The Drama Club: ‘Justified’ Breaks FX Mold With Likable Progtagonist

by | April 6, 2010 at 7:11 AM | Interviews, Justified, The Drama Club

Timothy Olyphant in Justified (FX)

Timothy Olyphant in Justified (FX)

FX has carved out a niche as the cable network for shows about immoral protagonists.  Building on the cable drama convention of the lawless anti-hero with a few redeeming qualities that began with HBO’s ‘The Sopranos,’ the network gave us shows about womanizing plastic surgeons (‘Nip/Tuck’), a cop who breaks the law (‘The Shield‘), an alcoholic firefighter who once raped his ex-wife (‘Rescue Me’), the leader of a motorcycle gang/criminal empire (‘Sons of Anarchy’) and a ruthless, diabolical lawyer (‘Damages’).  The shows encourage viewers to get in touch with their inner outlaw, the parts of themselves that have always fantasized about breaking the rules and casting aside the trappings of middle class life.  What was once an upending of the drama conventions of the heroic protagonist battling against evil became its own cliche.

That is why FX’s new drama ‘Justified’ is so refreshing.  Based on one of Elmore Leonard’s most popular characters, the show is about a U.S. Marshal, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who after ticking off his bosses is exiled to his hometown of Harlan, County, Kentucky.  Givens is a modern cowboy, right down to his hat.  He can be sympathetic to the quirky criminals he arrests, but so far he has proven himself to be morally steadfast.  After watching so many characters go from people who did the wrong thing for the right reasons to despicable human beings whose depraved actions seemed calculated to shock the audience, a straight up hero seems almost subversive.  This is not to say Raylan would fit in with the gang at ‘CSI.’  None of them would sit in the passenger seat and let a convict drive himself to prison.

The unusual show has a relaxed pace that is the television equivalent of sitting on the veranda while drinking fresh lemonade. Though Raylan works a case every episode, the show is not a procedural.  It’s a character study that manages to maintain the humor and insight of its source material.  Raylan vowed he would never return to Harlan County, in large part because he wanted to avoid his criminal father, Arlo.  Arlo finally shows up in the April 6th episode, for what is so far a four episode stint.  I spoke to the veteran character actor who plays Arlo, Raymond J. Barry about tackling the complicated role as well as the numerous other fathers he has played over the years.

Raymond J. Barry and Timothy Olyphant (FX)

Raymond J. Barry and Timothy Olyphant (FX)

Tell me about Arlo
[He misbehaved during] the marriage, which ultimately caused the death of the wife, which would be Raylan’s mother. On top of which, he sells drugs, so there’s a built in conflict there since Raylan is a U.S. Marshal.  He seems to be a habitual criminal.  He’s got Post Traumatic Stress from Vietnam, which makes him very charming because he covers up his ailment with his charm.  Then he’ll become very, very violent under duress.  There’s one scene where he actually attacks two men with a baseball bat.  So, having said all this, there are obviously many layers to the character, and many different facets of their history together, which makes for a current toxicity between them.  I think Arlo likes Raylan a little more than Raylan likes Arlo.

So he’s the father of the year.
Actually, he’s been completely neglectful with regard to his paternal responsibilities, but somehow Raylan has ended up on his feet.  I think there is a certain degree of protectiveness that comes from Raylan towards Arlo.  I know he wants to catch him when he breaks laws, but I get a sense that there is a certain degree of, “I wish he wouldn’t do what he’s doing so I wouldn’t have to arrest him.”  It’s part of the emotional vocabulary between son to father.

What was it like working with Timothy Olyphant?
I just showed up and did my work.  He never made a big deal about it.  We knew we were going to work together and it seems to be a very fluid relationship.  I enjoy working with him.  He’s a good actor and he’s bright.  One of the unusual things about the situation when we shoot is that there’s not so much of a time pressure that the script can’t be questioned and a discussion might be had that might clarify what’s going on.  Sometimes people will talk for an hour before we actually start shooting.  Usually there’s so much time pressure on a set that you start shooting right away and the director’s uptight and he wants to get things going.  There’s no time for discussion and you just shoot what’s on the page.  That’s not the case with ‘Justified.’  They’ll rewrite a scene right there in front of you and you’ll have to learn the lines right there.  It will make the scene better.

You have played so many fathers.  Whose father did you most enjoy being?
Tom Cruise, partly because of the import of the film ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’  I still feel very proud of what I did in that film.  The difficulty of shooting it left a permanent impression on my mind.  I felt such an enormous responsibility to enter the skin of that character because I was so anti-war in the 60s and the 70s.  But, as it turned out, with the help of Oliver Stone who was totally committed also to the subject matter, and Tom Cruise, the finished product is very, very good.  My experience with Tom Cruise was a very positive one.  It was a very powerful experience I had, but not a comfortable one.  On the other hand, it’s not a comfortable subject when your son comes home paralyzed from the waist down from the war.

That’s interesting, since Arlo is also a Vietnam Vet.  Did your work in Born on the Fourth of July inform your portrayal of Arlo?
Honestly, no.  I know Arlo from another place that has to do with the combat of, as cliched as this may sound, I was an athlete in high school and college.  I know when you walk on a football field, you have your game face on.  It’s a male thing.  It’s trying to intimidate.  It’s macho.  It’s bulls–t.  Criminals have that in them, too.  I used to work in prisons doing theater workshops and guys who are in prison have that same attitude.  They project an intimidating stance at every turn but underneath all that, there’s always fear.  Of course men don’t like to admit to their fear, but men walk around in a state of trepidation all the time.  Instead, they put on a big front about how tough they are.  It’s nonsense.  But that’s what Arlo’s about.

You also played Jack’s grandfather in an episode of ‘Lost.’  Any chance that your character will come back, or that the shoes you loaned Locke, are going to play a role in the finale?
It’s hard to say.  I worked for the producer before, J.J. Abrams.  I know he was pleased with my work.  I’m sure of only one thing.  He probably has not forgotten that I linger in the background.  I could never predict what he is going to do.  One of the things about Abrams is that he has got a very imaginative mind.  Part of that imagination has to do with the unexpected.  So whether it would be unexpected for me to come back or unexpected for me not to come back, is the question.  If the guy wants to bring me back, I’d be delighted to come back.