He has another regular gig, on "Raising Hope," Greg Garcia's new FOX comedy about a young slacker (Lucas Neff) who decides to turn his life around when he inherits the baby girl he fathered with a Death Row inmate. (It debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m.) Though I think a little of Garcia's "My Name Is Earl"-style humor goes a long way, I did laugh several times during the "Hope" pilot, including some things Dillahunt does as Neff's none-too-bright father.
When I was at press tour last month, I sat down with Dillahunt to talk about how he chooses the parts he does, why he got into acting, and more, all after the jump...
How many shows have you been a regular on now?
This is my 8th series with a regular role.
I get used to seeing you sort of bouncing all over the place in these guest spots.
Yeah, I’m a workaholic, so when I have free time I fill it.
So when an offer comes in, what specifically are you looking for?
Well, I like a good story. I’m a fan of all kinds of genres, so that’s nice. I like sci-fi stuff. I like westerns, obviously. I like all kinds of things. I need the story to be good. It’d be great if this one’s different than the last one I played. I like change and this is like the polar opposite of the last thing I’ve done ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"), so that’s kind of what I look for. Good writing.
You were a regular on "A Minute with Stan Hooper," but how much comedy have you done in the interim?
Well, I did a lot of comedy pilots and another one that went beside "Stan Hooper" was "Maximum Bob." Which is a different kind of comedy. It's funny; I was talking to someone else about this, because they’re like, "Oh, you’re always the bad guy," but it didn’t used to be that way at all. You know, memories are so short in this business because I used to be the sitcom guy and I couldn’t get an audition for drama and now you’re like the drama guy and they go, "Oh, he can’t do comedy." It’s just amazing. You‘re constantly reproving yourself.
How did you change that? What was the part that you felt that gave you entrée into drama?
I don’t know. I come from theater, where we did all kinds of different things all the time and different styles. You know, one day you’re the prince, the next day you’re the pauper. But I’m sure "Deadwood" changed a lot of things for me, playing two different parts. Kind of made people think, rightfully or not, that I could do anything. And I kind of feel like that’s what we’re all supposed to do, so I just go lucky there.
And there was a definite period after that where "Life" and "Burn Notice" and all these shows seemed to say, "We need the personification of evil, we call Garret Dillahunt."
Well, I guess that’s good. I like that they think I can handle a really out-there character like Nevikov, say, who has a Russian accent. Or I love the feeling of being trusted to do that and it makes me work harder so that that trust is justified.
And there is a theatrically with a character like that: the way you carry yourself is designed to call attention to yourself. I know film acting is a different kind of discipline from being on the stage, but can you borrow from one to the other?
I don’t know that I borrow anything. I just try to be as truthful as I can. I feel like I tend to play things a little under, you know, which sometimes has been a problem. People always have to encourage you to go "More, more, more." But I think that tendency is good for film and TV; it's almost a lucky break that I’m a little bashful or something, you know? And the writers that I’ve enjoyed working with like Milch, and I think Greg Garcia a little bit, there’s a lot of subtext in this stuff - especially Milch, but it’s a lot of fun playing the opposite of what’s written, basically.
So what do you see like looking at this guy (in "Raising Hope")?
I think they’re really liking the practical jokey nature that we discovered in the pilot. And the sort of obliviousness to taking care of his family, but underneath what I really like about the show is there’s real love there in this family. I love the relationship with Martha Plimpton and that he develops with this baby who’s going to get bigger.
Why did you want to be an actor? Who are some actors you admired?
I originally to be a writer. I wanted to be journalist. My degree is in journalism. I don’t know that I’m a very good writer, but this is very similar, I’ve found. Sort of like writing live or something and I feel like a similar itch is being scratched, you know? And it might also be why I love writers so much, because I always feel I need a writer and I need to find a way to make those words work. I’ll go there before I try to improv or go off script.
