Well, hello there baby, you look so beautiful,” Walton Goggins purrs, leaning forward and suddenly going into full-on loverman mode. “Look at you, all done up in that white dress and those white shoes. This is a proper get-up, my dear. You look hot!” The 44-year-old actor is sitting in a downtown Manhattan restaurant, his face hovering inches away from a plate of Burrata; he was sold on the appetizer after being told it’s “like Mozzarella’s sexier cousin,” so he’s now whispering sweet nothings at the cheese with an intensity and seductiveness that’s almost frightening. You’re afraid that he may actually start making out with the quivering dairy product any second now. Then he scoops up a big chunk with his fork, pops it into his mouth, and says, with a familiar Walton-esque whoop: “God-DAMN, this is good!”
For a long time, the Alabama-born, Georgia-raised Goggins was one of those where-have-I-seen-him-before character actors who showed up, stole scenes and, whether he was playing soldiers, gunslingers or detectives, left a spiky-haired impression. Six seasons as Boyd Crowder, the top-buttoned hillbilly criminal on the popular FX series Justified, upped his small-screen profile substantially — and now a key role in Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm Western The Hateful Eight is doing the same for his big-screen bond fides. In an ensemble cast that includes Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern, Goggins stands out as a former Confederate soldier and (possible) new sheriff in town who gets caught up in the film’s haberdashery-bound whodunnit. Next to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s bruised belle of the ball, he’s a strong contender for the movie’s MVP and, without saying too much, a major factor in the film’s notion that racial strife is part of this country’s past and its present.
“We’re gonna do what Quentin does on all his sets,” Goggins says, before slapping his cellphone down in the center of the table. “You turn these things in at Checkpoint Charlie, and all distractions get left at the door. We’re going to have a conversation, you and me.” And in between philosophical musings and some steamy Googins-on-fancy-cheese action, he told us all about Tarantino’s working methods, why his trans character on Sons of Anarchy is a personal favorite, how he ended up on that Marilyn Manson track and why having a Southern accent shouldn’t automatically mean playing a redneck.
Do you remember the first time you met Quentin?
I remember, though I don’t think he does … this was long before he cast me in Django Unchained (2012). I had just done this movie The Apostle with Robert Duvall, and he invited me to this tango party at his house in Venice, California. Bobby is an incredible tango dancer; I, however, am not. So I’m just sitting by the snack table, watching all these people killing it on the dance floor, and in walks Quentin Tarantino. This was right before Jackie Brown had come out, and I was a huge fan, but these are the types of encounters I tend to run away from. But there’s eight people in a room, there’s one snack table, what can you do? You sit there with a cracker in your hand, watch Robert Duvall do the tango and pray you don’t say something fucking stupid!
And then he just walks up, casually says hello and strikes up a conversation. We had a lovely talk for a half hour, and I thought, “I didn’t embarrass myself!” Later, when I got invited to go do Django with him, I spent the whole night before just riddled with doubts about whether I could keep up. I don’t want to be the guy that drops the ball on a Tarantino film. And as soon as I got there, it just all went away. It was just like the party thing. His love and respect for actors is huge. And he is no bullshit. That man is precise. But he creates the conditions where you find yourself doing your best work. Better than your best.
What’s the secret to getting his dialogue right? You have to get that rhythm…
…Or it feels a little off, yeah. If Tim Roth were sitting here, he’d have used Mamet and Pinter as examples. Man, I wish I could answer that question. I don’t know that any of his usual collaborators who’ve been with him for years and years could answer it either; I don’t want to speak for them, but I feel like it’s either effortless or requires a lot of effort. He has a way of picking people who just get it. I’m not sure there’s a process — the words just fit in your mouth or they don’t. He’s been smart enough to find actors who can give him 90-percent or so of what he hears in his imagination.
Did it surprise you when he told New York magazine that “literally watching him for six years do faux-Quentin dialogue let me know that he’s got the right kind of tongue?”
No, because it’s the truth! [Laughs] I think he meant it as a compliment. You have to remember, Elmore Leonard didn’t write the Justified scripts; he just wrote the short story that the series is based on. So that meant our fearless leader Graham Yost and the writing staff had the impossible task of trying to replicate Leonard’s writing on a daily basis. And damned if they didn’t do it really well, and I think he recognized that — the task of trying to nail that voice. Which is similar to his.
