Garret Dillahunt has done so much acting work on television and in film over the past two decades that it’s almost easier to list what he hasn’t been in. From his breakout roles—two of them—in HBO’s Deadwood to the Fox sitcom Raising Hope to AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead, Dillahunt has built a career out of standing out while repeatedly transforming himself.
In Michael Bay’s Ambulance, his latest project, Dillahunt plays a scruffy, dog-owning, Fiat-driving Los Angeles Police Department captain who squares off with bank robbers played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II after they hijack an emergency vehicle for their getaway.
On the day Ambulance opened in theaters, The A.V. Club spoke to Dillahunt from the Kentucky set of his latest project, a yet-to-be-announced that he calls “hillbilly-on-hillbilly crime” film he’s doing with actor Orlando Bloom (“a peach,” according to Dillahunt). In addition to talking about the unique challenges of acting in a Michael Bay film, Dillahunt reflected on his remarkable variety of roles, from blue-collar convicts to “messiahs and evil scientists.”
The A.V. Club: Back in 2009, when The Last House On The Left was coming out, you seemed fully immersed in the transformational aspects of acting. How has your approach changed as you’ve gained experience?
Garret Dillahunt: Gosh, it probably hasn’t changed enough. Once Martha Plympton said, “you’re just simple, that’s all,” and I’ve puzzled over it for years. Is that a compliment? Last House was the end of a string of very violent, rapacious kind of roles, and I think that’s what spawned Raising Hope. I actually started doing comedies with the Norm MacDonald show—I mean, it was A Minute With Stan Hooper—and that was about the same time as Deadwood, so it was nice to return to that and have a little fun. And I developed a really strong relationship with [Raising Hope executive producer] Greg Garcia, which was maintained over the years. But I think I’ve just tried to be a little more picky. I’ve gotten used to having, for better or worse, a little more responsibility in in my projects. And I like being the guy. But I’ve also mellowed a bit. As I get older, other things in life also become a little more important, and you stop taking yourself so seriously and you can see others when they do that, it’s not the most attractive thing—onset in particular. So I’m trying to calm down, but maintain a level of expertise that will keep me working for a long time.
AVC: When you talk about taking on more responsibility, what does that mean for you?
GD: I want to be integral to the crew, the movie or the show. Even if I’m not the lead or something, I want to be important to the storytelling, not just kind of getting a paycheck. I’m fortunate to have a few choices these days. I know who I am, so I’m not saying I’m all that, but I have choices. And as I get older, my time gets a little more valuable. If you spend your time doing stuff you’re not really enjoying, it’s a waste of time. So I’m going to work with people I like on roles that challenge me. And one of those was producing my own TV show with Greg that’s going to drop at the end of this summer. And it’s nice even at this late stage to educate myself more about all the aspects of what we do, and I wish I’d done it sooner. Because I feel like it’s changed me. It’s made me a better actor. It’s made me a more patient person. And and I like it. I like the feeling.
AVC: Have there been films or collaborators that changed that for you?
GD: I was talking with Tim Olyphant about this on the Deadwood movie that I snuck into. I didn’t have a lot of responsibility on that, but that was something that was important to me and sort of the landmark in my career, Deadwood. And I wanted to be a part of the farewell and thank you to David [Milch]. But we were talking about how Deadwood kind of ruined us for every other job. We’ve tried to recreate that on almost everything we’ve done because it was such a satisfying creative process. [David] didn’t care where the good idea came from. He had no problem nixing it if he didn’t like it. But if he saw something, he’d like to change the dialog to accommodate, or the cameraman would change where he was shooting from. It’s the only job I’ve had where people came on their off days just to watch, you know? So that kind of affected all of them and left a lot of other things dissatisfying. And I think my collaboration with Greg Garcia has been a real rewarding one. I was always too shy to talk to David, pretty much, and he’s not the most socially skilled either. So it was a very quiet time when Garret and David were alone in a room. But me and Greg have the same sense of humor. He likes ideas I bring up, which boosts your confidence, like I belong here and I’m not an idiot. You do the math and you’re like, you can’t pretend you’re the prince anymore. You’re the king or the father of the king. You’re old now. You’ve got to admit that you’re an expert at what you do and act accordingly.
