Marshal Law: Timothy Olyphant on Ending 'Justified'

The TV star weighs in riding the FX show into the sunset after six seasons

Timothy Olyphant Credit: Andrzej Liguz/NYTimes/Redux

Six seasons and a movie? Is that a thing?" asks Timothy Olyphant, and if you listen closely, you can hear the slightest trace of a Southern drawl on that last word. "Man, I wouldn't even know how that would work. But I do like the sound of it." The 46-year-old actor was born in Honolulu, raised in Northern California's Central Valley and went to college at USC in Los Angeles; it's the voice of a certain laconic lawman from Kentucky, however, that seems to keep making cameos over the phone line.

For five seasons, Olyphant's Raylan Givens, the U.S. Marshal at the center of FX's Justified, has used his lightning-fast draw, his John Wayne-like strut and a certain down-home cockiness to take on white supremacists, corrupt cops, moonshiners, the Dixie mafia and the cunning backwoods con man Boyd Crowder (memorably played by The Shield's Walton Goggins). At this point, the rangy TV star has contributed as much to the DNA of the character as Elmore Leonard, the famously prolific author who created Givens in 1993 (he appears in the book Pronto) and whose 2001 novella Fire in the Hole formed the overall basis for the series. Now, as the show begins its sixth and final season tomorrow night at 10pm EST, Olyphant is preparing his long goodbye to Raylan. And despite the fact that, as a co-executive producer, he had a hand in pulling the plug on the popular crime drama and claims that he "doesn't particularly like" the character, the actor is still having a hard time letting go. "I honestly don't know whose dumb idea it was to end this show," he jokes. "He should be fucking fired."

Olyphant took a break from filming the final round of Justified episodes to talk briefly about wrapping things up, getting to know Leonard before the writer's passing in 2013 and why someone needs to cast Emmy-winner Margo Martindale as a supervillain as soon as possible.

What prompted you and [showrunner] Graham Yost to end the show after six seasons?
It was just a mutual decision to go out now...it seemed like the right time. Although we're coming down to shooting the final four episodes now, and I'm having a lot of fun. I can’t imagine that I did something as stupid as saying we should stop [laughs].

So are you going to miss Raylan?
I know what you mean by that question, but...no. I mean, I realize this was a great part to play, and I'll miss working with these guys a lot. But I had some problems with Raylan. I'm not so sure he's a great guy.

Really? He's got some baggage, certainly — and he does shoot someone in cold blood in the very first scene of the series...
Yeah, exactly! And the way he presents this situation, Raylan makes it seem on the up and up: "I don't know what the trouble is here. He had a gun. There was no way he wasn't gonna have a gun. He wouldn't have been there if he didn't want to shoot me. I did warn him." There's also a sense that this is no big deal for him, you know..."Why is everyone getting their panties in a bunch about this? The guy was a criminal." I've thought long and hard about this, and that's not how you want law-enforcement officers to behave. I think people would have thought it was just God-awful and be troubled and offended by it, but people seem to love him. They think he's awesome.

Why do you think people love him so much? The sort of old-fashioned "yes, ma'am" attitude? The whole Western-hero throwback thing?
Maybe all that. Mostly because he's just a good, well-written character, which is more because of Elmore Leonard than me. When people tell me they like Raylan, I just say "thank you very much." I honestly do appreciate the compliment. Just because I think he's kind of an asshole doesn't mean they have to think that too [laughs].

