Not since John Wayne has an actor made such an impression simply by walking. As the enigmatic sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO’s dank, darkly brilliant neo-Western, Deadwood, Timothy Olyphant’s deliberate, catlike gait—alternately a threat and a seduction—spoke as plainly as his dialogue, and provided a kind of foreplay to his coiled and smoldering sexuality. Bullock, a black-clad white hat, was the avenging angel on the front lines of manifest destiny, a seething yet taciturn agent of nascent civilization—and in the hands of Olyphant, a riveting counterweight to his scenery-chewing foe, Ian McShane’s frontier thug, Al Swearengen.
“It’s a paradox to say that Tim demonstrates his range as an actor in giving what would seem to be a withheld performance,” recalls Deadwood creator David Milch. “I’m not sure which poet talked about ‘thoughts too deep for words,’ but he brings that idea alive.” Milch likens Olyphant to Wayne and Gary Cooper—members of that rarefied club of actors who transcend strong and silent. “Those are the guys that stick around awhile.”
So it feels like something of a make-good to see Olyphant back in a Stetson and packing heat in the new FX series Justified. “He’s a guy who wouldn’t walk into a house unless he’s invited, but he’d give someone 24 hours to get out of town or he’ll kill them,” says Olyphant of his character, Raylan Givens, a modern-day U.S. marshal. He’s as stoic and courtly an enforcer of the law as Bullock, only this time those qualities are starkly and refreshingly retro among the current crop of ironic, motor-mouthed action heroes.
“On a surface level, Timothy absolutely embodies that tall, lean, erect kind of laconic movement of body and voice, a soft-spoken affability,” says FX president John Landgraf, who pitched Olyphant for Justified after hiring him as a recurring character on the second season of Damages. “But it’s the ability to be sort of protean and move from the dark to the light that’s going to make this character wear so well. The exterior stuff gets you in the tent, but it’s the interior stuff that makes the long, arcing journey worthwhile.”
That journey sends Givens, by way of a disciplinary transfer from a chichi Miami post back to his shit-kicking Kentucky hometown (a merciless-yet-fair shooting in the first five minutes of the pilot is the catalyst). There, he’s confronted with drug-running neo-Nazis (fronted by Walton Goggins, of The Shield), as well as the ghosts, alive and dead, of his own past, including his no-account outlaw daddy (Raymond Barry).
Justified was adapted from two short stories and a novel by Elmore Leonard, and so far the author likes what he sees. “I’ve sold two dozen things to Hollywood, and most of them weren’t very good,” he says. “But this works.” He’s particularly smitten with the show’s leading man. “I said, ‘My God, he’s the guy!’ ” says Leonard of his first set visit.
The actor’s wildly peripatetic, fifteen- year-long career has seen him bounce from gonzo indie films (Go) to popcorn actioners (Hitman, The Crazies), from cable drama to the occasional wild-card sitcom appearance (My Name Is Earl) with very mixed results. But the L.A.-based husband and father of three seems to have found another role that capitalizes on his strengths. Olyphant is one of those actors whose magnetism grows as the screen gets smaller, in parts that unspool slowly over time, allowing for ambiguity and flaws. (Strangely, he is least convincing as a purely bad guy.) He recalls how watching Dominic West’s tortured performance as Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire evoked for him the ragged antiheroes of seventies Hollywood. “I was like, ‘That’s your hero? Some guy who’s drunk off his ass, incapable of driving home, and there’s no consequence to it?’ It was so wonderful.”
Olyphant, who is as loose-lipped in real-life as his quick-drawing alter egos are restrained, suggests that FX has replaced HBO as the home for those sorts of roles. (Though he stops short of placing blame on them for Deadwood’s demise, Olyphant notes wryly of HBO: “They were incredibly supportive right up till the point when we all bought homes.”) FX works like an old movie studio, building up stables of stars who move from series to series (Glenn Close, Goggins); it also encourages its leading actors to help develop their characters. As Michael Chiklis was involved in the creation of alter ego Vic Mackey on The Shield and Denis Leary literally writes much of Rescue Me, Olyphant has been working closely with Justified’s executive producer Graham Yost and Leonard himself to shape Raylan Givens. “They don’t listen to his notes because he’s the star,” Landgraf says. “They listen because he’s right a lot of the time—about Raylan and the series as a whole.”
Curiously, just as he’s found more control in his career, he’s also relishing a newfound WTF approach to life—a midlife manifesto, if you will, following a significant birthday. “There’s something about turning 40,” says Olyphant. “Somebody pisses you off at the grocery store and you’re like, ‘You know what? Fuck you, I’m 40! I don’t have to deal with you and your problems.’ I see that as something of a positive.”