There is a moment late in HBO’s “Deadwood: The Movie” that captures the journey an actor makes within a character – and himself – with hardly a word spoken aloud. In it, U.S. Marshall Seth Bullock, played by a never-better Timothy Olyphant, sits at the bedside of a grievously injured friend and he weeps.
That sounds easily dismissed for the uninitiated, but those who have followed Bullock – and Olyphant’s – journey since the early days of “Deadwood” in 2004 know better. Bullock had always been written as a live-wire, who knew only how to express his emotions through rage, no matter how inappropriate. Within that, Olyphant would vibrate with a tension born of the character, but also with a sense that in the role maybe he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
In the years since the unceremonious cancellation of the series, Olyphant has grown his skills and his career considerably, anchoring FX’s beloved western “Justified” and even capturing an Emmy nomination for his efforts. By the time he reappeared as Bullock, Olyphant was 12 years wiser and ready to deliver one of the most nuanced, emotionally-agile performances of the year.
And though the actor never had intentions or even aspirations to return to the series, when he finally arrived, he found that everything he’d learned hence was preparing him for a role he’d already left behind. IndieWire spoke to Olyphant recently about the road back to “Deadwood.”
IndieWire: Every cast member I’ve spoken to about “Deadwood” speaks about what a special experience it was. While you’ve shared these feelings, you’ve also been quite forward about how you occasionally felt out of your depth playing Seth Bullock. How was it to come back to this role that was a real struggle at the time?
Olyphant: It has been a very, very rewarding experience. I think it’s been an opportunity to, at the risk of sounding totally “self help,” it’s an opportunity to see growth. It’s just an opportunity to see, “Oh thank fucking God, there’s been some growth.”
In addition to that, I’m just very proud of it. So that’s it. It’s a wonderful feeling.
It’s been over a dozen years. What had you learned in the meantime? What did you bring back to the set that you didn’t have before?
Olyphant: How long you got? It’s a list.
Olyphant: At the very black and white of it, “Hey, look at us. We’re still here.”
I think at the time, it was a very vivid memory of just trying to hang in there. Wife, three kids, going to work. Not know what you’re shooting. Some very big personalities. It was all kinds of crazy. So I think it was bizarre. It’s just good to still be part of the circus. Also, I really enjoy my job, and it’s no small thing.
So I consider myself lucky. I had a hunch starting out that [acting] could be something that not only I could do until it puts me under, but it might be something I enjoy doing until that time comes and perhaps even enjoy it more as I go, too. One of the things I always was aware of working with actors sometimes nearly twice my age [was when] I thought, “I can’t tell who’s having more fun here.” So that’s a nice thing to be able to take in. You feel like you learned a little bit along the way. It was nice to return to those people and experience that collaboration from a different perspective.
And I think there’s a line in the movie about not wanting to die a fool. I guess maybe there’s a little something to that, here.
You’ve spoken at length about working with David Milch. What was it like to revisit those roots and collaborate with him again?
Olyphant: He’s such a force of nature and he’s such a genius that I think after the show ended, throughout the years I always thought, “Well, I would really love an opportunity somewhere down the road to continue that conversation.” Pick up where we left off.
There’s just something wonderful to go back and see. See what’s changed. See what remains the same. See if your memory is a very reliable narrator. You don’t get those chances very often in life. Not on any kind of meaningful level, anyway.
And he was just so wonderful. Everybody knows there’s the situation with his health, so it was also quite sad and quite a moving experience. Just being around him and soaking in as much as I could.
There’s this thing that sometimes happens in acting. I’ve done these plays – very few of them – but there’s always this amazing experience on closing night of a play where for what seems like the very first time in however many months you’ve been doing the goddamn thing, the words all of a sudden carry a weight that they had never carried before because you realize this is the last time you’re going to say them, and you really want to make sure that the person you’re speaking with hears you. That they take it in. And everything they say, you realize you’re hearing it for the last time. It’s so vivid, and I’ve always have the same experience after those closing nights. “Oh, that’s what the play was supposed to be.”
Olyphant: Hindsight. And so I guess this whole shitshow felt a little bit like that.
But it’s your shitshow. It’s the shitshow you love.
Olyphant: I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I do know that deep down part of that reason you signed on was to swap war stories with the rest of the cast and crew. Were there stories on that set that you had not heard or that you had not remembered over the past 15 years?
Olyphant: Oh, yeah, for sure. I find this lately perhaps more fascinating than ever, but this truth that memory is not a reliable narrator. It was really fascinating to have this opportunity to sit around with all these people and swap stories and see who remembers what. Do they remember it the same way you did? Were they even in the fucking room? It’s amazing. It’s amazing who you put in the room that apparently wasn’t there. That is just fascinating to me.
Or how certain things have made such an indelible imprint on your mind and other people… it slips through. By the way, we’re talking about really good storytellers. That cast is incredibly talented and it’s a deep bench. Our bench is the starting five on any other ball club, and their storytelling abilities match their acting abilities. So it’s a set where no one went back to their trailer. Everybody just sat around like we really were in the circus, and we didn’t want to miss a minute. It was a full experience and just a lot of laughs. Very emotional.
Those people are what you see, is what you get. I really truly believe if you want to know what someone’s like, just watch their work – and when you watch that show, as far as I’m concerned, that’s them. And I fucking love them.
Did you have any of your own stories that were questioned by the group?
