An Easy Chat With Timothy Olyphant About The Return Of Raylan Givens And The Language Of ‘Justified’

There are few truly iconic characters and a lot of pretenders that get close but never quite capture the little things that add up to something mammoth. The swagger, the look, the specific words that cut to the center of a moment right through walls of bluster and piles of bullshit — a cool factor that is effortless and everlasting: Raylan Givens is one of those iconic characters. Created by writer Elmore Leonard for the page and brought to the screen by Graham Yost, a team of writers (including Dave Andron and Michael Dinner, the showrunners behind the latest edition), and actor Timothy Olyphant for what became Justified, a series that ran from 2010 to 2015 prior to the launch of the sequel series, Justified: City Primeval, which debuts Tuesday, July 18 on FX.

Harkening back to the TV and movie cowboy lawmen of another era but with a little more edge, wear, and shade, there’s a simplicity to Raylan’s brand of justice that isn’t always that simple. It’s something this sequel series attempts to wrestle with while also exploring big questions like “Is Raylan a good man?” and “Is he a bad father?”

When we spoke with Olyphant a few weeks ago about the return of this character in this new world (literally and figuratively as the show has moved from Kentucky to Detroit), he shot a few thoughts our way on those very questions. We also spoke with him about the needed break from the responsibilities of the original series, working with his daughter on the show, and the importance of Raylan’s very specific language (and the writers who craft it). Also art theft and Angela Lansbury. It’s a well-rounded and easy chat, is what I’m saying.

How much fun was this?

It was exactly that. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I’m pretty sure all involved had a good time.

Does it come right back to you? Is it like an old pair of shoes or does it take some work to get back into that mode, into the voice, into the swagger?

You just put the shoes on and off you go. Put the shoes on. The hat still fits.

At the end of the original show, were you just done or were you still actively thinking, “Okay, well, if something comes along down the road, I’d be interested?” Did you have to be talked into it, I guess (is the question)?

My memory is, and I realize that’s not that reliable, but my memory is I said way back when that I’d be interested in coming back, getting the gang together again after some time. But that perhaps we needed some time just to free us up creatively.

I imagine it can be a mixed blessing to have something run so long and have the job be that chunk of your schedule, right?

It’s not just that. I think that the show is so much fun and creating these seasons back in the day, it’s a ridiculously difficult challenge for the writers and then at the same time just such a joy to do it. But in the end, I think that the nature of serial television is you feel beholden to things that creatively might not be what’s best. And just by taking a break, that alone just gives you some freedom to have some perspective to approach the work fresh. And in this case, since Graham (Yost) wasn’t going to come and write the show, the fact that (Dave) Andron and (Michael) Dinner took over, I think that break and that change to take the character to Detroit, it just took the shackles off. It just allowed them to make it their own. It gave them some freedom, and I think it made it exciting. Can we bring all these new characters in, do something totally different, and yet still have it feel like the show?

Does the limited series model open you up in terms of like, “Well, maybe we’ll come back in a couple of years?” As opposed to, okay, next season, next year, the next season, the next year. You’re a little freer with time. Is that part of the appeal?

Yeah, that’s what I was referring to, that I recall saying that years ago. That if they were interested in that kind of model, I think that’d be fun for everybody involved. I mean, it’s what they’ve been doing with that Bond character for half a century.

I was going to reference the old Murder She Wrote movies that would come back around. Bond is a bit of a cooler comp than Angela Lansbury for you, so I guess we’ll go with that one.

I’m an Angela Lansbury fan. That woman was money, so I appreciate that (comp).

Father Dowling Mysteries too.

I appreciate that as well. I’ll take all the cool old TV. I think Tom Selleck did it (make a series of TV movies) for a while.

I can’t remember what the name of it was, but yeah.

I’m going to go with Quigley.

I don’t think it’s Quigley Down Under, I don’t think that’s what we got as a movie-of-the-week every year or so. We should have. (Laughs) Oh, you know what? Jesse Stone? That’s it.

Oh, Jesse Stone. Okay, well, yeah, that has appeal to me (the limited series model).

When the original show ended, you did an interview with Rolling Stone where you said you weren’t sure that Raylan is a great guy. I’m curious if that has changed for you and if he’s grown. Do you think he’s a better guy now?

I think he’s not without his flaws.

Who among us?

Right. And it wouldn’t be a good show if it was any other way.

Right, exactly. Just squeaky clean and super polite. Super responsive to authority. That’d be the best show. Everyone would love that.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Why does he still care after all these years?

About what in particular?

About right and wrong and his version of right and wrong and catching the bad guy, to put it in simple terms.

I imagine he had a good mother.

Does he think he’s a bad dad?

I think he knows he’s trying and it doesn’t come easy. And I think he knows that she’s got his number and she doesn’t see him the way everybody else sees him. And so the challenge is steep. It’s not an easy fix.

Having his number and not seeing him as everybody else sees him, does that resonate with you with having your daughter playing your daughter on the show?

Sadly, Jason, yes, it does.

(Laughs) She’s really great in it. What was the biggest surprise in working with her?

Well, the fact that we were working together was the biggest surprise. Honestly, that’s not something I saw coming. I don’t think most dads see that coming. And we were both aware that it was special and I was just really happy for her. As a parent, you just want your kids to be happy at the end of the day. And when you see your kid having so much fun, working so hard at something, I was really happy for her, felt like she was in the right place.

With your daughter, was there ever a thought to be like, “Oh no, don’t do that. Go do something, anything else but act”? Or was that choice celebrated?

No. I’ve never subscribed to that line of thinking. If any young person has ever asked me for advice, I’m a pursue your bliss guy. Even in failure, it feels like it’ll lead to something better than going after something because you think it’s the right thing to do or the smart thing to do. I think if the pandemic has taught us anything, the fact is life will throw you a curveball no matter what. So there is no safe choice. It’s just such a funny concept that people think that acting is not a job like any other job. It’s the same deal. The same rules apply. So yeah, I’ve never subscribed to that. And if my kids are interested in something, I encourage them to look further into it. And that’s why one of my kids is in prison now. He’s got to learn. You know what I mean?

(Laughs) He loved art so much he wanted to be an art thief. It was his bliss.

Exactly. I was busy and I didn’t hear the specifics. You know what I mean? So I just said, “Yeah, go for it.” And then… we all make mistakes.

Yeah. Well, I think honestly, just in looking through the case files, it was that he really chose poorly in the wheelman that he selected.

(Laughs) That’s right. That’s right. I appreciate you pointing that out, Jason.

It’s all about the people that you work with. It’s all about the collaborators. Speaking of which, and it’s a masterful segue here, the writing on the show has always been, and in this season as well, just so beautiful, such precise phrasing. Feel free to gush about the writers here.

The collaboration with the writers is the most special part of this job. It always has been, and it still is. I just can’t thank them enough for their willingness to dig deeper, to hear me out, to look for other possibilities, to listen to all the other actors. That collaboration, that very human experience, is one of the most special things about the show. And I could argue it’s that process that’s better than the result. And if that was taken away or if I was dealing with anything less than that experience, I wouldn’t be interested in the job.