Timothy Olyphant Is Back for a New Chapter of ‘Justified’

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By Ketrin Agustine

“I like to think there’s been some growth.”

This was the actor Timothy Olyphant in New York last month, musing on the trajectory of his career from a TriBeCa sidewalk. He was referring specifically to the task of resurrecting past roles, which he first did a few years ago in the 2019 movie revival of “Deadwood.”

Now comes “Justified: City Primeval,” an eight-episode limited series premiering on July 18, on FX. It features Olyphant returning to what is arguably his signature character, Raylan Givens, the Stetson-sporting deputy U.S. Marshal who anchored the Kentucky crime drama “Justified” for six seasons.

The new show follows Raylan to Detroit for a fish-out-of-water adventure with a murderous baddie (Boyd Holbrook) and a sharp-elbowed but alluring lawyer, played by Aunjanue Ellis. The creators describe it as the existential evolution of a character, invented by the crime fiction grandmaster Elmore Leonard, who is starting to realize that he can’t chase killers forever and that he is running out of chances to connect with his teenage daughter.

“It’s a mature, grown-up version of the show that we did,” said Michael Dinner, who created the limited series with Dave Andron. Both are former writers and executive producers on “Justified,” which ended its run on FX in 2015.

The creators and Olyphant, who is also an executive producer on “City Primeval,” hope to bring back Raylan for at least one more series after this one. But first, they are going to find out if people are still interested in the character or “Justified” without the original show’s evocative backwoods setting and colorful criminals, played by the likes of Walton Goggins and Margo Martindale.

Olyphant, in a cowboy hat, stands face to face with a woman in business attire.
“Justified: City Primeval” moves the action from Kentucky to Detroit, where Olyphant’s character, Raylan, joins a sharp-elbowed lawyer played by Aunjanue Ellis.Chuck Hodes/FX
Olyphant (left, with Claire Danes and Dennis Quaid) plays a man who marries into the family of a celebrity chef in the Max series “Full Circle,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.Sarah Shatz/Max

“With all due respect to our original cast, who I loved, adored and miss, it was really a fun experience being with all these new cast members but still feeling like we were doing our show,” Olyphant said. “This feels right in the sweet spot, but I don’t know, it could be a total failure.”

If he didn’t seem particularly bothered by the possibility of tainting the legacy of his most famous creation, this is partly an effect of his affect. In conversation Olyphant is easygoing and quick-witted, qualities he brings to his work that also belie another of his defining traits: a simmering intensity.

That combination proved perfect for the darkly comic, morally murky world of “Justified.” Olyphant’s performance in the series shifted his previously hit-and-miss career into a higher gear, which in turn has made his future prospects less dependent on the success of the “Justified” revival.

As it happened, Olyphant was in New York for a screening of a different twisty crime thriller: “Full Circle,” in which he plays a Manhattanite with secrets who has married into the wealthy family of a celebrity chef, played by Dennis Quaid. (Other stars include Claire Danes, Jharrel Jerome and CCH Pounder.) Premiering Thursday on Max, the gripping six-episode serial revolves around a botched kidnapping with international repercussions.

“Full Circle” was directed by Steven Soderbergh, the latest on a list of talented people with whom Olyphant long wanted to work and now has. Others include Quentin Tarantino, who cast Olyphant as the 1960s TV cowboy James Stacy in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), and David O. Russell, who hired him to play a disfigured thug in “Amsterdam” (2022). Kenneth Lonergan made him the center of his acclaimed play “Hold On to Me Darling” (2016).

“You can throw Larry David on the list,” Olyphant said, referring to his appearance as a smarmy groom in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2020. “I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this, but I’ll show up every day for that guy.”

There was also a brief run as a “Star Wars” lawman in “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” and a longer one as a Mormon U.S. Marshal in “Fargo.” He played a zombie’s husband in the horror comedy “Santa Clarita Diet” and himself in two different sitcoms: “The Good Place” and “The Grinder.” Earlier this year he had a memorable turn as a grizzled tour manager with terrible hair in “Daisy Jones & the Six.”

Soderbergh, who said he had wanted for years to cast Olyphant, called him “the best example of an experienced professional, in that he can give you anything that you want.”

“That is the best thing I can say about somebody,” he added.

The afternoon after the “Full Circle” screening, Olyphant reclined in a metal chair outside a TriBeCa cafe and marveled at the company he is keeping these days.

