Timothy Olyphant returns to his career-defining role of Sheriff Seth Bullock for Deadwood: The Movie, airing May 31 on HBO, following a years-long series of TV projects that both channeled David Milch’s Western (Justified) and drastically departed from it (Santa Clarita Diet). Last December, Olyphant spoke with Vulture around 1 a.m. on the set at Melody Ranch Studios outside Los Angeles, where Deadwood: The Movie was filmed. He had just concluded his second-to-last day of work, an epic stretch that found him acting in several physically and emotionally intense scenes. The set was muddy and flooded. Olyphant was still in his sheriff costume, including Stetson, long coat, and fake mustache.
How does it feel to be back in Deadwood?
So far, so good. I’ve got one day left and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s lovely to see everybody, all these lovely, wonderful people who gave me so many wonderful memories. The filming of the show left quite an impression on me, and it’s nice to have an opportunity to come back and see everybody again. It’s also fun to be able to have other people verify your memory of how things were. You know, where you get to say, “Oh, this is how I felt. This is what it was like.”
Your old colleague Jim Beaver told me he came here to visit. I asked, “How was it?” and he said, “It’s odd. It’s not that I felt unwelcome, it’s just this wasn’t my place anymore.”
Yeah, I totally get it. Of course, he might’ve felt differently if he actually was on the call sheet! [Laughs.] I suppose when you’re not on the call sheet, it changes the vibe.
Maybe they could’ve brought Ellsworth back as a ghost, like a Jacob Marley figure haunting George Hearst.
Too bad it’s not that kind of show! A lot of people did come back, though. Fucking Larry Cedar was out there today, playing background. [Garret] Dillahunt snuck in.
I heard Dillahunt was in this. He was the only actor to play two roles on Deadwood, and now he’s got the trifecta.
He played Drunk Number Two! He didn’t even get top drunk! [Laughs.] Talk about a reason to call your agent. “Hey, why am I not Drunk Number One?”
Maybe you can put on a beard and a different hat and play Drunk Number One.
I can play another part. I still got one more day.
Did you have to get reacclimated at all?
I didn’t. I just showed up and started going. I didn’t really have to prepare or anything. I showed up, put the hat on, and started saying what they told me to say.
Is that all it takes? Do the wardrobe and the mustache do part of the work for you?
Yeah, definitely. Of course, there were scenes I probably could have done a little more with, but the way I did it was the way I did it.
It’s a curious game, being back here. It’s always fun to have another swing at something, and you rarely get to do it after so much time has elapsed. I figured it would just all come back to me, and the parts I didn’t particularly like the first time out, I’d just pretend they didn’t exist and do it different.
The first time I interviewed you was on this very set back in 2005, during the production of season two. You expressed surprise at having been cast as Seth Bullock. You told me you’d sometimes look around at all the funny characters played by funny actors and think, When the fuck did I become the straight man?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s about how I remember it! Memory’s never a reliable narrator, but that sounds about right, your account of it.
It worked out pretty well for you, didn’t it? The straight-man thing?
Sure. I mean, I kept working.
And you added something to your repertoire.
Now you can play the Spirit of the West if you want to. You even did the voice of a cartoon character who’s basically Clint Eastwood in Rango.
That I did, that’s true! Yeah, see? I eventually got to do another job with humor!
Well, more than one, obviously. Santa Clarita Diet is a comedy. And Justified is funny.
It is! At least, that’s what I thought.
What did you take away from this experience that changed you?
That’s a lot to answer. I guess the best way to put it is to tell you that I took a little David Milch with me to just about every job I did after that, like a little David Milch sitting on my shoulder. Every time I was in a jam, I just thought, What would David do? Literally that. I just asked myself, What would David do? and then I did that.
When an opportunity like this goes away, that’s oftentimes when you take it for granted at first, and then when you’re acting in some piece of shit out in Eastern Europe, and you’re just like, How the fuck did I end up in this thing?, That’s when you realize, if you hadn’t already, Oh wow, what a great gig that last thing was.
I started waking up a little earlier in the morning after Deadwood ended. I really approached the job in a different way. When someone like Milch wasn’t around all the time, I realized what an opportunity I’d been given.
When he wasn’t around, what was missing?
Well, he’s a force of nature. He’s fully committed. He’s the thing you strive for. He’s done the work, but he’s also willing to throw it all out the window. I saw a guy who so trusted his unconscious, his gut instinct. A guy who was so willing to just go with things on a whim. When I was on that set, I was watching a guy in the prime of his creative years, and it was quite something.
It’s hard to be specific about it, but I just knew that, in my own way, I wanted to try to head towards that, you know?
It’s striking to me how self-deprecating you are about your work on this show. It was true when I first interviewed you 14 years ago, and it seems like it’s still true.
