I was blinded by bad moonshine. When I think of In The Heat Of The Night, you know what I think of, man? Opportunity. Because when you don't come from Los Angeles… When you come from other parts of the country, where you don't have access to work… for Carroll O'Connor to bring his show to the southeast, the opportunity that he gave so many actors in that part of the country was unbelievable. "Oh my God, I got a role, and I'm going to be on television! Mom, at this time, on this day, look, there I am! We filmed that." And he gave so many people their first job.
AVC: Did you worry about getting typed as the requisite racist hick in Hollywood?
WG: Was I given an opportunity to play that role, and did that put food on my table when I first started? Certainly. Unfortunately, I think Hollywood sees so many parts of our country through a very narrow prism. The South is no exception. And those stereotypes, while sometimes true, are exaggerated for me to the point of boredom. Early on, I was given the opportunity to play that guy, but I haven't done it for a very long time. I've made four "Southern" movies that have been about showcasing the South in all of its complexities. I think there was certainly a time in my career, early on, when I was happy to speak with a Southern accent. It made it easier to get work, and I could do it better than just about anybody in California, anyway. So yeah, it was good for a season. But that was 15 years ago.
Randy And The Mob (2007)—"Tino Armani"
WG: My friend Ray McKinnon and I have just finished our third feature-film collaboration, which we produced for another filmmaker, Scott Teems. It's called I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, with Hal Holbrook and Barry Corbin and Mia Wasikowska—who's Alice in Tim Burton's new Alice In Wonderland—and Ray and me. It's a great cast. Actually, it's the sixth time I've worked with Ray, when you include our short film "The Accountant," and my second job ever, a TV movie called Murder In Mississippi, and an episode of In The Heat Of The Night that we were in together.
With Randy And The Mob, we weren't exactly trying to create a Southern movie that didn't feel like a Southern movie, because the movie is by nature Southern. It's a Southern suburban comedy. What we set out to do was capture the words on the page on film. For my partner, it's always been "Write what you know." And that's where we come from. That's where our sense of humor is kind of rooted, and our sense of drama. The South certainly has its Southern gothic qualities that we both have been exposed to. But yeah, we just wanted to make the best movie we could. And to make a comedy that was 180 degrees from our first feature, Chrystal, which was a drama.
Daddy And Them (2001)—"Tommy Christian"
WG: That's a wonderful film, a really wonderful film. I've known Billy Bob Thornton since even before The Apostle, actually. We met right after he'd gotten Sling Blade in the can. Billy's a mythic figure in the South. I hate to use the word mythic twice, but he's a folk hero, he really is. He's one of us, and he made it! He made it big-time. And he's such a good writer. When I read that script, I just laughed. And the first thing that came to mind for me was nursing shoes. "What if my character wore nursing shoes, Billy?" And he started laughing, and that was that. It just warms my heart whenever I see that movie.
AVC: Is it disappointing when you make a movie like that and it just disappears?
WG: It is disappointing. I can only imagine how disappointing it is for the filmmaker, but it's disappointing to the actor too, because you want people to see your work. The people who have seen it, some of them really got it. But it is what it is, man. Life goes on. It was a great experience. I got to work with Jim Varney, and hang out with him. And most of my scenes were with John Prine! When I got down there, Billy said, "I don't know if you're going to know this guy, but all of your scenes are with this singer, his name's John Prine." And this was back when you had this sort of portable CD player that you'd bring with you on location—no iPods or anything. I said to Billy, "Buddy, I brought three CDs with me, and two of 'em are John Prine." He's one of my heroes. As an actor, you're afforded these experiences that are once-in-a-lifetime for so many people. More often than not, you can't tell the seasons based on the changing of the leaves, but on the experiences you've had. That was a great summer. An unbelievable two weeks. Are you disappointed? Sure, you're disappointed. But then you move on.
Beverly Hills 90210 (1992)—"Mike Muchin"
WG: Buddy, don't even try to picture that. Don't put that in your imagination. I would not want to subject you to that.
AVC: What was your part?
WG: Mike Muchin was his name. He was in one or two scenes, and he was at a party with Tori Spelling. I don't know, buddy. That was so long ago… that was like 16 years ago, 17 years ago.
AVC: You have no memory of what you did?
WG: I barked like a seal. That was when 90210 was such a big deal. I was in class then, studying. I studied for a decade—you do what you do. And then opportunities come up to work, and you do 90210. At the time, 90210 was the biggest show on television. The biggest show, I think, in the universe. Everyone had sideburns two weeks after that show came out. To work with those guys and to meet them in person, it was a pop-culture experience unlike any I'd ever had at the time.
AVC: They probably haven't asked you to come back and reprise your role on the new version, have they?
WG: No, no, they haven't. I think Mike would probably be in jail by now. Or running a corporation.
Mr. Saturday Night (1992)—"Shaky Kid"
Forever Young (1992)—"Gate MP"
WG: Mr. Saturday Night was my first movie when I got to California. I went in and met with Billy Crystal, and I was like, "Oh my God, you're Billy Crystal!" I had the best time with him in the meeting, and he asked me to be a part of his movie. It was a great, great week. And he was kind enough to put our scene on the DVD, in the deleted scenes. He said, "These are the scenes that I absolutely loved, but for time's sake couldn't keep in the movie." I took that as a big compliment. I'm sure it wasn't just because of me, but I'd like to think that I had something to do with it.