AVC: On Deadwood, Milch thought you were so good that your character got killed off and then he brought you back in a completely different role. I can only imagine how much that might boost your confidence. Do opportunities like that factor into subsequent performances?
GD: Absolutely. I think Deadwood gave me a career. That’s probably not true, but it’s what it feels like. It certainly gave me a career in terms of that confidence boost you’re talking about. And it was an extension of my theatrical life where it’s not uncommon to play wildly divergent kinds of characters. That’s what I thought we were supposed to do. But that was kind of the joy of this job. I would hate to play myself all the time. There are lots of actors I know who have gotten trapped into that, and they make a whole bunch of money, but they’re always the same. You know exactly what they’re going to do and that’s comforting on a lot of levels. But it just hasn’t been my lot and I’m pleased about it. And what I really just try to do is just be as different as I can from the last thing I did for my own sake and the audience’s. I think I’ve been real lucky about those choices, but maybe I’m more even instinctively skilled than I’m giving myself credit for choosing those projects.
AVC: Let’s talk about Ambulance. I interviewed Megan Fox when Transformers came out and I asked if she did all of the normal preparation for her role, and I remember her saying, “Well, it’s a Michael Bay movie.” Do you do the same work that you might do on any other role, or is everything on the page?
GD: I wonder what Megan meant. She might have meant that there’s no time. But there’s a real reliance from Michael on the actors knowing their shit and being able to change on the fly. I mean, this was a low-budget movie for him. I’d give my right leg to have that budget to get any number of projects I’m trying to get at. But for him, it’s low budget and we were running and gunning. Almost everything you heard was a line that was thought of or altered, like, Let’s sit down here on the curb and write a new one. So it wasn’t the same kind of preparation, but I feel like the lifetime of preparation I have, my ability to be mercurial in terms of both character and circumstance, was a big help to both of us. And I think he appreciated the speed that we could at least make it human and sell it. But there’s a role I have to fill. I’m not the hero of the movie in a weird way, even though I’m supposed to be the good guy. But I have to be a worthy adversary. So it was it was a fun challenge in that way, and I really enjoy working that way. There’s a lot of creativity that comes about with that. I understand why some people don’t. I mean, it was kind of the same on Deadwood, too, because we’d get pages the day before if we were lucky—so maybe I’m just used to it. But it’s David Milch writing those pages, so it’s going to be epic, and a lot of actors struggle with that. But I kind of dig it. Because he sees something, like, Ah, I have this guy playing, in this case, Captain Monroe. So I felt like a good dog, you know what I mean? [Laughs] I was like, I got a reward. He likes what I’m doing so much so he’s added this, and it gives you courage to keep going. I don’t know that I could do it all the time, but I kind of dig it.
AVC: When you’re looking at the script, do you have to just embrace the character choices that move the plot forward, regardless of whether you think they’re good or realistic?
GD: I mean, it is quite an obstacle that one of our own is alive in the back. So a lot of our normal efforts would really endanger some innocents in that. But obviously it’s not probably completely realistic. It’s ratcheted up for some excitement. But these guys are kind of difficult for me, these uber-confident, dick-swinging dudes. There was one time Michael said, “Turn around and look at your guys.” And I turned around and said, “I don’t want to look at them. I was feeling tough until I looked at those guys. The actual SIS undercover dudes look like homeless guys and military guys, and I was like, Okay, I forgot. I’m just, I’m the actor here, crap.
AVC: Do you feel a sense of responsibility when you’re playing a character like this, who is to representative of law enforcement?
GD: Well, absolutely. Those guys were on set. They changed a lot of the lingo that we would use. “We don’t call them that, we call them this.” So I absolutely didn’t want to represent them poorly. One of the detectives was like, “You’re like the cool detective, the one that wants to be buddies to all of us. The cool boss. We have those.” I liked the idea that he was out walking his dog when he got the call. I don’t know why he drives a 1969 Fiat with this giant dog, but it’s a funny sight. But on his day off, he’s just taken out the old go-kart to go walk his dog, and oh shit, there’s been a bank robbery. No time to change, let’s just go through it. I kind of dug that. His job was to be sort of stuck in time, you know, “I know how to do it; you don’t. Just follow my orders and we’ll get this thing done. Shut up.” Which didn’t turn out well for him, although he was trying to protect his people.
