Walton Goggins on ‘Deep State’, the ‘L.A. Confidential’ Pilot, and ‘The Righteous Gemstones’

Collider.com — From co-creator/showrunner/writer/director Matthew Parkhill, the Epix drama series Deep State is a fast-moving espionage thriller that follows what happens after U.S. Special Forces are killed in an ambush in Mali, leaving it up to operative Nathan Miller (Walton Goggins) to find answers and resolve the situation, and to keep things business as usual in Washington, D.C. However, all is not as it seems, and it rarely is when it comes to the deep state, politics and government conspiracies.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Walton Goggins talked about the appeal of a project like Deep State, the challenges of making a solid thriller that spans three countries, understanding his character, why every day was a challenge, and what makes him and showrunner Matthew Parkhill soul brothers. He also talked about reuniting with Danny McBride for the HBO series The Righteous Gemstones (premiering in August), the heartbreak over the L.A. Confidential pilot ultimately not getting picked up, his upcoming half-hour comedy series The Unicorn (premiering in the fall on CBS), and which directors he’d love to work with.

Collider: This is definitely one of those exciting, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, where you wonder who’s going to make it out, by the end.  

WALTON GOGGINS: I’m just so grateful for the opportunity, and for the invitation to come play on this kind of global experience. Matthew Parkhill, whom I’m now a very big fan of, both personally and professionally, was enamored with The Shield. It was one of his favorite shows. And also, Syriana is one of his favorite films. He is influenced by all of these stories that weave these multiple threads, and have these dense character arcs that overlap and intersect with one another. When he set out to do this, it’s very different than Season 1, and he wanted to layer in an origin story for the people that were there, from the beginning, and introduce this character, and then have him continue in the story. It’s very difficult to pull off something like that, but I think he did it. I was just so grateful and on board for whatever he had in his imagination.

It’s difficult to pull off a good thriller, and to make sure that the ending is just as good as the beginning.

GOGGINS: Yeah. And in some ways, the second season of any show, more often than not, is when you get the opportunity to broaden the definition of what a show is and can become, at least in my experience with both The Shield and Justified, although I think the first season of both were so unbelievably satisfying. And I feel that way about Deep State, and what it’s trying to say in Season 2. Season 1 was really about discovering that the Deep State exists, and Season 2 is about, “Okay, then what exactly is the Deep State? What are their motivations? How do they work? What becomes of the people that represent those institutions?” That’s where I got really excited. There’s a price to pay, morally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, for being an ambassador of institutions that ostensibly run the world,. That’s what you’re going to see, for this experience, from Nathan Miller.

It’s really interesting storytelling that we get to learn about your character and this team across two timelines, running concurrently throughout the season. You get to watch where he’s come from while seeing what he’s currently dealing with. Do you feel like that helps give the viewer an understanding of his motivations and actions, seeing those two timelines together?

GOGGINS: Yeah, I do. I think one would say that about themselves. If you explore a person two years ago, and you explore a person today, on the other side of a significant event in one’s life, you would be able to understand them more deeply. While that requires the viewer to be invested and on a level that is not unexpected really in today’s television landscape, it does give you a real interesting perspective on why a person has become who they’ve become, and it lets you do that pretty quickly. For the characters that I’ve had an opportunity to play in television, that’s taken six or seven years to reach those conclusions. By the end of this season, whatever you think of Nathan Miller, you will have a sped up timeline in which to view who he is and his place in the world, and that’s also for every single character in this story.

This is a show that was shot on location across three countries, and that also did a stint in the Sahara Desert. What’s the experience like, shooting something like this, in all of those places?

GOGGINS: For me, I have always wanted to be a part of a political thriller that intersected cultures, economics, and diverse interests from different groups. I haven’t gotten to play Jason Bourne in a movie, so for me, it was a dream come true. This is a story that takes place in three different countries, and there are seven different languages, with people from all over the world and one American, which is me. To step into that kind of sandbox is something that I’ve always wanted to play in, and it’s a show that’s not just made for a U.S. audience. It’s really made for all of the constituents that FOX International has, around the world. It has something for everyone. There are pebbles that are dropped into a lake, that make a very small wave, but that can turn into a tsunami. All of those waves intersect to bring about a change, which is sometimes for the greater good, and sometimes not for the greater good.