I think your reasons (for going into acting) change, but in college it was a great therapeutic thing for me. My brother passed when I was very young, when I was 16. And I was just determined after that to do something that I loved and not that I felt I had to do or just to pay bills. Life became very short and very fragile all of a sudden and I think the acting thing was very therapeutic for that and then it became a lot of fun. I enjoyed standing in a lot of different people’s shoes, which is very annoying politically because you sort of feel like, "Well, I see this side, but I kind of see this side too," but I just like it. I like experiencing different things and meeting new people and change. I like change.
Speaking about the change in writing, Milch famously will not only give new pages at the last minute, but give new dialogue like right before the camera would roll. How was that experience for you?
I love it. I know it’s difficult for a lot of people but I find that I think It’s the perfect kind of atmosphere for doing what we do. And the reason he does that is because he’s seen you do something that sparked an idea in him, so that he throws it back. So it’s this thing where everyone on-set is awake and proud and really trying to do something unique. And it’s kind of happening on "Raising Hope" as well, because Greg will see you do something and then we’ll do a riff on that. And who knows which take he’ll use, but he’ll be like, "Now try this line, and try this line, and try this line," because he will have seen you do something. I think that’s the best kind of atmosphere to be in for what we do.
Process-wise, when you take a role and you’re going to play this character - particularly in cases where it may be a one-shot character and you only have minimum amount of time to build him - how do you go about the process of building him within yourself and playing him? What’s the first thing you do?
I don’t know. I mean generally if I get a part I feel like I’m as good as the writing generally, which means often I won’t get jobs that I audition for because I couldn’t make it work. So I generally have quite a bit of confidence in what I’m about to do, but in those situations, you know, the show is in place and I serve a very specific function. So I just try to not rock the boat too much and I try to fit in and be a good supporting player. I’m all about ensemble and you know we all have our role to play in that for the whole thing to be better.
For instance, many people had played Terminators before you got to play Cromartie, so how did you approach the physicality of that?
I thought that he has to be able to pass, so you can’t move like a robot too much. There has to be little tells and ours was that he doesn’t understand he’s been inappropriate sometimes. Or he’s not offended when he should be and he offends when he shouldn’t. Doesn’t understand that he’s offended. And I think that was the difference. Also, I think a trap some people have fallen into playing Terminators is that they played them angry. Because they don’t care. They’ve been programmed to hunt this person. They’re not disappointed if they don’t get them. They’re not filled with rage when they see them. They just go, "Yeah." I find that scarier because there’s no reasoning with it.
And mid-way through the run he gets wiped and then resurrected as the voice of the mainframe. At that point did you just approach it as an entirely new character?
Yeah, absolutely. I approached it as sort of a brilliant child, you know? And again, it was just such a great vote of confidence from the producers that they would let me play another part. I think something else that they did was I played multiple parts in several shows now. Kind of fun.
And it’s got to be sort of interesting to be able to relate to the same people in an entirely different way.
Yeah, and to not be a threatening presence. It was annoying being hooked to that cord though, I’ll tell you.
So what was the thing, in the pilot script for this show that made you say all right, I want to go and read for it?
I’ve been making a lot of movies this year. And the kind of movies that I get great roles are indie-movies and I love them and I’m proud of them. And a couple are coming to Toronto this month. But they don’t pay well, so I had to find a way to finance my film career, basically, and thankfully I found a really cool project to do that. And this feels film-ish in way, in the way it’s shot. It feels like a light-hearted comedy. So I felt like this is something I could do for foreseeably for a few years.
Do you feel like the show is inviting the viewer to sort of laugh at this family?
I feel like the laughs, yeah, are a bit - obviously it’s a little exploded but I think a lot of parents are going to recognize a lot of their own uncertain moments with a kid, and a lot of dads throw up on their kids when they have to change their diaper, you know? It’s exploded but hopefully people will be able to recognize it.
Having worked so much in the last decade, some very high profile things, an Oscar-winning best picture ("No Country For Old Men") and all that, but so many different kinds of parts, is there one that you’re consistently get recognized for?
I get recognized for "Deadwood" a lot. And "Terminator" a lot. But there’s weird little pockets. It seems like almost different areas of the country are different and there’s a lot of Roman Nevikov fans and I only did two or three episodes of that show, I think. I’m no spring chicken anymore and I just want to look back on a career and be proud of it and tell good stories. That’s really all I like.
