Timothy Olyphant was never happy with his performance during the original three-season run of Deadwood. “I recall barely having my head above water,” he told me in the fall, “and I recall regretting every single choice made and begging David [Milch] to let me walk him back and change it.” Actors can be their own worst critics, and Olyphant was pretty wonderful in his role as hot-tempered Deadwood marshal Seth Bullock. He is, remarkably, even better in Deadwood: The Movie, which premieres on HBO on May 31st. While the long-awaited reunion is very much an ensemble piece, with significant story arcs for beloved characters from Sol Starr (John Hawkes) to Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and, of course, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), among others, it also features the single best work I’ve ever seen Olyphant do on screen, whether in the original series, on Justified, or anywhere else. The film finds Bullock in a very happy and successful phase of his life as business partner to Sol, husband to Martha (Anna Gunn) and father to kids they’ve had since the events of the series. Then the arrival of old friends and enemies threatens that peace and fulfillment in myriad ways. Olyphant is called on to play a wide range of intense emotion in a short period of time, and he does it spectacularly.
It’s a performance he might not have given. Owing to his hard feelings about his original work on the series, Olyphant was reluctant to sign onto the movie at all. That’s one of many topics we discussed over the course of an hourlong conversation on the movie’s set. He didn’t want to do this interview either, postponing our scheduled chats several times. But as we sat on a bench outside Bullock and Starr’s new hotel (which stands where their hardware store was on the original show), Olyphant opened up at length about the experience of doing the original three seasons, his memories of the abrupt cancellation, his affection and admiration for series creator Milch and much more. At the end of it, he admitted to me that while he’d been averse to talking at first, “I’m glad I did.” That could apply just as easily to his work in the movie itself. I’m thankful he changed his mind about both.
In the 12 years since Deadwood was canceled, was there a point at which you assumed this reunion wouldn’t happen?
I never thought it would happen.
I wasn’t all that keen on it, to be honest with you. So, I just figured it wouldn’t happen because I wasn’t really interested in it happening. But it’s been really lovely. And contradicting that, I always was hoping to have the opportunity to work with David [Milch] again. [Playing Bullock again] had some appeal but I was more interested in working with David.
Obviously, Deadwood: The Movie can’t exist without you and it can’t exist without Ian McShane.
That’s nice of you to say. I never assumed that to be true.
At what point —
I’m being sincere about it. Put this mustache on anyone, it could work.
At what point did you start to understand that this had a real chance of happening, and that you wanted to do it?
I didn’t know I wanted to do it until about a few weeks ago. But I knew it had a chance a year or so ago. There was a natural script. David and I, we’d met a couple of times. I knew he was enthusiastic about it. So, I knew it was real. It feels like it’s almost been a year or so.
What made you decide to say yes, given your ambivalence?
For practical reasons, it worked. I was available, it shoots here and the money was good. And I’m glad I did it.
The scene you filmed yesterday had Bullock at his angriest and most violent. It had been a while since I’d seen you in that mode. What’s it been like returning to that character, having to play these extreme emotions?
I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the scenes, I’ve enjoyed the job. And there are times where I’ve realized it feels like just yesterday I was doing this, and at the same time, it feels like it’s been a long time. It’s a surreal experience, and so far a really lovely one.
The process on the movie seems less chaotic than it was on the show. I know HBO insisted on a locked script; David is limited in what he can change. How has it felt not having the huge, last-minute alterations that were his hallmark?
To criticize my own personal feelings about where people are in their lives and what they’re going through, I feel a little ripped off. Because one of the great appeals of working with David is the chaos. And in the same respect of feeling like I don’t know why these fuckers blew this show up 12 years ago, there’s a tinge of me feeling ripped off that these fuckers didn’t get this thing going sooner. Because what I do miss, without getting too much in the weeds about why I may have not been as interested in this as perhaps others, I always thought if we’re going to do it, we should go back and give David the opportunity to do what he does best, which is multiple episodes.
He’s one of the greatest episodic writers the genre has ever seen. And to some degree, my concern has always been, for our movie, what’s the fucking point? My recollection of what made the show great was never the plot. What made the show great was spending time with these characters, and that whatever characters were on screen, the show might as well be about them. And when you do a movie, you just don’t have the real estate. So, nobody wants to see The Untouchables where the lady with the baby carriage at the train station has 20 pages of material, because you’ve got to take out 20 pages that goes to Eliot Ness and there lies the rub. Right? So, the idea of doing a movie of this show, by its very nature, my concern was, “Are we not destroying the show? Are you killing the very thing by handcuffing it?” But all that being said, I’m glad I did it.