Shortly thereafter, I was in a movie called Forever Young, with Mel Gibson. I just saw the director up here in Canada the other day—Steve Miner. And again, it was a day… but you know, when you're a young actor, you live for those days. It was a day with Mel Gibson. People are still having those experiences now. You show up and you get to tell a story in one of these big studio movies, and that's your day, that's your experience. It was so rewarding then, and so new, and such a big deal to get to say words with an actor of that caliber. It's what makes The Shield and other work later in one's career so rewarding, that you finally get the opportunity to play a three-dimensional person. It's not just a piece of paper; it's a box that you're able to fill. You're able to play a character. Early in my career, those small roles I got, they were pretty two-dimensional, buddy, for the most part. But you do what you can do with it on your day, and you're thankful for it.
Miracle At St. Anna (2008)—"Captain Nokes"
WG: Yes, Spike Lee. I hate to use the same words over and over again, but I've had a great career. I've had a great life. I am truly blessed by my working experiences. I'm not the lead in studio films, but there's a large area of space where actors exist between box-office champs and community theater. And I've had the opportunity to meet some of these great, great directors, and people that have defined their generations. Spike Lee's one of them. And to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers in the 92nd division in World War II… It's a topic that not many people have approached, and I think he did it in a big, bold way. To get an opportunity to tell that story was a feather in my cap for sure.
AVC: I'm a really huge Spike Lee fan, but I was very disappointed in that film.
WG: The reviews were awful. The New York Times gave it a great review, but otherwise… Was it slow? Yeah. I think Spike was hampered by financing on one level, and while the Italians got their story told—which was a really bold thing to do, and a good thing to do—I think unfortunately, some of the Buffalo Soldier story was sacrificed because of it. I understand the criticisms for sure, but for the most part, I've gotten so much out of every movie that Spike Lee has made that I can go on a journey with him for two hours that may ramble a little bit.
I played a Southern racist captain in Miracle At St. Anna, and don't think I'll do that again. But it was an opportunity to work with Spike, and I do hope that opportunity continues with him. For me, it was a great experience, but I don't think I'll play that guy again. I don't view Shane Vendrell as a Southern racist, though I've seen that flippantly said in articles in the past. Because he says the N word? Really? And because there are a couple of Southern references? I don't buy that. He's not a "Southern racist" to me. He doesn't speak Southern. They call him Cowboy cause he's a little different. But I don't see that in his character. I look back over seven years, and I see very few things that would indicate that Shane Vendrell is a Southern racist.
House Of 1000 Corpses (2003)—"Deputy Steve Naish"
WG: Buddy, come on, you gotta go with me here—one of the best death scenes ever filmed! Dan Waters, a writer friend of mine, says it's one of his favorites, and the man's cinematic acumen is unparalleled. Rob Zombie, man, come on! The guy's a fucking genius; he's a madman. The way he sees the world, and the way he manipulates and juxtaposes images, even in his concerts. He's so artistic. And that was another unexpected, incredible five weeks, with this fantastic singer. But when I think of Rob Zombie or House Of 1000 Corpses, I think of cold water on my knees. That's what I was sitting in the entire time it took for the camera to rise and capture that shot.
AVC: Is that tough, doing something physically grueling like that?
WG: Well, I think fighting in Iraq is tough. So no, I wouldn't call it tough. But you work 15 hours a day, and it's not all red carpets and commercials for sure. It is a lot of work. But it's for the greater good of telling a story.
Shanghai Noon (2000)—"Wallace"
WG: I think about Owen Wilson. That name. Owen Wilson. He became a friend over the course of that experience, and is one of the funniest, funniest people I've ever met. I also think about Jackie Chan. The first time I met him, we were all having dinner in a restaurant, and he walked in and I looked around and thought, "He could kick everyone's ass in this restaurant in about 15 seconds. Literally, if he started with that guy right there." That was a funny, funny movie.
AVC: Did Owen Wilson do a lot of rewriting on the set to make the part his own, or was his character all in the script already?
WG: Of course he was rewriting it on the set. He's a writer, for Christ's sake! And he understands that tone, and that sense of humor. When you're working with someone like that, you just trust them. And he was right. Bottle Rocket is one of my favorite movies. Most of those Wes Anderson films, I count among my favorites for comedy—they're so sophisticated. Owen's just a great guy, I'll tell you.
Another word that comes to mind is "cutting-room floor" with that movie. I was really disappointed that they cut about three scenes of mine. And I know they did it for time, and I had nice conversations with the director about it, and he told me that one of them was one of their favorite scenes. And again, they included it on the DVD. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's fucking hysterical. It's when I have Owen buried up to his neck in the desert. It is funny as shit. If you get a chance, watch it, I think you'd laugh for sure.
AVC: You could build a whole filmography out of your DVD deleted scenes. You were cut out of Joy Ride, too.
WG: That's exactly right, buddy. And don't forget the threequels: The Crow 3, Major League 3, The Next Karate Kid… though I think that was one was number four. You have that as a part of your career too, buddy. And I've had the best time making every single one of them. Which has led to where I am today. There's not a color missing from this jacket so far.