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Jim Beaver on Last Night’s Justified and the Odds of a Deadwood Reunion

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[Spoilers ahead.] Last night’s episode of Justified wrapped up season four’s major story line, the search for a D.B. Cooper–like figure named Drew Thompson who saw the current head of the Detroit mob commit a horrible crime three decades earlier. Thompson was eventually revealed as one of the show’s ongoing characters, Jim Beaver’s Shelby Parlow. In previous seasons, Shelby had seemed little more than a morally compromised supporting player, a corrupt sheriff in the back pocket of Walton Goggins’s backwoods gangster Boyd Crowder. By the end of last night’s installment, Drew was in custody, removed from the drama and being packed off to prison — a surprisingly peaceful end to his story, considering how bloodthirsty Justified can be.

Beaver, a veteran character actor, flowered on Justified this year. He used the decent, likable quality that he naturally projects in other roles (including Supernatural and Deadwood) to throw viewers off the scent as they tried to figure out which of the many grizzled fifty- and sixtysomething character actors growling their way across the screen was secretly the mysterious Drew. He also got to have a quirky romance with another fugitive character, Abby Miller’s prostitute and murder witness Ellen Mae.

We caught up with Beaver over the weekend to talk about playing Drew, the long shadow of Deadwood, and what effect the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign might have on the prospect of a Deadwood reunion.

Have we seen the last of Shelby Parlow–slash–Drew Thompson?
As of episode twelve, I am unaware of any plans to see him after that. If there are plans to bring him back, I don’t know about them.

If that was indeed the last appearance by the character, I confess I was a bit surprised by the send-off. It was pretty low-key. I thought they’d kill him, or there’d be a bigger, more emotional scene where he goes to prison.
I was a little surprised myself, not in terms of what they did do, but what they didn’t do. I knew they were trying to find a way to keep my character alive. I know that was always their impulse. I don’t know whether that means it’s because they want to come back to him eventually, though. They’ve never said anything like that.

Based on how Justified has handled characters in the past, it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
No, and I’d certainly be amenable to it, because it was a great gig. But as far as I know, it had more to do with the dramatics than it did with wanting specifically to keep the character available for the future. They thought it would be nice to have a character like this who didn’t up dead at the end of a season!

The ranks of significant character actors have thinned a bit on this show, by attrition. They could certainly stand to have a replacement for Raymond J. Barry’s Arlo [the father of the show’s protagonist, Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens] as the guy behind bars who knows the lay of the land and can be of use, or who can maybe stir things up.
Right! I’m open to whatever speculation they want to do with the character, as long as it involves me being on-camera. I like working for them. It’s a fun show. But I have to say, when they first revealed to me what their plans for Shelby were, I did not expect to live out the season. I thought, There are about nine ways this could end, and all of them are bad. But at the same time, I was actually pitching to [executive producer] Graham [Yost] that Shelby and Ellen Mae would end up on that beach in Mexico. I thought that, on a show that is so often required by the dramatics to go to the darkest place, it would be a nice turn for these two to actually make it out alive. And that’s what happens. They just don’t end up together on a beach.

They certainly kept us on tenterhooks as far as the question of whether the character was basically a good guy or a bad guy, or somewhere in between. And certainly that little mini-arc at the high school, which included intimations that it was gonna turn into the Battle of Bloody Porch from The Wild Bunch, didn’t go the way we expected. It got defused a bit, so that defied expectations as well.
I think they did a pretty good job of dodging and feinting and setting up expectations and then fulfilling them in unexpected ways this season. I like the fact that, for example, the big reveal of who Shelby was — that he was actually Drew — it was kind of easy to see that Shelby was a strong possibility, but they played it in such a way that even people who thought that Shelby might be Drew Thompson were taken aback when it turned out to actually be true.

Yes. They also had this aspect that evoked certain films noir, such as The Big Clock and its remake, No Way Out, wherein a guy that’s entrusted with finding a suspect is himself the suspect.
Yes! It’s a thin line to walk, and they walked it pretty well. There were lots of times I was worried that a line or two of mine might give it away too early, but the most it did was set Shelby up as a real possibility without making him the only possibility.

Certainly when they brought in Gerald McRaney, I thought it there was an excellent possibility that it could turn out to be Gerald McRaney, because why else would you hire Gerald McRaney?
That’s what I thought. And I knew I was Drew!

