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David Meunier on the Dixie Mafia and Playing ‘Justified’ Double-Dealer Johnny Crowder

David Meunier on the Dixie Mafia and Playing 'Justified' Double-Dealer Johnny Crowder

David Meunier has seen his share of backstabbing and intrigue on “Justified.” As Johnny Crowder, he was next in line to take over his family’s crime syndicate after his Uncle Bo (M.C. Gainey) — until wayward cousin Boyd (Walton Goggins) got in his way. When Johnny tipped Boyd off about his uncle’s Oxy shipment, Bo retaliated by shooting his nephew in the stomach, subsequently putting him in a wheelchair. With Bo dead and Boyd now running the Crowder family business, Johnny feels more than a bit supplanted — he blames Boyd for his state and wants revenge. He also has some lingering desire for Boyd’s fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter), which doesn’t help cousinly relations.

“Justified,” now in its fourth season, finds Johnny back in the forefront as he enacts a stealthy, multi-pronged attack on Boyd, partnering with Dixie Mafia head Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) to kill him while at the same time blackmailing Boyd’s new right hand man Colton Rhodes (Ron Eldard). The show, which airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX, never shies away from deep character explorations and interesting plot twists, and Meunier’s Johnny Crowder is most definitely indicative of how layered and conflicted a “Justified” character can be. Meunier spoke with Indiewire by phone, helping to reveal Johnny’s motivations for and the internal struggle behind going against Boyd, the surprise of returning to the show in season two, and the overall pleasure of working in the set’s collaborative atmosphere.

The Crowder clan has an amazing Shakespearean dynamic of double-crossing each other to get that place on the throne. Do you feel that Johnny thinks being the head of the family business is rightfully his place in the world?

In a word, absolutely. That’s Johnny’s mission in life, that’s what set him on his path to betray Boyd in the first place. Being groomed by Uncle Bo to take over the family business and to have it all taken away from him.

Especially since Boyd spent all those years blowing stuff up and preaching to Crowder’s Commandos…

Yeah, all those years while Johnny was running the family business with Uncle Bo — and even Arlo [Raymond Barry], in the early days — Boyd was off blowing things up, and we learn later that he was also in Kuwait and running churches in the woods. He was doing everything but the family business.

This season, Johnny is playing many different angles, which is intriguing to watch. Starting with his double-crossing of Boyd, do you think that’s something Johnny realistically sees himself with getting away with, despite Boyd being such a shrewd character?

Yeah, I think initially he thinks that’s possible. There’s no love between Boyd and Wynn Duffy, or the Dixie Mafia. So, Johnny’s figured out a way to say, “Well, look — I can get you what you need, just help me get me what I need.” That was a reasonable plan.

What you do think Johnny has to gain by partnering with Wynn Duffy? Since he’s probably one of the most notoriously slippery characters in Harlan County?

It’s assumed that Wynn Duffy is the operational head of the Dixie Mafia. So there is a heroin trade running through that part of the world that’s coming from Detroit, and Wynn is the one handling that. And Johnny thinks, “I’ll be the one to expand Wynn’s enterprises” and also benefit himself in the process.

Can you talk about Johnny’s motivations in blackmailing Colton? It seems Johnny almost feels usurped in the business by the guy when Boyd brings him into the fold…

I think there are two things at play with Colton. For one, Johnny has no love for him — when they first meet, Colton kicks Johnny’s cane out from under him, and he goes crashing to the floor. So that’s not a very good introduction, for starters. Then it’s very clear that Boyd brings Colton in to be his right hand man, therefore making Johnny’s position in the business unclear.

Once Johnny figures out that Colton never killed Ellen May, then that’s a feather in his cap. That’s something he knows that Boyd doesn’t. And Johnny’s got this thing going with Wynn Duffy and all that, and he’s got to play like he’s on Boyd’s team. Any time he can show up and say, “I’ve got this information this really matters,” i.e. that Colton’s a liar, it’s only going to benefit Johnny and make him look better in Boyd’s eyes.

And despite his clear issues with Boyd, do you think there’s any lingering familial loyalty left for Johnny with him? Is that perhaps part of why he tells Boyd that Colton is a liar?

That’s where it gets a little muddy, in terms of relationship. Johnny has the clarity of knowing what he wants, but at the same time, we’re talking about his cousin, not just some random guy. There’s a 40-year history that these two men have, back from when they were kids. Johnny has feelings for Ava, of course, and always has, and Boyd is someone who is very important to Ava, and that in some ways gets under Johnny’s skin. He wants to get rid of Boyd, but he doesn’t want to hurt Ava… but he wants Ava to himself. So it gets very complicated.

