Defined by a Smile and a Drawl

By Jeremy Egner
The New York Times
January 5, 2012

IN the premiere of the new season of “Justified,” beginning Jan. 17, a dashing psychopath makes a casual reference to this Kentucky crime drama’s signature prop, the Stetson worn by the protagonist, United States Marshal Raylan Givens.

“Not much call for cowboys these days,” the thug says in a syrupy, menacing drawl.

The lawman responds, “You would be surprised.”

The line is an in-joke, a reference to the baroque backwoods adventures that Raylan, a sort of 21st-century Gary Cooper with a dry wit, has endured during two acclaimed seasons of this FX drama. But the exchange also functions as a career appraisal for the man who plays him. Timothy Olyphant, 43, has worked steadily since the 1990s, but in this easygoing, volatile marshal he has found his defining role. Not that he’s willing to admit it.

“The bottom line is, someone gave me a television show and I figured I’d make the most of it,” he said during a recent visit to New York. “The words do all the work for you.”

Based on stories by Elmore Leonard, “Justified” captures his darkly funny, morally murky tone and spikes the traditional crime procedural with hooch and Oxycontin, tracking its hero’s attempts to thwart colorful drug dealers and gunrunners and negotiate his own fractured relationships. The series unspools in an oddly captivating alternate South peopled by whimsically twisted archetypes and marked by sudden shifts between folksy black comedy and graphic violence. (The thug in the premiere is known as the Ice Pick.)

Last year the series won a Peabody Award, and its second season was among the most lauded of 2011, netting four Emmy nominations, including a first for Mr. Olyphant and a supporting actress win for Margo Martindale, who played a crime matriarch. Ratings for Season 2 increased 15 percent in total viewers, and an average of just under 2.2 million watch each new episode on Tuesday nights, an audience that grows to nearly 4 million each week when it includes DVR viewers, though they still lag behind those of FX dramas like “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story.” The challenge for the show’s producers is to build on the series’s momentum from last season and transform from critical favorite into critically acclaimed hit.

“It’s coming off one of the best seasons any series put forth last year, and that’s a really tough act to follow,” said John Landgraf, the president of FX. “But when you have a virtually ideal central character and central performance, audiences are going to find it.”

As the face of the series Mr. Olyphant has perhaps the most impact on whether the show will continue to succeed. By all accounts it’s a job he takes most seriously, playing an active role behind the scenes as well. Mr. Leonard himself calls the actor’s performance the best screen adaptation ever of a Leonard hero, a category that includes names like George Clooney and John Travolta.

“He played Raylan exactly like I heard him when I was writing him,” said Mr. Leonard, an executive producer of the series. (“Raylan,” a new novel by Mr. Leonard about the character, comes out on Jan. 17 as well.)

Mr. Olyphant expressed appreciation for that appraisal but inserted a note of pragmatism. “If George Clooney was starring right now in a big Elmore Leonard thing, I bet Elmore would be very complimentary of George as well,” he said, laughing.

An actor of rangy grace and wolfish good looks — his easy grin seems designed to induce swoons and suspicion in equal measure — Mr. Olyphant has carved out the career of a man Hollywood isn’t quite sure how to use. He has seesawed between charismatic criminals in films like “Go” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” and checkered heroes in projects like the FX legal thriller “Damages” and HBO’s Shakespearean western “Deadwood.” (Another hat role, it was Mr. Olyphant’s most notable performance before “Justified.”)

“People just like him, and yet there is something a little dangerous there,” said Graham Yost, the creator of “Justified.” “So he gets the combination of the good-guy, bad-guy thing.”

Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s longtime friend and nemesis, added, “Tim’s hat is never entirely white.”

Such shades of gray are right at home in the Kentucky of “Justified.” The same sharp-edged nonchalance that makes Mr. Olyphant something of a square peg in a conventional blockbuster is well suited for a place where smooth-talking cops and robbers trade both barbs and gunfire with something like affection.

“In the world of Elmore Leonard, people are defined not by good and bad but by whether you’re a jerk or not,” Mr. Olyphant said.

He expounded upon that world from a perch about as far removed from it as possible. At an airy ninth-floor restaurant in the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, he sipped a cappuccino as he looked out toward the bristly gray winter canopy of Central Park.

A laconic presence on “Justified,” Mr. Olyphant is affable in person and projects less a lawman swagger than the ease of a former athlete; he swam competitively at the University of Southern California. His face is striking, if unconventional — all smooth, wide planes and chiseled edges. His hair is more brown than gray, but the gray is climbing from both sideburns. A wispy array of white whiskers curls around his chin like smoke.

“The camera does not hate the dude,” said Natalie Zea, who plays his ex-wife and current love interest on “Justified.”

