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The actor: Garret Dillahunt popped up in numerous bit parts and guest-star roles before his big breakthrough in David Milch’s revisionist TV Western Deadwood, where he played two different characters in two different seasons. Since Deadwood left the air, he’s landed everything from regular roles in TV shows as diverse as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and John From Cincinnati to prominent guest-star roles on Burn Notice and Life to film parts in No Country For Old Men and Winter’s Bone. Dillahunt’s laconic demeanor means he often plays lawmen or Old West archetypes, but he’s also portrayed unrepentant serial killers, evil robots, and Jesus Christ. His latest role is much broader than what he came to be known for post-Deadwood: the enjoyably lunk-headed grandfather of the titular baby in Fox’s comedy Raising Hope. The show airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.
Raising Hope (2010-present)—“Burt Chance”
The A.V. Club: When you first heard you would be auditioning for the role of a grandfather, did you recoil at that?
Garret Dillahunt: Yeah, it was a bitter pill, when I did the math and realized I could absolutely be a grandfather, if it was the old days, and I got started back when my parents did. But we also—and I say we, meaning me and Martha [Plimpton]—we enjoyed the fact that it was a plot point that they were young grandparents. That made it easier to swallow. And it was really good. That went a long way toward easing the pain.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of roles as a regular on dramas. This is your first comedy in quite a while. Was that something you were looking for?
GD: It is something I was looking for. I’m not usually as in control of my career as I would like. I’ve always been cork-in-the-ocean-y about things. I think it’s because I’m a workaholic. I have a hard time saying no, and work comes, and I take it. Over the past five or six years, I’ve tried to have a more active hand in shaping it, and so I really try as best I can to change it up from the last thing I did. I just think that’s interesting. So I try to make each part 90 degrees from the last one as much as I can.
And I had been playing a lot of heavy things of late, which I enjoyed very much. People always forget. Memories are always short in our business. I started in comedy. The first jobs I got in television were all comedies. I think my first pilot season, I booked Maximum Bob, which was sort of an hourlong dramedy/comedy thing, but I was certainly comic relief in that, and I liked it very much. And then two other half-hour pilots that didn’t go, but I also enjoyed. It was four-camera format with the live studio audience. And then I was on A Minute With Stan Hooper with Norm MacDonald for Fox as well, which went on the same season as I did Deadwood. So I was able to do both at the same time, and I guess play three characters at once, really. It just sealed my fate, in a good way. And then it was off to the races with darker characters.
It was funny, because—I don’t know how it is in your business, if it’s the same way with the kind of things you write, and people think, “Oh, that’s what you do.” But it’s certainly that way in our business. You do one thing, and that’s what you do. I had a really hard time getting an audition for anything dramatic when I was just doing comedies. People would say, “Oh, he’s a sitcom guy.” Then you start doing other things, and they say, “Oh, he can’t do comedy. He’s the serial killer, or whatever else.” It’s just funny to me. It’s a constant proving ground, but it’s an exciting challenge as well, to change people’s perceptions of you. And it seems like something that has to be constantly done, so you might as well enjoy it.
AVC: This show has been an underdog. At the start, there were some reviews that didn’t get what it was going for, and it didn’t seem like the network necessarily knew what it was, but over time, it’s grown into something people respect and appreciate. Were you cognizant of that on set?
GD: No, I guess I haven’t noticed that. It seemed like really, it’s gotten the most positive press of any show I’ve been on, maybe since Deadwood, in its way. So thank you guys for that. There were certainly detractors, who I think are probably eating crow now. I think some of them have even come out and said “Okay, I get it.” But percentage-wise, I think it was always stacked in our favor that way, which I was pleased about and felt validated.
And the network’s always been behind us. They’ve been very supportive, which is also a cool thing to feel. I’m sure they would like a few more viewers in addition to our loyal following. As Greg [Garcia, show creator] says, “They’d like a few million more who just tolerate it.” It’s always felt like a slow grower. It seems like the kind of thing that’s going to build, and it seems like that’s what’s happening. I hope it continues to do that. I’m really proud of the show. It’s an odd thing. It’s a big change for me in the kinds of things I do. I’m really proud of this show, and I think it deserves to be seen. I hope more people tune in.