Olyphant: Oh, yeah. There was one in particular. I remember Milch telling me this story about stealing some gold teeth out of a dead man’s corpse as inspiration for the scene where Bullock, after knocking the shit out of Alma Garret’s father and him losing his teeth on the floor of the Bella Union – Joanie Stubbs returns the teeth to Alma. As I recall, she says to have them so that he could have replacements made or just as reminder to keep his fucking mouth shut. And I remember David telling me the inspiration for that scene, which was at a real low point in his life, [was] stealing teeth out of a dead man’s corpse.
Oh my God.
Olyphant: In my memory, that story was told in the company of Kim Dickens and Molly Parker. And they do not remember it.
Olyphant: Now, you asked. Tell me, you and your readers can ask themselves, when hearing it for the first time, how do you forget that fucking story? So that means either they just weren’t paying attention, or they weren’t even there, or I just made the whole fucking thing up. I don’t know. But that’s one example of many.
I could be wrong about this, but apparently there’s a thing. The more you tell it, the more it changes.
Olyphant: Free Brian Williams. That’s the moral of this story.
So then, was there a story you heard about for the first time while on set for the film?
Olyphant: Well, there were things and anecdotes or the way people felt that I was not aware of. That I can tell you for sure. At some point, I probably need to shut my mouth. There was just stories along the way about the way people felt that you just… didn’t, you know? And then other times that you’re just like, “Oh, I had no idea.”
By the way, [there were] also some monumental events that I’d just forgotten. Life or death situations that I’d just forgotten. And you’re like, “Oh Jesus. That’s right.” It’s amazing what you can forget. Or what had such a huge impact on the person next to you, and you somehow let it slip through.
One cast member reminded me that I had insisted on them going to the hospital one day. “Fuck this show, you need to go.” Apparently they nearly died. And I thought, “Oh, that must have been a big day.” I had forgotten. But then it comes rushing back. But it’s show business, man. Part of it’s probably human nature and part of it must be there’s so much goddamn drama on any given day on any given set. How do you hold on it all? And how do you know which drama is real and which have been manufactured by a bunch of pansy actors who were addicted to the shit?
[At this point in the phone interview, Olyphant admits that he’s multi-tasking.]
Olyphant: I’m literally bringing in the trash cans. It’s really loud.
You gotta do what you gotta do.
Olyphant: See, it’s terrible. Somehow it’s sad that it’s not going to translate in an interview.
Oh, no, that’s my new lede. “Timothy Olyphant was bringing in the trash.”
Olyphant: Yeah, “Olyphant brings in his own trash.”
A man of the people.
Olyphant: If nothing else, I’m a man of the people. I just try to stay grounded.
Bless your efforts.
Olyphant: See, this is the problem with show business. Go from all this excitement [to] bringing in the trash. None of it makes sense.
That’s why you’ve got to manufacture drama.
Olyphant: Yeah, exactly.
This is really shallow after the stuff we’ve been unpacking. So tell me about acting with a hat.
Olyphant: You prefaced it better than I thought. When you said we’re going to get to the really shallow stuff, I thought, “No.” But you were serious.
Not everyone can wear a hat and also act with the hat and good on you. Honestly.
Olyphant: Well, I think I’ll just take the compliment and run.
I don’t know where I was going with that. I literally have written on my notepad “hat.”
Olyphant: I like a good hat.
Olyphant: I will tell you. I’ll tell you this. I remember fondly meeting Ricky Jay. God bless him. Huge Ricky Jay fan. Huge fan of anything David Mamet. Ricky falls under that umbrella, as well. I’m sure he could sense it a mile away on the day we first met. And he informed me, probably provoked as I recall, that he would not teach me any card tricks. I think for Ricky, it’s the equivalent of people wanting to take selfies.
He just knows every time he says hello to someone who knows who he is that they’re going to want a card trick. And he let me know right away that was not going to happen.
He shut that shit down.
Olyphant: He said, “What I will do is show you how to work with that hat.” And I remember fondly him showing me how to kind of juggle a hat. I give Ricky Jay credit for opening my mind to working with a hat. More than just putting it on my head, so not totally unrewarding. Your question is not going to go unrewarded.
Ricky is one example of many examples of working with someone who is a true craftsman. A man of the theater, is all I can say. And that’s what I mean when I talk about that cast of this “Deadwood”. They are people of the theater, and they teach you little things about that.
I did Quentin’s [Tarantino] movie [“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”] and worked with Clifton Collins. He showed me so much about gun work. I just love this guy. I was like, “It reminds me of Ricky Jay showing me about the hat.” I can’t get enough of people who immerse themselves in the craft and all things of the theater.
It takes you back to another age. Actors that could sing and dance and juggle. And I love it. I love it. It’s more fun than Instagramming? Not to sound like an old man-
I think that ship has sailed.
Olyphant: –and talk about how we used to go to work in the snow uphill both ways. “Now, this younger generation seems to be spending time on the craft of Instagramming, and I prefer the ones that learned to juggle.”
Well, now I have a new lede.
Olyphant: That’s what’s wrong with this generation today. None of them know how to juggle.
But I do love acting with props. I love it. I’m not even joking. In fact, I will leave you with this, I remember being mesmerized Season 1 on “Deadwood” watching Ian [McShane] work the props. Fucking genius. I’m like, “Look, I’m just sitting here with my fucking hands by my side and he is working those fucking props and making it look so effortless.” And I say, “I see what he’s doing. I see what he’s doing.” I was paying attention.
Then 10 years later you came back and you had a hat. It’s great.
Olyphant: That’s what I said. I said, “Guys, let’s take a timeout. Let’s take 10 years, I’m going to work on some stuff. We’re going to come back and blow this shit out of the water.”