Justified’s Walton Goggins Defends the South’s Good Name, In Bad-Guy Roles

Photo: Michael Muller/CPi Syndication

Galerie St. Etienne, hidden in the back of a 57th Street office building, is full of elderly women whispering reverently before drawings by Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, many of them sexually explicit. It’s a bit incongruous, and then Walton Goggins bursts through the door, his slightly sunburned face the only break in head-to-toe black. Immediately there is that smile, those large and blinding white teeth, promising both seduction and menace. And then the luscious drawl: “Hello, darlin’!” I’d wondered why the actor—who stars as charming criminal Boyd Crowder on the FX drama Justified—had chosen to meet here, but all is quickly revealed. “I played Schiele when I was 24, in a theater piece in Los Angeles,” he says. “It was about his incarceration in 1912 for pornography and the seduction of a minor. Wow!” Goggins walks toward a drawing. “That’s Wally, his mistress. She was the love of his life.” He leans in, his nose nearly touching the glass. “We had a copy of it pinned up [at the theater], but I’ve never seen it in person. What’s crazy to me is that Schiele accomplished this astonishing body of work in just 28 years, which is when he died, and I only feel like I can really understand how to play him now, at 41.”

Goggins had been knocking around Hollywood, on TV and in movies, for twelve years before he landed his breakout part as Shane Vendrell on the canonical cop drama The Shield in 2002. The character, meant to die in an early episode, was saved by Goggins’s appeal. Boyd Crowder nearly met the same fate, but again, the actor proved irresistible, and three seasons into Justified (the fourth begins this week), the show is arguably as much about Crowder as about its central character, Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant. “I’ve always been invited through the back door. It hasn’t been easy for me,” says Goggins, whose weathered near prettiness has generally attracted roles as miscreants and, in one spectacularly convincing cameo on this season’s Sons of Anarchy, a transgender prostitute named Venus Van Dam. “I would never have gotten the jobs I did without the advent of cable television,” he adds, “which brought back the kinds of raw, authentic leading actors you had in the seventies: Duvall, Ed Harris, Tommy Lee Jones.”

It’s true that one of Justified’s many gifts is in reviving the allure of men who are, well, men. The show is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, which provides the rugged, silver-tongued DNA of Raylan and Boyd. But Olyphant and Goggins have a lot of say in the shaping of their characters. “Tim and I butt heads,” says Goggins. “He keeps his compass on the Elmore Leonard of it all. He understands the balance between the absurd and the violent. But I am constantly battling for the heart, the raw feeling behind what Elmore is saying. I want to know what’s going on ten feet down.”

Goggins says he “got” Crowder as soon as he buttoned the top button of his shirt. “There’s nothing open about Boyd,” who, in three seasons, has gone from a bank-­robbing white supremacist to a born-again preacher to a drug dealer to, this season, a man with money and power, as evidenced by his new antique hillbilly-style pocket watch. “Boyd’s a businessman now,” says Goggins. “He needs to know what time it is.”

We drift toward a drawing of a woman raising her petticoat, revealing a crotch that is, by today’s standards, startlingly bushy. “Can I tell you how much I miss pubic hair?” Goggins confides. “My mom was a bit of a hippie, and I grew up seeing it on her and her sisters. It’s so beautiful, so feminine. To me, if the size of a penis dictates virility, the length of a woman’s pubic hair dictates her femininity.” I suggest that this might be a minority opinion in the era of the Brazilian. He shakes his head. “Men don’t even want hair on their bodies anymore. What’s going on? We’re animals, man! It’s really fucking weird.”

Goggins grew up in Atlanta: “I was known as the kid who raised himself,” he says. After his father left, “my mother wanted to party and have a life. She was young. I grew up with people smoking dope on the porch. I’m not sad about it at all. And she’s really showed up since. But when I was young she didn’t do a lot, other than making sure I had clogging lessons.”

Clogging? He gracefully executes a few seconds of what looks like Riverdance. “It’s the low-rent version,” he says, smiling broadly. “Charleston, South Carolina, where the Goggins clan came from, was a big portal for a lot of Irish.”

The next drawing is startling, even for Schiele: a portrait of the artist getting a hand job. “Look at this—come on! We have the same haircut,” says Goggins, running a hand through his own black spikes. “The high forehead. The cheekbones. It’s crazy how much I look like him.” I point to the artist’s member—as large as the blasé woman holding it. “Yeah, that too,” he says.

The best part of Crowder, says Goggins, is that he’s not a white-trash caricature. “I played a lot of those characters early on, when I needed to feed myself. And I understand how the South is perceived by people like my wife, who is from California and got all of her information from movies and articles. But where I grew up, the black experience informed the white experience, and vice versa. There was a simpatico completing of cultures. So I don’t want to be perpetuating those old stereotypes.” He stops and laughs. “Of course, here I am doing it again in a Quentin Tarantino movie.”

How’s this for whiplash? Goggins had just wrapped Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which he plays a politician who helps pass the Thirteenth Amendment, only to find himself castrating slaves a couple of months later in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “Working with Steven is like being at the best dinner party you’ve ever attended. You’re sitting in an intimate booth with jazz playing in the background. All is calm and measured and quiet,” says Goggins. “Working with Quentin is something like going to war, with Rick Ross D.J.-ing. It’s hard to return to civilian life after a Tarantino film. You can’t talk about it when you get home.” One thing he will say: “Going forward, I want to stay out of the 1860s for a while.”   

*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Walton Goggins on Playing Bad-Guy Roles