AVC: What’s coming up here in the rest of the season?
GD: There’s four left. I know that the last remaining My Name Is Earl stars are going to make an appearance, which is cool. Ethan Suplee and Jaime Pressly are coming on, playing a married couple having some problems, and Burt and Virginia sort of insinuate themselves into their lives, whether they like it or not.
The season finale, we just saw at Paleyfest, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s one of the best half-hours of television I’ve ever seen, I gotta say. I thought it was hilarious, and it was really fun to watch it with a live audience. It’s a complex episode, because there’s a lot of time-shifting, which is great, and you just get to see where we all were five years ago, and where we are now. I have a spitting contest with an alpaca, which you don’t wanna miss. Which was not fun to shoot! And you see Jimmy going through his rebellious phase. It’s really good.
Maximum Bob (1998)—“Deputy Dawson Hayes”
GD: That was pretty typical of fairly early in my career, at least film- and television-wise. I just auditioned for it, got it. I was living in New York still—well, mostly—at the time. I enjoyed it very much. I played this dumb deputy, Deputy Dawson Hayes. It was a good cast. Sam Robards was in it, and I think he’s a great guy. Beau Bridges. We shot down in Florida. It was also the first time I worked with Bill Sanderson.
AVC: Was that different, shooting in Florida? Not a lot of shows shoot down there.
GD: I don’t know if a lot of shows did then, but they certainly do now. Other than Miami Vice, I guess I wasn’t really privy to what was shooting there [back then]. It was really different. It was some of the hottest things still. I remember one episode where I was lying on the hood of a police cruiser in the sun in a full flak jacket, and I thought, “This is not fun.” It’s really hot, really humid.
The X-Files/Millennium (1998)—“Edward Skur”/”Rick Van Horn”
AVC: Those were both Chris Carter shows. Was that a situation where they had a pool of guest stars they could draw on for both shows?
GD: I don’t think they knew me at all, that’s for sure. I just auditioned for each one, and I’m not sure Chris was in the room for both or either. I think it was usually for the director and some other folks. I was fairly young at the time, fresh out of grad school, so I really had to earn my keep back in the day.
Deadwood (2004-2005)—“Jack McCall”/“Francis Wolcott”
AVC: You played two characters on that show. How did that come about?
GD: I’m not sure what was going through David’s [Milch, show creator] head. It might have just been convenient. But I’d like to think he liked to work with me. We were coming to the end of Jack McCall, and I remember when Deadwood came around, I was very excited, because I’d always been accused of being a cowboy when I’d audition for some things and not get them. And I thought, “Finally, a Western. I can be a part of this.”
I was in New York at the time, and I was very excited to audition. I had an audition I think lined up for Bullock, which is the part Timothy Olyphant played, but by the time they came to New York for auditions, they had already cast the role—in fact, all of the series-regulars roles, except for Doc Cochran. So I got an audition for the doc, which I was very annoyed about, because I thought, “I’ll never get the doc.” Also, “All these years of waiting to be in a cowboy thing, and I’m going to play the town doc? I wanna ride a horse! I want a gun!” So I went in and auditioned for David and [pilot director] Walter Hill in a room full of older actors, who I thought looked fantastic and should be the doc.
I got Jack McCall as sort of a consolation prize. I had a great time doing it. We worked well together, and we knew it was a finite part, that it was going to be seven or six episodes or so. So on the last day, I was very blue. I was pretty sad. I said to David, “This is it, huh?” And he was like, “Yeah, well, come here. I’ve been thinking about something.” So we went over to the Gem, Swearengen’s saloon, which was empty that day. They weren’t shooting on it. He outlined this plan he had about bringing me back as someone else. At the time, that was George Hearst. That was the big plan. He had this whole idea about George Hearst coming back and being this major figure in the second season. He was closer to my age, I think, than it ended up being in the show.
