TV

A Chat With ‘Deadwood’ Actress Robin Weigert About Her Momentous Goodbye To Calamity Jane

HBO

Deadwood ran for three seasons, from 2004-2006, and throughout the decade that followed, fans hoped, not-so-patiently, to see the promised wrap-up movie. Well, the request has finally been fulfilled with Deadwood: The Movie, which isn’t the most creatively rendered title but showcases exactly what’s coming: an exquisitely profane reunion among David Milch’s ensemble of beloved characters. One of the most defensively endearing figures, Calamity Jane, figures prominently into the story.

The actress who plays Jane, Robin Weigert, was gracious enough to speak with us at length about the finale movie. She previously stated that the rough-talking, boozy frontierswoman “kind of came to me whole,” and Weigert gamely slid back into the saddle after all these years. Our wide-ranging conversation covers Weigert’s stints on FX’s Sons of Anarchy and HBO’s Big Little Lies, but of course, Jane looms large. The actress told us the one place where she gets recognized as Jane and how it feels to say farewell to her again.

Let’s start with a confession. I often call Calamity Jane my spirit animal.

She might be my spirit animal as well! So we share that in common.

There were many false starts on this movie. Do you remember where you were when you heard that it was finally happening?

There wasn’t a definitive moment for me when I heard it was happening like when it was canceled because that was an extremely memorable phone call that was devastating. In this case, there was this sort of buildup, a sense of “maybe, maybe, hopefully maybe, oh, it’s looking more like, oh, it’s looking really like, well, there’s this one actor who hasn’t signed on, oh, he signed on, okay!” I do remember turning a corner in myself from thinking it was unlikely to thinking it was very likely, once David [Milch] had shown me some pages, and I saw the quality of what he was working on, and that was a while ago. I thought there was no way they won’t do this somehow, there’s no way that everybody won’t say yes to this. I think I saw three or four pages, that’s it, but I thought, “God, everybody’s leaving and breathing again on the page, I can feel them, I can feel it.” And the fact that it felt alive to me suggested that there would somehow be a way. That’s a bit of magical thinking, but that’s the way I feel.

Well, Jane gets the first word in the first scene. How cool was that?

It was very cool, and the first sentence or the first phrase of the film has so much in it, [which I realized] when I sat at what was a table reading that was put together before we actually got to work. And that first line took on a lot of resonance, looking around the table. It has to do with the passage of time, and I remember getting completely waterlogged when I said it the first time out loud, looking around at all the faces of my friends. It was very, very powerful to be together again and sort of wrenching to have it end again so quickly because of the feelings that we all have for each other. There’s a lot of love there.

Do you know what Jane’s been doing for this past decade?

Yes, there’s some lore out there about her. Some of it’s even sexual, so with a slight collapse of time to include this chapter, she will have been working already with Buffalo Bill Cody doing some road shows and performing. She started to have a reputation, and she started to be a bit of a personality, and she’s been trading on that, and probably getting some free drinks out of that, making her way. So there’s a tad, and this is reflected more in the costume, more theatrical physicality about her. Janey Bryant did this wonderful costume with this hat that felt like a cross between Petruchio and Cyrano de Bergerac, so there’s this other aspect to her now. But in my portrayal, I didn’t want to move too far away from the Jane incarnation of the first time. I didn’t want to move into some new zone with her. I wanted there to be a natural maturation process but with the same ingredients intact. So she still has that same combination of bravado and vulnerability. She still has a tenderness at her core.

She does mention Wild Bill Hickok briefly. Does she still think of him often, or is this more of a return-to-Deadwood thing?

Oh yeah. I mean, it’s so funny because I’ve built this into my DNA so deeply that when I saw Keith Carradine at the premiere we had in LA, my heart just swelled at the sight of him. I hadn’t seen him for a very long time, but it was very much Jane’s heart swelling. She’s very much constructed him as He Who I Must Follow, He Who I Must Emulate, My Everything. For her, that figure being taken out of this world, and in her own view, kind of on her watch — she feels like she should have somehow managed to get in the way of it happening. That haunts her every day, and I think it’s a big part of what’s kept her away from Deadwood all this time, in spite of the allure of going back to where Joanie is. The Bill Hickok piece of her being is huge. She has terrible guilt and nightmares about what she couldn’t do, and I think her deepest fear is that she’s incapable of rescuing. She has many demons, but that’s a big one for her, and something that the movie beautifully responds to about her, so I like that a lot. Without doing a spoiler, by the end of the film, she has managed to perform a rescue in a pretty significant way.

It’s an experience to absorb Jane’s story, and of course, David Milch’s dialogue is iconic. Is it a challenge to deliver?

