BY ANDREW FISH
There’s a reason Garret Dillahunt is one of Hollywood’s favorite hired guns. As Jack McCall on HBO’s Deadwood, he ended his arc after murdering Wild Bill Hickok, then returned to the show as an entirely different character with many viewers unaware they were watching the same actor. He played three roles (four by some counts) on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, including an emotionless killing machine and the human-like interface of a benevolent artificial intelligence. He was evil incarnate in the 2009 horror film The Last House on the Left and landed the role of sitcom dad on Fox’s Raising Hope just a year later. With uncanny adaptability, Dillahunt sinks into his characters so deeply that the performer himself is nearly undetectable.
Dillahunt’s on-screen acumen has landed him on the short list at the highest levels. Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, for example, cast him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly, and the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, and the Coen brothers made him right-hand man to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. He has a lengthy list of credits on the small screen, including Leap Years, The 4400, ER, Numb3rs, John from Cincinnati, Damages, Life, Criminal Minds, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and Burn Notice. And with a spate of bad-guy characters under his belt, even those in the know tend to forget that Dillahunt got his start in comedy on shows like Maximum Bob with Beau Bridges and A Minute with Stan Hooper with Norm MacDonald.
So even though his current gig on Raising Hope is worlds away from his role as a duty-bound yet wavering Sheriff in Winter’s Bone or the sharp-shooting “gat man” he played in Looper, the show needed the complexity of a chameleon like Dillahunt to nail the nuances of the uncomplicated and hilarious Burt Chance. Following the struggles of a hapless 20-something (Lucas Neff ) who, with the help of his family (Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton, Shannon Woodward, Cloris Leachman), is raising the daughter he unwittingly had with a serial murderer, the unconventional sitcom earns its laughs from the subtleties of story rather than a barrage of punchlines.
Dillahunt is also currently co-starring with Alan Cumming in Any Day Now, a film about a gay couple in the 1970s who take in an abandoned teenaged boy with Down syndrome and battle a prejudiced legal system to retain custody. The powerful piece features newcomer Isaac Leyva as the boy at the center of it all and an icy Frances Fisher as a family court judge.
From the lovable Burt, to Cromartie the terminator, to Jesus Christ on The Book of Daniel, there is a certain Zen-like calm that runs through Dillahunt’s uncommonly diverse array of characters, and we get a hint of it as he speaks with us in his easy cadence on a recent afternoon.
Iconic Interview: Raising Hope is really idiosyncratic and I can’t think of anything else like it. What do you think makes this unusual show so successful?
Garret Dillahunt: I think it’s because it’s good and funny and people can identify with it in some way. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to assume that. This family is not a rich family; they have a hard time getting by, but you wouldn’t know it. They still find a lot of joy. They’re idiosyncratic, but loving. I think that’s how most families are, really. Everyone thinks their family is the craziest family in the world. [If you ask], they’re like, “My God, my family’s crrrazy!” So I think it’s not far from home for everybody.
Even though your character may not be a member of Mensa, he has a certain simple wisdom about him. How did you first approach the character?
I think [show creator] Greg [Garcia] and I have a similar sensibility; I don’t think that’s arrogant to say. Things are a little weird; it’s not a typical sitcom. The jokes don’t really land [with the standard beats]. I went on tape for this in New York, I believe, and I just did what I thought was funny. [It was a lot] of little weird behavioral things that aren’t necessarily written in the script. I think [Burt is] innocent; there’s an innocence about him that he has managed to maintain — or has accidentally maintained — and that allows him to respond to things as they happen. He’s guileless, and it’s fun to play.
Do you continue to have that kind of freedom to improvise with mannerisms that aren’t written into the script?
Yes, it’s really the only way. Some people are really good at, and comfortable with, improvisation, and that’s not really my forte. I’ve had too many experiences where it just turns into a “witty contest,” like who can be the wittiest, and it doesn’t have anything to do with character. The real masters at it are the ones who can improvise in character, and that means you’re not always the center of attention sometimes. But I’ve never been good at it, so I put a lot of stock in and have a lot of respect for the script, and I have a hard time veering from it sometimes. I think that’s why I’m attracted to great material like Deadwood, or this. I feel like I’m as good as the material, in a way, so the way that I can contribute is by accentuating what’s there with my physical behavior. It’s a lot of fun; that gives Greg ideas, or whoever the director is. [It makes me] part of the process.
When you start a scene, do you feel yourself letting go of the complexities of life like your character does?
Now that you point it out I guess it does kind of feel that way, but it’s not something that I look for or rely on. I’ll just say I wish I was as good a guy as Burt is. I wish I was that free and that quick to accept when [things] don’t go the way I want. Burt doesn’t spend a lot of time agonizing about it; he just gets on with it. I’d like to be like that. [laughs]
Do you find that playing this character helps you to be more like that?
No, I don’t. I wish it did. [laughs] But maybe it does, unconsciously. I hope so!