So I spent the rest of that season and the off season researching Hearst. We did some prosthetic tests for this fake nose I was going to wear that looked more like Hearst’s. We were gonna shave my hairline back because his hair was receding, and I was gonna work on this beard. So for about 10 months or so, that’s what my focus was. I think I was doing a play that summer when David called and said, “It’s not gonna happen. Hearst is gonna be more of an offscreen presence in the second season.” And my heart fell. He said, “But there’s this other guy that I think is gonna be right up your alley.” He told me about his idea for Wolcott, a fictitious advance man for Hearst, who has his demons as well. I jumped at it.
AVC: You had a lot of complex monologues on that show. Did you talk with Milch to figure out what he was going for?
GD: Well, he was cool, because he’d always outline what the scene was about, and just about every time, we were wrong. He has a motto that I’m gonna bastardize, I think, but I think it’s a Melville-ism. I think Melville is either his favorite or one of his favorite authors. I guess at one point, he said, “The best scenes are about the opposite of what they appear.” And that was often the case on Deadwood.
I mean, I guess there was obviously enough time to learn them, because I did. We didn’t get them often with a ton of notice, but usually at least the night before. For some reason, I’m not sure I could do it again, but I think I could. I find memorization pretty easy, especially when the writing is good. Even though they were complex, these monologues, they made sense. Once you knew what you were saying, they made sense. And then memorization’s really quite easy. When I see an episode now, sometimes I think, “Geez, how did I remember all of that?” I don’t know why. I don’t know if I could do it again. I think it’s because the writing’s so good that you almost memorize the situation more than the actual words.
The Book Of Daniel (2006)—“Jesus Christ”
GD: Kind of the opposite of serial killers! It gave me pause only in that it messed up some casting in Assassination Of Jesse James. But I certainly did it for the very reason we were talking about earlier. I thought, “This is different than the last guy I’ve played.” I’d done some comedies, then I played the two characters on Deadwood, who were quite villainous, and then I was going to play Jesus. It seemed like quite a turnaround and quite a difference, which I liked. I’ve always wanted to play lots and lots of different kinds of people, and I think that’s what we’re supposed to do. So it seemed right in line with my little career plan.
AVC: It wasn’t an exceptionally traditional portrayal of Jesus and religion in that show, and that fueled some controversy. Were you done filming by the time that came up?
GD: Any time you’re dealing with Jesus or religion, you’re gonna step on some toes, I’m sure. At least people are gonna wonder. But that show was being picketed and protested long before it even aired. There were some people who decided it shouldn’t be done, which I thought and still think was a shame. It’s interesting to me. I don’t know how they are now, but the people who review the DVDs or the people that buy them or recommend them, it’s very highly rated. It’s well-reviewed. I think people didn’t like the idea of a priest with a potential pill addiction. I think they read a synopsis and they jump to a conclusion about what the show is.
In a way, it was a very traditional Jesus, since it was in [the main character’s] head. It was robes and sandals and all. I would think “untraditional” would be on my surfboard or something. I don’t know. I certainly had some contemporary things to say, but he was a loving figure, and an understanding figure. I would think that it would be nice to have, if you’re a religious person, to some sort of representation of your faith that is respectful on network television. But it was not to be. I think we lost all advertisers by the second or third episode. It was only plugs for NBC shows. So we knew it was not long for that world.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)—“Ed Miller”
AVC: You did end up in that film, after those casting problems. What was the story there?
GD: Maybe this is an opportunity to correct a mistake on the Interweb. Sammy Rockwell was, I think, originally pursued to play Charley Ford. And he, for reasons of his own or conflicts, said no. I’d just been killed off on Deadwood and got the pilot for Book Of Daniel, which was shot and we were told was not picked up. So later that summer, I got the role of Charley Ford after much auditioning for Andrew Dominik, which I was very excited about. I’m a big Ron Hansen fan, and for a decade or more, I’d been carrying around that book thinking “Someday I’m gonna play Jesse James in this book.” No one knows about it. You know how you always think you discover books or music, and actually it’s quite popular?