I remember calling him when we shooting the filming the first episode of Season Five and telling him, “Every shot is pretty much in your vein. There are scenes between my character and Wynn Duffy (played by Jere Burns) that sound like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson just shooting the shit!” [Laughs] I’m not saying we were at that level, but that’s what we were going for. And he respected it.
Just how hard was the shoot?
What was hard was the relentless fucking cold. Watch those early scenes — you’ll notice I didn’t have a jacket. I’m the guy with the blanket on. Kurt Russell had a fucking grizzly on his back, and I’m wearing a Hermès fucking scarf! I remember our costume designer, Courtney Hoffman, had found this incredible, warm jacket for my character [Chris Mannix] and Quentin said, “OK, take that jacket off.” So I take it off and I was wearing another one underneath, and he said, “Take that one off too.” So I got rid of that, and he said, How do you feel? Well, I feel pretty fucking cold, actually. “Good,” he says, “that’s right where I want you.”
I only had one question for Quentin: “Is Mannix really the sheriff of Red Rock? Is that a bluff?” And his reply was: “I need you to figure out the answer and never tell me what it is.” That was all I needed to know. And he never asked. He may be the only person to date who hasn’t asked me that, actually. [Laughs]
There’s a line that Samuel L. Jackson has where he’s talking about the Lincoln letter…
“You don’t know what it’s like for a black man staring down white America”?
That’s the one. Clearly, there’s a sense that the distance between the past and the present are being bridged here. Having worked with this material for a while, what do you feel the movie is saying about contemporary America, regardless of what time period it’s set in?
Oh, man. [Pause] So that line was, almost verbatim, the headline of an article in a major newspaper. And I remember reading it and thinking, Quentin wrote that line a year and half earlier — and look where we are right now in the conversation about race in this country. I don’t want to say that the movie is holding a mirror up to what’s going on, but we’re talking about some horrible shit that went on in 1870, and now it’s 2015, and … it’s the same things being said. When we rehearsing, Ferguson was just starting to happen. It certainly informed the experience of making the movie, what was going on outside of our set, as well as how we approached the story. And certainly how I approached Chris Mannix.
Well, look at where he begins, with this character regurgitating this worldview that he has, which is essentially dictated by his father, this legendary Confederate, and where he comes from. It occurred to me real early that, well, this guy has probably never had an original thought in his life. And by the end of the film, he’s experienced a liberation of ignorance. I don’t know if it’s possible to change the hearts and minds of a group of people all at once — but looking at the way some people were waking up to what’s going on in the world thanks to what was happening in Ferguson and numerous other places, I thought: You can change the hearts and minds of one person. That’s a start.
So do you feel that the end of the film is hopeful, given the characters that are left once the credits start rolling?
I do, but I’m an eternal optimist. I try not to falter on the cynical side of things. I think what happens at the end, it’s blood mixed with blood. It’s that letter, which represents what we want to believe in terms of moving forward … what we’d want a white American president to say to a black man. With Chris Mannix and where he ends up, I saw someone who represented that we are constantly trying to walk in the right direction. That we, as a people, stumble but we’re aware that it’s time to get it fucking right.
Were these the kinds of conversations you were having on set?
Not with Quentin, no. But among the actors? Hell yes. It was a constant topic of conversation, all the shit that was going on around us.
Because you’re an actor who comes from the American South, you tend to get cast as characters that fall on a certain side of — let’s call it the Crackerometer …
But do you feel a responsibility to make sure that people know that the South is not all racists and rednecks?
Yeah, I do. It’s funny, the things you get asked to play when you represent a certain region, or ethnicity. If you’re an Italian actor living in New York, you’ve probably been asked to play a Mafia guy. It doesn’t mean that every Italian person is a gangster, but that’s probably who a casting agent is going to go after, right? There was an age where, if you were a working African-American actor, you were probably going to be asked to play a slave at one point. What’s that movie about the young African-American kid in Los Angeles that came out this year?