Process aside, does the material feel like Deadwood to you?
Every draft I read, every page I read, what’s very much alive is the poetry and the characters. And my experience when I read the first draft, and this was a couple of years ago, is you start flipping pages and I had the same experience on every page: “Wow! This is beautiful writing,” and, “Jesus, what a great character.” And two or three pages later, “Oh, Jesus! What a great character. I forgot about this guy. Oh, Jesus! I forgot about her. What a wonderful character.” That was my experience flipping through the pages, and that was my experience when I first got the pilot, and every episode that David handed in — or, I shouldn’t say he handed in an episode. He never handed us an episode, he handed us pages. But every time he handed us pages, I just thought, “Jesus, what a great scene, what a great character.”
I don’t feel like that’s been diluted. That feels just as alive as ever, and I also will say, not that I’m the best perspective on this, when I read this draft I thought, “There’s been nothing like this since this thing existed, and there’s still nothing like this.” And I only hesitate to say that with any great authority because I really don’t watch television so much. For all I know there is. So, what the fuck do I know? But I’ve not seen anything like it. I’ve not seen anything like it prior to this show coming on the air 14 years ago or whatever it’s been, and I haven’t seen it since.
David read his daily letter to the cast and crew this morning. Before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he used to do that kind of stuff off the cuff. What’s it like standing there as he reads these things?
Every minute with David Milch is a blessing and I cherish it, and that’s how I felt then. And the reason I say that I was always keen on working with David again is because of those moments. Because of that type of thinking, that type of passion, that type of creativity. I miss it. My memory of being on the show, and I say this knowing memory is not a very reliable narrator, I feel like I had a very full experience and really took it in. Even when quite honestly I felt completely overwhelmed and drowning in it, I really was very keen on what I was seeing, watching and learning from David.
What I didn’t know at the time was how much that experience was the gift that would just keep giving. I’ve been lucky enough to go on and do other shows, but I took those experiences of working with David to all those other shows. I’ve seen what was possible. And it was extremely helpful, always being able to stop and say, “What would David do? Just pretend to be David and do that.”
There’s a bunch of things that are lovely about coming back to this in particular, but I imagine it applies to a lot of things if you ever get the opportunity to return to something — just the high school fucking reunion, for all I care. Because you get to see the people again, and you get to share stories and take people in, and hold it up to the memory of what those experiences were and ask, “Do you remember it the way I do? Is that how it was for you? Was I the way I thought I was?” And that’s a very rare opportunity. When I say that I’ve always been very keen on the idea of working with David again, it’s always been about how I’d love to go back and see what’s changed and at the same time see what remains the same. I was always hoping to have another opportunity to collaborate with him, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I’m a bit saddened that that opportunity has been somewhat diminished by life’s other plans. It’s hard not to be a little selfish about that. I’m an actor after all. But at the same time, I feel very blessed to be around him again.
I’ve heard many conflicting accounts of the cancellation over the years, including one that pinned it to a panic that ensued after you bought a new house. Care to clarify?
I’ll tell you my version, and I already said this earlier: I fully understand that my memory of how it happened may not be how it happened, even for me. This is a story I’ve told over the years and every time you tell it, it changes. And let me also preface this with, I’ve never been one to let truth get in the way of a good story. So, if you are holding onto facts and you’re going to call me on these facts, go fuck yourself.
OK. Fair enough. Here is what I remember. First of all, Ian and I in Season Three were renegotiating our deal. We were getting ready to start the season and our deals had not been completed. At the time, the late, great James Gandolfini, God rest his soul, had been in the papers quite a bit for refusing to go back to work. Well, Mr. McShane and I didn’t want to be those guys, so we’re like, “We’ll go back to work in good faith, and we’ll work this out as we go.” As I recall, we must have shot seven, eight episodes at least, before I remember getting the call that we had come to a new understanding. And the two of us got a lovely raise and back pay for all the episodes we had already shot. I say that only because when I did go buy a house, I felt confident that my conservative estimate was, “Only count on one more season, because anything more than that, even though they’ve just given us this big raise, you never know.” See how funny it sounds now? So, yeah, I went and bought a house. I think a lot of cast members bought houses that year. Why would they give us a raise if they were going to turn around [and cancel it]? I wonder if the HBO people have an understanding that they gave Ian and I a big raise when obviously the show was going to blow up. They would never even have had those negotiations. It’s hysterical to think how backward-ass that situation was. So anyway, I bought a house, and yes, I don’t think I had been in the house but a few days when Mr. Milch called me in the morning and said, “Bad news, the show is over.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah.” And I told him he should come over and see the house before I sell it.
