Timothy Olyphant may embody the steely-eyed, white-hatted hero on “Justified,” the backwoods crime drama on FX based on stories by Elmore Leonard, but Walton Goggins supplies the show’s tortured soul.
His character, Boyd Crowder, began the series, which returns for its second season on Feb. 9, as a seemingly psychotic white supremacist. But as the show progressed, an apparent spiritual awakening led the character to break with his father, a crime boss, and, in the season finale, save his on-again, off-again adversary, played by Mr. Olyphant, in a climactic shootout.
Mr. Goggins grounded the pulpy twists with an understated portrayal that mixed the series’ florid dialogue with an unhinged ambiguity. Boyd’s motives were never entirely clear, and a character originally presented as a “stereotypical over-the-top redneck racist,” as Mr. Goggins put it, was revealed to be an intelligent manipulator and a cagey counterpoint to the United States marshal Raylan Givens, the protagonist, played by Mr. Olyphant.
The evolution happened on the fly. The original script killed off Boyd in the pilot, and when the producers decided to keep him around, Mr. Goggins helped them take the character beyond a stereotype. “I wasn’t interested in playing that person in the pilot,” he said. “I’m from the South — I’m not going to sell out my own culture for the sake of a television show.”
Mr. Goggins, who grew up in Georgia, is probably best known for playing another volatile gunslinger on FX’s dirty-cop drama, “The Shield.” He has also worked steadily in film — he will next appear in Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens“ this summer. He spoke with Jeremy Egner about “Justified” and about life as a professional loose cannon.
Q. There are interesting parallels between Boyd and Raylan — it’s hard to imagine what the show would have been like without you.
A. I think they thought it was going to be more of a procedural, and I don’t know that that’s why audiences tune into FX. I think you need a healthy dose of the stand-alone episodes, but it’s the overarching story lines of the characters that bring people to a cable series. Otherwise they’d just watch network television.
Q. You said you didn’t want to “sell out” Southern culture. How do you feel about the characters on “Justified,” which is set mostly in and around Harlan, Ky., who are cooking meth or using slurs or whatever?
A. There are things said here and there, but I think for the most part the show celebrates rural people. I don’t think it makes fun of them. On some level we’re trying to be authentic — without authenticity nothing rings true, and why do it?
Q. Do you see your character as a villain?
A. Not at all. This is a guy who lives in the extreme, he has to believe fervently in something in order for the universe to make sense. Whatever he does, he does 100 percent and becomes consumed by it. Whether it’s blowing things up, like in the pilot, or whether it’s a real belief in God.
Q. Was it real belief? There was a persistent question last season over whether his newfound religion was genuine.
A. It was my job to keep people guessing, because that’s when Boyd is strongest, when he keeps people in Harlan guessing. But in his private moments with Raylan in the finale, you saw that the conversion was real. This season you’re going to get to really see who this guy is, and what’s interesting, hopefully, is that the audience will be the only people who believe Boyd Crowder this year. No one else on the show will.
Q. Many people know you as the rogue cop Shane Vendrell on “The Shield.” Do you see any overlap between these two roles?
A. I don’t. Shane was a guy who showed up in a room 20 seconds too late and spent the rest of his time trying to catch up. His actions are reactive, not proactive. Boyd is the antithesis of all of that. He’s a guy who more often than not is ahead of the curve.
Q. Why do you think people like to cast you as loose cannons?
A. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Even in “Predators” or this new movie, “Cowboys and Aliens,” it seems like I get to take these characters who you shouldn’t like and make them likable and make you feel for them. I’d like to be in a romantic comedy as much as anybody, you know? [Laughs]
Q. Do people ever expect you to resemble these characters in reality?
A. Yeah, everybody! They expect me to be humorless and, with Shane, not very smart. I did this interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” on NPR, and she said: “Walton, the reason I didn’t want to talk to you for eight years is I just didn’t think you were a very smart person. But then I saw the first season of ‘Justified,’ and you convinced me otherwise.” Certainly people associate you with the characters you play, but hopefully they don’t see me as a psychopath.
Q. Do you have any more “crazy Southern guy” roles in you?
A. I’ve been trying to put that to bed for a while. People said that Shane was Southern, and I never saw that. I guess there was the occasional cowboy hat, but I never saw him as rural.
Q. That said, you’re in the coming “Straw Dogs” remake. Isn’t that set in the South?
A. Yeah, it is. Rod Lurie, the director, asked me what I’d like to play, and I said, “I want to be the brother, and the reason I want to play him is he’s not a bad guy.” [Laughs] There is something that he does that’s kind of shocking. But he does it out of love.