That’s it! There’s a scene where the main character is asked about writing his college admission essay, and if it’s going to be about his “struggle”? And his answer is something along the lines of, “What, because I grew up in the hood, I can only write about my experience of getting out of the hood? That’s the only story I get to tell?” I remember watching that scene and going, “Bingo!”
So was there a point in my career where playing a peckerwood was one of the few opportunities I got as an actor? Yes indeed. There were times where I felt straight-up dirty playing the sort of roles I was asked to play. And then, if you’re really lucky, you get to act in movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained in the same year, and you’re part of two sides of a conversation. That’s exciting. That’s what you want.
I turned down Justified twice. It was only because I was a big fan of Tim Olyphant and Graham Yost’s work that I said, “Look, I’ll say the things you want me to say in the pilot, because this is Elmore Leonard’s world. But in order for me to do this, I need [Tim’s character] Raylon Gibbons to acknowledge that Boyd does not believe a word he’s saying.” Because you add that factor, and suddenly, he becomes a much more interesting, more complex character. And God bless them, they gave me autonomy over Boyd. After the pilot, the character never says the word “nigger” again. Over the course of the six years on the show, I was only asked once more to say it in a line of dialogue, and I said, “No.” It wasn’t right. I wasn’t going to go near that storyline.
People have talked about Justified being both a representation and an inversion of what the Drive-By Truckers call “the Southern thing.”
I like that. But I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and told me how the show is much more about the concept of economic opportunity and class in this country rather than a regional thing. Boyd was much more of a class-based character, as opposed to Billy Crash, the Django character. Yeah, he was a reprehensible, racist motherfucker, but he served the story. Those people were around back then, and you do a disservice to the story of African-Americans and what they went through if you don’t play him like that.
How did you end up on Marilyn Manson’s album, by the way?
Crazy, right? Talk about having a bucket list item that you didn’t know was on your bucket list! Marilyn was a friend of Kurt Sutter’s, and he asked him if I might want to do this. So he calls me, and I was like, “Have you heard me sing? I can’t fucking carry a tune!” But he just said, don’t worry, I have an idea and you’d be perfect for it. So the very first time I met him, it was at his house, recording that song [“Slave Only Dreams to Be King”]. I basically quizzed him: “Where are you at right now, musically?” “What are you trying to say?” It was essentially the questions an actor would ask a director. It was two shots of whiskey, leave the mic on and let it go. I loved how the thing turned out.
Speaking of Sutter: Can we talk about Venus, your character on Sons of Anarchy, for a second? It was always such an extreme show, so the thought of introducing a trans prostitute in love with a psychotic biker felt like it could have gone very wrong.
Not the way Kurt wrote her. He and I both wanted Venus to be a very real and very respectful character. The Venus you saw was already on the page like that; it wasn’t all me. That woman, she was a flower in a desert of immorality. We though it would be a one-time appearance, but she was such a lovely human being and the audience really responded to her that I went back to Kurt at one point and said, “I don’t think I’ve finished with her, mate.” And he said, “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve finished with her either.” I still miss her, man.
The point, and I can’t emphasize this enough, was never to boil this one character down to the experience of the entire transgender community. There was no way I was going to capture that — it’s too vast and varied. But in my own personal experience, it takes one personal story to affect you, so I was very much into the idea of, OK, let’s get this woman’s experience right. Let’s really dig into her joy and pain and do right by it. She was such a light in that dark world … how could you not fall in loves with her?
And then you get to that big scene between you and Kim Coates in the last season …
That monologue that Kurt Sutter wrote is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read in 20 or so years of doing this. He just got it. She understands why he rejects her, she’s in pain and then grateful that she got to feel love at all, and then she ultimately finds that acceptance. The whole thing was just … it was pure Venus. I don’t care what you look like, how old you are, what gender you are — if you are listened to by someone, if someone can open up to you, what else is there?
That’s been one thing that most of my characters have had in common, whether it’s Shane on The Shield or Boyd Crowder, or Chris Mannix or Venus: They need to be heard, they need to communicate. And my job is simply to get them to that place. If I can do that, then I’ve done my job.