When you were starting off your career, what was your road map for what you wanted to do?
I don’t think I had one, which probably would have helped to have had one. I was a bit of a cork in the ocean, because work was coming and I said, "Okay, sure." I’m a workaholic and sometimes that’s a bad thing. But you know, it was more about the kind of actor I wanted to be and the guys I always responded to were like Daniel Day Lewis or Gary Oldman or Sean Penn. They seem to do different things all the time. One very different from the next. And I like that test, and that’s kind of what I hoped to be and if I can be a shadow of those guys I would count myself lucky.
You probably don’t know Garret Dillahunt by name, but you should, because you know his work. He may be the most hated guy on television. You see, he’s got a history of playing the bad guy, whether it’s on Deadwood, The 4400, Life, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Burn Notice. Needless to say, it was a huge surprise to see the guy who played relentless Terminator Cromartie had signed up for…a sitcom?! Yet Dillahunt shows us a comedic side as the eccentric patriarch of the Chance family (no relation to Christopher) on the almost-absurd FOX comedy Raising Hope, which begins tonight after Glee. He was nice enough to talk to me exclusively and not even try and terminate me.
First things first: what the heck is the guy who tried to kill Sarah Connor doing on a sitcom?
I started actually on sitcoms. I did theater for like seven years and decided to start doing television and film, and the first jobs I got were all sitcoms and sitcom pilots. The first two shows that went for me were Maximum Bob and A Minute With Stan Hooper. I couldn’t get an audition for drama to save my life.
You have that reputation of playing some of the most memorable bad guys in recent TV history, whether it was Cromartie or Simon Escher. How do you always end up playing the villain? Is it by choice or by chance?
It’s kind of happened. The choice I make is to try to do things different than the last one. I think I was really lucky with Deadwood and that sort of sealed the reputation, deserved or not.
There’s a story from Homicide: Life on the Street, where actor Erik Todd Dellums said that because he played drug kingpin Luther Mahoney, people actually started avoiding him in public. Has your history of villainy followed you around at all? Does it wear on you after awhile?
There’s been a few like fiancees and girlfriends of friends who don’t want to meet me because they’re scared. They’re kind of smirking when they say it. It’s usually the guys that play the bad guys who are the nice guys. And when you’re a guest star, you’re usually the bad guy. I’m not one of those guys that takes it home too badly. The saving grace for me is I’m such a fan of writers and I’m so interested in doing justice to their work that I get involved in the story as a whole and not just my role.
Do you have a favorite bad guy that you’ve played? I know a lot of people who still remember you from playing Roman Nevikov on NBC’s amazing series Life.
Deadwood remains a high point for me, and [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford]. I guess [Ed] is kind of a bad guy although he’s kind of an innocent. They’ve all been really complex.
There’s a hilarity here in that you’re one of two actors to legitimately scare the hell out of me, and yet you’ve also played Jesus Christ (in “The Book of Daniel”).
I was, at the same time I was doing Jesse James. I had to go back and forth.
So did you come to the role of Burt Chance to get away from the bad-guy archetype, or what was it that attracted you to the part?
I elected to take a sort of ninety-degree turn. It was a lot different from the last thing I’d played. I just wanted to do a comedy again. It had been awhile. I really liked the script, and I really liked that dynamic at work. We all crack each other up. It’s a nice change of pace. I’ve never been on a show that’s gotten such positive reviews.
How do you prepare for the role of playing an eccentric sitcom father after all this time playing serious roles in dramas? Was it a big change for you?
I don’t know. I guess it’s different from role to role. It’s not like I did a lot of research or anything. Greg Garcia is a lot like David Milch in that he really plays to your strengths. He’ll see you do something and it’ll inspire him. So I just have to prepare for that.
Does Raising Hope signal the end for your Burn Notice character, Simon Escher? You’ve been hailed as the best villain in Burn Notice history, and I know a lot of fans were hoping that we would see more of Simon in this season.
