With a great white shark of a grin and a maniacal laugh that's at once infectious and chilling, it's no wonder that Walton Goggins so often plays shady characters. As Justified's Boyd Crowder, the actor was first seen as a white supremacist bombing black churches in an episode that was meant to be the character's last gasp, but Goggins's performance was so mesmerizing that his death scene was reshot. Crowder made it to the last scene in the series as Deputy Raylan Givens's main antagonist and ally, a complex, charismatic and surprisingly sympathetic man who's at least as much victim as perpetrator.
Goggins is now co-starring in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, an Agatha Christie-esque mystery in the guise of a western, in which a motley collection of shady individuals trapped inside an enclosed space spin stories, spar, and kill one another as the question of who's behind the murders and other mysteries are gradually revealed. Chris Mannix is another of Goggins's antiheroes turned unlikely hero, a vigilante who's just been appointed sheriff of Red Rock, Wyoming, and a proud but defeated Confederate who forms an initially reluctant alliance with a former Union officer—and a black one at that (Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis Warren).
When we spoke earlier this month, Goggins was analytical, witty, and sincere as he talked about having come to terms with playing “that guy,” being grateful for the opportunity to play smart, complicated characters for the past few years, and the Zen of discovering a new character.
A lot of people assume that Southerners, especially poor white Southerners, are stupid or somehow backward, and you often play characters who are underestimated in that way. As an actor, have you ever had to deal with that stereotype yourself?
Certainly in the early part of my career. You have to go to work and earn the right, over the course of your career, to say things that are more meaningful. More often than not you're relegated to whatever box that the story needs to put you in, and you have a line here, two lines, whatever that is, and you have to service the story that way. But you hopefully, over the course of your career, earn the right to contribute to the story in a more complex way.
You specialize in playing antiheroes who seem really unsympathetic at first. Is making audiences care about all those bad guys just your way of making the best of the only kind of roles you could get?
It’s not out of ego or my interpretation as an actor, trying to bend the will of a story to service me. It’s really about: “What’s really happening behind this behavior? What do I, as a person, really feel about this?” Because we as human beings are complicated. Nothing is as it seems, ever. Maybe because of the way I look and because of the energy that I have, whatever that is, I’ve had—now I can say—the good fortune to play these nefarious characters who have, surprisingly, a large ability to empathize and to actually see themselves and their place in the world. When you can be vulnerable with yourself as the character you’re playing, and you can look at yourself and your own flawed nature, it makes it so much easier for the audience to go: “You know what? I may not kill people, but I understand him. I understand that self-reflection. I understand him questioning his motivations.”
I used to really, in my own private space, be down about the lot that I had in this industry of storytelling. “Am I that guy? Am I really that guy?” Now it’s like a badge of honor to me. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m that guy.” I enjoy the process of making people understand this person that I’ve been given the opportunity to play in a completely different way.
So, have you found a way to love, or at least understand, every single character you ever played, even the rabidly racist guy in Django Unchained?
Absolutely. What you didn’t get an opportunity to see in Django, because there wasn’t enough time, is that Quentin wrote something that no one has ever written before. He wrote an insightful, self-aware speech about a white man who’s able to articulate his own experience in the only game in town, the slave corporation. He says, “This is what it is, Django. I have risen through the ranks and I am at the top,” the same way that Sam Jackson’s characters, Stephen, has reached the top of the slave institution on the inside of the house. Billy Crash is to the outside of the house what Stephen is to the inside of the house. These are two men who have a vested interest in keeping things the way that they are. And in The Hateful Eight, with the same two actors in a completely different set of circumstances, it’s an opportunity to continue the churning of that narrative: What is the next evolutionary step in that evolving story of race relations in this country?
Tarantino said he knew you’d be good at delivering his dialogue after hearing the “faux Tarantino” dialogue you’d been doing for years in other things, and you’ve talked about how Elmore Leonard was a great gateway to Tarantino because those two have so many similarities. How does being in Tarantino’s world feel like being in Leonard’s?
