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'Justified' postmortem: Sam Elliott on Avery Markham and the threat of a beautiful woman

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Byron Cohen/FX

Spoiler alert! Sam Elliott, who plays the notorious Avery Markham, joined us this week to tak about the season’s fifth episode and how Markham, despite his hubris, may have one fatal flaw. If you haven’t watched the episode yet, you might want to stop reading right about now…

Entertainment Weekly: Before we touch on this episode and Avery Markham more specifically, tell me a bit about how your involvement with Justified came about.

Sam Elliott: Well, it’s just the luck of the draw. After being in this business almost 50 years and thinking it’s pretty much come down to selling trucks and beer on television, I got a big shot last year, and this was part of it, probably the biggest part of it. I’ve been a fan of the show off and on for years–I don’t watch any episodic TV religiously, I don’t think–but anytime I ever came across it, or go looking for it on a Tuesday night, I was always impressed by the writing, and the people in front of the camera as well. It just came my way, and I was very fortunate that it did.

Had you envisioned being on the show when you watched it, or was it not something you thought about until the opportunity came about?

It was just really when the opportunity came along. I’d done a lot of television early on in my career. Not a lot of episodic, but a lot of what they used to call longform; six-hour and nine-hour shows, and that was a world apart from where we are today since digital has come in, and cable. It’s structured in a different manner. I think cable television leans toward great artistic freedom, not a lot of people looking over your shoulder with suits on, trying to figure out what they’re going to put between the scenes. So I look at it as a real blessing that came my way and a real opportunity to work with some creative people on both sides of the camera.

There’s a lot of talent on Justified.

A ton, and like I said, on both sides. Graham Yost and his band of writers and producers are as good as they get, as far as I’m concerned. The other thing about them is that they’re collaborative. They want the actors to be happy, they want them to be comfortable. They’re not going to give you a mouth full of shit you can’t deal with or don’t want to say. They want it to be true to the character, and I think they feel that nobody knows these characters as well as the actors that are playing them, which is quite a shift from what I’m used to.

Was part of the appeal of doing the show just knowing that they had done great things in the past with their guest stars and big villains, like Margo Martindale?

I think when you have an opportunity to go and do 13 episodes, or 12…I jumped at it. There’s a character, and a character arc that you get to travel on, and that’s what makes it so much fun. Each episode doesn’t stand alone.

The first we see of Avery Markham is a scene with Katherine Hale that gives us a bit of their past together, and their uneasy relationship. Should Markham be scared of Hale?

I’m not sure scared is the thing. I remember when I went and talked to the writers initially, before we started, and I went and had a day in the writers rooms with all of them, and the way I looked at it from what I had read and heard of what was to come, I felt that Markham’s flaw was his love of a beautiful woman, and particularly Katherine. You know, love is blind, so they say. There’s a lot of us out here that have gotten into a lot of shit because of a beautiful woman over the years, and I just think that’s what happened with Markham. He came back and was suspect of her, thinking that she was the snitch, and she of him. So there’s an interesting level of tension, and it follows; you don’t really find out until the later episodes who was doing what to whom.

“Love is blind” seems to be one of the overall themes this season. It’s what’s going on with Markham and Hale, as well as Ava with Boyd and Raylan. No one knows who they should trust.

I think you’re right. And unfortunately I think that’s kind of the world we’re beginning to live in as well, on a much more general level. The lucky ones are the ones who have relationships with people they trust.

Is Markham warning Ava out of some sort of care for her, and some sort of empathy for her situation? Or is he intimidating her just like anyone else that might get in his way in Harlan?

Well, I had both in my mind, and that carries over to the next sequence that we’re about to start. A lot of shit has gone down the pipe since then, and now it’s coming down to it. The chips are on the table, and it’s kind of like, “you better listen to what I’m telling you, girl.” He wasn’t bluffing.

What does Markham make of Boyd Crowder? Is he just a nuisance, or a viable threat?

Well, in that scene we just talked about, he verbalizes that he thinks he’s a punk, but I think he just said that to stir him up a little bit. It’s very interesting playing this character that was never there for six years, and now all of a sudden he is. You saw a little bit of it last week, that he’s privy to a lot of back story; he knew a lot of the characters that had come and gone, the Bennetts and the Crowders. The only one he didn’t know, or at least said he didn’t know, was, “I’ve never heard of a Givens.” And I’m not sure he didn’t say that just to stir up Raylan a little bit, which it did. So Markham comes into town and he knows more than you might think.

I think one of the more compelling aspects of Markham is how he comes into this world where… Harlan feels so insular, everything that happens there feels consequential. Markham suggests there’s this whole other world outside of Harlan that’s more complex than anyone in town could ever understand.

