Although he’s a California native and may lack a rugged Western pedigree, actor Timothy Olyphant has made a name for himself as a sort of cowboy scoundrel in popular television shows — Raylan Givens of Justified, Seth Bullock of Deadwood — which is one reason why his latest role may not come as much of a surprise at first, despite being radically different.
In Kenneth Lonergan’s new play, Hold on to Me Darling, directed by Neil Pepe — which opened Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater to positive reviews this month and has been extended through Sunday, April 17th — Olyphant stars as world-famous country music and movie star Strings McCrane. He may have a twang, but rather than being a gunslinging lawman, we find Strings fumbling after a major life event that sends him into a narcissistic downward spiral. “It really is about a guy whose mother’s dead and his life is a fraud and he trying to get out of it and he can’t,” Olyphant explains. “It doesn’t sound funny, but it is.”
He tells Rolling Stone what brought him back to the New York stage after two decades, why he doesn’t play the part for laughs and what it’s like stripping down in front of a live audience eight nights a week.
You hadn’t done theater in a while, why did you go back to the stage?
First and foremost: Kenny and Neil. As soon as the opportunity came up and I saw those two guys’ names, I knew immediately I was gonna want to do it. I don’t think I finished the first scene and I told my wife, “I’m gonna want to do this.” She told me to finish the fuckin’ play and, and I said, “I don’t have that much time!”
What was it about Kenneth Lonergan in particular?
I’ve been a huge fan of Kenny’s work from the jump. There’s very few things that have come along and I thought, “I wished I could have done that.” But the thing that still jumps to mind is, I remember auditioning for You Can Count on Me 20 years ago (and not getting the part). It was such a beautiful piece, though. So when this came around, it had a ton of appeal. Plus, I lived here in New York back in the Nineties, so the opportunity to return has always been on the mind. Just to figure out how to pull it off and what was worth trying to pull it off for. I had done a play at the Atlantic and lived in this neighborhood, so if I could work this out, it seemed like a shitload of fun.
I’m also ignoring the obvious: It’s very rare that a piece of material comes along that is both a sweet little fit and scares the shit out of you at the same time. That’s a really fun place to work from.
I re-read an interview you did with us in which you said Raylan, your character in Justified, is an asshole, so I wondered: Is Strings a good guy or is he an asshole in a different way?
Listen, you can’t believe everything you read [Laughs]. It sounds fairly credible. Is this guy an asshole? I haven’t thought of it that way. I think this guy is desperately trying to turn his life around in a very sincere way. He’s in crisis, his life is a fraud, he’s trying to get out of it — and it ain’t easy. I think he means everything he says, for the entirety of the play. At the moment, it’s an absolutely sincere thought — which is part of his problem.
We never get to hear you play or sing much, who would you model Strings after musically?
I don’t know; I don’t get more than a few syllables out. They don’t let me. Maybe I could pull off some sort of Johnny Cash-Leonard Cohen kinda vibe there. I don’t know, we sort of went for some old-school thing. I think my vocal range is so limited it wouldn’t let me commit.
So there’s not going to be a post-show sing-along?
I never said that. Lack of talent has never stopped me before!
I’d be remiss not to ask you about that first scene, where you have to strip down to your underwear to get a massage. You seem very comfortable with that…
Now, really, the character is very comfortable with that. The character is comfortable standing there in his underwear. Let’s not get it confused [Laughs].
Well, some of your fans may be coming for that moment, don’t you think?
Don’t encourage that. They are coming to the theater and coming to behave properly. I’ll tell ya, man, some people don’t know what they’re doing in the theater.
Has there been any craziness?
Oh my god. It’s just the… decline of Western civilization. Let’s stay on topic. [Laughs]
You live in L.A., so is Strings based on people you know or bump up against?
I appreciate you not asking if it resembles my life at all! Hey, look, Kenny knows who he’s talking about. Show business is a funny little wonderland and not a lot of people tell you to shut the fuck up.
I think the character in the play is experiencing a level of pain that I’ve never come close to, nor do I hope to, but I don’t think anyone has told a guy like that to shut the fuck up. Or that he’s boring. They are just going to file everything he says under, “Who gives a shit.”
The one person in the play who seems to be able to tell him the truth is Strings’ brother, Duke, played by C.J. Wilson. And the first scene of the brothers together when he explains what it means to work in the feed store is one of my favorites. Tell me a little bit about how you two worked together.
Isn’t that the greatest scene in the world? Kenny wrote that in rehearsal, and I thought for sure that it wasn’t going to make it into the play. I said, “Kenny, this is a great idea, but it’s never going to work.” And it’s fucking genius, so what do I know. CJ Wilson is amazing. Everyone in the play is amazing. It’s a dream cast. It’s been ridiculously fun to work with him. I guess he is the one guy who says, “What the fuck you talking about, Strings?” Since he’s known him since he was a kid. A couple of the characters call me on this stuff, since they need things from me. I don’t know, it’s a fascinating play. I feel like I’m just beginning to wrap my head around it.
Did you know it was going to be this funny? From the description, it seems like it could be an intense drama.
No, I knew it was going to be funny from the jump. It’s not often you get something that’s so hilarious but it’s being played so fucking serious. I knew that the challenge was to play the first scene the same as the last scene and trust that it was still going to be funny — to trust that it would feel like a single man’s journey for the whole way through.
Kenny told me: “Look, Tim, I don’t see any difference between drama and comedy. Fuck the comedy. Just play the drama.” He knows there’s jokes there. He knows if I miss a joke. He’ll say, “Slow that down.” I’m aware where the jokes are. If you don’t fully commit to the other, the whole thing doesn’t come together in a meaningful way. I think you approach every night with a mantra of, “Fuck the laughs, don’t worry about the laughs. Either they will come with you or won’t.”