HitFix Interview: Mykelti Williamson talks ‘Justified’

Apparently, Mykelti Williamson knows a few things about butchery. 
For the “Justified” co-star, that’s not a threat. It just happens that he knows how to take apart a side of beef or a pig.
For Williamson’s “Justified” character, however, culinary dexterity and the threat of violence have gone hand-in-hand this season.
Ellstin Limehouse is a butcher, BBQ master and unlicensed banker. He’s also the seemingly avuncular protector of Noble’s Holler and as we’ve already seen this season, it’s a responsibility he takes very seriously, with very little tolerance for encroachment.
“Justified” has offered Williamson one of his best roles in years and it’s probably no coincidence that the FX drama has been a reunion with writer-producer Graham Yost and fellow actor Neal McDonough, partners-in-crime from NBC’s short-lived drama “Boomtown.” 
In a recent conversation, Williamson told me that Limehouse just wants to be left alone, but we only have three episodes remaining this season to see what extremes he’s willing to go to in order to keep his holler safe. 
Click through for the full interview, which covers the “Boomtown” reunion, Limehouse’s peculiar fashion sense and orthodontia and what scares this scary character…
HitFix: I was watching the next two episodes over the weekend and this struck me: How often would you say that Limehouse has been telling the truth to anybody about anything this season?
Mykelti Williamson: It varies. It’s rare that he tells the full truth. He only tells people what’s necessary, what he deems necessary. That is because he’s a protectionist. He doesn’t want to open and reveal himself completely. He’s a very private man and he’s simply trying to get rid of all of these people so that he and his community can be left alone.
HitFix: So this is a guy who, ideally, wouldn’t have anything to do with any of the events on a show like “Justified” at all? He’d just be off in his own world, minding his own business?
Mykelti Williamson: Absolutely.
HitFix: What is the challenge for you as an actor playing a character whose relationship with the truth is this variable?
Mykelti Williamson: It’s fun, for me. But I do have to keep notes to know when he lied and when he didn’t. I keep a character bible, but with the Limehouse character, I’ve really had to work a little harder to keep up with things that I’ve said in certain episodes so that we don’t end up tripping over our feed.
HitFix: How much do you need to know about what the truth is to tell a lie?
Mykelti Williamson: A lot.
HitFix: So how open have Graham and the writers been with you about the truth?
Mykelti Williamson: They’re extremely open and the writers are on the set with us every single day. We don’t shoot one frame without having the writer from that episode with us and Graham is always a phone call away. The same with Elmore Leonard. He’s a phone call away. That’s it.
HitFix: Have you used Elmore as a point of reference?
Mykelti Williamson: We have. Early on, he and Graham were very helpful to me to get the Limehouse character on track, because coming in from the outside, I didn’t start with the first episode. My first day was Episode 3. We were shooting three episodes at the same time, so it was chaotic and I needed someone to help me focus and so we all knew that it was necessary to get Limehouse on track sooner than later, because this was Episode 3 where we were starting.
HitFix: Were there any pieces of information that allowed the character to click for you?
Mykelti Williamson: Yeah. One of the things that I asked Graham early on was, “What is Limehouse afraid of?” Fear is… Wow. Fear is very telling. When people are angry… The question I always ask, when a person or character is really angry is “What are they afraid of?” Because anger is always fear-based. For a trained actor, we know that if a character is [growls loudly] is irate, what is he really afraid of? For me, that was the catalyst, finding out some of the things that Limehouse was afraid of. That helps to really fuel this character and give him direction.
HitFix: Can you hint at any of those things?
Mykelti Williamson: I’ll give you one thing: Limehouse doesn’t want to lose control of his holler. He doesn’t want the kids and the community infiltrated with drugs. That’s the backstory between Limehouse and Mags. Limehouse cut a deal with Mags that if he kept her money in the black holler, no one would dare touch it. It would be completely safe, but she had to make sure that she kept his community completely safe and buffered it from any of the filth that she was involved in. So they had a mutual understanding. But once she killed herself and took herself out, Limehouse now has to deal with this floodgate of people who want to come in and get their hands on Mags’ money, including Dickie Bennett.
HitFix: I understand that you got to have a lot of input into the character’s wardrobe and particularly his teeth. Could you talk about developing the external aspects of the character and how that informed the internal aspects?
Mykelti Williamson: Well, for me, as an actor, I love the character work and I like characters who don’t really look like me. For example, if you go back as far as “Forrest Gump,” the piece I had made for my gums, which forced my lip out, made the character unattractive on the outside, but beautiful on the inside. He would draw people in so that they would really care and feel for him. Well Limehouse is a guy who’s so busy taking care of everyone else, he can’t really take care of himself. That’s why his teeth are shot. He doesn’t have the nicest clothes. He’s so busy taking care of other people that he’s pretty much ignoring himself. That’s the approach to this character, that it’s not about him at all.