“I had a blast working with the writers,” Olyphant said of the “Justified” revival. “They picked up where we left off except for this time, there wasn’t anyone throwing things.”Philip Cheung for The New York Times

“Being with Steven Soderbergh last night watching something that he’s made that I’m a part of, it just means the world,” he said. “I don’t know why it took me so long to get there, but it’s really nice to be there now.”

Now 55, Olyphant retains an athlete’s physique — he had just come from swimming at Asphalt Green in Battery Park — but his hair has gone mostly gray. As he has revived old roles, he has entered a new phase of his life: His three children with Alexis Knief, his wife of over 30 years, are now grown, and one has followed her father not just into show business but also into the world of “Justified.” Vivian Olyphant plays Raylan’s daughter, Willa, in the revival. “Nepotism, you can’t beat it,” he cracked.

Olyphant wasn’t sure he wanted to reprise his “Deadwood” role as Sheriff Seth Bullock. (Bullock got a promotion for the movie, adding yet another marshal to Olyphant’s résumé.) Once on set, however, he realized how much the show meant to him. It also gave him a final opportunity to work with David Milch, one of television’s greatest writers, whom Olyphant deeply admires. (Milch has since entered an assisted-living facility for Alzheimer’s care.)

“I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he said. “It was quite moving for everybody involved.”

But Olyphant always figured he would play Raylan again. “It seemed like the kind of character that could age well,” he said.

The new series updates Leonard’s 1980 novel “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit,” one of his most beloved books. As Raylan joins the Detroit police in a case that encompasses a string of murders, a psychopathic aspiring singer, Albanian gangsters, corrupt cops and a crooked judge, he is frequently the odd man out in his own show.

“I think they wanted that collision, which is why they sent him to one of the Blackest cities in the country,” said Ellis, who plays a defense attorney at the heart of the story. Other stars include Victor Williams, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Marin Ireland.

During the original run of “Justified,” Olyphant was known as an occasionally demanding Leonard purist, insisting that the show stay true to the author’s dry wit and sneaky emotional complexity. That hasn’t changed — Ellis said Olyphant carried around a tattered copy of “City Primeval” on set “like it was the Bible” — though Olyphant suggested that the terms of engagement had evolved.

“I had a blast working with the writers,” he said. “They picked up where we left off except for this time, there wasn’t anyone throwing things. They were all used to my [expletive].” (Dinner, who also directed multiple episodes, said that “he was a great collaborator.”)

“The game has gotten simpler,” Olyphant said of his acting career. “I realize it’s all kind of a joke, just getting away with it.”Philip Cheung for The New York Times

All productions have highs and lows, but this show’s were more extreme than most. In the plus column, Olyphant called working with his daughter, who studies acting at William Esper Studio in New York, “one of the greatest experiences of my adult life.”

“So special and challenging, walking that line between trying to get a scene and trying to be a parent,” he said. (“He definitely did give a lot of notes,” Vivian, 20, said. “But in between takes, we would have a lot of fun.”)

Less great: the night when the show, shot mostly in Chicago, was filming in a park and the cast and crew found themselves in the middle of an actual shootout. They all dove for cover as two cars tore down the street toward and past them, trading sprays of automatic gunfire.

“You could hear the bullets kicking off the back bumper of the front car: tink, tink, tink,” Olyphant recalled. No one in the production was injured, but everyone was left shaken.

“My heart goes out to the people that live in those neighborhoods because that is just not any way to live,” he said.

So does Raylan age well? Is there growth? Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions.

“The road in front of him is a lot shorter than the road behind,” Dinner said. “We get him into a place by the end of the story where he makes some decisions about his life.”

Olyphant’s road is getting shorter, too, but the trade-off is that “the game has gotten simpler,” he said. “I realize it’s all kind of a joke, just getting away with it.” His co-stars say that whatever his penchant for downplaying the job, his enthusiasm for it is apparent.

“He’s obviously very experienced now,” Danes said. “But there’s still that sense of giddiness and searching, which is wonderful.”

Olyphant in turn takes inspiration from those with even more experience, from their example that growth can be its own reward. Co-stars like Quaid, he said, “seem to be having even more fun than I’m having.”

“So if they’ll have me and keep inviting me to the dance,” he said, “I think I’ll keep showing up.”


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