I don’t think I’m so much in their minds, but me and Matt [Nix] get along great. Me and Jeffrey [Donovan] went to school together. As long as Simon’s not dead, though, he’s going to come back.
You appeared in this season of Burn Notice along with Robert Patrick, who set the Terminator bar when he played the T-1ooo in Terminator 2. Your Cromartie was the best Terminator since that film. How hard is it to play a Terminator robot?
It was harder than I expected it to be. The hardest part for me was to not show emotion. The real trap for me was to not show disappointment when my plans failed, or anger towards the Connors, because you realize he’s a machine. He has no emotional stake in whether he catches them or not. He’s just been programmed to do this thing, and that in itself is scary.
You did Burn Notice and you also made an appearance on White Collar, so I have to ask if you’d ever make an appearance on, say, Psych.
I’m sure I would if I was offered a job. I’m a workaholic. If I have a month off, I go crazy. I just think it’s fun. Timothy Busfield, who directed that episode of White Collar, directed my episode of The Glades, which my wife [actress Michelle Hurd] is on. I’ve been around long enough now that there are connections in just about every job I do.
You must have seen about everything now. At least, you’ve been in almost everything, it seems like.
It’s hard to go to the movies and not say, “Hey, there’s somebody looking at his mark.” Once you know how things are made, it’s hard not to tear things apart. I have to keep a sort of naive enthusiasm in this business.
Maybe someday we could even get you a show where you could be busting bad guys instead of playing one. What would you think of that?
Sure. It’d be nice to be a good guy. I’ve played a lot of good guys. I just hope that people don’t get sick of me.
So what are you watching?
I watched a lot of the new shows last night. A lot of it’s sort of dictated by my wife. I really love Modern Family. That’s really well done. We watch Glee. The TV’s almost always on. There’s so much good TV on. People criticize TV a lot, but there’s a lot of great shows.
Garret Dillahunt may not be a household name but with his work on the big screen in movies like The Road, Last House on the Left, and No Country For Old Men and on television in Deadwood, ER, The 4400, John From Cincinnati, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Life, Damages, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU, and Burn Notice, he has become one of the more recognizable faces of the last five years. Dillahunt co-stars in the Fox comedy Raising Hope, which premieres tonight.
Al Norton: I've watched the Raising Hope pilot twice now and I think it's the funniest new show of the season.
Garret Dillahunt: I agree. I'm really pleased with how it came out.
Al Norton: I am a bit of an emotional sap but both times Danny's Song hit me hard.
Garret Dillahunt: It does. I knew it was coming and I was really pleased with it, with everything they gave me and Martha (Plimpton) to do and was really happy about it.
Al Norton: How did the show come to you?
Garret Dillahunt: Pretty much the typical way. As you may know, I play a lot of bad guys but I always try to do something different than I did before so I was saying to my people, "it's time for some comedy again. I need a break from the rape and pillage roles." This came along and when I read it I thought it was hysterical so I auditioned for it and went through the whole testing process. It went well and I got it and I couldn't be happier.
Al Norton: Was it hard to get casting people to see you in a comedy when you have been doing so many heavy roles?
Garret Dillahunt: It's funny because when I first came to LA after doing so many kinds of theater for so long, the first jobs I got were all sitcoms. I was a regular on several sitcoms at first and I had a real hard time getting to read for dramatic things because people would say, "oh no, he's the sitcom guy." Then, after Deadwood spawned a bunch of other jobs, they said, "oh no, he's not funny." It seems like memories are short in this business.
Al Norton: I interviewed Rikki Lindhome last year for Last House on the Left and she made a point of talking about just how funny you were on the set, that she had never worked with you before and thought you might be like some of the creepy characters you've played and was thrilled that you made her laugh so much.
Garret Dillahunt: That's great to hear. I kind of had a little crush on Rikki after that movie.
Al Norton: When people see you on the street do they reference specific parts or do they just know that they know you?
Garret Dillahunt: I get a lot of Deadwood, and I get a lot Terminator. Actually, I get a lot of Roman Nevikov from Life, too. It depends on the fan. It seems I've whored myself out enough that there's something for everyone.