Now, as I understand it from others, no one else had been informed of that. So my then calling my rep to say, “Hey, the show has been canceled,” led to a series of phone calls. It was a bit of a grass fire, if you will, that became difficult for the two sides to then walk back. In fact, the show was not over at all, but that by the time that spread around, no one wanted to back down from it. And so, it just became fact.
Did you wind up selling the house?
No. I’m a glass-half-full type of motherfucker, and I said to myself, “Well, thank God I didn’t know they were going to cancel the show. I would never have bought this house.” And let me put this under the list of why these people owe me. What we have to thank for this is the villain in [Live Free or] Die Hard and a fucking bald head in Bulgaria shooting Hitman. That’s what that phone call led to. “How about the villain of Die Hard?” I said, “Sure.” And they’re like, “Do you want to read the script?” I said, ” I get it. I’m in. I just bought a house. Did you not hear? They just canceled my fucking show. Yes, I’ll do it.” “What about this video game adaptation?” “Yes to that too. I’m in. I’ve got to make up some TV money.” You know what, though? Those experiences were equally valuable. Oddly enough, those kinds of experiences, perhaps arguably more valuable than these. You know? Find yourself bald in Bulgaria doing some pile of shit, that will get you up a little earlier in the morning and make you work a little harder.
In the original show there’s basically just the one bit at the end of the pilot, when Bullock and Hickock kill the bandits, where you draw your gun and shoot somebody. Then you go off to be Raylan Givens on Justified, you’re doing that basically two or three times an episode.
Oh, come on, now. You’re exaggerating. Two or three times a season.
Being back here doing a gunfight today, does it feel more natural to you than it might have back when you were doing the pilot?
First of all, there’s nothing worse than an actor telling people they didn’t like their performance when other people probably loved it. So, I will only say this: I don’t remember much feeling natural on this show. It was a big opportunity for me at the time, and I recall barely having my head above water, and I recall regretting every single choice made and begging David to let me walk him back and change it. I recall being an actor who’s just trying not to get fired.
But this experience led to others. By the time I got to Justified, I recall being an actor that showed up and said, “I’m just going to assume everyone else here has bad ideas until proven otherwise, and I’m just going to do it the way I would do it and fall on my own sword, thank you very much. And then we’ll go from there.” And it was just a wonderful experience. I wasn’t concerned about being fired. I was concerned about whether or not I wanted to quit. You’re just at a different place along the journey. And that really is the biggest difference. Showing up here, worrying about losing my job; showing up to that one down the road, a similar type of role, worrying about whether I wanted to fire the show or not. By the way, I’m not suggesting that was a possibility or even in my mind. But it’s just, you’re at a different place along the journey, and your mind is on other things.
This has been a very interesting and a strange experience, to be asked to do a role that you were doing at a time that, had you been given a second chance, would you even have done it the same way? It’s a strange experience, and I don’t think one that I would expect, for example, Ian, to have. When Ian came to the show at that point in his journey — there were so many veterans on the set. I was watching so many guys at just the top of their game, not a care in the world. But hopefully you’re smart enough to watch and learn. It’s a funny little game that I seem to be playing in the last couple of weeks here, to come back and do a role that you did 14 years ago and not make all the same mistakes you did 14 years ago. We’ll see.
Everyone on set seems to have hundreds of David Milch stories that they’re swapping any chance they get. What’s one of the crazier ones that you remember vividly?
Just to name one, I can tell you the whole scene fighting with the Native American guy, all made up on the day. The stunt guys had been working on a fight between me and this Native American dude for a week and they had the whole thing mapped out. Then on the day we showed it to Milch, the guy comes running up, hits me with this tomahawk after my horse has already been hit with an arrow, and then I crawl out and this whole giant fistfight breaks out. David says, “I bought all of it right up until he got hit with the tomahawk.” Which is essentially the first moment. And so the whole holding onto the guy’s leg while he was dancing and yelling the stuff in his language, that was David just saying, “Hey, do this. Right? You just stand over him and, ‘Fuck you. You killed my friend.’ ” Which was hilarious to me. And me just hanging onto his leg until eventually he foolishly lost his balance and then I beat him with a rock. That was all on the day. And it wasn’t even working until this guy that they had cast all of a sudden started doing the thing that you see now that kind of gives you chills, some kind of war song. It was, like, our fifth take or something. David kept trying to talk to him like he was from Brooklyn. All of a sudden that came in. I remember saying to the guy, “What the fuck was that?” He said, “I just remembered this song I learned when I was a kid in camp.” It just came to him. He said, “I’ll do that.” That was just one of these remarkable days, the willingness of David to throw out what was false and to go with his gut.