The characters that I’ve been given an opportunity to play in the last few years dovetail so nicely into what Quentin has done. What Quentin writes is loquacious poetry—for everybody. You could take any one of these speeches out of any of these Tarantino movies and have the most unbelievable episode of The Moth [podcast] you’ve ever heard. Really, if you think about it. [Laughs] It’s like, “And now, Chris Mannix, on The Moth.” Or Major Warren, or [Kurt Russell’s character] John Ruth. I’ve been given an opportunity, for the last seven, eight years of my career, to speak from an evolved, very smart point of view. Regardless of what color you are, what gender you are, if you’re smart, people will listen. Regardless of what you do, whether they forgive you for what you do in a story or they don’t forgive you, they will listen to you. That’s the case with Chris Mannix.
Tarantino and Leonard also write about violence in an interesting way. Their main characters are usually people who revert to violence to solve their problems—or try to—and who think and talk a lot about what they are doing and why. I think a lot of what interests them both is what makes someone commit a violent act.
Yeah. Yeah. And this one takes place in such an interesting point in our country’s history, at the end of the Civil War. People were tired. People were broke, emotionally and financially. Quentin has assembled this group of people in this room who don’t want to be there, who are liars lying. There are multiple stories going on in each frame, and besides what’s in focus and what you think you’re supposed to be looking at, there’s always an equally important story going on right behind that person, or with the person sitting in the corner all by himself. There are three or four stories at once, and it’s as if you can hear the thoughts in the heads of the people who aren’t speaking. The room, the weather, the snow accumulation, and the violence of the blizzard outside tell their own story. The lighting in the room, as the lies get thicker and everything gets darker, as night comes. Everything is contributing to these lies told from multiple angles, until the ultimate truth is revealed. And when that happens, something revelatory happens, and despite all that’s transpired in this room, something beautiful happens. Really beautiful. That was an incredible thing to be a part of.
This was your second time working with Tarantino, and most of the other actors in the cast had also worked with him before. Did you all have a shared understanding or vocabulary from the start?
I did, yeah. I would say that I had a shorthand, whereas Sam and [Tim] Roth and [Michael] Madsen had a short-short-shorthand, because of the length of time that they have collaborated with Quentin. But it felt very good to understand the way Quentin approaches his work and to have that under my belt walking into this experience. To see Jennifer [Jason Leigh], because it’s her first time, transition, to see her go through that process, and to see Demian [Bichir] go through that process, made me nostalgic in some ways. I was like, “I remember that!” There was one point in Django where Quentin called “Action!” and I turned around to say whatever it was that I was going to say, and I just saw all of those people and Quentin Tarantino on a ladder, and the only thing that came out of my mouth was: “I’m in a fucking Quentin Tarantino movie!” It’s that kind of childish, giddy excitement.
You have a really versatile and mesmerizing laugh. In fact, your character in American Ultra was defined by his laugh, which was extremely creepy. I’m guessing it must be hard to do a good scary laugh, because not many people do it as well as you do. Can you talk a little about how you developed Chris Mannix’s laugh?
First of all, I never think of it as Chris Mannix’s laugh, you know? I just try to develop a world through his point of view. And then you spend time like my [four-year-old] son does, thinking about what it’s like to be a volcanologist. You know, when he gets to the other side of the couch, he’s deep in a volcano. He really feels the heat. For me, I think it’s a process of understanding the world. Thinking about where he was when his daddy did this, what he was he like when his dad left the house and he was with his mother, what that was like, and how bad did he want to go with his dad, and when did he become old enough to do it.
Quentin said the only person I really had to study was William Clark Quantrill. I read books about him and about Robert E. Lee. So, for me, it becomes a process of just thinking about this guy. And then all of a sudden, you just kind of find yourself. I don’t know if you discover Chris Mannix’s walk. I think the walk discovers you. It’s always there, because this guy exists in the world. Or his laugh, or all the nuances. They are thought about to some extent, for sure, but when they finally come about, it’s because you aren’t thinking about it, you know? I think it’s like that with any piece of art, or a great pipe for a plumber, or whatever. It’s like, “Wow, that was a great weld.” Why? Because you weren’t thinking about it.
Written for Slant Magazine