Al Norton: Are fans ever cautious because they're not sure how much like your characters you may be?
Garret Dillahunt: It's not too bad. There were some Last House fans that were pretty nervous.
Al Norton: Does the process in which you approach roles change each time, from say Roman Nevikov to John Henry?
Garret Dillahunt: Certainly the requirements would be different. Some roles require more concentration, the further they are from you. Sometimes right away I know "I know this guy, I grew up with him" and I just have to brush it up over the course of the preparation. I kind of approach it all the same in a way. It's got to be a good story. If it's a good story I don't care what my part is, I just want to help in the telling of that story and I want to make sure I hold up my end.
Al Norton: When you're playing these darker characters, how easy is it for you wipe it off when they call lunch and then jump back in for the next scene?
Garret Dillahunt: I'd be lying if I said it didn't take something. My wife will sometimes tell me, "oh yeah, you were really different during that one" and I will have thought I didn't change at all. In general I always enjoy the break and it's nice to get away for a moment. During Last House we found ourselves being real goofy during down time just to get away from the intensity. I look forward to letting go, even if just a few hours.
Al Norton: You've done a lot of stage work, movies, and a ton of TV; do you have a preference?
Garret Dillahunt: I sure love movies, I've got to stay, but I've been really lucky in the television I've done. Deadwood was like a film and set the tone for my preferences. I think what I prefer more than the medium is a good story. What I want is a good story, and change. I'm thrilled that we live in a time that actors can move within the mediums without penalty. In the old days you had to sort of choose; if you were a film guy you didn't do TV and if you were a TV guy you couldn't do films. Now you have to do it all to survive and it behooves you to do it as an actor to keep it fresh.
Al Norton: So when you get a role like Roman Nevikov, is part of the appeal getting to do an accent?
Garret Dillahunt: Oh yeah. To do an accent, to make him human and not a cartoon…It's the acting equivalent of a dead lift when you walk on to someone else's show. They've had time to entrench their characters, to flesh them out and define them, and you have a limited amount of time to make if not an equal impression than one that stands out in some way and I like that challenge. I like the freedom, too. And I'm a workaholic and it seems like I always have two jobs. If I'm a regular on one show I try to work on a recurring role on another.
Al Norton: Are there shows that you watch that you'd love to appear on?
Garret Dillahunt: I've been really digging what I'm seeing for Boardwalk Empire. I'd love to be on that thing. It's just a monster cast. David Milch talked to me about playing a part on Luck but I'd already signed for Raising Hope so I'm hoping maybe to guest on it. There are a lot of great shows out there. It'd be nice to play a role where I get a girl legitimately, not by force.
Al Norton: Can you name a couple of actors who have been an influence on you and your style?
Garret Dillahunt: It always changes and is frequently about a particular performance than a body of work. Being from theater I came in under the impression that we were all supposed to be able to do everything, or at least to try, so I was always drawn to real chameleon types. When I was a young drama sprout that was people like Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, who does it effortlessly, and Daniel Day Lewis, who I liked because he was the same height as me. Jason Patrick's performance in After Dark, My Sweet, was really fantastic and I was really jealous of that. I like guys like Viggo Mortensen. I remember seeing him in The Indian Runner on VHS and thinking, "I want to be that guy." I was thrilled to get to work with him on The Road.
Al Norton: Can you give the readers the quick pitch on Raising Hope.
Garret Dillahunt: Raising Hope is a very funny look at a young single father. It's more complicated than that because none of the characters were good parents so in a way this baby is another way for all of us to be good parents. It's a chance for Burt, my character, to be a Dad instead of a best friend, and for Jimmy (the lead character) to find some direction in his life. The scripts just get better and better, too. Martha is so great and she just cracks me up. I don't know why we never worked together before. . I killed her Dad on Deadwood so I would see her on set sometimes. It's so fun to work with her after all these years.