I can go all day. I remember so many things that he did in terms of direction. The scene where Bullock is beating the shit out of Jack McCall in the mud, and Garret [Dillahunt, who played McCall] is trying to get the fuck out — Milch told us the story about him being in an alleyway and these guys are walking towards him, and he keeps thinking, “Oh, I’m going to beat the shit out of these guys.” And now they’re kicking the shit out of him, and he’s like, “I’m about to pounce because I’m like a leopard. These guys have no idea.” And he goes, “Now they’ve taken all my things and they’ve set my clothes on fire. Now they’re walking away.” They’re turning down the alley and they’re leaving him there. And he says, “These guys have no idea how lucky they are.” He tells Garret that story, and he’s like, “That’s how you would play the scene.” And that was so genius.
I remember a scene with Anna. The Bullocks are arguing in the house. We shot it, it was fine, it worked great. Then he comes in and tells me, say your line like that’s the last line in the argument, and then walk out the door. But just before you leave, hang your coat up and then walk out. And then she has her next line. And he says, “Now, Tim, come running back in the room, grab your coat as if you’re ready to leave and then come running back in. And now say your line, and then hang up your coat and walk out. And then come back in and grab your coat.” I must have done it three times, hang up my coat and walk out, walk back in and grab my coat. Hang up my coat and walk out, come back in and grab my coat. It was so funny. I was like, “This guy …” Then at the end he says, “Do it again.” I said, “No. That’s it. I don’t have any more lines.” He said, “OK, put on your coat like a flaming homosexual.” I remember thinking very clearly, “Well, so much for that Steve McQueen role you thought you got.”
Very rarely do you ever see this in any creative endeavor, and it’s the thing that everybody is striving for, which is a man who’s completely engrossed, and committed, and well versed, and studied in the subject matter in the world. And in the same breath a willingness to disregard it all and go with whatever gut instinct he has. And I’ve always felt going forward, I did not graduate first in my class in Yale, but everybody’s got a gut instinct, and it’s really just about the willingness to go with it, do the work, and then the willingness to fail and just go with your gut. It was literally David on my shoulder going into the Justified writers’ room and saying, “You know, what if [Danny Crowe] just fell in a hole?” And they’re like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I was like, “I saw it in a cartoon once. It’s going to work.” Because it’s just a willingness to be like, “Wait. I know what to do here. This would be fun. I saw David do it.”
He was famous for writing on the spot.
It was so enjoyable to watch, just a guy with all his toy soldiers in this little sandbox. I remember doing a scene where I’m walking across the road here and he stops and says, “Remind me, what episode is this?” And someone whispers to him. He goes, “It would be wonderful if we could connect this. Are the Chinese here? Do we have the Chinese?” Fucking all three ADs are on the walkie-talkie: “How soon can we have the Chinese? We can have the Chinese here in an hour and a half, Dave.” “Great. Is there something else we can shoot in the meantime?” “Well, there’s that scene down at the Bullock house you were talking about.” “Yes. Perfect. I can get those pages out in a few minutes. Let’s go shoot that and come back to this.” It was just absurd and wonderful. Exhausting as well. That’s what no one wants to admit. It fucking was exhausting.
Jimmy Smits quit NYPD Blue over it.
Listen, I might have done a small victory dance when [David] told me the show was over. But I at the same time have never been a part of anything quite this special. I always talk about the show and this experience, and the experience of working with David. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. My wife’s like, “Yeah, but Tim, it was a pain in the ass.” And I said, “Yeah, I remember that too.” It’s nice to come back to it. It’s nice to come back to it after having been around the block a few times, and to realize that so much has changed and yet not very much. That’s a wonderful realization.
The only thing that’s probably better left unsaid is the passage of time, certain people who are no longer with us, others who are not in great health. And I think that the audience may not appreciate the experience at all, but from a personal standpoint it’s one of the reasons I’m really glad I said yes, to come back and be with everybody again. Some really, really wonderful people. Wonderful people that made a profound impact on my life. And funny, because it wasn’t even that long. Three very intense years.