At least it makes you think about it, just like your character might inspire viewers to try to be more like that.
Yes, and people like the relationship that he and Virginia have. It’s a rare one, to have found their soul mate so soon in life. That’s a rare, lucky thing, and the fact that they’re still together, still happy, and don’t want to be anywhere else. That’s a dream for most of us.
How would you describe your character in Any Day Now?
He’s a smart guy, and probably has been in a lot of denial through the course of his life. He’s recently out, or at least recently admitted his sexuality. He meets a guy who brings out his inner fire, I think. He’s one of those guys that’s slow to rile, but when you do, it’s a “better watch out” kind of thing.
So he’s percolating?
I think so. He has a very strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but sometimes lacks the courage to chase it, but Rudy [played by Alan Cumming] forces him.
The film champions the causes of equality and fighting discrimination. Did you have those ideas in mind when you worked on the film?
They’re there in the script; I think I just tried to play the character and let the story tell itself. I think sometimes actors can get in trouble trying to play a theme, and in fact it might even be less powerful if you do that, than if you just fulfill your obligation to the story. If it’s a good story, that scene and that point will be driven home even harder. In this case, it wasn’t too difficult, just because Alan’s really easy to play with. He’s a real open guy, he’s a real joyful guy, and a real creative guy, so the set was a safe place. We could all have our horrible wigs on and horrible suits on [laughs] and still feel like we were real people. I’m proud of it. I think it walks a fine line; if you’re not careful it could get really sappy, but I think we avoided it.
You have played a wide range of characters, even within the same show. Tell us about playing both Jack McCall the troublemaker, and then transitioning to Wolcott, this hugely complex sociopath — both on Deadwood.
Well, I didn’t have a ton of choice with the first one. [I was in] New York at the time and I was very excited that Deadwood was coming along. I had been told my whole grad school career, people called me “the cowboy guy.” I guess just because I’m sort of, I don’t know, long and tall and grew up in a rural area — but I’m not a cowboy. [laughs] So I was like, great! I had an audition for [the character of] Bullock all set up, but before they even got to New York, they found their Bullock in Tim Olyphant. I felt despondent because there were no regulars left [to cast] on the show, except for Doc. “Will you audition for the doc?” And I was like, “Sure!” But inside, I was like, “Doc? I’ll never get the doc! Seriously?” So I went into the office; I rode my bike there. There were all these great-looking older dudes in there for the doc. So I went in and I met [show creator] David [Milch] and [did] my little doc scene, and I think I said something like, “I know I’m not really what you might think of as the doc, but…” And David interrupted me and he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s self-defeating. Will you read a different part?” And I said, “That’s what I was hoping you’d say!” So they gave me McCall and I went out in the hall and looked at it, then came back in and read Jack McCall. And that was that, got it! It was a smaller part so they didn’t think I’d want to do it. I don’t know why. I don’t really care about the size of the part; I care about the quality of the project. So I got it and I was ecstatic about it. I came out to LA and shot those episodes. He was supposed to have a crossed eye. We had this whole plan; we had ordered a contact lens with sort of a crossed eye in it, but my shooting dates changed and the eye still hadn’t arrived. [laughs] So I said, “Well, I can do this!” I can sort of drop my eyelid on one eye and just let it be there. So then that became the whole droop-eyed thing. The joke on set, in the makeup trailer, [the makeup artist] is like, “I’m probably going to win an Emmy or something for my makeup job on you, and there’s no makeup!” [I got] dirty and I dropped my eye, and we put the tip of the nipple of a baby bottle — we clipped that off and stuffed it up one nostril so it looks crooked and you can still kind of breathe through it, and that was that. That was my makeup job. I remember being described often as “the horrifically ugly Jack McCall.” And I kept thinking it took me about 10 seconds to get [like that]. So I’m that far from horrifically ugly, apparently. [laughs]
On the last episode of McCall I was pretty blue, because I was having a really good time. I got along well with David and it was a great cast; it was just a great experience as an actor. I remember saying to him as I was shooting that last scene, I was like, “So, this is it, huh?” And he said, “Well, come over here. I got this idea.” He took me into the Gem [Saloon] when we weren’t shooting that day and we sat down. He had this idea for me to play this other guy. [He said,] “I want you to play George Hearst.” So he talked to me about Hearst’s involvement in all this stuff and we looked at pictures. So I finished shooting as McCall and went off to do other things and prepared to play Hearst in the second season. We were going to shave my hairline back. We had some makeup people; we had this prosthetic nose we were going to use. He was a little older than me but a little younger than Gerald [McRaney], who ended up playing Hearst. But David called me toward the end of that summer; I think I was doing a play back East, and he said, “It’s just not gonna happen. Hearst is really more of a figurehead in the second season. I think it’s more powerful if he doesn’t appear.” He couldn’t see my face because I’m on the other side of the country, but my voice sounded very, like, “Absolutely, I totally get it. Whatever’s best for the project,” but inside, I was so sad because I thought, “That’s that. That’s it for me.” But then he continued and he said, “Hearst isn’t going to be there, but there’s this other guy that I think is right in your wheelhouse.” [laughs] He sort of advanced [the idea of] the geologist named Wolcott, and of course I said yes, because I would have said yes to whatever.
