Garret Dillahunt is one of my favorite character actors on television. Whether he’s a regular on a series like “Deadwood” (where David Milch loved him so much he cast him in two different roles) or just teleporting into a series for a guest spot or two (as, say, Russian gangster Roman Nevikov on “Life”), I know he’s always going to do something interesting and memorable.
He has another regular gig, on “Raising Hope,” Greg Garcia’s new FOX comedy about a young slacker (Lucas Neff) who decides to turn his life around when he inherits the baby girl he fathered with a Death Row inmate. (It debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m.)Â Though I think a little of Garcia’s “My Name Is Earl”-style humor goes a long way, I did laugh several times during the “Hope” pilot, including some things Dillahunt does as Neff’s none-too-bright father.
When I was at press tour last month, I sat down with Dillahunt to talk about how he chooses the parts he does, why he got into acting, and more, all after the jump…
How many shows have you been a regular on now?
This is my 8th series with a regular role.
I get used to seeing you sort of bouncing all over the place in these guest spots.
Yeah, I’m a workaholic, so when I have free time I fill it.
So when an offer comes in, what specifically are you looking for?
Well, I like a good story. I’m a fan of all kinds of genres, so that’s nice.Â I like sci-fi stuff. I like westerns, obviously.Â I like all kinds of things.Â I need the story to be good.Â It’d be great if this one’s different than the last one I played.Â I like change and this is like the polar opposite of the last thing I’ve done (“Terminator:Â The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), so that’s kind of what I look for. Good writing.
You were a regular on “A Minute with Stan Hooper,” but how much comedy have you done in the interim?
Well, I did a lot of comedy pilots and another one that went beside “Stan Hooper” was “Maximum Bob.” Which is a different kind of comedy. It’s funny; I was talking to someone else about this, because they’re like, “Oh, you’re always the bad guy,” but it didn’t used to be that way at all. You know, memories are so short in this business because I used to be the sitcom guy and I couldn’t get an audition for drama and now you’re like the drama guy and they go, “Oh, he can’t do comedy.” It’s just amazing. Youâ€˜re constantly reproving yourself.
How did you change that? What was the part that you felt that gave you entrÃ©e into drama?
I don’t know. I come from theater, where we did all kinds of different things all the time and different styles. You know, one day you’re the prince, the next day you’re the pauper. But I’m sure “Deadwood” changed a lot of things for me, playing two different parts.Â Kind of made people think, rightfully or not, that I could do anything. And I kind of feel like that’s what we’re all supposed to do, so I just go lucky there.
And there was a definite period after that where “Life” and “Burn Notice” and all these shows seemed to say, “We need the personification of evil, we call Garret Dillahunt.”
Well, I guess that’s good. I like that they think I can handle a really out-there character like Nevikov, say, who has a Russian accent. Or I love the feeling of being trusted to do that and it makes me work harder so that that trust is justified.Â
And there is a theatrically with a character like that: the way you carry yourself is designed to call attention to yourself. I know film acting is a different kind of discipline from being on the stage, but can you borrow from one to the other?
I don’t know that I borrow anything.Â I just try to be as truthful as I can.Â I feel like I tend to play things a little under, you know, which sometimes has been a problem. People always have to encourage you to go “More, more, more.”Â But I think that tendency is good for film and TV; it’s almost a lucky break that I’m a little bashful or something, you know? And the writers that I’ve enjoyed working with like Milch, and I think Greg Garcia a little bit, there’s a lot of subtext in this stuff – especially Milch, but it’s a lot of fun playing the opposite of what’s written, basically.
So what do you see like looking at this guy (in “Raising Hope”)?
I think they’re really liking the practical jokey nature that we discovered in the pilot.Â And the sort of obliviousness to taking care of his family, but underneath what I really like about the show is there’s real love there in this family. I love the relationship with Martha Plimpton and that he develops with this baby who’s going to get bigger.
Why did you want to be an actor? Who are some actors you admired?
I originally to be a writer. I wanted to be journalist. My degree is in journalism.Â I don’t know that I’m a very good writer, but this is very similar, I’ve found.Â Sort of like writing live or something and I feel like a similar itch is being scratched, you know? And it might also be why I love writers so much, because I always feel I need a writer and I need to find a way to make those words work.Â I’ll go there before I try to improv or go off script.
I think your reasons (for going into acting) change, but in college it was a great therapeutic thing for me. My brother passed when I was very young, when I was 16.Â And I was just determined after that to do something that I loved and not that I felt I had to do or just to pay bills. Life became very short and very fragile all of a sudden and I think the acting thing was very therapeutic for that and then it became a lot of fun. I enjoyed standing in a lot of different people’s shoes, which is very annoying politically because you sort of feel like, “Well, I see this side, but I kind of see this side too,” but I just like it.Â I like experiencing different things and meeting new people and change. I like change.