It seems like this was a shoot that was pretty high intensity with a lot of tension among the characters. Was there a hardest or most challenging day on this shoot? Were there days that were particularly challenging, especially depending on what locations you were in?

GOGGINS: Every day was challenging, and every day was exhilarating. Matthew Parkhill is a person not so different than myself. I think we’re soul brothers, in the way that he doesn’t like stages or sets that are built. He likes the reality of being in any given location. That really stimulates him. And so, when you don’t have the comfort of at least having a home base, and you’re moving every single day, for upwards of five months, that’s a challenge. That’s a challenge for the cast, the crew, and the directors. Matthew Parkhill created and wrote the show, and he directed half of it. And then, this wonderful British director, Joss Agnew, came onboard to direct the other half. And we had two DPs, Nic Lawson and Nick Dance, with all of the challenges that they faced. We all grew very tight, and it was about communicating in all of these different places. Some crew was there the whole time, but the crews changed, depending on which country we filmed in. It was an extraordinary struggle, really. It’s baffling that we were able to pull this off, for the budget that we pulled it off for, and all the while saying something that I think is really personal. It’s personal to me, I know it’s personal to Matthew Parkhill, and I think it’s personal to everyone involved.

I was so very thrilled to learn that you’d be reuniting with Danny McBride for The Righteous Gemstones because it would have been tragic, if you weren’t a part of that show. When and how did you find out that he wanted you to be a part of that series?

GOGGINS: He’s one of my best friends. Our experience together on Vice Principals formed a friendship that will last for the rest of my life, for sure. We talk all of the time, and we’ve been talking about this, for the better part of a year. For Danny, it was just figuring out, “Okay, well, how do we do this again? How do we do it in a way that isn’t repetitive of how we did it during Vice Principals? How do we fit in this story?” I won’t say much more than that. Suffice it to say, we’ve been talking about it for a long time, and when he found it in his magical imagination, it was perfect. He said, “I want you to play a 67-year-old man.” I said, “Damn, Danny, really? You want to sit in a make-up chair for how fuckin’ long?!” But, it worked and I’m so unbelievably happy. I am thrilled for this experience and what’s happening. It is so goddamn funny and so poignant, and it will cause a stir, in the way that Danny, Jody [Hill], and David Gordon Green do. They make big waves. There’s no place that I would rather be. It’s a real spiritual home for me, being with those gentlemen.

It seems like the world of televangelists just has endless comedy, and I can’t imagine how much more twisted it gets, when you run it through the mind of Danny McBride.

GOGGINS: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like the way that he did with Kenny Powers, and with Lee Russell and Neal Gamby. You can bet that, as funny as Danny can be, it’s also gonna be poignant, and there will be moments that make you pause and look at your own life and think, “Wow, okay, I didn’t expect that.” That’s what he does, and what these guys do, as well as anybody.

Obviously, your Vice Principals character was a very different character for you, and it seems like your character in The Righteous Gemstones is also a very different character. At this point, are you just game for anything he might suggest to you?

GOGGINS: Pretty much anything. I think I would play a dog, if he said, “I want you to play a Labrador Retriever.” I would say, “Well, okay, man. Yeah, all right. I’ve got to go to a Labrador Retriever school. Okay, I got that.” Yeah, I would do pretty much anything that those boys asked me to do.

I was also very surprised to learn that Quentin Tarantino released The Hateful Eight on Netflix, as a four-part miniseries with unseen footage. Did you know that he was planning on doing that, and have you seen it?

GOGGINS: I’ve been working, and Quentin keeps a lot of that stuff close to his vest. I’m just so unbelievably blown away that this exists in the world, right now. I’m not going to watch it on my computer. I’m going to watch it on my big screen television, so I’m just waiting to have the time to really sit down and watch it properly. But, I can’t fuckin’ wait. I’m so excited. Who can pull off what Quentin can pull off, anyway? He is singular in his authentic expression of himself, and he’s just a national and international treasure. He really is just a fuckin’ genius, man.

You’ve worked with some pretty incredible filmmakers, over the course of your career. Are there any directors still on your acting bucket list, that you’d love to do a project with?