HitFix: With the teeth, how do you find the right mouthpiece where it helps the character, but doesn’t hurt you as an actor?
Mykelti Williamson: I don’t worry about what would hurt me as an actor, because I just immerse myself in my work. I think if you do a job well enough, people will respect it and then the next job I do, the character won’t be just like the Limehouse character, so there’s no opportunity for typecasting. This character, Limehouse, will stand alone. When I walk away from it, none of my characters in future will have anything similar that they can be mistaken for. “Oh, that’s kinda like Limehouse.” No. It’s not.

HitFix: You’d think that would be an advantage for you, but how frequently do you think that’s been a disadvantage for you as an actor?
Mykelti Williamson: It hasn’t been a disadvantage for me at all. It’s been good.
HitFix: But you don’t think there’s a detrimental side to it? You have this big breakout, like you said, in “Forrest Gump.” But you don’t look like that guy or sound like that guy at all…
Mykelti Williamson: No, but people love that movie. I was talking earlier this morning about the privilege of being in a film that’s one of the Top 100 movies ever made in the world and what a privilege that is for an actor. When you do work like “Justified,” like “Forrest Gump,” like “Heat,” you don’t try and live that down. You wanna live that up, because that’s an accomplishment. For me, “Justified” is a huge accomplishment. To be able to find a character like Limehouse and define him in the midst of all these other well-defined characters that have had a couple of seasons to do it? I think it speaks volumes for the way they do things on “Justified” and at FX. They really help you get there. No one fights you. You come in with guns blazing and the other actors don’t get intimidated. They whip out guns and theirs are blazing right back. And I love that. It’s that same give and take from Tommy Hanks and Sinise with “Forrest Gump.” It’s the same kinda thing. It’s great, man. I’m tellin’ you.
HitFix: What has it been like working with Graham again?
Mykelti Williamson: I love Graham. I love Graham. I would march into battle for Graham any time. I love him. I love his family. I love his children. He’s a beautiful human being. He really cares about his friends and he cares about what he’s doing. He doesn’t do it for a paycheck. He does it because he cares, because he’s interested in what he’s doing. You can’t help but love a man for that.
HitFix: And how about reuniting with Neal this season?
Mykelti Williamson: That’s my man! That’s my golf buddy. That’s my soul brother. He’s just enjoyable to be around. He’s a dreamer, like me. There are things he wants for his family, as do I. We have all of that stuff in common. We talk about what we want for our children and our wives. Neal and I are always trying to one-up each other as actors. We’re always trying to outdo each other in scenes. It makes it fun, because he’s gotta keep an eye on me and I definitely have to keep both eyes on him. It’s a lot of fun.
HitFix: I was talking to a colleague [SEPINWALL!] today and he tried making the argument that your characters on “Justified” at least to some degree mirror your characters on “Boomtown.”
Mykelti Williamson: [Skeptical stare.]
HitFix: That Fearless was this sorta larger-than-life character prone to spinning big stories and that Limehouse might be in some ways similarly larger-than-life and prone to telling a good yarn…
Mykelti Williamson: Naw. If you look at Rayan Givens living in a motel, that’s what my character on “Boomtown” did. He lived in a motel. He refused to take a permanent place to live, because if he needed to make a move suddenly, he could do it. He could throw stuff in a bag and he was on his way. So I would say that the Raylan character is more like my “Boomtown” character than Limehouse. Limehouse is a dangerous man who can’t be trusted. Fearless could be trusted to the end of the Earth. But you’d better not trust Ellstin Limehouse, or it could be your undoing.
HitFix: Let’s change gears then for the last question. How are your butchery skills?
Mykelti Williamson: Very, very good. We a gentleman, his name is Roger Guydon, he actually owns Roger’s Rib Shack here in the Valley and he’s our technical guy. He gets us all the meat. He’s our technical butcher. But when Roger and I first met, I said, “Let me see if I can remember” and I walked him through a side of pork and he said, “Oh. OK. Alright. That’s cool.” So it was great to meet a guy like him, but it’s also comforting to have a person like him there to help us, because he helps make things seamless.
HitFix: But those were skills you came to the job with?
Mykelti Williamson: Oh, absolutely. Since I was kid. My family would split up a side of beef, we’d split up a side of pork. Whatever we needed to do. My grandmother raised chicken, so I learned how to take care of all that and how to cook, from the slaughterhouse to the tabletop. 
“Justified,” as always, airs on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.