So then I got Wolcott. I started growing a beard because I wanted to look as different as I could from McCall. I went and got brown contact lenses. I was very uncomfortable, previous to Wolcott, playing people of means, because I was like, “No one will buy this. I don’t come from money; I don’t really understand it.” You know what I mean? When you do that number on yourself sometimes, about what you can and can’t do?
I’m quite familiar with it.
But I had a ball. After that, I started playing a lot of guys [of means].
It’s so unusual for an actor to return to a show playing a different character. It made it almost like a play in that respect.
My hope was that no one would know, and a lot of people didn’t. Some people still don’t, but a lot of people do. When you’re talking about millions of people — some people knew right away. But I think, for the most part, people understood it was someone completely different, and a story is being told, and I was pleased to be a part of that piece of history.
You did something similar on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The terminator Cromartie was out to kill, and the voice of the mainframe, John Henry, was out to help. Was it fun to play those two sides of the coin?
Yes, absolutely. I think another reason that I was open to what happened in Deadwood was that that’s kind of my whole philosophy as an actor. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do is play a wide range of characters. Or it’s just what I like to do, I should say. I like to try to be as different as I can from one thing to the next. There are a lot of actors that do that, so it’s not like this is anything new, or anything I’ve come up with. I’ve been lucky that I’ve gotten to be able to do it in television and film.
And even on the same show.
Yes, but I loved that. Playing a terminator, it’s harder than it looks! [laughs]
You’ve got to elaborate on that.
You’d think it’s easy, but I couldn’t play him as a bad guy, because he’s not. He has no feelings about things one way or another. He’s not disappointed if he doesn’t catch John Connor. He’s not angry; he doesn’t feel any emotions. What makes him scary is he just won’t stop. The trick is not to play him “evil,” because he’s just running a program, and that was kind of fun.
What was it like working with the Coen brothers and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men?
It was great! It was my second film in a row with Roger Deakins as the DP; he also DP’d Jesse James, which I’d just completed, so I felt really comfortable with him behind the lens. And the Coens, they’re just effortless. They know exactly what they want, and they’re gonna get it, and they’re real easygoing. I only worked with Tommy, for the most part. He was [like] the third director. He was a pretty talented director, himself. He would help me out. If my feet were too far out riding the horse, he’d give me a little hand sign, “Keep your toes in.” It was kind of nice. I’m glad he liked me; he’s a tough dude. [laughs]
How does it feel to be involved with these important pieces of television and film history?
I love what I do. You must know so many people like this, too, who complain about their jobs and are so unhappy. But they’re responsible people and hardworking people, so they do it because they have [responsibilities]. I don’t know that misery and I’m so thankful. I’m really lucky. I really like what I do.
Which roles are you most often stopped on the street for?
It’s a little cycle. My wife enjoys trying to pick out what people are going to talk about. There’s Deadwood, and there’s Terminator, and Last House on the Left fans, and there’s Raising Hope fans. They’re the main four.
What do they say when they come up to you?
They’re just complimentary, or… it depends on what it is! Sometimes they’re like, “Oh my God, you’re such a creep!” Then I know it’s not Raising Hope, [laughs] but it’s kind of fun to try to guess. But it doesn’t happen all the time; I hope people are more comfortable talking to me now that I’m on Raising Hope and playing a nice guy.
What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
I’m pleased about Looper. I think Looper went well; it was a cool movie. Next fall Twelve Years a Slave will be coming out. It’s Steve McQueen’s new movie. He’s a great dude and I was sort of stunned by that cast. You name someone that you enjoy, an actor on screen, and they’re in that movie.
What is it about?
It’s a true story about a man who was kidnapped, a free black man in the North, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He was kidnapped and re-sold into slavery. He disappeared from his family, from his home, and was gone for 12 years. It took him 12 years to escape or get back out. It’s really cool; it’s Plan B again, Brad Pitt’s company, and he makes an appearance in it, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti, everybody.
Who is your character in the film?
I play this guy, Armsby. He’s a poor white guy who actually labors in the fields with the slaves. So that was going on, which I didn’t know. Obviously, he wasn’t treated as cruelly as the slaves were treated. He sort of befriends the main character there.
Many of the characters you’ve played — like Burt on Raising Hope or John Henry on Sarah Connor or Jesus Christ on The Book of Daniel — have a calm, almost Zen quality about them. Is that something that comes naturally to you?
I guess so! I’m not upset that you feel that way, but I wasn’t aware of it and it’s not something I cultivate. It must just be a characteristic of mine you pick up on. I’m glad it hasn’t gotten in the way! [laughs]
Catch Raising Hope Tuesday nights on Fox. Any Day Now is playing in selected theaters.