Sam Elliott on Joining Justified, His Mustache, His Voice, and The Big Lebowski

Photo: Michael Bezjian/WireImage

Don’t be fooled by online impostors claiming to be Sam Elliott. “I don’t tweet, I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do any of it,” growls the 70-year-old character actor whose famously smoky voice is the exact opposite of a Twitter. Nearly as much as his voice, Elliott is known for his bushy walrus mustache, which is why he’s almost unrecognizable on Justified, as he plays the clean-shaven Markham, a pot baron who returns to his old Kentucky hometown to stir up trouble in the sixth and final season of FX’s crime drama. With his character making his debut tonight, Elliott talked with Vulture about the show, his voice, and hipsters with facial hair.  

Were you familiar with Justified before they cast you on the show?
I was. I watched it early on, then I got away from it. I’m not one to sit around and watch anything religiously on TV. But I was fascinated with the quality of it from the get-go. I was tickled when they came my way, to be honest with you.

How does it feel joining the show in its final season?
I tell ya, it’s fuckin’ chaos at the moment. [Laughs.] Walton Goggins is off doing a movie [The Hateful Eight] with [Quentin] Tarantino in Colorado, so everybody was scrambling to get him out of town. The last few days have been particularly difficult for everyone. It’s the nature of the beast, with the ongoing writing right up until the moment of shooting and a lot of different characters to satisfy on both sides of the camera. It’s a challenge, but it’s a treat. For someone who’s been in this game as long as I have, to get back into doing some regular television work, it’s a great experience. It’s a different world from when I was doing TV years ago. 

Do you feel like the whole industry has changed?
The game has changed. The worm has turned, no doubt about it. Simply by virtue of the digital world, it’s opened a lot of doors. 

Did they explain to you what your character was up to before you signed on, or are you learning as you go along?
We’re all learning as we go along. He had money and got out of Harlan, figuring he was going to get fingered for some crime, and went to Colorado and got into the legal dope business. That’s what brings him back to Harlan: He’s going to try and start buying up land to be ahead of the curve when it gets legalized in Kentucky. I learned that much about him, and the rest unfolds as it goes along. Nobody gets out of there alive, it seems like, so I’m expecting to be amongst the dead before it’s over. 

Why did you decide to play this character without your trademark mustache?
I didn’t have it when they cast me, and I didn’t have time to grow one that I wanted to wear on weekly episodic TV. So I left it off, and I’m glad I did. It helped me a lot with this guy to look different than I did in most of the work I’ve done. And I never combed my hair straight back, either, so that’s a new thing. That seems absurd, probably, but it’s that little subtle stuff that makes all the difference in the world. 

I don’t know if you’ve been to Brooklyn lately, but facial hair is all the rage with hipsters. How do you feel about that?
We’re all a bunch of lazy bastards. We’re too lazy to shave anymore. I see all these people with 12 o’clock shadows or whatever they’re supposed to be. They’re on every TV show, and now it’s in commercials as well. It’s like, Jesus Christ! I was one of the first guys who grew hair on his face in the old days. There’s a lot of weird shit going on out there these days that I don’t understand. 

Your voice is so distinctive. How old were you when it changed?
I was pretty young. I was in cherub choir — my mom dragged me to church when I was 4 years old. It started to develop, and when I was in middle school, it dropped. I wasn’t going to sing tenor anymore after that. It’s served me well. 

Do people recognize you as soon as you open your mouth?
That’s the joke around my house, especially since I shaved off my mustache. Just keep your mouth shut and everything will be cool. 

You’re the voice of Smokey Bear. I read you two were born on the same day: August 9, 1944. Was this fated to be?
I didn’t know that until last year, when Smokey turned 70. So the cat’s out of the bag on how old I am. I knew about him when I was a kid because my dad worked for the Fish & Wildlife Service, and I spent a lot of time in the Sierras. Every once in a while, you’d see these wooden statues of Smokey. The fact that the campaign started the same day I was born is quite a trip. 

You narrate The Big Lebowski as the Stranger. Does it surprise you that movie is bigger than ever 17 years later?
It’s surprising to be part of something like that. The Coen Brothers are fuckin’ geniuses, and that’s no secret. They’ve been making good movies from the get-go, and they continue to do so. Everything about that movie spoke to someone. [Jeff] Bridges is the Dude, like it or not. It’s really nuts. They have these reunions every year all over the country, these Lebowski-fests. It’s like, what? Really? Everybody wears bathrobes and gets sloshed on White Russians and sits through a midnight screening. But I’m not surprised. Good work has a way of hanging around. 

Do any of your other movies rival its popularity?
It’s The Big Lebowski, Road House, and Tombstone. That’s the big three. And it’s really because they repeat that shit all the time. None of them had great box office, and I wasn’t so good in any of them. You just can’t escape them. They keep showing up. 

Your first credited movie appearance was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so you got off to a good start.
That did well, but I was literally a shadow on the wall in that movie. I had one line, and it was off-camera. 

Even though your wife, Katharine Ross, starred in that movie, you didn’t meet her until you made the horror flick The Legacy together in 1978. Do you ever wish you had met on a better film?
The Legacy, for what it was, was all right. Therein lies the legacy. The legacy was my life with Katharine. I can’t pooh-pooh the movie. I have in the past, but you get smarter when you get older. I look back fondly on falling in love with Katharine that winter in England. It wasn’t a bad place to be. 

What’s the secret to your marriage’s longevity?
We stay out of town, and we don’t get in too deep. We don’t believe all the shit in the rags. And we work hard. Katharine and I have a lot in common. We’ve got a 30-year-old daughter [Cleo] that we’re deeply in love with and still incredibly close to. Life’s good. We live in Malibu and have horses and dogs and cats and chickens. We shovel shit, man. That keeps you humble.