I haven’t seen the show in a long time. I thought what I was doing was somewhere between mediocrity and just okay. The one thing I always felt I was really good at was paying attention and really listening to David. I really soaked in the experience and got a ton out of it. And it was the gift that just kept giving. I felt like I took it to every job. I kept relying on it, I kept leaning on it, I kept being inspired by it.
Can we talk about the way you denigrate your own performance? Because that’s not something I run into very often.
What, my performance on this show?
Yes. You downplay it. Sometimes you make it sound like you didn’t know what you were doing.
I do sometimes feel that way.
Well, for what it’s worth, you made me believe you were a guy from the 1800s who didn’t know who Sigmund Freud was. That’s not easy to do, and I hope you don’t discount that.
Well, I appreciate everything you say. I don’t take it lightly. Thank you.
What did you carry over from Deadwood to Justified, a modern-day Western?
Well, by the time that one rolled around, the passage of time had affected me. I’d had a lot of swings at the plate. There was a certain level of confidence that I didn’t have before. It was a totally different animal, a different beast. By the time that gig came around, I wasn’t looking for answers anymore. I was enjoying dying on my own sword. A lot of the time I was thinking, Yeah, I’m pretty sure this is what I want to do, and unless anybody has a better idea, that’s the way I’m going to do it.
On Justified, I was just coming at the material from a totally different place than I was when I first got this gig here. As you were saying before, when this job came up, I was playing supporting roles that were really flashy and fun, chewing things up and having a good time. But Seth was a lead, and certain kinds of responsibilities came with it. You see this with a lot of people’s careers: When they finally play the lead role, they lose the thing that made people notice them in the first place. They get lost in the role a little bit, as opposed to just trusting it, forcing it at times, making their own thing out of it.
By the time I got to Justified, I felt like I was just having a ball with the job. Not just that particular job, but acting. Acting was way more fun than I recall it being, back during the years I was doing this show. I’d learned a lot about being the lead and not losing the fun, and not getting too hung up on whether every single moment you’re in expresses the entire idea of the thing. As someone once said, the nail doesn’t have to be the house. The nail can just be the nail, and you can trust that you’re all building a house together.
On Justified, you were the nail but you were also the house, because you were one of the producers.
Yeah, on Justified I could do whatever the fuck I wanted! [Laughs.]
Did you really think this reunion was ever going to happen?
I didn’t think it was going to happen. To be honest with you, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing it, so I figured it wouldn’t happen because I wasn’t interested in it happening. I figured unless they were going to get someone else to play my part, it probably wouldn’t ever happen. I always wanted to work with David again, but I wasn’t so keen on doing Deadwood again.
Well, I did it, I came back, I had a good time, but the main thought during those intervening years was, I’d love to work with David again. As for the show … eh. [Shrugs.] What are you gonna do? And then, after more time went by, I became interested in doing Deadwood again, but I was more interested in doing more episodes than in doing a movie.
You mean doing another season?
Yeah. I was always like, If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it. But that wasn’t in the cards.
How did you feel about the fact that the passage of time is built into the story?
It seemed like a good idea. Otherwise, what are we gonna do? We’re all gonna try to look younger? [Laughs.]
It’s funny, these last couple of weeks, I realized half of the bullshit I spewed out over the last decade or so came from one of these motherfuckers! I heard John Hawkes say something, I was like, “I’ve been saying that for ten years! I got that from you!” [William] Sanderson telling a director, “I guess I could try it that way, if I were a bad actor.” Classic. Classic Sanderson! He also used to say, “Well, I don’t think it makes any sense, but you’re the director, and I’ll try anything.” He used to always say those kinds of things. I’ve stolen most of them.
School was in session on this show, and I just sat back. Most of these folks were probably more or less my age ten years ago, maybe a little older than I am now, but they’d been around forever. They knew every trick in the book. Now we all come back and it’s wild to see, because they know even more now, and they’re even more impressive. It’s been amazing to watch Molly [Parker] and Anna [Gunn] and Paula [Malcomson]. They were great then, now they’re incredible. So good. Total command, each one of them. I watched rehearsals and I just see them take over rehearsal, and I think to myself, Look at Paula. Look at her fuckin’ taking over. Just look! Hawkes? Wow. They’ve all just done such great work since we wrapped however many years ago. And then, of course, the older group are just as good as they always were.
Everybody knows how to steal a scene. Fucking sleight-of-hand magicians, all of them.
Along those lines, I got to watch you shoot a few scenes in this movie. There’s a weight there, but also an easygoing quality, kind of like what you were talking about in reference to Justified.
Well, I suppose as time goes by, you just try a little less, and that’s not a bad thing. Like I said, now I try to do in my work what I watched David do for years. Do the hard work, and then let it go.
This interview has been edited and condensed.