The first thing you notice about Timothy Olyphant is the way he talks. He’s got this slow, slacker’s drawl, the kind of sun-stained smoothness that’s totally placeless, maybe even timeless — because yeah, he’s a star out-of-time, an old-school workaday actor who just happened to hit it big. That’s how you know him, anyway: as Raylan Givens from Justified, the neo-western psycho thriller based on an Elmore Leonard character, which ends its Emmy-fueled six-season run this month. Or maybe as Seth Bullock from Deadwood. Or as the handsome guest star on sitcoms from The Office to The Mindy Project.
But also, there’s the way he talks. The way he seems to be searching for the right answer — the real answer — in a totally artificial setup. Like he wouldn’t mind revealing some essential truths to himself in the course of our brief interaction, if the opportunity arises. That’s the thing about Timothy Olyphant. He’s not really just an actor. He’s a thinker. An art lover. A lover of learning — like, honest lifelong learning, because that’s what it takes to be a better artist, a better actor, a better man. That’s what you notice about Timothy Olyphant.
Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up, was acting always the thing?
I grew up in Modesto, California. Cow-tipping was the thing. Ice-blocking was a thing. Cruising was a thing.
What did you think you were going to do?
I thought I was going to try to get out of there. But career-wise? I had no idea. It wasn’t until I went on a college recruiting trip that I discovered the art department — I had no idea such a thing existed. You can get a degree in that? I liked to draw, so that became my major in college. I was thinking maybe I’d have an art career. Worst-case scenario I’d get my masters and teach.
Your resume now is so varied — comedy, dark stuff like Justified. What you were hoping to do originally?
In some ways I was trying to get my hands on the best possible thing I could get without having to deal with anything I wasn’t prepared to deal with. So it was always one step forward, two steps back. Take a breath. See if I can deal. I got great opportunities right off the bat. And at the same time I either passed or failed to get things that would have made things ridiculously quick. I passed on enormous opportunities only to end up playing the supporting role in the next film. And then I’d think to myself, “What the fuck am I doing? Why did I do that?” But sometimes I feel like I got away with some things, because I’ve been able to work for a long time and I haven’t had to deal with any kind of fame issues.
Has that always been your attitude, that it’s just a job?
I guess any other way of looking at it doesn’t interest me much. I do like the job, and I feel fortunate to still do it. You get paid a lot for it. But I’m not sure anything else is really very productive.
A little-known fact is that you did stand up comedy for bit.
That was somewhere in the early ‘90s I guess. After college. I don’t know. I was trying to avoid a mid-life crisis, you know? I didn’t want to be one of those people who always thought I’d do something and never did it. So I gave it a shot.
How did it go?
It went pretty well, actually. But the lifestyle didn’t appeal to me. The hours aren’t good. Plus, there’s a thing that starts to happen when you go down that road — it’s very hard to spend time with people when you’re just trying to think of the joke. That was exhausting. Best-case scenario: I was going to end up in a sitcom, and then I would be off that sitcom in a blink of an eye, and I’d wake up and realize that I have no fucking skills. That would be a tough road. So I thought, maybe I’ll take an acting class.
Even though you’d already been working as an actor.
The thing I remember most was that I read Stanislavsky and Meisner. I think I was a bit embarrassed to say I wanted to be an actor. It was pretty superficial. But I remember reading those books and feeling like: here are two guys that look at this professionally in a way that hasn’t occurred to me. It felt like they were speaking the same language, directly to the artist I was trying to be in college. So I thought maybe there’s a way to make this work. It started to feel like an extension of a lot of conversations that started in art school, with Baldessari and Chris Burden, who rocked my world.
What was it in their work that was blowing your mind at the time?
Well, look: when you’re a kid from Modesto and you go off and you’re getting whatever it was, a bachelor of fine arts in studio arts, you come home and tell your friends, your parent’s friends, your grandparents…and the question you get back is: “What are you going to do with that?” There’s a cliché out there that nobody makes a living doing that kind of stuff — it’s the furthest thing from the truth. When I started going to see Chris Burden’s work, John Baldessari’s work, William Wegman’s work, and going to see all these shows in Los Angeles and visiting artist studios, I would think, “Wow, I can have a life where I don’t go to an office, you know?” And it had great appeal to me. And, so, that started a new conversation for me.
How has that conversation evolved over the last 20 years?
The only thing that happened when I switched over — from drawing and ceramics to taking acting classes and then eventually getting work — was that this profession has a lot of bullshit that comes along with it, there’s a public eye factor, so there were adjustments. How do you succeed in this business and still maintain some sense of normalcy.
Now do you get to point your three kids to things and be like, “Check out this Baldessari,” or “Read this Elmore Leonard, cause this is what my show’s about,” or…
The short answer is yes.
It’s curious, because I found that world of art and culture growing up in a shit-kicker town, just imagining that it existed. I didn’t even brush up close to it until I was in my late teens or early twenties. And my kids are growing up in it. I don’t know if that helps or hurts. For all I know they’re going to be bankers. But it is a fun thing — a curious thing. You’ve got an 11-year-old that likes to draw, and you can say “Come with me, I want to show you something.” I remember growing up, my good friend’s parents had a living room that nobody stepped into. They vacuumed it a month ago and you could still see the vacuum marks. But on their coffee table in their living room was a Salvador Dali book. I loved it. I had no idea what the fuck that was but I loved it. They also had LeRoy Neiman paintings on their wall, I fucking hated them. Isn’t that funny? Growing up in a shit-kicker town and not knowing who that was. I loved that stuff. Mine were probably the only footmarks ever in that living room.
So what are you into right now?
My son and I just read those Bones novels. Oh my god, those things are great. That might have been one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years. Is someone making a movie about that?
You could make the movie. You’re a producer on Justified right now. Is that a world that interests you?
It does. It’s been the best thing about this job, really. They sort of cracked the door open in the writer’s room, and I just backed the truck up. The acting gig on Justified is pretty good. It’s tough to come by these roles — it’s badass, it’s charming, it’s Cool, with a capital C. But the real pleasure of this job, and also the real challenge of this job, is the storytelling. Trying to crack that nut. Week after week, year after year. And being part of that process has allowed me to be a student again. I’ve been in the room and I have a say in the process — and I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s nice when you’re my age and you’ve actually developed some sort of expertise in something, to be able to be a novice in something and have so much to learn.
Who have you learned from?
I worship David Mamet. I always have. I remember reading his books on acting years and years ago. Most actors I talk to hate him, but I’ve always loved him. I’ll read anything on the art of storytelling. It’s amazing how much wisdom authors can give you. When you read good books it’s really about writing and storytelling. And then I also just re-read scripts. The only thing better than reading Elmore Leonard is re-reading Elmore Leonard. You try to break it down. You try to look for the patterns, look for what it is. You read it so you know what it is you love about it.
So what are you secretly hoping to do now that this show is over?
It’s no secret. I’m not secretly hoping to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, I want to work with Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s not a secret that I want to be in a Coen brothers movie. And then, secretly, I would like to have a cooking show. Cooking with Kids: it’s just me in the kitchen with kids, and I’m just going, “No! Turn that off! You’re going to break it!” There’s no future there, but you know, secretly I think that would be fun.
I’m sure you can make it happen.
Also, I don’t think anyone takes this seriously and I don’t see a world where I could get away with it, but I’ve always really wanted to have a talk show. It seems like a great gig.