What sort of feedback have you had from actual U.S. marshals?
When I started visiting a bunch of U.S. Marshals before the show started in order to get a feel of how a marshal carries themselves, what a regular work day is like for them, etc., I noticed one thing: Every one of their offices had a poster of The Fugitive up on the wall. Every single one. It's The Fugitive and old Westerns — they love those movies. The last time I was in a Marshals' office, they had a poster of Justified up. I asked them, "Did you know I was coming by, so you put up a poster of the show?" And they said, "Oh, we all love it...you guys make us look good." I thought, this is great. If they like, we really did something here. [Pause] Keep in mind I am the star of the show, so people have a tendency to be very polite to me. [Laughs]

You got to know Leonard fairly well before he passed away, right? Do you feel like spending a lot of time with him helped you get a sense of who Raylan was?
All the good things about Raylan — they came directly from Elmore. You mentioned the old-fashioned manners and the stoic hero thing, but the thing about Raylan that people really responded to, if I had to guess, was that he seemed effortlessly cool. And that's Elmore Leonard to a tee. The guy was genuinely cool. It was never a pose with him. You can go into any party or public gathering, and you'll see lots of people trying to act cool, and then there's always one person off in the corner, not doing much, who's the real deal. That was Elmore.

I honestly don't know whose dumb idea it was to end this show. He should be fucking fired.

They say with painters and musicians and artists — real artists — you can tell who the person is from the work. And he was in every single thing that he wrote, all of those books and short stories where characters displayed a wicked sense of humor, a sense of respect for the job and a way of sizing people up by their professionalism. It wasn't about what side of the law they were on, but how good they were at what they did. We're talking about a man who'd wake up in the early, early hours of the morning and force himself to write before he even had a cup of coffee. This was a guy who lived by a code.

You know, over the five or so years I've played Raylan, I've never really changed my idea of who the character was. But the one thing I have changed my mind about since starting Justified is how fucking hard it is to write someone like him. And that's all from getting to know Elmore. I miss him.

Besides Boyd Crowder, who's been Raylan's nemesis since the beginning, who's been your favorite villain on the show?
We're taking Boyd out of the equation?

For the moment, yeah.
Well, Mags (a bootlegging matriarch played by Margo Martindale) is pretty much the cream of the crop. No disrespect to any of the others — I can go season by season and tell you what's about all of the bad guys we've had on the show — but I just think that character and that actor are the perfect storm. I mean, she plays trouble like nobody else.. In fact, I don't know what the make-up of your readership is exactly, but if anyone from Marvel or D.C. Comics is reading this: You need to cast Margo Martindale as a supervillain. She should be the next Doctor Octopus. I'm starting that campaign right now.

Have you seen any of the new episodes?

A few.
Okay, so then you know Sam Elliott is in this last season — and his bad guy is pretty great. He'd be a close second. My only worry about having Sam on this last season, if I can be honest, was that people would finally realize I've been ripping him off for the years now. On his first day of work, I took him aside and said, "Look, buddy, here's the deal: Raylan is really just me trying to be you and failing miserably. In fact, I've just been stealing your whole deal since before I started this gig. Now, when we do our scenes together, people are going to be like, 'Oh, now I get it! Tim is doing Sam Elliott but with the voice of a 12-year-old girl.'" [Laughs] I mean, what the fuck was I supposed to do? I couldn't rely on my old tricks. But we cast him anyway. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Can we talk about Boyd and Walton Goggins for a second?
That jackass? [Laughs] I had to convince him to do the job.

Really?
It's true. I've known Walt for years, and when we first mentioned the idea of him playing Boyd, he had concerns — the stereotype of the Southern racist and all that. He's from the region [Goggins was raised in Georgia] so he was sensitive about putting that out there in a one-dimensional way. You know, a lot of actors, we aren't that special; you get a well-written scene, and it's virtually actor-proof. But during the casting process, we had a list of people we had in mind for Boyd and the more I looked at his name on that list, the more I kept telling everyone involved, "Look, I stand corrected. I've been saying anyone could do it, but we really need to get this specific guy to play Boyd. He'll bring something special to it." And the son of a bitch did. He makes everybody better just by being around him.

He's said in an interview once that he had a hard time getting a bead on Boyd until he buttoned the top button on his shirt.
That sounds like him, yeah.

Did you ever have a breakthrough moment like that for Raylan — how he walked, talked, etc.?
Man, I wish. I'd feel more like an actor then.

So you're telling us you've just been skating by and your good looks and charm for the past five years?
Well, that's what the role seemed to call for, so.... [Laughs]