Talking with Timothy Olyphant last week, I experienced wistful memories of a life I never had, filled with parties around mountain campfires where somebody inevitably brings out a guitar. I have no idea whether Olyphant, 41, had that life himself. I know he has the bio for it: born in Hawaii, high school in Modesto, Calif., swam at the national level at the University of Southern California. I know he speaks with the right California-dude drawl, with its requisite chortle ("Nngha"). And I sure know he's the kind of tall, blond, mischievous god that girls go to those parties hoping to find.
Olyphant is a sly actor, with a lot going on behind those pretty eyes. Frequently cast as either a morally ambiguous cop or a lethally charming criminal, he's currently on a nice roll. Last year he worked his brand of silky menace on tourists in the thriller A Perfect Getaway, and on lawyers on the TV series Damages. In January, he headlined the clever, hilarious (though criminally under-seen) Canadian heist movie High Life, about a quartet of drug addicts whose scheme to rob automatic banking machines goes remarkably awry. Starting March 16, he'll star in the new FX TV series Justified, written and produced by Graham Yost, based on three Elmore Leonard novels. He plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylen Givens, a conflicted lawman in a lawless Kentucky town where the men are dangerous, the women perspire just so and the air conditioners are permanently on the fritz. And he plays another small-town sheriff in The Crazies, an update of horrormeister George Romero's 1973 film of the same name, which opens Friday.
I first noticed Olyphant in 1998, on an episode of Sex and the City. He played a twentysomething guy named Sam, who makes Carrie realize she's too old for twentysomething guys when he uses a pair of briefs as a coffee filter while talking non-stop about last night's dream: "I had these big HANDS, and these assassins were after me, and I crushed them with my BIG HANDS!" On the phone, I kept hearing echoes of Sam in Olyphant's answers. For example, when I asked why he signed on to Justified, he replied, "I got an e-mail from John Landgraf who's running that FX network, so first of all I was like, 'Hey, the guy who runs the network sent me an e-mail!' That was pretty cool all by itself."
When I asked him about shooting High Life in Winnipeg in January, Olyphant said, "It's freezing there! You think, 'Did this just happen in the last couple years? Because why would anyone live here if they knew this was coming?' I assumed everybody moved there in the summer and then went, 'Oh, fuck!' That being said, the people are great, it has a surprising, cool arts community that's really well supported, and Neil Young came from there, so something's in the water."
And when I asked him about working with fellow heartthrob Joe Anderson ( Across the Universe) back-to-back on High Life and The Crazies, Olyphant answered, "Apparently Joe slipped through the second time, because I told these people, 'He's crazy, I don't know why anyone would hire him.' And there he is on the set! Nngha. No, he's wonderful in both movies. He and I have a great time. Is he really crazy? He's, uh, crazy talented. And crazy awesome. After that I'm not saying anything. You'll have to do your own police work there, babe."
(Note to self: If Timothy Olyphant ever calls you "babe" over the phone again, try not to blush.)
Olyphant's dudeaciousness abated somewhat when he talked about David Milch, who created the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006), cast Olyphant as its - yes, conflicted - sheriff (who hailed "from Etobicoke, Ontario") and single-handedly hauled the actor from bit parts into leading manhood. " Deadwood almost has done more for me since we wrapped than while it was on," Olyphant said. "I continue to draw from it, to steal from it. I'm much better at my job now because of the things I learned while doing it.
"David Milch is one of the greatest writers, storytellers, directors, creative forces I've ever been around," Olyphant continued. "He has an ability to constantly be open to whatever is happening around him, and how it might relate to the story he's telling. If he bumped his head after lunch, there was a very good chance that experience would be reflected in the next day's pages. He had a childlike freedom to say, 'I've got an idea.' And go with it, without hesitation. He'd literally say, 'Hold on, I got an idea, I saw it in a cartoon once,' and then he'd say, 'Have you ever read the Bible, the book of Job?' It was so fucking awesome. It's really about the fearlessness of going with your gut. I feel I'm finally getting into a position to put those ideas into practice."
For a long time, Olyphant admitted, "it was hard, frankly, to get my hands on parts that are complicated - a combination of funny and dark qualities, that still feel grounded in a real person. What's attractive about those roles is unpredictability. It's really fun to be able to feel like you're not sure what's going to happen next. I like comedy in my drama and drama in my comedy. The actors, characters and performances I'm most attracted to have that going for them," including actors such Gary Oldman, Nick Nolte and Nicholas Cage. "When Cage went from David Lynch films to Moonstruck," Olyphant said, "I was like, 'Does this guy know he's in a romance?' It was wonderful."
He warned me that the car he was riding in to Justified's location was heading into the mountains, so I might lose him. He had just enough time to tell me that The Crazies, in which residents of a friendly town fall prey to a mysterious plague that makes them murder each other, has that duality he craves. "It's undeniably scary, the way the horror genre is supposed to deliver, where you jump out of your seat," Olyphant said. "But underneath there are these relevant ideas where you're like, 'This is fucked-up scary; this is a little too close to reality.'"
He claims, though, to leave the duality at work. "I'm a simple man," Olyphant said. "I've managed to be the star of movies and television shows, be married [for 18 years] raise three kids and still watch hours of ESPN every night. It's an incredible feat." He emits one last "Ngha." And then he's gone.