Exactly. And he’s bringing that world into Harlan, or that’s his vision anyway. I think Markham’s kidding himself, to be honest with you. Not only his relationship with women, but this whole pipe dream, or not quite a pipe dream but… thinking he’s going to come in there and lay waste to everybody and get their land and start anew; I think on some level he’s really kidding himself.

I was actually going to ask if Marhkam is, to a certain extent, naïve, if he underestimates the situation that he’s in.

I think he sells a lot of them short. And you asked about Boyd, and I think he definitely sells Boyd short. He knows all these folks by reputation if he doesn’t know them personally, and he knew Boyd when he was a little kid–at least he saw him around when he knew his dad. But he’s not going to admit that he’s in over his head because he’s used to getting it. He comes in with a big pile of money, and there’s great security for him.

I think the scene with Markham and Walker this week is really important, because as scary as Walker has been, Markham easily intimidates him. It shows us that Markham is the guy we, and the people of Harlan, should really worry about.

Markham is a very successful man, and he’s obviously been in the shit in his life; he’s obviously killed people. Now he has other people do his dirty work. He mentions to Ava that he knew a lot of bad people in his life, or his share of criminals, but he’s trying to make amends, straighten himself out. But it’s not that he’s stopped dabbling in the dirty world, it’s that he’s having other people do the work for him. I think the element of that scene is that Walker was a military man, and Markham was a military man, and there’s something between military men; there’s an understanding and a respect, regardless of where you are once you’re out of the military. I think that’s part of why, when Markham calls Walker to the table, he doesn’t resist it, he’s just, “yes sir.” Garret [Dillahunt] was incredible. I loved working with him.

And that’s the code of Harlan as well. There’s a pecking order, so to speak.

Exactly. And there is honor among thieves.

Markham isn’t just an outsider, a carpetbagger coming in and setting up shop. He has his roots in Kentucky, and that makes him more threatening, because he understands the lay of the land.

It’s like when Tim [Gutterson, played by Jacob Pitts] was saying, when we’re at the table, and he gives me some comment about not knowing what I’m getting myself into, and that’s when I tell him about my history there. I think there’s a certain amount of people, and Tim’s one of them, that sell Markham short. I think one of the only people that knows is Nick Searcy’s character, Art. There’s a great scene coming up with him, another phenomenal actor.

So why does Markham really come back to Harlan? It would seem to me that he managed to escape the town, which is what so many people want to do, but now he’s back. Is it just for Hale and the legal weed business? Or is there more going on that maybe we just don’t know about?

I think it’s both. Like I said, I think that’s his flaw, this love for this woman that he doesn’t trust. Why would a guy with his head screwed on in the right direction get involved with a woman that he didn’t trust? It just makes no sense. So there’s that. And on the other hand, he’s been so successful in Colorado, regardless of how anyone feels about the legal trade in marijuana. He’s been so successful at it, made so much money, and he knows that there’s rich ground in Kentucky, and that there’s a depressed economy and a depressed people, and he’s going to scoop up as much of that land as he can and wait for marijuana to be legalized. I think he’s kidding himself because I think Kentucky is a zero tolerance state, as I understand it. I mean, it’s going to be a long time before they pull that off, if ever.

Is Markham a role model, in a way, for people like Boyd and Ava, in that he’s the guy who got out and made something of himself?

Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure though. He had his roots in Lexington, and I think that the people you mention, they all have deep roots in Harlan, and that’s a hard box to crawl out of, unless you’ve got the means to go. It’s like Boyd, if he’s ever going to be able to get the money and go, and take Ava with him or whatever he’s got planned. You have to have the means; you can’t just pick up and leave and have a better life.

Which is what Ava tries to do in this episode before Raylan hits her with a dose of reality, that you can’t just run away. It doesn’t work in this day and age.

Yeah. But I have hopes for her that she’ll be able to pull it off. She’s another one of those characters that absolutely, to my mind, needs to go on. It’ll be a real heartbreaker if she doesn’t make it out of there. She’s just been victimized from the get-go. And there’s too much crossover with Ava and Joelle for me; I just really like her a lot.

Which is interesting then because Markham is the one who acknowledges her victimization and tells her to get away.

Yeah, maybe. And she sure is tougher than the men, and that’s what he tells her. For a woman to survive in this line of work you have to be tougher than the men, harder than the men, Otherwise you end up being a pawn, something that can be bartered.

I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but are we going to get more of Markham and Hale’s backstory?

We expand on the relationship. It’s not so much hearing his backstory, but you definitely see more of his relationship with her. 

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