Garrett Dillahunt has appeared on small and big screens and is successful at both! His successes have landed him roles in movies such as Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men. Dillahunt’s a Washington State native landed a role on a hot new series called, Raising Hope. Raising Hope is a show about the Chance family who is struggling financially but pokes fun at everyday issues as well as serious ones. Dillahunt plays the role of a father whose son has a baby with a murderer and the story unfolds from there, it shows how this family struggles to take care of their newest addition, Hope. Ultimately, it brings a lot of laughter, entertainment but most of all is a relatable comedy about a small town family who is just trying to live their day-to-day lives.
I had the opportunity to chat with Garret about his new show!
First of all, I wanted to quickly ask you about your recent trip to Toronto for the film festival. I know you were here for the premiere of your new movie, Oliver Sherman. Did you like Toronto? Was it your first time?
It wasn’t my first time in Toronto but I love Toronto. I shot a series there back in 2001 for Showtime so I was in Cabbagetown for about nine months and I just loved it. But it’s only my second time that I’ve been able to go to the festival. There is a lot of energy, there is a lot going on. It’s not really a vacation, its sort of business, but it’s exciting to have all those cool and interesting films going on.
You’ve acted in a lot of murder, crime and thriller-type movies, how did you end up with this role as Burt Chance on Raising Hope?
I actually started in comedy. My first jobs out of school were in theatre where you did all kinds of things including farces and romantic comedy. When I decided to start doing film and television, the first jobs I got were all sit-coms and I had a couple that were picked up and a few that were just pilots. In 2003, I was doing A Minute With Stan Hooper and then I got Deadwood and really ever since Deadwood, I’ve been the drama guy. People forgot that I started in comedy. It’s interesting because you feel that people have short memories and they only remember the last thing you did. So it’s a constant state of proving yourself or reinventing. I liked the comedic elements that I could bring to my other movie, No Country for Old Men and it had been while since I did comedy and I just thought that I needed to look for something funny to do. Plus, I just needed a break from all the raping and killing that I’ve been doing on other movies.
Did you ever want to pursue a career in comedy?
No, no, I could think of nothing more terrifying than doing stand-up. Oh! It’s scary; I used to work the door at a comedy club called, ‘Catch a Rising Star’ in New York at the time, its not longer there. Just watching those guys and the nerves before they went up on stage, if they were having a bad night or there were hecklers. There is no safety net. I have a lot of admiration for people that can do stand up comedy because I sure can’t.
How did this show all start, Raising Hope?
It existed before I was around, Greg Garcia, the creator of My Name Is Earl wrote the script, FOX bought it and it was just a traditional casting process after that. Martha Plimpton, who plays my wife, Virginia and Lucas Neff, who plays my son, Jimmy were already cast and they were starting to look for the husband, for my part. I auditioned just like everybody else, I went through that whole process, going to the studio and then to the network, testing for it and then I was lucky enough to get it.
Raising Hope pokes fun at series issues like teenage pregnancy, what kind of message do you hope people will get from this?
I don’t really think there is much of an agenda about giving messages in the show. I think there is more hope that people will identify, not necessarily with teen pregnancy, but identify with people who’ve had a hard road; and are still able to look at it and laugh and have a good life. Despite the setbacks and the stakes that were made. What I hope more is that people will relate to the characters.
Did you know any of the actors prior to working on this show?
I had met Martha many times before but I’ve never worked with her. Her father is Keith Carradine who acted in Deadwood, and he is the character that I kill. She had come to the set a few times and I knew her from some of the New York theatre scene. I don’t know how we missed ever working together because we sort of run in the same circle. I’m sure glad that we finally got the chance to because I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who is so easy; there is just no baggage whatsoever. She is a great singer too.
There is a scene where you and Martha sing to Hope. You were sitting on the bed playing the guitar; do you play any other instruments?
I play the guitar, that’s about it. That is me you hear in the Pilot playing. I’m not a great guitar player, but I can learn any song if you give it to me before hand.
You’ve studied journalism in addition to acting, are we going to see you write your own scripts, or perhaps direct?
I don’t know, I’m producing my own script. A script that I’m very excited about called Arkansas Traveler, which is a civil war tale of redemption. I think it is one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve read in the passed decade. We have a business plan and we’re about to start the funding process. I hope you’ll see that in the next few years.