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Actor Walton Goggins has starred in numerous films and guest-starred in many TV shows. He even produced an Oscar-winning short film, “The Accountant.” But he’s best known for two intense but very different roles on FX crime dramas. His work as loyal-to-a-fault (until he wasn’t) Shane Vendrell gave the classic cop show The Shield much of its bruised heart over the show’s run, especially in the series’ final three seasons. But his more recent (and Emmy-nominated) work as Justified’s Boyd Crowder, a Kentucky criminal who struggles with morality and finding his own path in life, has proved just as soulful and surprising, particularly since he became a series regular at the start of season two. Goggins recently talked to The A.V. Club about Boyd’s physicality, writers keeping surprises from the actors, and which of his two most famous characters was more heroic.
The A.V. Club: You were originally supposed to die at the end of the Justified pilot. Was coming back to life complicated, in terms of other stuff you had going on?
Walton Goggins: I was doing a movie, Predators, and we had already left Hawaii when the show started, so I was able to fly back and forth and just be in town long enough to do a scene here or there. So that’s why, in season one, Boyd was just in every two episodes or one episode, and just kind of had a scene. So I was able to pop in and out.
At the time, I was actually under a contract to star in a show that my partner and I sold to AMC called Rectify, and that prevented me from signing on as a regular early on. Then we got the word, maybe episode nine of Justified, that Rectify wasn’t going to go full with AMC. [Justified] laid out the invitation to me, and I gratefully accepted it, because I was having so much fun. And as it turns out, my partner is doing Rectify for Sundance.
AVC: What was that experience like, to be so liked for season one, but also to be limited in how much you could be in it?
WG: It was so unexpected. I had no expectations for this experience, beyond the love of the word and the people I was working with. I didn’t think about it, because I didn’t have skin in the game. I didn’t have a stake in its longevity early on. The only thing I thought about, really, was getting to work with Tim [Olyphant, as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens] every day and loving it, and [writer-producer] Graham [Yost]. These scripts would come down, and we’d have conversations about them. To have access to work is one thing for an actor; to have access to good work is another thing, and this was good work. I came back in earnest around episode nine, and that’s when Boyd really took off—nine, 10, 11, 12, 13—those last four or five episodes was really when I was available, I was here. And Raylan and Boyd could begin their dance in earnest.
AVC: Especially in season two and three, you’re kind of in your own shadow-show within the show, where you’re doing your own thing and have your own plot. Can that be a little isolating, to be outside of the main storylines?
WG: Well, I think it is. I think those storylines run tandem. I think the same thing with The Shield, with all the different characters, from CC [CCH Pounder] to myself to… Every one of us would have our own story. And yet the strike team would have the procedural, or CC and Jay [Karnes] would have the procedural.
In this show, you have a crime on some level; it’s kind of solved every week. It’s not as clear-cut as The Shield, but that’s not why people watch this show. People watch this show to see the development of the characters. In my world, I feel like I’m participating in the ongoing story, and that’s something people really want to see. It’s not when Raylan is taking down a bad guy that people are interested in Raylan. It’s when he’s dealing with his ex-wife, or when he’s dealing with Boyd or Mags Bennett or Neal McDonough, because you know he’s going to get to deal with them again next week.
So I don’t know. In some ways, I quite liked being the satellite storyline, because I think that it’s in some ways purer. It’s not diluted with the need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But it is ongoing in the beginning, middle, and end. It can last over 13 episodes. In some ways, I feel like we’re not even in the middle yet, and we’ve been going on now for 39 episodes, so far.
AVC: How much do the writers tell you ahead of time about what Boyd is plotting?
WG: A little, and then a lot. Both. They have mapped and beated out a lot of the story before we get there. Then there’s an opportunity to play within that structure. They leave enough space for me to participate in the scenes themselves, the structure they have laid out. But it is the dynamic within that structure that they invite me to participate in, and I like it. They do all of that heavy lifting. I just get to come in and say, “Well, what if we look at this scene this way? What if we do this?” And, they trust me with Boyd and my interpretations of his thought process.
So we’ve found something that’s really fluid for everyone. Tim plays a heavy, heavy, heavy part in it as well, with not only his storylines—I mean, I’m mostly concentrating on my storylines, but Tim not only does his storylines, but the whole show with those guys. And it’s nice, because Graham doesn’t have to do that, you know. And these writers don’t have to do that. They’re so fucking talented. But I think it takes, in some ways, a village to emulate Elmore Leonard on a week-to-week basis, and we’re all very aware of that.