But then I got Charley Ford, and I thought, “That’s pretty good.” Casey [Affleck] and I kind of favor each other. I could be the ugly Affleck brother; they could be the handsome ones. So it was kind of perfect. And all of a sudden, Book Of Daniel was picked up. Just before the little contract expired, they picked it up. So suddenly, I was in first position to a show that was in direct conflict with the biggest movie role of my career, and I was pretty despondent about it. It wasn’t any disrespect to the show. I’d put it to bed. You move on from it. When you hear it’s not happening, you let it go, and you move on, and you allow yourself to get excited about other things. So it really spun my head, and it was really disappointing to Andrew and Brad [Pitt] as well, if for no other reason than they thought they had everything cast, and then they had to go back to it.
NBC resisted all entreaties. Brad very generously even said, “I’ll do a guest spot on your show if you work around him so he can do this.” Which seemed like a good idea to me! That show might still be on today. They said, “We can’t. He’s Jesus. He’s in every show. He’s always gotta be there.” So I couldn’t do Charley Ford, which I was very despondent about, and I became a very surly Jesus. But thankfully, they said, “Would you play this other part in Jesse James?” They just flew me back and forth every time I needed to shoot so I could play Ed Miller. So I was grateful for that.
Then they went back to Sam and really coaxed him out of whatever he was doing to do it. So it wasn’t like he replaced me—it was like I replaced him, and then he did us a favor and played the part. And I think he did it brilliantly, which is an arrow in my heart. I can’t see myself in it anymore because he was so good. But that’s the story. I loved the scenes that Ed had, and I thought Brad was great to work with. In fact, today, I’m driving from Thibodaux to New Orleans to do a little cameo in Cogan’s Trade with Brad and Andrew again, just because I’m close by. So I’m looking forward to seeing them.
AVC: What are you doing in Louisiana right now?
GD: I’m shooting a film called Looper up in Thibodaux. Cool, cool project. I’ve been here a week or so. It’s Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who are all actors I really like very much. It’s a sort of science-fiction tale with a lot of time travel and murder, and it’s really cool and tense and fun. I’m really happy to be a part of it.
No Country For Old Men (2007)—“Wendell”
GD: That was fantastic. As you might have guessed, a lot of things I’m attracted to are based on books that I’m a fan of. I’m a frustrated writer myself. I don’t get real nervous around most folks, but I get real girly around writers and stuff. There was Ron Hansen for Jesse James, and I’ve been a Cormac McCarthy fan since college. Daniel Woodrell, who wrote Winter’s Bone. Those are all books that were on my shelf before they became movies. I think I missed All The Pretty Horses. I think I was still in college at the time, or finishing college. But I was determined to be in every Cormac McCarthy adaptation ever made.
I auditioned for [lead role Llewelyn] Moss about five times, every time a star fell out. That happens to me a lot when stars fall out—they go to me, or I have a shot. So I auditioned with the Coens for Moss in New York and L.A., and it just wasn’t gonna happen. They really needed someone more recognizable, but they said “Would you play this other part?” and they read me for Wendell. It was nice. I got to be a little bright spot, a little breath for the audience before they plunge into the next atrocity.
But it was fantastic. I mean, it’s the Coen brothers, and it’s a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. That’s catnip for a geek like me. And I worked with Tommy Lee Jones every day, so in a way, I had three directors. I don’t mean he was directing me on set; I just mean that he’s an experienced director. So I felt like I was in a really fun school. And, again, it was a project I could be proud of. I really am just determined to do things I’m proud of, as much as I can.
Winter’s Bone (2010)—“Sheriff Baskin”
GD: That’s another one that I thought, “No one knows about this book. I’m gonna make a movie of it someday.” It seems like Brad [Pitt] has the exact same bookshelf as I do. It’s pretty funny. I think there’s certain kinds of stories that attract you. I’m a farm kid—I’m from rural Washington State. My summer jobs were always on the farms. I don’t know if that’s why these kinds of stories always intrigue me. The cowboys and open fields. The downtrodden. I was a literature major, journalism and literature, in college. So we read a lot. I don’t know. It’s just funny to me, how many of those films are on my bookshelf.