When something is as grounded as his writing is, and visceral-like, it’s not hard to deliver. You find the root of it in yourself, and the language follows. There are certainly writers out there who try to conjure a period by making their characters very loquacious and using a gilded language. That’s not what he’s doing here. He’s grounded everybody’s language, both their profanity and their higher loquation in character, so if you dig into who you’re playing, you find that language in the character. You’re not reaching for it. When I was doing plays a lot more, there were plays that were easier to memorize, [the ones that] had music in them. It’s really easy to memorize and internalize and take on Shakespeare because he’s written it with kind of music and humanity in it. David gets compared to Shakespeare, but there’s some truth to it. He is that level of genius. He’s tapping into some kind of a vein when he writes that’s very deep and very wide, and very accessible, actually.

Getty Image

Well, as you’re aware, Jane’s grubby look is very unlike how you look elsewhere. People didn’t always recognize you in public from this role. Has that changed, or do people mostly know you from Sons of Anarchy, Dietland, Jessica Jones, and the like?

I more often get the approach of “where do I know you from?” rather than “I think I know you from here.” They come to it slowly, which I like. Every so often, somebody has full-on recognition, and I think if the character’s Jane that they recognize me from that it’s often when I’m sweating at the gym. Looking grungy, and that’s an interesting place to be recognized, when you’re trying to work out. There’s something manifest about my personality that’s in contradiction. I’m shy and eggheaded. [Well], Jane’s shy, too. She extroverts everything as a defense, and I am not like that. So, it’s a stretch to go from meeting me to connecting that character. I’ve had full-on conversations with people who say, “Oh, [Deadwood‘s] one of my favorite shows, do you watch it?” And it takes them forever to get that I was in it — because my personality’s so different from Jane’s. I remember being on a red carpet, and a woman said, “This is what you really look like!” And I said, “Are you kidding, this takes hours.” That was no more the “real me” than anything else. So beauty is deceptive and elusive and not a constant for women ever, if we’re telling the truth of it.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that a steady stream of Deadwood actors popped up on Sons of Anarchy. And now multiple SOA characters have surfaced on Mayans M.C.

Oh, is that right?

You played a SAMCRO attorney, but would you be down for appearing on Mayans as well?

Yeah! That isn’t a show that I’ve kept up with, but I didn’t realize there was so much cross-pollination between the shows.

It’s starting to really kick in, but I shall not spoil!

I should check it out. That character, well, I always thought it would be interesting to go deeper with her because it’s super interesting to be an attorney for known criminals. The ethical line you have to walk is kind of fascinating to me. We didn’t go to all the places we could have gone in that show, but I think that situation and following the letter of the law and also serving these people, and genuinely caring about them — it was all of the intended danger of caring about them. So I was interested in the set-up for her, so she would be a fascinating character to return to. But that, too, feels like a long time ago, even though that was in the more recent past. The fun of being an actor is the road not taken. In a different life, I could have been an attorney or a psychotherapist.

Speaking of that psychotherapist role, your Big Little Lies character appears in the season 2 trailer.

Yes!

I know you can’t tell us anything because Laura Dern told us the same thing, but were you surprised to see a new season happen (on a limited series) and with Meryl Streep?

I’m going to be seeing the first episode tonight at the premiere, but the gift for me is that I can’t really give [spoilers] because the material changed enough times that I’m actually not sure where things landed, so I’m going to be a very curious viewer myself. That’s cool. I have always been in the deepest admiration of Meryl. I know she’s the reason I wanted to be an actress. The entire reason — totally her fault — is because I fell in love with her acting, and the fact that our paths have gotten to cross a few times has been a tremendous gift for me. Every time I’ve encountered her, it’s been a huge lesson in everything. I got to watch a little of her work, and without saying anything about plot, her part is fascinating and complex, and as always, transformative work.

And we may have seen the last of Calamity Jane with this movie. Are you satisfied with the ending she receives?

Well, for there to be an ending at all feels like there was another little death. With last time, I didn’t know there was an ending, but there’s an ending this time. It’s really valuable when you can say goodbye to a living person, not a character. To have a moment before they pass when they’re lucid, and you can be with them and look them in the eye and relate to them and say goodbye. And this was [like] that. I got to look everyone in the eye, and I don’t mean the actors, who I can see again from time to time, but the eyes of the characters they embodied. There are things that the camera won’t even have recorded that are recorded in me. We did this scene where we’re all together, and I had a moment where Alma Garrett and Calamity Jane were seeing each other, even though it’s not visible in the film — it’s little things, little tiny beats of life. What you can feel in the film is all of that, you can feel that it’s happening everywhere. The fabric of this community is there, and it’s a palpable energy that an audience can perceive. I love that that’s captured, and I love that I got to visit and re-embrace and say a meaningful goodbye to the character.

HBO’s ‘Deadwood: The Movie’ debuts Friday, May 31. This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

×