There’s not many offers to interview celebrities that come in my inbox that get me as excited as the one I received a few weeks ago. You might not even know his name, but odds are, you know some of his roles.
We covered all of his big roles in a recent interview. If you’re not caught up on all of those shows, you may want to steer clear of spoilers.
Jim, first, I have to say, as the huge TV watcher I am, I'm a huge, huge fan of your work, especially over the last few years. If you had to pick just one role, which one was your favorite?
I've been incredibly blessed with good roles the past few years, but none of them compares to the experience of playing Ellsworth on Deadwood. There are times when I've had as much fun or had comparably great material, but as a body of work, playing Ellsworth tops anything else in my lifetime.
It was such a surprisingly rich character, starting off as nothing much more than a peripheral figure of no importance but moving in the course of the series into being the real conscience of the town and a pivotal and vital part of its life. It was the most rewarding work I've ever done as an actor from an artistic viewpoint.
Along the same lines, what would be the character most people come up to you on the street and ask about?
It depends on when. After appearing for eight seasons as a beloved character on Supernatural, it's not surprising that I get most of my recognition on the street from that, and it happens with some frequency. But I'm not a guy who gets recognized often. Or at least I'm not a guy people reveal their recognition to very often.
I was once at a ballgame with my Deadwood colleague and friend Dayton Callie and someone came up to him and told him how much they loved the show. He pointed me out and said, "He's on the show, too." The fan looked at me a moment, then said, "No, he's not." So much for the fame of television!
Once this most recent season of Justified began airing, I began to be recognized on the street much more than usual for that. I was a little surprised, as I'm used to being recognized for Bobby Singer on Supernatural but not much else. I think it says a lot about the popularity and brilliance of Justified that people are making that connection with me now.
You were unfortunately killed off last season on Supernatural, which was surprising, since you were the one character that wasn't one of the brothers to last so long! What did you think when you were killed off and how happy were you that you got to return this season?
I was very unhappy about being killed off on Supernatural in season 7.
But they gave me one of the greatest send-off episodes an actor could possibly dream of ("Death's Door") and my sudden freedom meant I was thus available to do season four of Justified, which I most certainly would not have been able to do had I still been working on Supernatural regularly.
I miss the cast and crew of Supernatural immensely. I know it's a cliché to say your cast and crew are like your family, but it's really the case there. They're warm and welcoming and loving, and I miss those folks terribly. It's a smart, funny, touching show that flies so far below the radar of Hollywood that even after eight seasons, people in the business still ask me, "Supernatural? What's that? Is that new?"
But the heartland knows it, and in fact, its ratings have improved this season better than any other show on television, up 22% from season seven! I hope that's not because I've been gone!
I was delighted to go back for a single episode in season eight, and in my heart of hearts, I keep hoping they'll find a way to bring the old boy back again on a more constant basis.
You played a somewhat pivotal role on Breaking Bad last season in an important flash forward. I'm not sure you can even answer this, but lemme try anyway. Will you return for the final season?
They're extremely secretive over at Breaking Bad, and I'm sure they would gut me like a trout if I revealed any secrets about the remainder of the show. But if you want to read between the lines, they've finished shooting the final season and they still haven't revealed to me whether I'm coming back, so I suppose one could surmise something from that.
That's another show with phenomenal writing and acting that I was astonished to be asked to join briefly, and although my appearances were few, it's something I'm really proud of.
I thought you were phenomenal on Justified this season, especially once you were revealed as Drew Thompson. As rich as that storyline was for you as an actor, did it make you somewhat sad that it seems like you might not be able to appear on the show as often anymore?
One of the problems with being a guest actor is that your time on a show is always going to be limited. In some ways, I got a better deal than some of the performers who've carried guest arcs on the show, people like Neal McDonough and Margo Martindale, because I got to appear in a couple of seasons prior to my big one.
I was very happy that they didn't kill Shelby/Drew off, because getting killed is a very good way never to be on a show again. Except Supernatural, of course.