Speaking about the change in writing, Milch famously will not only give new pages at the last minute, but give new dialogue like right before the camera would roll. How was that experience for you?
I love it.Â I know it’s difficult for a lot of people but I find that I think It’s the perfect kind of atmosphere for doing what we do. And the reason he does that is because he’s seen you do something that sparked an idea in him, so that he throws it back.Â So it’s this thing where everyone on-set is awake and proud and really trying to do something unique. And it’s kind of happening on “Raising Hope” as well, because Greg will see you do something and then we’ll do a riff on that. And who knows which take he’ll use, but he’ll be like, “Now try this line, and try this line, and try this line,” because he will have seen you do something. I think that’s the best kind of atmosphere to be in for what we do.
Process-wise, when you take a role and you’re going to play this character – particularly in cases where it may be a one-shot character and you only have minimum amount of time to build him – how do you go about the process of building him within yourself and playing him? What’s the first thing you do?
I don’t know. I mean generally if I get a part I feel like I’m as good as the writing generally, which means often I won’t get jobs that I audition for because I couldn’t make it work.Â So I generally have quite a bit of confidence in what I’m about to do, but in those situations, you know, the show is in place and I serve a very specific function.Â So I just try to not rock the boat too much and I try to fit in and be a good supporting player. I’m all about ensemble and you know we all have our role to play in that for the whole thing to be better.
For instance, many people had played Terminators before you got to play Cromartie, so how did you approach the physicality of that?
I thought that he has to be able to pass, so you can’t move like a robot too much. There has to be little tells and ours was that he doesn’t understand he’s been inappropriate sometimes. Or he’s not offended when he should be and he offends when he shouldn’t. Doesn’t understand that he’s offended. And I think that was the difference. Also, I think a trap some people have fallen into playing Terminators is that they played them angry.Â Because they don’t care. They’ve been programmed to hunt this person. They’re not disappointed if they don’t get them. They’re not filled with rage when they see them. They just go, “Yeah.” I find that scarier because there’s no reasoning with it.
And mid-way through the run he gets wiped and then resurrected as the voice of the mainframe. At that point did you just approach it as an entirely new character?
Yeah, absolutely. I approached it as sort of a brilliant child, you know? And again, it was just such a great vote of confidence from the producers that they would let me play another part. I think something else that they did was I played multiple parts in several shows now. Kind of fun.
And it’s got to be sort of interesting to be able to relate to the same people in an entirely different way.
Yeah, and to not be a threatening presence. It was annoying being hooked to that cord though, I’ll tell you.
So what was the thing, in the pilot script for this show that made you say all right, I want to go and read for it?
I’ve been making a lot of movies this year. And the kind of movies that I get great roles are indie-movies and I love them and I’m proud of them.Â And a couple are coming to Toronto this month. But they don’t pay well, so I had to find a way to finance my film career, basically, and thankfully I found a really cool project to do that.Â And this feels film-ish in way, in the way it’s shot. It feels like a light-hearted comedy. So I felt like this is something I could do for foreseeably for a few years.
Do you feel like the show is inviting the viewer to sort of laugh at this family?
Â I feel like the laughs, yeah, are a bit – obviously it’s a little exploded but I think a lot of parents are going to recognize a lot of their own uncertain moments with a kid, and a lot of dads throw up on their kids when they have to change their diaper, you know?Â It’s exploded but hopefully people will be able to recognize it.
Having worked so much in the last decade, some very high profile things, an Oscar-winning best picture (“No Country For Old Men”) and all that, but so many different kinds of parts, is there one that you’re consistently get recognized for?
I get recognized for “Deadwood” a lot. And “Terminator” a lot. But there’s weird little pockets. It seems like almost different areas of the country are different and there’s a lot of Roman Nevikov fans and I only did two or three episodes of that show, I think. I’m no spring chicken anymore and I just want to look back on a career and be proud of it and tell good stories. That’s really all I like.
When you were starting off your career, what was your road map for what you wanted to do?
I don’t think I had one, which probably would have helped to have had one. I was a bit of a cork in the ocean, because work was coming and I said, “Okay, sure.” I’m a workaholic and sometimes that’s a bad thing.Â But you know, it was more about the kind of actor I wanted to be and the guys I always responded to were like Daniel Day Lewis or Gary Oldman or Sean Penn. They seem to do different things all the time. One very different from the next.Â And I like that test, and that’s kind of what I hoped to be and if I can be a shadow of those guys I would count myself lucky.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com