Walton Goggins is a particularly passionate actor. The veteran of “The Shield” and “Justified” has a major role in Quentin Tarantino’s new film “The Hateful Eight,” in which he plays Chris Mannix, a young man who is headed to the town of Red Rocks, where he’ll take over as Sheriff. That’s what the character says, at least. As with everything else in Tarantino’s new movie, there’s reason to wonder how legit the guy’s claims actually are.
There is no reason to doubt Goggins’s sincerity, especially on the topic of acting, and most definitely not when it comes to the esteem in which he holds writer/director Quentin Tarantino. The actor’s long digressions on acting as part of an ensemble and his approach to Tarantino’s material dominated our talk, prompted by the imminent release of “The Hateful Eight.”
You have more dialogue than anyone else in this movie. How do you approach the script?
I learn everything top to bottom. [Anthony] Hopkins and Robert Duvall and Jessica Tandy were the people my acting coach would cite. He said, “Tony Hopkins reads a script three hundred times.” I said, “Get the fuck out of here!” Then I did a movie with Tony, and I asked if it was true. “Do you read it three hundred times?” He said two-fifty to three twenty-five.
So, for me, that’s how I approach it. That’s my work. You want to know it so you are able to go play, so you are able to go places that you couldn’t dream of. It’s not about memorizing words, it’s just thoughts. With a writer like Quentin Tarantino — I can’t completely say that statement, because there is no writer like Quentin Tarantino — it is without effort that those words seep into your consciousness. They’re so fucking good. You celebrate them for what they are. You frame them and put ‘em on your wall, just to look at how they flow. It’s like a beautiful piece of music. Then to know that I get to say more of them in this fuckin’ movie than any other person? It’s unbelievable. I’d say it’s alchemy, but you start out with gold and so you end up with gold when you’re working with words written by Quentin Tarantino.
I think anyone who is a fan of his films has a high percentage of that material memorized. But in this case you get to be the one to define the role. Does he work with you to figure that out?
No, no, I don’t think he works with anyone specifically in that way, that’s not how he approaches it. He is a director who loves actors, and he’s an actor! Whenever you’re in a bind… I did this on “Django Unchained” — and I never do this, ever — but there was a point where I was in the barn and I was looking at Jamie Foxx’s cock. Not his real one, but the prosthetic. Billy Crash was going through these emotions of eradicating an entire race of people, and that’s metaphorically what that [scene] stood for. I kinda hit a wall. In that moment I asked Quentin to do it. He said it, and I was like “that’s it — I didn’t see that most obvious approach, that’s it.” And when you have someone like that to lean on, that’s very important.
Quentin does what all great directors do, which is hire people he’s comfortable with. When you build a repertory the way Quentin has, or the way other directors do, they’re already giving you 90% of what you have in your imagination. So they’re not working from the ground up, they’re working from the 11th floor of a 12-story building. But it’s in the creation of that top floor where his imagination is realized. That is a really cool place to be.
It seems like you’re as comfortable with him as he is with actors — did your relationship begin that way, on ‘Django’?
I wasn’t comfortable with Kurt Russell, or Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Tim [Roth], or Michael [Madsen] for that matter! Those are people who loom large in my imagination. Then you come into their space, and you come with an open heart and a vulnerability, and a willingness to play. They see that, and you can transcend being an actor working with another actor.
Over the course of this experience — and the only reason I didn’t include Sam Jackson in that list before is that Sam is my buddy. I know Sam. Coming into this I didn’t know everybody else, and we very quickly got over the dogs sniffing each other part. And they all knew each other. Tim has known Sam a long time, Tim and Michael have been friends since the beginning. So everybody kinda had their experience, including Demian Bichir. Get the fuck out of here — that’s Demian Bichir standing there!
And we got over that, they invited me into their iconic group, if you will. it turned into a celebration of each others’ gifts, and how those gifts would be in service of Quentin Tarantino’s story. Everybody has a moment. The way Quentin builds his stories, everybody is three-dimensional. Even the guy who just walks in and says nothing!
So in this movie, whenever it was Jennifer’s turn, or Sam’s turn, or Bruce [Dern]’s, we all got to be in the room. And we were all in the room, even if we weren’t in the shot, we were all in the room to watch it. We were on the sidelines just watching it happen, and watching Quentin collaborate with them. And it was a real fucking celebration of Quentin’s material and the story, and quite honestly, of each other. Respect is probably the most important word I can use. And the elements, because it was fucking cold! We took care of each other.
Now we have a thing called the Haters. We’ve been wrapped on this movie for seven months. Everybody in this cast has big lives. We still text almost 30 times a day. That just doesn’t happen. So we’re very close.
[This is the point where there should really be another question, but in reality, Goggins is just rolling. We’re along for the ride.]
