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'Justified' postmortem: Jere Burns talks about Mikey's loyalty and THAT scene

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James Minchin/FX

Spoiler alert! Jere Burns, who plays the motor-home loving Wynn Duffy on FX’s Justified, joined us to talk about “Fugitive Number One,” the violent, intense 11th episode of the show’s final season. If you haven’t watched the episode yet, you might want to stop reading right about now…

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, just to start off, how the hell does Wynn Duffy keep surviving?

JERE BURNS: So you’ve seen the episode, right?

I’ve definitely seen the episode.

How wild was that?

Oh, I was losing my mind throughout it.

[Laughs] I don’t know how he does. You know, he was supposed to die after two episodes in the first season.

I didn’t know that!

Yeah, he was supposed to die. I was hired to do two episodes in the first season. I was supposed to get shot in the head. Then I did get shot, but they shot me in the shoulder instead, I think. Then I became recurring, then they made me a regular in… I think it was the third or fourth season. He’s just… I don’t know how to describe him.

So there’s some life imitating art there. Duffy goes into every season not knowing whether he’ll be alive or not, and you don’t know how long you’ll get to play him. You guys are in the same boat, each wondering about your future.

Exactly! It’s very analogous.

I was hoping you could take me through that crazy, violent scene with Katherine Hale and Mikey from this episode. Did you know this was going down far in advance, or did you learn about it when you got the script?

At the beginning of the season, I pitched to Graham [Yost] that I would love to shoot Mikey. I would love for us, for them, to create a situation where Mikey gets so badly wounded that I have to put him down like a dog, that I have to put him out of his misery, and it’s the most compassionate thing that Wynn does in six years. I think that’s where we were headed with this scene, but then he’s just…in the end, he’s just so mortally wounded that that was unnecessary. It would have been redundant at that point; he was so riddled with bullets. So I knew something like that was coming down the pipe from about episode three or four.

It’s interesting that that’s the original pitch, because you mention wanting Wynn to have this compassionate moment. I think in this scene, when Mikey is dying and Wynn asks hims what he can do, and Mikey says he wants to be held, it has the potential to be funny or awkward, but ends up being really tender and moving. How did you read that part of the scene?

So much happens… there’s so much violence that precedes that…. it’s funny, I’m in the car with my brother-in-law, and he’s diving for headphones because he doesn’t want to find out what we’re talking about [laughs]. Okay, he can’t hear a thing now. So I think, as scripted, there was a bit more dialogue than we actually used once we got to shooting the scene. There was some beautiful Justified back-and-forth between Mikey and Wynn, and in the end, that sort of just went away in the playing because by the time I free myself and look at him, Wynn is pretty much speechless. There’s not much to say. And then when Mikey says “hold me,” there’s really not much to say, other than just doing what he asks and making the best of a horrific situation. That was the best he could do in that moment, was hold the guy as he leaves his body.

So part of the power of the scene is that Duffy is normally the talkative guy.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, talk about being at a loss for words. Including when the operator, at the end of the scene, says, “what’s your emergency?” and I…I think I say, “I don’t know where to start.”

Which, again, is a bit of a comedic moment, but I think it’s mostly sad.

Yeah, I hope by the time you get to that… there’s a bit of relief, but I hope nobody finds it funny.

It might be the most brutal scene I’ve seen this show do.

Absolutely. When Mikey dies, it’s kind of like when Lennie dies in Of Mice and Men; it’s brutal.

And was it just as brutal to film?

It was brutal in a lot of ways because, there’s the crazy stunt of Mary’s double having to be lifted up and slammed into the table, and there was a lot of gunfire and a lot of hits. When you’re in that tiny space…even though we’re shooting a TV show, it seems super violent. Even when I was under the table and unable to see what was going on, and just hearing bullets and screaming and then seeing blood coming through the table, you know. I think what I like about it is you find out… Wynn gets to be a human being in the end. You get to know that he really loves this guy. What I also like about the scene is when Mary says, like, Wynn, where do you want it? And I just look at her and say, you know, just shoot me straight on. If this is how it’s going to be, this is how it’s going to be. It’s sort of like Wynn saying, this is the life I chose, and if this is the way it ends, this is the way it ends.

I asked Mary Steenburgen this as well, and I’d love to get your take: What’s it like acting in a scene where the audience hasn’t seen a lot of the backstory, as is the case with many of your scenes with Mary Steenburgen this season? Is it challenging?

Well that scene was a lot easier than the other scenes because you knew exactly what the stakes were; everything was very immediate. We weren’t talking about anything in our past. I mean, she was coming there to shoot me in that motor home, and Mikey’s there…everything was immediate. That scene plays whether you know who these characters are anyway. There were other scenes along the way, from the last two years, where I’d have to say to the guys, “Now what happened? What’s our history?” Those were hard to play. How do we convey to the audience that that’s in fact what we are playing, that it happened in the past? That was a challenge.

This question is all personal opinion, but do you think Duffy deserved to have Mikey sacrifice himself? Did he deserve that kind of loyalty?

Well, I’m biased. I guess I feel like I would have rather had taken that bullet from Katherine Hale; just one in the head, let it be over, rather than a guy 20 years my junior get cut down like that. But it’s hard to say. I mean, if Duffy is anything, he’s a survivor, and one more time, whether he likes it or not, if Mikey had to die for him to survive, I guess so be it. Duffy was ready to take it though.

Even though Hale is dead now, this doesn’t exactly eliminate all of Duffy’s problems, right?

No. Markham’s still out there, and there’s also a lot of money. Who’s going to get that money? It remains to be seen by the audience whether Duffy goes, this is it, I can’t handle this, or if he makes a play for the money…or if he survives long enough to make a play for the money! The things left on the table that are pertinent to him are the money and Markham. And there are only two episodes left. At the end of tonight’s episode though, he has no plan.

Lastly, what’s it been like playing Duffy over all these years? Have you ever played someone like this before?

It’s been a great experience. I’ve never played anybody like Duffy. I don’t know if I’ve ever played a character that rich. I don’t think there’s ever been a character like Duffy. 

Justified airs at 10 p.m. ET on FX.