Timothy Olyphant had some notable supporting roles in the films "Scream 2" and "Go," but it wasn't until 2004, when he starred as Sheriff Seth Bullock in the acclaimed HBO series "Deadwood," that he really broke into the big-time. He's since made his mark as a villain in "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Hitman," and as a sheriff whose town has been affected by poison in the water supply in "The Crazies." Since 2010, the 44-year-old Californian has starred as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the hit FX series "Justified." The role, based on an Elmore Leonard character, earned Olyphant a 2011 Emmy nomination. He recently spoke to Newsday contributor Lewis Beale.
What was it that attracted you to the part of Raylan?
He's cool. It's hard to get your hands on cool characters. He really is cool with a capital K. Elmore Leonard was a big selling point before I read a single word. His stories, when done right, that's as good as it gets.
The show is an amazingly successful mix of humor and violence. How do they manage to get the tone right?
I don't know how they do it, and when we can't figure it out, we steal from Elmore. Somewhere in the world of Elmore Leonard and Joel and Ethan Coen and Quentin Tarantino lies the answer. It's all about looking for the funny in the seriousness of it all. You want your drama funny, and your comedy to be dramatic. You're looking for the opportunity to explore the opposite of where you want the scene to go. Take your characters, no matter how funny, and make awful things happen to them; see what they're made of. And at the end of the day, you just trust your gut, see what entertains you.
I get the feeling that your work on the show isn't as respected as it should be. You've only been Emmy-nominated once, while supporting actors on the show -- Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies -- have actually won the award. How do you feel about that?
As far as those things go, it's lovely to be invited to the party, and the year I was nominated, I took it as a real honor, and it meant a great deal. On the years we have not been nominated, I think I have that day free, and that's not a bad thing. It's not the thing that wakes me up in the morning.
You were a swimmer at the University of Southern California and good enough to compete in national tournaments. What made you turn to acting?
It was a gut instinct. I was a fine arts major in college, and if acting didn't work out, I had ceramic sculpture to fall back on. I was training in Irvine, and they had acting 101 in UC-Irvine. I took the class; it was really enjoyable. I thought I could give it a shot. My wife told me, do something, just pick something and do it, and everything I thought of was impractical, and it seemed like the most fun at the time.
What happened with "Deadwood"? The series was just hitting its stride when it ended.
What happened was, I bought a house and they canceled it.
No, really. What happened?
They had a bit of a disagreement, and it exploded pretty quickly. I have a general sense of it takes two people to make an accident, and I think it was an accident, how quickly that thing unraveled. But better to have three years of that than none. But that show is the gift that keeps on giving. It was darker and more dense , but it had all the things you're looking for in the violence, the comedy, the pathos of it all. We could have squeezed another year or two out of it, but it was just a wonderful experience.
You've played a fair amount of villains in your film career. What is it about those roles that you like?
The good ones are a joy; they're complicated and full of contradictions, they tend to be thoroughly entertaining. When they're well written, and the things they do are frightening, it's fun. The bad ones are you're playing a bad guy and nothing happens, and how ... am I gonna make this work. You're looking for the contradictions.
So what can we expect on "Justified" this year?
Raylan's got problems. He's got a kid on the way, and a father he'd just as soon put a bullet in his head. I think there's something interesting watching a guy who's a laconic character who feels he's in control when someone has a gun pointed at his head, seeing how his expectations of fatherhood might change his way of thinking. He's a total mess in his personal life. The villains are great this year; we're very confident filling our world with bad guys that are cool, and good guys who are ----.