AVC: There are a lot of shows where the writers will keep the actors out of the loop on upcoming plot developments, either because they don’t know the answers themselves, or they want to keep things a surprise. Has that been your experience either on Justified or on The Shield?
WG: Always on The Shield—never knew anything, ever. I think maybe I asked to change three things in seven years, and out of those three things, two of them were because after I read the initial draft, they changed it in a rewrite, and I missed it so much. And it made sense for the show. I didn’t want to know anything. I wanted to know nothing. I didn’t know how I was going to exit that show until three days before we started. So, absolutely.
On this show, it’s a little different. I think the needs are different. You don’t calibrate the performance. It’s as if you haven’t read it. You just kind of look ahead a little bit and say, “Oh well, if this is where we want to go, maybe there’s an opportunity to do something here,” because the written word, and the way the language comes out of your mouth, is so important that I think it’s a good thing on this show. I certainly don’t think it affects Tim at all. I don’t think it affects the actors in general. There are certain actors who work in a certain way because when you’re here, you seem like you’re in this conversation. I’m hearing this conversation; I’m not texting or anything else.
AVC: Was there a moment when you felt like you really discovered who Boyd Crowder is?
WG: I think I’m still discovering who Boyd Crowder is. To be quite honest with you, I’m constantly surprised, but I do think there was a moment in the second episode we did after the pilot that I felt “This is who this guy is.” I was lying in the hospital room talking to Raylan. It was a scene Graham had written. Boyd was only going to be there for the pilot, and I wanted that guy to be as smart as he possibly could, and to be a showman, and to be bigger than life, and even if you disagreed with what he was saying, you couldn’t help but be kind of drawn in by him. I did that in a way that it was only going to be for one episode. I wouldn’t have wanted to sustain that guy in that way.
We had a conversation before we started the second [episode] and before they invited me to come back, and I said, “Well, this is a guy who lives in extremes, so he had a near-death experience. What if he goes to find God?” That’s it. That’s what happens. He can be the same way, but for different reasons. And I think that’s when I realized, “Wow, this is a guy not in balance. This is a guy that lives at the ends of spectrums, depending on where the pendulum has swung.” What I thought was so smart in season two for the writers to write for Boyd was for Boyd to really be forced with the opportunity to look at himself, and to accept himself for who he was, and for his swings not to be so big, and for him to truly be in balance.
AVC: Where does the physicality of Boyd come from? He seems like he’s just a little bigger than you.
WG: I don’t feel he’s anything like me. I think I’m much too earnest to be as cool as Boyd Crowder. I think his physicality is an extension of how fucking cool he is. If you look at it, he’s really big when he needs to be big, and he’s really small when he needs to be small, and the way he moves in the world is as if he’s swimming. Most of his movements and most of his gestures are very fluid. The way he walks in a room, the way he puts his hands in his pockets, the way he talks to people, all of it, or the way he cocks his head, everything is cool.
I didn’t set out to do that. It was, there’s an act of movement in your imagination, and you think, “Well, this guy’s self-taught.” He’s as smart as they come—in fact could’ve gone to Brown, given a pedigree and some money. But he didn’t, and this is where he is, and how do you command the respect of people? And he just does it with his physical gestures, and the way he sits on a chair. It’s beautiful. I get to put it on every day. It just happens when I come to work and put on those jeans. And I was asked this question the other day, about do I miss him when I’m away from him, and my answer was no, because I’m constantly impersonating him throughout the year, so much that my wife can’t stand it. [Laughs.]
AVC: On this and The Shield, you’ve played characters who do very bad things, but also do some good things. Which of them to you is more heroic?
WG: Well, I think what’s interesting about both of these guys is, yeah, they have done very bad things, but the audience has a lot of empathy for them. They both elicit sympathy from the audience, and the audience loves them at times, loves to hate them—for sure—but loves them.
They’re two completely different people. Shane was loyal, but he wasn’t smart. He was the last guy in the room. Boyd is a leader, not a follower, and he is the smartest guy in the room. He’s the first person in the room. So while Shane would show up late to get all the information, Boyd has already set up all of the decorations in the room before everybody gets there. I think they’re both heroes in different ways. I think they’re affected, morally speaking, but I think that it has taken Boyd a lot less time to be honest with himself about who he is than Shane. Shane—it took seven seasons, and only with five episodes to go, when he looked at his family and said, “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done, and with the time that I have left, I’m going to love as much as I possibly can.” Boyd only took a season and a half to do that. And now, he’s loving, as much as he possibly can, the woman that has come into his life.