But telling Boyd about Colton was sort of a double play. He is letting Boyd know that it is all a big lie, and Ava is potentially the one in danger here. And also it’s “hey, I know something important, and see how good I am?” Telling Boyd puts Johnny back as his right hand man.

Back in season one, when Bo shoots Johnny, it was somewhat understood that Johnny was mortally wounded. So when Johnny returned crippled in season two, was that a surprise to you, or did you have the intel that Johnny survived?

That’s a funny story. Adam Arkin was the director of the final episode of season one, and he had all these ideas of how my stunt double was going to fly off the porch [after having been shot], like six feet in the air. And Fred Golan, the writer of that episode, who is also one of our producers, said, “You know, we need to shoot this in a way that Johnny could potentially not be dead. [laughs] And that’s where they left it. So I thought, “Maybe I’m not dead!”

Then at the beginning of the second season, I get a phone call and they said, “Johnny is alive. He did survive. We’re just trying to find an episode to bring him in.” That was very early, so months go by — sometime in January — and I look at the calendar and was doing the math, and they were at episode eight or nine at that point, and I think, “Johnny’s dead. It’s been so long that I can’t possibly come back.” Two days after having that thought, my manager calls and says, “Guess what? Johnny’s alive, and he’s in the next episode, and you’re going to work tomorrow.”

I showed up for a wardrobe fitting that afternoon, not having read the script or anything. I met with the wardrobe person, and she asked me, “What are your ideas?” And I said, “I have no idea — I haven’t even read the script.” She looked at me with this grin on her face and said, “Oh. Well… you’re in a wheelchair. And… you have a colostomy bag.” And I thought, “Oh, this is great! I am alive, but this is the condition that I’m in.” So, I take the bathrobe, the sweatpants and the slippers, and that’s it for my wardrobe. It was a big surprise. [laughs] But I love that episode where I come back.

I remember watching that episode for the first time, and Johnny’s return was set up as this huge reveal.

Yeah, they set it up like Boyd is having this very heartfelt conversation, apologizing to someone, we didn’t know what it was about. Then the camera pans around to a wheelchair, and I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.

With Johnny’s now-limited mobility, did you spend a lot of time working on his physicality, the transition from being in a wheelchair to using a cane?

No — it’s interesting, Johnny is not a guy who was born with disabilities, so it’s not like he lived in a wheelchair. Therefore, Johnny’s lack of coordination, in terms of a wheelchair or even a cane, is a state of mind. If I ended up in a chair or a cane tomorrow, I’d probably be just as clumsy as Johnny is.

One of the actors on the show, Kevin Rankin, who played Devil, played a character in a wheelchair on “Friday Night Lights.” But he played a character who spent his whole life in a wheelchair. We used at talk about that on set, about how he needed to be a professional in a wheelchair. But Johnny doesn’t have to do that, so I didn’t have to master a skill, per se.

Timothy Olyphant (Raylan Givens) is also an executive producer on the show, and I read that he has a lot of input as to what happens plotwise. Are he and [showrunner] Graham Yost very receptive to your and the rest of the cast’s input on your characters?

Hugely receptive. All the writers are, too. That doesn’t mean that we always get our way, but they definitely give us their ear. That’s why it’s such a fun show to work on, because you’re handed the script to begin with, and then you’re like, “What if this happens?” or “What if, instead of saying this, I say this instead?” or “What if that person says that and I don’t?” There’s a bit of a conversation and everyone pitches their ideas and their thoughts. Tim [Olyphant] brings his own ideas — with every script, he reads the first draft and brings in his own notes, even on the days when we’re filming. We play with it as we go along and it’s a lot of fun.

Is Elmore Leonard [who wrote the short story “Fire in the Hole,” on which the show is based] very involved in the production of the show?

I have never met Elmore — he lives on the East Coast and we’re in LA. But I think on some level of the production, he and Graham [Yost] talk, the powers that be. He’s written more material about Raylan — he created Raylan and the show came from his short story about him — and the new material is now spun from the show. It’s starting to become symbiotic. I feel Elmore really enjoys the fact that Raylan is now walking and talking, a character he created and wrote about.

So what other “Justified” character besides your own would you like to try your hand at playing?

Well, the obvious choice is Raylan. Anyone would want to play Raylan, right? [laughs] At the end of the day, he’s got the girl, he’s got the gun, he’s got the hat… that would be very different from the roles that I typically play. Raylan would be a fun role to play. But don’t tell Tim I said that.

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