These are the things you learn about Timothy Olyphant when you have covered his show for the last two and a half years:
– He can take a few minutes to warm up, and if that’s all you have with him, bummer for you.
– Most sentences contain at least one of the seven words you can’t say on TV, which makes him instantly likeable.
– He takes what he does seriously; himself, slightly less so.
– It’s surprisingly easy to get a laugh out of him, but there is great range in this laughter, from a single dry chuckle to a loud gasper.
Olyphant is in rare form the night of December 5, 2014, on location in the town of Newhall, California, as Justified is shooting the seventh episode of its final season. He has the hair and makeup artists (and himself) in stitches over something unprintable, and when he’s pried away from his audience he immediately turns to your correspondent and continues his unprintable story. At the stairs leading into his trailer he pauses, gives a slight flourish, and says, “After you.”
Said trailer is, as befits his status as Number One on the call sheet, nicely appointed, all dark woods and stainless steel appliances and a decent-sized flatscreen TV with the 5 o’clock news on. Olyphant stretches comfortably out on the couch. There’s also an office desk, and some unopened water bottles, but no real personal knickknacks lying around, making it seem sort of like a room at a fairly pricey hotel.
(This feels more a function of the time in which we live than a reflection of emotional state/personal life. Pictures, consumer media, etc. live on our phones and tablets now, so there’s no need to clutter up a workspace with them. Or maybe he’s just very neat.)
The looseness of Olyphant’s natural conversation style contrasts nicely with that of his character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. It’s not that Raylan is stiff or unpleasant or even all that laconic, but rather that he’s so much more controlled. There’s a certain sleepy-eyed stillness to Raylan, whereas Olyphant himself shines a little brighter. Laughter, false starts on answers to questions he’s not really feeling, hand gestures. Lots of hand gestures, actually. One would think there’s at least a smidge of Italian DNA somewhere in Olyphant’s background—that’s how expressive this guy is with his hands. The same four signs (index-and-middle-finger point, subtle OK, open palm-er, index finger point) are used in delightfully complex combinations that nevertheless don’t conform to any discernable linguistic pattern.
Watching him perform later, I find myself impressed with how quickly he’s able to switch from Tim to Raylan, a thought that, after some consideration, could be interpreted as vaguely insulting. He’s an actor, after all, and a good one. That’s his job, to wear his character as a hedge fund manager wears a suit. To be struck by someone’s ability to do their job well speaks rather ill of how you see them. So let us say instead that he is quite good at his job, and it’s nice to be able to watch the instantaneous transformation.
(The way Raylan removes and replaces that tan Stetson on his head is the same way Olyphant does it, though.)
The Justified finale, airing tonight, marks the end of the longest chapter of Olyphant’s career thus far. The last time a show of his ended was 2006, when HBO unceremoniously canceled Deadwood after its third season. “I bought a house and they canceled the show,” Olyphant says, equal parts amused and rueful. “I got a call right after I moved in.” He pantomimes the conversation:
“Tim? It’s David [Milch].”
“What’s up, David?”
“What? …Well, you should come see the house before I sell it.”
We come to one of those questions he’s not really feeling. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he says, before eventually talking himself into a pretty decent response, about the impending series wrap: “The number of episodes in a season that seemed overwhelming now seems like, ‘Wow, that’s not that many more.’ That’s a very different perspective. So in that regard, I’m aware that the end is near.”
He’s much more comfortable talking about his costars, from a regular like Joelle Carter to a guest star like Sam Elliott. “That’s a kick,” he says of Elliott. “I’ve basically been stealing from him for years. Now he’s sitting across from me and I realize everyone’s going to be saying, ‘Oooh, that’s what you’re doing, you’re doing [Sam Elliott], only not as good.'” He laughs. “Sam starts to talk and I’m like, ‘Shit, how am I gonna say my line now?'”
He has similar praise for all the high-profile guest stars who’ve paraded through Justified’s holler; Patton Oswalt and Alicia Witt, Margo Martindale and Mykelti Williamson, Jeremy Davies.
(For the record, he is Team Crazy Davies Haircut, which Davies kept long after his recurring role on the show had ended. He likens it to Bjork’s infamous Oscar swan dress: “The last thing I would want to do is stifle that kind of creativity,” he says, and it sounds sincere enough.)
“Tim’s a very generous actor,” says Justified executive producer Graham Yost. And while Olyphant, who’s also an executive producer, constantly offers suggestions on-set and in the writers’ room—”Oh, he earns that producer money,” Yost says—he’s also the first to admit when they don’t work.
The first time I talked to Olyphant was during one such occasion, on the Santa Clarita Studios soundstage where they were shooting the seventh episode of the fourth season. He suggested an actress drop a bottle in surprise during the scene that was filming; afterwards, we stepped outside to talk. “Eh, I dunno if it’ll play,” he said, still turning the moment over in his mind. He lowered himself onto the steps of the trailer, the better to allow me to soak up the late-afternoon California sunshine before heading back to snowbound New York. “Aptly named ‘The Golden State,’” he said, walking the fine line between irony and Cheesily Observant Dad.
It came to me that there was an innate confidence in every word, every gesture, that was all the same not intimidating. He simply is. You are, of course, welcome to your own thoughts about him, but they hold no special relevance to his life.
A variety of topics were discussed over the next half-hour: various plot points, his career in general. He mused on his character: “It’s pretty cool playing a guy who, when he has a gun pointed at his head, seems to be quite at home, relaxed and comfortable, understands the rules of the game. And he’s a fuckin’ mess in the rest of it. How does the story end for a guy like that?”
We’ll discover tonight how the Tale of Raylan Givens ends. But whatever comes next for Olyphant—whatever movie or TV roles you agree or disagree with him taking—rest assured, he will continue to be.