“Go on home now, show’s over!” declares lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) to a crowd of curious onlookers after some street justice was dispatched on the set of the long-awaited Deadwood movie. But of course, the show is not over. Not quite. HBO has revived its gritty Western for a final farewell to wrap up the acclaimed drama series which was abruptly canceled after three seasons in 2006. Front and center is Olyphant (Justified, Santa Clarita Diet), who was reluctant to pin that star back on his chest, but eventually stepped up to perform his duty like every iconic Old West hero.
On the set of Deadwood: The Movie, which premieres this Sunday on HBO, we caught up with the 51-year-old actor to chat about resurrecting the acclaimed drama.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So for a long time you figured this wasn’t ever going to happen right?
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: I thought it would never happen because I figured I’d never do it.
Why were you reluctant?
I had convinced myself that I had very little interest in revisiting. I think part of it is, when everybody is talking about, “We’re gonna [revive the show], rah-rah-rah” … I’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s not how these things happen. And I was right for about seven years.
You were right for a long time, until you weren’t
And I think it probably in some respects served me well to think of it that way. I just assume nothing is going to happen until they call “action” — and even then I assume I’m getting fired. That’s one of the best things about this job — I’m pretty sure they can’t fire me. Which makes it more fun than the last time I did it. I thought for sure I’d get fired the last time. I thought they’d fire me at any second.
What made you think that back then?
Show business. C’mon, we’re a bunch of neurotic actors at the end of the day. That’s what all actors think.
When did you get a sense this was real?
When I told them I’d do it. [Ian McShane] had already signed on. The impression I got was everything was lined up. By the time I said “yes” they had made the official announcement.
Was it important to you to put a cap on this?
I wasn’t interested in putting a cap on it. It was a wonderful opportunity, is what it was, to work with David and all these people again. It’s been a really nice experience.
What was your reaction to David Milch’s script?
You’re reminded how wonderful the writing is. The language is so rich. As you turn the pages, one character after another reappears and you think, “Ah, I remember that guy, I love that guy.” What made this show great were the characters; you wanted to spend time with the characters. Whoever was on screen could be the star of their own show. Secondary to that, I was thinking: “Why did this ever go off the air?” I don’t watch everything on TV — I don’t know who does — but I hadn’t seen anything like this before. It’s amazing how groundbreaking it still felt as I was reading it.
What’s Seth Bullock been up to?
He’s got three kids. He’s a marshal. So he’s a federal lawman in the territory. He’s done really well for himself. He’s a successful guy at this point in his life. He and Starr opened up a hotel. He’s not just survived, he’s done really well. And back in those days that meant something.
And what is his relationship like with his frequent nemesis, Swearengen?
It’s more or less intact. Swearengen’s not quite himself, which has put pressure on Bullock. Sometimes having a guy like Swearengen allows Seth not to do the dirty work.
You spent 6 seasons playing a lawman on Justified, which was also a Western of sorts. What’s it been like switching back to Bullock?
There are certain things I really liked about the Justified gig. Definitely a different beast. You learn a lot along the way. You play enough lawman you learn a lot about the law, what makes them tick, how they survive.
I always thought Bullock had a very distinct walk — very upright, with this authoritative strut.
Yes, yes, very ramrod. I think he’s still doing that.
What’s it been like being back on this set again after all these years?
It confirms that [Deadwood] really was that special. The cast is just ridiculous. If this were a ball club, we got a deep bench. The cast really loves their job. You’d think that would be a normal thing in my line of work, but it’s not. Everybody’s hanging out. Nobody’s going back to their trailers. Nobody is on their cell phone. They were all really good 12 years ago, and now they’re ridiculously good.
It has to be so bizarre — in a time travel kind of way — to walk down this street that’s been recreated from so many years past.
Some of us had little kids then who are in college now. Yet you come here and it’s like time stood still. And in some ways, it’s like the creative experience, as well. They call “action” and it’s, “Oh, this is the same gig.” But you like to think you’re not the same actor you used to be. We’ve had many people start shedding tears out of the blue. The funniest things catch you. I was walking on the boardwalk the other day — nobody will find this interesting but me — and thought “I remember like these f–king boards, I remember standing on these f–king boards.” And then I saw one of the actors crying. And she said it just snuck up on her, all these memories and moments. And I said I was looking at the wood [planks] and she’s all, “That’s what did it.” So bizarre.
What about working with Milch?
He’s quite an inspiration. You don’t get very many opportunities to be around that. I learned so much from watching the way he works. His willingness to trust his unconscious mind to take these ridiculous leaps. It took me a long time when I was first working with him to get used to it. I thought he was f–king around, then I thought he was ruining it. And finally, I realized it wasn’t doing either, he was dead serious and a genius.
How do you think fans are going to feel about the film when they see it?
I have no f–king idea. It’s pointless to think about — with all due respect to them. It’s really a job like any other job, you’re looking for the best material you can get your hands on, and if it shoots in town and pays well, then you’re in.
So this is it, right? This is the end of Deadwood?
Listen, I’m on record as saying this would never f—king happen. So who am I to talk?