GOGGINS: Oh, man, there are so many, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Jacques Audiard. There are so many wonderful directors out there, even just directors that I’ve met at awards shows, or actors I’ve met at awards shows. There are so many, and life is, knock on wood, hopefully very, very long. I feel like I still have a few years left in me to tell stories, and I’m going to keep telling them, as long as I get the invitation to do so.

I have to say that I was pretty convinced that L.A. Confidential would be a sure pick-up to TV series, and then was crushed that we not only would not get it as a TV show, but that I’d never even get to see the pilot. Do you have any idea why it was ultimately passed on? Was it just too outside of the wheelhouse for CBS?

GOGGINS: I think you would have to ask those guys. But I can say, with a high level of confidence, that they absolutely loved it. It was universally loved by CBS, and by all of the principle players. I think we did something really, really special, and (pilot director and executive producer) Michael Dinner did something really special. Sometimes things, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks. For all of the players involved, that is one that all hearts were broken on, across the board. There are no easy answers, and I don’t have all of the answers. What I do know is that all of the players involved, both behind and in front of the camera, set out to make something special, and I think we all did that. I think it was viewed that way, but sometimes things just don’t line up that have nothing to do with the creative effort, and that’s really hard to take. That’s the worst. You’d rather make a piece of shit, and not get picked up.

Because then you can be like, “Thank god, I got out of that one!”

GOGGINS: Yeah, and you just walk away from it. But, that wasn’t the case with this. There was a reason behind it, meaning that everything happens for a reason, as we all know. I have the good fortune of being back in something that is so far outside of my wheelhouse, with The Unicorn, and I’m really excited about. I’m really proud of that. It’s exactly what I would have wanted to do, in that world.

It seems so hard, when you find something that you want to do, but then you don’t know if it’s going to go ahead, even though you fall in love with the material.

GOGGINS: Yeah, those are the parameters in which you commit to that relationship. That’s just part of it. And that isn’t just my experience, that’s every single person that has ever done a pilot, over the course of however many pilots have been made for the last 70 years, and certainly in the last 40. That’s the deal, but that doesn’t make the relationship any less sweet, or sweeter. I’ve tried very hard, in my life, not to have a real attachment to the outcomes of things, other than how my 8-year-old son turns out. But outside of that, I genuinely try to just be grateful for the experience and do the best fuckin’ job that I can do, for whoever I’m working for. That’s my motivation. I can sleep at night, if I’ve done that, and I can feel good about my contribution.

You talked about The Unicorn (which has been picked up for the CBS fall season) being outside of your wheelhouse. What was it about that project and character that made you want to do it?

GOGGINS: It’s a story about a man who loses his wife to cancer. He nursed her for the last year of her life, and is now a year into her passing. He has two daughters, and a group of friends that want to see him be okay, and to start living his life again. If that were a drama, I would want to do it. If it were a dramedy, I would want to do it. And if it was a comedy that understood what it was trying to say and how important it is to say that, I would want to do it. All of the players involved – from (executive producer) Peyton Reed, to Bill [Martin] and Mike [Schiff], our writers, and (executive producer) Aaron Kaplan, and CBS – it’s so different for me to think about myself, in that way. Everyone involved wanted to do a show about life on the other side of loss, which is very, very, very important to me. Today, in the world that we live in, and certainly when you’re into your 40s, if not before that, we’ve all experienced that, on some level, whether it’s a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend of a friend, or whoever it is. I have five good friends that have been through this very thing. And the story is based on a friend of the writer’s. It’s his story. So, if we can provide an opportunity for people to come together and find some joy and relief, and someone says, “Man, we’ve been there, or we know people that have been there, and we also understand the absurd nature of life on the other side,” you could do some real good in the world, if that’s where your heart is coming from.

You definitely have to find a way to laugh at the tragedy because the tragedy is going to happen, whether you like it or not, and finding some humor in it, in some way, helps.

GOGGINS: That’s right. There’s always humor in it. There’s humor in everything, man.

Deep State airs on Sunday nights on Epix. The Righteous Gemstones premieres on HBO in August. The Unicorn will air on Thursday nights on CBS this fall.

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