The craft of acting, Timothy Olyphant says, is really just a glorified version of child's play. "It's all cowboys and Indians when it comes down to it," says the star of FX's Justified. "And every now and then, you put on an actual cowboy hat and that brings it all home." Suffice it to say that Olyphant is absolutely giddy about playing Raylan Givens, a modern-day U.S. marshal assigned to work in the rural Eastern Kentucky hill country where he grew up (and where old friends and family members are lifelong criminals). "This one's fun," he says. "It's always fun to play cops and robbers. Or in this case, it's kind of more like cops and hillbillies. I guess they call this show a drama. But day in and day out, I think we're making a comedy." However it's labeled, Justified (airing at 9 p.m. CT Wednesdays) is one of the best shows on TV.
Raylan Givens has the potential to go down in history as one of TV's great, iconic characters. Did you sense that from day one?
"I can't take full credit for it. I'm really just saying the words and trying to bring it to life. But when I read the thing, I was like, 'Just close the deal before somebody else gets a whiff of this thing.' I know a good part when I see one. Usually when I see one, I have to wait for, like, seven people to pass in order for me to get to it. I knew it was a good part. I knew it was good writing."
Every episode seems to contain a classic Raylan Givens moment. What are some of your favorites?
"I'm not a huge fan of every episode, but there's not an episode that goes by without me finding something to like, something that will make me say, 'That's just good drama. That's good storytelling.' The examples, I think, are countless. Where do you start? It can be the smallest things. It's walking into Mags' store and asking her, 'How's business?' For me, from an acting standpoint, it's fun to be in a scene where me asking 'How's business?' can be both so conversational small talk and yet feel so loaded. I think that's part of the brilliance of Elmore Leonard [the crime novelist who created the character and is an executive producer]. It seems like small talk. It seems like he's just kind of meandering. But really everything is kind of like a bullet, headed towards something very specific. And those moments are a blast."
Raylan has a code that he follows. But it's never as simple as good vs. bad, is it? His life and his work is always more complicated than that, isn't it?
"I think you're onto something. Elmore's world is always less about good guys and bad guys as, you know, people who respect each other and people who don't. It comes down to who's cool and who's an ass. I think that division is often more important than who's breaking the law and who's trying to keep it. It's always an interesting dilemma and situation when you genuinely like the person, respect the person, but are at odds with that person. Like Mags [a backwoods crime boss played by Margo Martindale]. She's just so fun. I just find myself so fond of her and of her work that I'm like, 'Well, I guess Raylan likes her too.'"
You have the same great chemistry with Walton Goggins, who plays dangerous Boyd Crowder.
"Well, Walt's fantastic. Any time he's on the call sheet, I know it's going to be an easy day for me, because I just sit back and let him do all the work. I remember years ago my acting teachers saying, 'Just work off the other person.' Well, when you've got someone like Walt, it makes it real easy to do it. As far as his character, it's really great. We had a lot of fun with him this year. As Elmore said, 'He's one of these guys where I don't believe a word that comes out of his mouth, but I can't stop listening to him.' He's one of those guys who just seems like he could be whoever and whatever he needs to be, given the situation."
What kind of feedback are you getting from fans?
"I try to remove myself from the general public as much as possible. I have an elevator that goes straight to my room in the building, so I don't have to see people. No, I'm just kidding. People have been very generous. People have been very complimentary. And I know the difference between someone coming up to you on the street and saying, 'Hey, you're that dude, right?' and somebody coming up and saying, 'Big fan of the show, big fan of the character.' It's nice. You're out there telling stories, you're hoping to find an audience and then you find that it's very appreciated."