AVC: That was such a small film that came out of nowhere and took a lot of people by surprise. Did you have some inkling of that on set?
GD: I didn’t know that. I don’t know if anyone felt that way. I’m glad. I know that’s not what you’re asking, but I think if you make films thinking about all the awards you’re gonna win, you’re gonna make a crappy film. You just have to tell a story you’re passionate about, and I think they were. I’m happy to talk about Winter’s Bone all you want, but its success certainly has nothing to do with me. That really rested squarely on Jennifer Lawrence’s pretty young shoulders. She carried it with aplomb beyond her years, so I’m really just riding its coattails. I was joking with my wife that I just go on about my day, doing my other jobs, and every once in a while, I’ll get an award in the mail. And I’m like, “Oh, I guess we won something else. Thanks, Jennifer! Thanks, John [Hawkes]!” It was certainly a relaxed set and a realistic set, and I enjoyed seeing Branson, Missouri.
AVC: John Hawkes was in Deadwood with you. Had you kept up with him and the other Deadwood alumni?
GD: I am still in contact with quite a few of them. John being in that movie, that’s really the role for the guy, Teardrop. I would have loved to have played that role, but I can’t see anyone playing it better than John. But he’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. They came to me with either the sheriff I played or the bail-bonds guy. And I wanted to do the sheriff just because he had that scene with John, and I wanted to work with John again. We never really got to do much together on Deadwood. So he was a big reason I did that movie.
But yeah, I’m in touch with a few of the people. I keep in touch with Sean Bridgers quite a bit. In fact, we have a film we’re about to start looking for funding for that I love very much that he wrote. He played Johnny Burns on Deadwood. He’s a terrific actor and writer. We’ve got this Civil War movie that we’re about to start securing funding for. The media corporation we’re working with seems confident we’ll find it, and I am too. We’re looking to start shooting that next summer, next hiatus.
John From Cincinnati (2007)—“Dr. Michael Smith”
AVC: Did anyone have any clue what was going on on that show, other than David Milch?
GD: I think so. Once we knew the concept, you could see what was going on. I think even David was making some of it up as he went along, but I think that’s what he does. David said once, “What if God did come back, who would he talk to?” It would be the dregs of society. Because if God is there, then He’s everywhere. So that was the kernel I think he was working off of. So we were the dregs. [Laughs.] So what happens when there’s a genuine miracle? What does that do to people?
I don’t know if it was a success or failure in your eyes or the public’s eyes, but I’d rather be a part of a Milch failure any day of the week, because he’s trying to do something. It’s always a massive and brave stab at greatness.
AVC: Are you going to try to get some time away from Raising Hope to do something in his next show, Luck?
GD: I don’t know. I’m on hiatus now from Raising Hope, and I have some projects lined up. Obviously, I’m doing two of them right now. I don’t know. I haven’t specifically thought I’d be on Luck, but he knows he can call. I don’t know what the deal is over there. I know he’s not the exclusive producer over there.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009)—“Cromartie”/“John Henry”/“George Laszlo”
GD: That was the whole writers’-strike year. I came in first season, and I think I replaced an actor who either had to go or was let go. We’d met originally on the project and wanted to work together, but I had another commitment. But then it just worked out. I think that was when John ended early, and so they were like, “Fantastic. Come be on this show.” Again, I thought it was a real different… I mean, if you think about it, almost every other guy has been a good guy that we talk about, you notice that? It’s not quite as heavy toward the killers as you always think. In fact, the guy on John From Cincinnati was pretty sweet and quite genuine in his search for peace and happiness.
And then back to a robot on Terminator, which I thought was cool. He’s certainly an evil kind of presence, but he’s not evil. He’s just doing what he’s programmed to do. He doesn’t care one way or another if he gets John Connor. He’s just doing what he does, which is what makes him scary. I thought that was a fun challenge, to try to not show things. I think it’s a trap with terminators, in that I just wanna show emotion, like rage, but really, he’s not mad at all. I don’t know how [you play it]. You just do. I have sort of a stoic demeanor anyway. It’s good for the forehead wrinkles, because you never use them.