Speaking of Gerald McRaney, this show has really turned into a Deadwood reunion. It even sounds to me like the dialogue has, in recent seasons, moved in an increasingly Deadwood-like direction, with lines like Boyd’s “What precipitated this change in your weathervane?” and Mike O’Malley’s character taunting him for never using simple words when complex ones will suffice.
I don’t know if it’s the show being consciously more Deadwood than perhaps Deadwood having raised the bar in terms of what audiences can be expected to understand. Deadwood proved that viewers are smarter in terms of grasping intricate dialogue than they had been given credit for. That allows a show like Justified to take advantage of that smartness.

The thing that’s just miraculous to me is so much of the writing on Deadwood — well, there were a lot of people writing on Deadwood, but ultimately it all filtered through one mind, that of David Milch — was so consistent, in terms of both its quality and its rhythm. Justified has a touch of that. It seems to have a lot of writers who can write this semi-arcane dialogue absolutely naturally. And considering how few of them are actually from Kentucky, they have the patois down pretty well. All through my run in this role, I found it rather amazing how consistent the dialogue was, regardless of whose name was on the script.

Justified even had you, Timothy Olyphant, and Brent Sexton, all Deadwood actors, together in the same car at one point. It almost seems as though it’s turning into a contest between Justified and another FX show, Sons of Anarchy, to see who can hire the most people who were on Deadwood.
I’m shooting Mike & Molly this week, and I was introduced by the executive producer telling everybody that I was the latest in his attempt to get the entire Deadwood cast on Mike & Molly!

Obviously I struck gold with Deadwood. No pun intended.

It would have been really cool if, in that scene with me and Raylan and Hunter Mosley, they had Gerald McRaney’s severed foot in the car with us. Then there would have been four Deadwood people represented in the scene. But that might have been stretching things a bit.

What do you think about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter thing? You and I have talked in the past about the possibility of a Deadwood reunion, and you always said you thought it was farfetched, given how much time has elapsed, how many regulars were on the show who’ve since moved on, and how expensive the show was to make. Do you feel differently now, after the events of the last couple of weeks?
Well, never say never. Toward the end, the budget of Deadwood was running at somewhere around $6 million an episode, which is a lot even now. But you never know. I’ve told you before that I don’t know anybody who was on Deadwood who wouldn’t try to find a way to come back to it if they brought the show back. That includes me, and my character is dead!

They came close last year to getting those long-discussed Deadwood movies going again. But the project fell apart, for what I heard through the grapevine were reasons of studio politics rather than the question of whether the creative forces involved wanted to do it.

Are you surprised by how present certain canceled series seem to be? Deadwood is still very much a presence in popular culture, even though it was canceled in 2006. And Veronica Mars is a presence, too, as the Kickstarter campaign attests. And Arrested Development, which is coming back again.
Whatever surprise I have about that is probably lingering from my memory of what it was like years and years ago, when a show would go off the air and then you just couldn’t see it anymore. I’ve got a lot of shows under my belt that are ancient history solely because they were on the air before this video revolution came along and ensured that canceled shows could continue to have a bit of a presence.

More and more I’ve started to understand that no show is dead unless somebody decrees it’s dead at a studio. I did a wonderful little show back in the nineties with Marlee Matlin and Mark Harmon called Reasonable Doubt, a lovely show that I would have loved to have seen get a release on DVD, but it’s never been released. A show like that has been forgotten because of availability. A show like Deadwood will never be forgotten because it came out on DVD while it was still running. With DVD and video-on-demand, the days are long past when a show with any kind of audience can go off the air and simply be lost to history. Every day I run into somebody who’s just now discovering Deadwood, and it’s all new to them.

Hey, an actor on Mike & Molly even came up to me and said, ‘I just started watching John From Cincinnati” — the David Milch show I was on that ran for one season — “and I really like it.” Ten years ago, that show never would have been heard of again, and now here was a guy, a colleague of mine, telling me that he really liked it and that he was just now getting into it.

That’s just wonderful. I hope we see more of that kind of thing happening. So much good work from years past is still — well, if it’s not really lost, exactly, then it feels lost, because it maybe wasn’t deemed enough of a hit, or at least cult hit, to justify a presence on DVD or video-on-demand.

But then, if you wait long enough, I guess everything comes back, you know?

Jim Beaver on Last Night’s Justified