AVC: Well, as an actor, how much is your job to shut up and do the work as opposed to creating all these ideas to keep it interesting for yourself, ideas that may or may not translate to the screen?
GD: Well, I think it does translate even if it’s unconscious. And I think actors worth their salt always make it better. Just like with Zack Snyder on Army Of The Dead, let’s work with Michael Bay. What’s that experience like? I’ve heard the stories; let me go see for myself. And almost everything you heard was rewritten or the result of some kind of conversation, and I think we all, including Michael Bay, made it better than what we originally had. The same thing happened all of the time on Fear The Walking Dead. I was constantly rewriting my lines just to make them sound a little more human coming out of my mouth. So I find a lot of satisfaction in that. I’m not going to say this is the same kind of movie as The Assassination Of Jesse James or No Country, where the source material is so erudite and so cinematic, just in book form. But I get a kick out of dipping my toe in different styles, and this is almost a different style. I don’t think Monroe was even going to be much of a character other than just like a cop chasing them, just to get bodies in this car doing technical jargon. I don’t think I tried to steal any focus from anybody, but I think I was a worthy adversary for Jake and the team had a real sort of camaraderie there amid the tropes.
AVC: When a movie like this involves people being in different places, how much time do you get to spend with the folks you are ostensibly squaring off against?
GD: We spent a little more time actually on the walkie talkies than you might expect, which surprised me. But most of the time, as you can imagine, they’re either shooting in the ambulance or we’re shooting in the pursuit vehicles. I would see Jake [Gyllenhaal] and Eiza [González] and Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] in our chairs back in the studio, but often we were alone in the back of the car jumping to this scene, and now this is what’s happening with the helicopters. It required in a way almost more focus than when you get the luxury of shooting in order or with everybody in the same room. I don’t know that it’s the kind of movie I want to make all the time. It’s not as challenging arc-wise for a character, but it’s super challenging in lots of other ways.
AVC: Can you tell me about the new show you’re working on?
GD: I can talk to you about Sprung. That’s the show with Greg Garcia. It’s COVID-inspired, but it’s not about COVID. It’s based on the on the true story of all the low-level prisoners that were let out of prison because of COVID. I’m a guy, Jack, who’s been in prison for 26 years for selling weed. I was busted when I was like 18, back when there were mandatory minimums and it was a second offense. I’ve been in jail all this time and I get out eight years early and don’t know what’s going on and don’t know how to make a living. And I end up moving in with my celly and his family. And my celly’s mom is Martha Plimpton, and we all decide to work together to make a living and punish those people who are who are taking advantage of COVID for their own financial gain. I’m real proud of it. It’s tested through the roof, higher than any show Greg’s ever had, he said. And I had so much fun on it. I worked every single day in some capacity, and it’s a really great group of people. It’s great to be working with Martha again.
AVC: You seem to gravitate toward blue-collar characters. Do you find that once you start doing that that people come to you for that? Or do you you seek that out actively?
GD: Well, there are themes that really speak to me, that I’m drawn to, [like] shame and redemption. We’ve all done things we feel guilty about in our lives. I guess I’m holding onto mine or I’m drawn to those characters that are, sort of against all odds, trying to do something better with themselves, do something better with their lives or find forgiveness for the things they’ve done. K.D. in Hand Of God was probably the most prime example of that, and I find I have a lot of sympathy for those kinds of people. But I suppose it does compound itself. You play enough of those people, that’s what people think of you as something they can offer to you. But I’ve played my share of messiahs and evil scientists as well, not all blue collar.
AVC: Is there a kind of role you haven’t tackled that you would like to?
GD: I always have trouble answering that question. But it’s kind of taking care of itself as I get older. Like The L.A. Times described me as “gray beard,” and I was like, Oh, I’m that guy now. And so maybe as I move into this next phase of my life and career, older kinds of people I guess are going to be coming my way. And I guess the next challenge is going to be; How do I make them interesting and exciting for myself to play? And I don’t know.