Q+LA Walton Goggins
The career of this gracious Southerner is informed by practical romanticism, self-deprecation and an affection for Elmore Leonard by ERIC ESTRIN
On The Shield, the groundbreaking FX drama about a group of effective but dirty Los Angeles cops, the network wanted Walton Goggins’ Shane Vendrell written out after the first episode.
Series creator Shawn Ryan came to the rescue, and Shane survived and became a compelling reason to watch the show’s entire seven-year run. Then on the current FX hit Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” it happened again. Goggins’ soulful hillbilly outlaw Boyd Crowder was supposed to die in the pilot, but test audiences reacted so well he was resurrected as the hero’s ongoing foil.
Goggins, it seems, is one of those actors whose face grabs the camera and won’t let go. His deep-set eyes, lean build and finger-in-the-socket haircut make him look like he could go off at any minute. In real life, the 39-year-old is anything but volatile. A passionate photographer and avid reader, Goggins takes the works of W. Somerset Maugham along on his world travels. (He and writer-director Nadia Conners named their child Augustus Somerset—after the author.)
Since coming to town from Georgia, Goggins has landed steady work in films ranging from The Apostle to The Bourne Identity. Now the parts are getting bigger. Working around his Justified schedule, raising the new baby and remodeling his 1927 Hollywood house, Goggins shot a role in Universal’s sci-fi thriller Cowboys & Aliens, which opens July 29. He’s also in Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs remake, coming in September, and recently filmed his part in 2012’s independent drama Officer Down.
Goggins currently sports barely visible braces to correct a long-ago Little League accident that knocked out some teeth. As might be expected from someone who makes his living being stared at, he had become a little self-conscious about his appearance. Just not enough to keep from smiling.
This is two hit FX series in a row for you now. Do you feel like more of a cable actor than a broadcast actor?
I think broadcast would probably say that. [Laughs.] You know, when I first moved out here 20 years ago, the people working in television were more often than not conventionally good-looking. They had a safety about them that I don’t have.
But there’s always a place in Hollywood for interesting-looking character actors.
Oh, absolutely. I think that’s why I was able to make a living in movies. And this kind of programming we’re doing—serialized storytelling—started with The Sopranos. It was almost as if independent film began to find an alternate home on cable. It was a prime opportunity for someone like me.
Was the Georgia you grew up in anything like Justified’s Harlan County, Kentucky?
No, but there are people I grew up with from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that would give any person on Justified a run for their money in the scary department.
Speaking of scary, have you ever tried moonshine?
The first drink I ever had—I was 12, working construction over the summer—was moonshine. My mom didn’t know about it; nobody else knew about it. The guys I was working with gave it to me after 12 hours on a roof. The minimum age for work in the South was different [back then], I think, from the rest of the country.
Is Boyd Crowder the coolest name in television?
Man, he’s a cool cat. You know, The Shield was such an emotionally draining experience, and Shane wore his emotions on his sleeve. To go from that experience to Boyd Crowder, where you never know exactly how he feels about anything but his wheels are always turning—it’s fascinating, man. It’s two opposite ends of the spectrum.
Did you get Boyd right away?
I’m still not quite sure the way Boyd will react in any given situation. How does Boyd Crowder kiss a woman? How does he touch a woman? I would just rack my head for hours at night. At the end of the day, Boyd’s a poet, and I try to approach it from the point of view of an artist who never got out of a small town.
For a long time, Hollywood didn’t quite get Elmore Leonard. What has changed?
I suppose some filmmakers came along who got his voice. Maybe people’s sense of humor changed, so they can now appreciate the comic timing he has. It happens to be my favorite kind of humor—when you don’t know whether to laugh or not. And I think that’s a strength of Justified. I mean, speaking through Elmore Leonard’s voice, trying to replicate that every single week, is really difficult, but that’s what we try to do.
Does he ever come to the set?
I’m in awe every time I get him one-on-one. I have this big grin on my face from wanting people to see me talking to him. I can’t really even listen to what he’s saying because I’m [thinking], You see me talking to Elmore Leonard right now? [Laughs.]
Cowboys & Aliens must have been fun to make.
Oh, getting a knock on the trailer door, and it’s Harrison Ford saying, “Do you want a ride home in my helicopter?” I mean, come on—who doesn’t dream about that?
Were you comfortable riding horses in the movie?
I’m the ass who says, “I’m a pretty good rider.” [Laughs.] Until I get to the set, and literally my first day of working is riding a horse with Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde and everybody else behind me. I get bucked off the horse four times. Four times. And they’re saying, “Oh, wow, I thought you could ride, Goggins.”
Why’d that happen? Don’t they train the horses?
Yeah, don’t they? I had a bad horse, man. I had to ask for a new horse after the fourth time: “Excuse me, I need this guy’s stand-in. He wants to be the star of the movie.”
I hear you’re very conscientious about the environment.
I try to leave a light footprint. I’m involved with Global Green, which aims to educate people about sustainable building and the greening of schools. I try to be aware about the consumption of unnecessary things in a consumptive culture. I don’t, for the most part, buy anything new, except clothes.
Looking around your house, I can see you do have some beautiful furniture.
Thank you. I quite like antiques. I like things that are old and the history they bring with them. I would rather fly to Morocco on an $800 ticket and buy a chair for $300 than spend $1,100 on one at Pottery Barn.
You’ve done a lot of traveling—and not just to buy chairs.
Yeah, I go as often as I can and for as long as I can. And live as cheaply as I can, you know? I try to do it on $10, $15 a day. I aimlessly travel, meaning I have no agenda other than to get small in the world, be quiet and observe people.
Wait, back up: $10 to $15 a day?
Oh yeah, it’s easy when you’re in India eating dal and drinking chai tea. Hotel room, five bucks. Entertainment is my camera and a couple of beers if I’m not in a dry part of the country. So it really doesn’t take that much.
Do you ever have awkward experiences when you travel like that?
Well, yeah. I was in Panama with my gal in this faraway place with some nefarious people, and I was hanging out, just kind of watching the mood in this outdoor room. I was approached by a guy in the CIA who gave me his business card and said, “I f--king love your show, and I f--king love you on your show. You ever need me, I’m right here.” [Laughs.] That was a little weird.
Have you called him?
I haven’t really had a need to, thankfully.
ERIC ESTRIN has written for television and film. He currently edits the review site Movie Smackdown.