For me, I’ve been doing this a long time, and what is a method? I don’t even know what the fuck that means, that’s not where I live. But if I’m in a situation where I’m doing something, I’m there to work and my day revolves around living in that space. I want to live in that space, and I’ve been given an opportunity to work with some of the greats. When Forest Whitaker came on “The Shield” in season six, that was the headspace he was in, the entire time. If it’s a light day he’s light, if it’s a dark day he’s dark.
For me, that’s how I’ve always been, by instinct, by nature. I’m not good enough to tell jokes between takes and then roll in and say these things. That’s not how I live my civilian life, and it’s not how I work. Every director that I’ve ever worked with has respected my little corner, my thread of this coat. I go off and I’m quiet, I stay to myself and on a day like that one I mentioned on ‘Django,’ it’s like, “OK, let’s talk about it. You want to see it? You fucking wrote it, you want to fucking see it? Here it is, man! I’m going to cut this fucker’s balls off!” So I have a thing, and Quentin allows me to do that, and it’s like keep the camera rolling, let’s see what happens now, and have no judgement on it. Whatever fucking comes out now he’ll use it or he won’t, but it’s a spice we need to taste. Let’s feel every wall in this room before we turn on the light. Quentin does’t just allow that, he celebrates that. I’m sorry, I get really passionate about this.
Meanwhile, you took part in the live read, which is unusual. Did you change your approach from that event to the film shoot?
Change happens because there were only two days rehearsal for that live read. You can live in truth in two days — you can live in truth in five seconds. If you walked out of this hotel room and said there’s someone about to walk in here with a gun, well, I can be truthful with that. But there are levels of nuance and understanding a person’s heart, or the ability to play pretend the more you live in that imaginary world.
So for all of us, I think what changed is how deeply we felt it. What changed was working with Quentin in the rehearsal process and then living in the space. So naturally things change. It’s like moving into a house. You can set it up over a weekend and you can throw a party, you can get some hummus from Trader Joe’s, some maraschino cherries for your drink, some, what are those great nuts? Some cashews. But you come back a year from now and there’s going to be art on the walls, there’s going to be books, fabric on the floor, a tactile deep feeling that you get when you walk into that house. So I think it’s the same for us with this experience, that just happens with time.
Do you see how many words I used to answer that fucking question? There is no wonder I play Boyd Crowder the way I do, or Chris Mannix the way I play Chris Mannix.
But language isn’t something we should set aside. I can see why someone would write these roles and think of you.
[At this point we stepped outside to the balcony, where we took in the eastward sprawl of Los Angeles as Goggins had a smoke]
You know, I came to this city with three hundred dollars in my pocket. I was kicked out of the manager’s apartment when I got here because she asked me to sign a piece of paper, I was only 19 years old, and I didn’t know much but I knew enough not to sign this piece of paper, whether I ever got a job or not. And I was dropped off, she said “You gotta leave in the morning,” so I did. I sat out here on Sunset Boulevard, with my bags, on the way to an audition, with no place to go.
That sounds like the classic Hollywood story, or, to be flippant, a Guns N Roses video.
Yeah! Or, I don’t know what it is, is it the American dream, or the dream of an artist in any form or fashion, it’s just — there’s your life. There’s acute pain and overwhelming joy on almost every one of these streets for people who’ve lived here for a long time.
That makes me think about Chris Mannix, who despite all his bluster, seems like a total newbie.
He starts off as a blowhard, he’s an agitator. A rabble-rouser, if you will. He’s just regurgitating a worldview that belongs to his father, and the people around him. I don’t know that he’s ever had an original thought in his fucking life. He’s really just living off the reputation of his family, and he’s in an arrested state of development. He’s an adolescent, a teenager at best. He is un-evolved on almost every level.
And over the course of this movie, you see him become a man. For me, if you’ve only seen the movie once, one of the most revealing, to me as an actor, because it just happened on that day, I didn’t know it was going to happen. But when [spoiller moment redacted], watch what happens to Chris. He is lost, he’s a boy. He goes from being a 17-year old dick to being a lost four-year old. Over the course of the remaining 30 minutes of the movie, he becomes a man. That’s not easy to do. You can’t write that, not many people can do that and earn it. Quentin wrote it and earned it.
Does stuff change on the day?
Never. The words don’t change — well, he will change his own material, for sure. But not much. What he delivers is what he’s had in his head from the very beginning. He’s very precise when he builds the story. What does change is blocking and his ability to understand the story visually. Once he’s built the ground floor with the script, once he’s assembled the crew and he gets Bob Richardson and Gregor [Tavenner], the first Assistant Cameraman, then he’s got the plumbing, if you will, and the guests he wants to invite to his dinner party, which are the actors. Then it becomes about “where’s the conversation going to go,” visually. That’s what constantly changes. Like on ‘Django,’ no one knew that we were going to be at the plantation for a month! But that was based on something that happened in rehearsal with Jamie and him, and then Quentin said “that’s the story.”
“The Hateful Eight” opens in 70mm on Christmas Day.