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Justified’s Timothy Olyphant on Season Three, Oxycontin Turf Wars, and Stealing From Elmore Leonard

Timothy Olyphant. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The FX show Justified begins its third season tonight. The show’s well-mannered but not-to-be-fooled-with lawman, Raylan Givens — winningly played by Timothy Olyphant — was first seen in Elmore Leonard’s work, two books and a short story called Fire in the Hole. Now Leonard has borrowed the character back for a new novel, simply called Raylan, which has clearly been influenced by the show. And the show, not to be outdone, has lifted lots of new material from the book (which is also coming out this week). Clearly, an investigation was called for. Vulture started at the obvious place, with Olyphant himself, speaking to him about the new season, its story lines, its bad guys, and the give-and-take with Leonard.

How do you juggle being the star of the show and one of its producers? What do you do as a producer?
What a producer does is one of the great mysteries of life. [Laughs.] I don’t know what template I’m following, but I’ve basically got the green light to completely overstep in every department. You name it, I’m in there meddling, poking my nose in there — from the writers to the designers to the special effects to the stunts. It’s too much fun! I’ll be stumbling around the art department going, “What can you make in here? What are you capable of?” It’s sort of a never-ending playground. I don’t quite understand it all, and sometimes I have no clue what they’re all doing, but it’s fascinating to watch the story come together. It’s a fun math problem every time.

Do you get to bug Elmore Leonard a lot?
[Laughs.] You know those floors, where you need a key for the elevator? Elmore’s on one of those floors. I’m not sure who, if anybody, has a key to that floor, but he does his thing, and we all reap the benefits.

Ah, okay — because there seems to be some synergy between the show and Leonard’s upcoming book, Raylan.
I’m well aware of it. [Chuckles.] We steal a lot from that. I’m a big fan of his stories, so I read them at every turn I get as it is. But that book, we stole a lot of it for season two. We just stripped it apart last year. We were sort of privy to the book as it was being written in its various stages, so last season, we read some of what he was writing, and many of the characters are in large part from the book. We did our own thing with it — in the book, it was a patriarch instead of a matriarch — but he had the sons, the storefront, the marijuana, and Loretta McCready hanging out, as well as the coal mining representative coming to Harlan, the town meeting, and Raylan as security detail. That’s all in the book, and he encouraged us to steal from it.

But he’s also stealing right back. 
[Laughs.] We had the original stories, Graham [Yost, the showrunner] took those and added some of his own characters, and Elmore, God bless him, then wrote about some of the characters that were created for the show. For instance, Rachel is a character Graham created for the show, and Elmore took her and put her in the Raylan book, and then he took the liberty of telling us things about her that we didn’t know — like where she’s from and how she paid her way through college. So we took it right back, and put it in episode four of this new season. It just tickles me that we’re riffing off each other like that. I’m not sure there’s anything like that anywhere else! Instead of just having Raylan from the books versus Raylan the TV character, now it’s sort of blurring into something new, a new universe. Maybe it’ll be like James Bond — and it’s just a question of, twenty years from now, which other dude gets to wear the hat?

You have a guest star this season, Carla Gugino. A nod to Karen Sisco, considering she previously portrayed that Elmore Leonard character on her short-lived ABC series?
I’m legally obligated to say nothing. [Laughs.]

But surely it’s a reference to that character at the very least?
It looks a lot and plays a lot like Karen. I just remember being told to leave that alone, because of possible litigation and lawsuits. As I understand it, TV studios and the networks are run by lawyers, so it’s best if I stop talking about it. I can say that Carla is fantastic and it was great to work with her.

There are a lot of new villains this season, including Neal McDonough as a Detroit mobster. His arrival seems to mean a possible turf war over Oxycontin?
That seems to be an easy way to capitalize on the hardships of the people in Harlan. What’s cool is that there are all these new people around who are capitalizing on the absence of Mags Bennett, because all the bad guys want a piece of the pie. And they can’t all have it. Hold on, someone’s at my door. [Answers door, tells whoever is there a good-bye, “God bless you. Take care of yourself.”] Someone going door to door. Where was I?

Bad guys in Harlan. If you really wanted to make door-to-door salesmen go away, you could pretend to pull on them, since Raylan’s so quick on the draw.
That’s what I do to get my kids to brush their teeth. [Laughs.] Tomorrow I’ve got a scene to shoot where I have a bunch of cops who think I might have killed somebody. I don’t understand — Raylan seems to be a good guy, and yet people think he’s running around killing people.

Well, he has killed before, in self-defense, when someone else is pulling a gun on him.
This situation is greater than that. There are bodies on someone’s front lawn, and I’m suspect No. 1. That sounds entertaining, right? [Laughs.] I just have more and more problems!

Raylan was also shot at the end of season two. How is he recovering?
I’m still a little sore. [Chuckles.] There’s never a dull moment.

Raylan and Winona are expecting. If he’s got a little gunslinger on the way, how does that change things?
It makes everything harder. It’s harder to break up with someone, harder to maintain a relationship, harder to do dangerous work. That’s the whole trick: How do you keep all these balls in the air? That’s what I keep telling my kids: Life was easy until they came along! Nah, that’s not fair to tell them that. But that also works to get them to brush their teeth.

You think he’s ready for a kid? What should he call it? The names he’s batting around with Winona — Felix, Jiffy Pop — might not fly in Harlan.
As long as I don’t have to act with a kid, you can call it anything you want. I’d rather Raylan get a golden retriever. One step at a time! I think a dog would be good for him, some kind of therapy, outside of hunting people down.

Anything else you would like to happen to Raylan that hasn’t yet?
I’d like him to be a little taller. [Laughs.] It’s a pretty good gig, though. I’ve got no cause to complain.

Justified’s Timothy Olyphant on Season Three, Oxycontin Turf Wars, and Stealing From Elmore Leonard