Neither did the nearby patrons who sneaked glances over the rims of their coffee cups. Mr. Olyphant professed a delighted but measured attitude about the recognition that has come from “Justified.”

“You see a bus drive by with your picture on it, and you think, ‘That’s cool, that’s new,’ ” he said. “I try to embrace all that comes with it and at the same time know that most of that stuff has nothing to do with me. It’s just part of the job.”

The museum was his idea. Mr. Olyphant majored in fine art at U.S.C. and was a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s, when he lived in New York with his wife of 20 years, Alexis. (They have three children.) Of his artistic output now, Mr. Olyphant grinned and said, “I can doodle with the best of them.”

It was a moment of wry, Raylanesque self-deprecation in a day spent mostly trying to convince a reporter that he was nothing like the character. But ask nearly anyone involved in “Justified” about Mr. Olyphant, and before long it comes out: The reason Mr. Olyphant works as Raylan is because in various ways he is Raylan. His colleagues point to his sharp sense of humor and casual verbosity, a gift of gab common to Leonard characters. (He also has a Leonardian flair for profanity, as exemplified by an unprintable reaction to an outré Korean art installation at the museum.)

Most often they mention a charged quality that Mr. Olyphant shares with the character, an understated intensity that animated previous projects like “Deadwood” but has “reached its sort of apotheosis in Raylan,” said Mr. Landgraf, who first proposed him for “Justified.” As David Milch, the creator of “Deadwood,” put it: “I think Tim is a guy that doesn’t let himself be known easily. It’s what allows him to continue to do such interesting work.”

Mr. Olyphant, who grew up in Modesto, Calif., began acting in New York in the mid-1990s with roles in short-lived television projects and brief appearances in movies like “The First Wives Club.” Larger roles followed. He was a killer in “Scream 2,” a boy-toy in an episode of “Sex and the City.” As a sardonic drug dealer in “Go,” from 1999, a frenetic cult comedy about young night crawlers in Los Angeles, he showed off his comic chops with a caustic riff on “The Family Circus.”
“There have been roles that, had the movies been bigger, would have probably changed my life,” Mr. Olyphant said. “If ‘Go’ had been a huge box office success, I would have had tons of opportunities, I imagine.”

Instead, it was followed by mostly forgettable films until Mr. Olyphant joined “Deadwood” in 2004 as the conflicted sheriff Seth Bullock, the simmering straight man to Ian McShane’s silver-tongued rogue. The role revealed in Mr. Olyphant a capacity for explosive, nuanced performance barely suggested by earlier roles.

“He seemed to understand the contradictions in the character as well as his most fundamental purposes, and that’s a terrific mix,” Mr. Milch said.

But the show’s sudden end after three seasons cast him back into the wilderness of the working actor. The period that followed included some high-profile roles — he was a nefarious super-hacker in “Live Free or Die Hard” in 2007 — but not much fulfillment. Mr. Olyphant finally reached a sort of breaking point during the shooting of a film he declined to identify, when, he said, he found himself in some Eastern European country doing risible junk. “And you think, ‘How did I end up here?’ ”

(It’s perhaps worth noting that “Hitman,” a 2007 action film starring Mr. Olyphant that was based on a video game, was filmed largely in Bulgaria.)

“You go from working with David Milch to just doing stuff to pay some bills,” he said. “You think, ‘There’s got to be a way to bring these two things together.’ ”

The answer, he decided, was to play a larger role in shaping the projects he acted in, beginning with “Damages” on FX. “Justified” brought his first producer credit.

“Often on shows that really doesn’t mean much,” Mr. Yost said. “On this show it actually doesn’t reflect the depth of his involvement, which would be an even bigger credit.”

Mr. Olyphant’s co-stars joke that he leaves no scene unturned during filming, constantly proposing new angles and questioning whether a piece of action or dialogue is true to the show’s founding sensibility. He comes to the set on his off days to coach guest stars and admitted that anyone not willing to really dig into the material is “of absolutely no use to me.”

Mr. Goggins said: “Tim is the biggest reminder for everyone that we’re in the Elmore Leonard world. And that it needs to be funny and dark and twisted, and it needs to speak with all of those voices at the same time.”

Mr. Olyphant can be evangelical about Mr. Leonard’s stories, praising the specificity that breathes believability into gonzo characters and situations. But he predictably plays down his behind-the-scenes contributions to “Justified,” even as he allows that his own deep involvement has helped to reinvigorate a career that felt as if it had gone awry.

In that respect the show has gotten Mr. Olyphant back on track toward the deceptively simple goal he set when he began acting nearly 20 years ago.

“What I hoped is that it would be something I could do for a long time and would want to do for a long time,” he said. “So — so far, so good.”