I can't think of an easy or effective way for me to come back, but I can tell you this, I'd leap at the chance. Justified is the first show I've done since Deadwood that had that particular Deadwood feel, that wonderful sense of language and character.
I just hope there are shows in my future that are half as good.
Speaking of—when did they first tell you you were Drew and was it hard to deny it to anyone that asked you?
I didn't find out that Shelby would turn out to be Drew until they were preparing the fourth episode of the season, I think. In fact, I didn't find out until I got offered the lead in a movie and called to tell Justified I might not be available for a few weeks. Seconds later, it seems, Graham Yost was on the phone with me saying, "Do you have any idea what we've got planned for you this season???"
Once he outlined it, I said goodbye (reluctantly) to my first lead in a feature film, but I've never once had a moment's doubt that I did the right thing. I didn't have too much trouble keeping my mouth shut about the revelation that I was Drew because (a.) I wanted to keep my job, and (b.) I'm used to keeping secrets.
I had to keep the demises of two previous series characters secret for months before the episodes aired, so one gets used to just shrugging when people ask questions.
They've talked about Deadwood movies for seemingly forever. With Veronica Mars getting an incredibly successful Kickstarter, do you still hold out hope for a reunion of some sorts?
I don't hold out any hope at all for a Deadwood reunion in movies or TV.
Not that I wouldn't love such a thing, even though I would certainly not be involved, due to the way the show ended. It's not, I think, really a matter of money.
Through the grapevine I've heard that the movies came within days of being greenlit last year, but that one of the studios with a financial stake in the property decided they weren't interested, and that killed it.
My understanding is that the money was there, but a comparatively silent partner just didn't want to be bothered with it. If one of the studios that has a financial stake in the property doesn't want to do it, it doesn't really matter much if there's financing.
I know that the entire debacle was left Deadwood's creator and visionary David Milch sad and disheartened, as he made gargantuan efforts to extend or revive the show in some form. But that's showbiz.
I followed you posting on Alan Sepinwall's blog – I think it was last year – when he was revisiting and re-watching old Deadwood episodes. It was amazing to see you come in and add to the comments section for the benefit of the community. How did you stumble upon it? And is this something you do regularly in other fan communities?
I knew Alan from various meetings at press junkets, and from being a fan of his columns, and when I stumbled on his Deadwood recaps, I couldn't help but join in to share stories and to correct inaccurate rumors (such as those that followed the cancellation of the show).
It gave me a chance to re-watch the show and to relive some of the experiences and to tell some stories that people might not have heard. It was great fun. I'm doing it again this summer as Alan revisits season three.
I'm pretty visible online, diving in occasionally to converse on fan sites and always trying to be available to anyone who wants to chat. I made a choice several years ago not to be a hermit as my public profile grew and to be as available and open as I could. There've been the occasional wrinkles, but for the most part, it's something I don't regret.
People are very kind most of the time, and I love the interaction and the expansion of my own world it gives me.
OK, I got my fanboy questions out of the way. Let's talk a bit about you. How did you first get your start in acting?
I'd done a couple of little plays in school as a kid, but had no real thought to being an actor for a living.
When I got back from Vietnam and was discharged from the Marines, I went to college with vague plans to be a film historian. In those days, film history classes were pretty limited, so I signed up for theatre classes as a near alternative.
My college roommate asked me to be his partner in an audition for the campus players and they asked both of us to join. As soon as I said my first line onstage in a public performance, I was hooked for life.
And now, all these years later, I've just finished Justified and my college roommate is doing life in the New Mexico State pen. Funny world.
Given all of the incredible roles you've had over the last few years—is there any show you'd love a chance to guest star on?
I just want to work on shows with good writing. That's the real criteria for me. Of course, any chance to get on a horse is welcome, so I've got my eyes on Longmire and Hell On Wheels.
Everyone else from Deadwood seems to have turned up on Sons of Anarchy, and since I actually own a motorcycle, that one seems like a natural.
But if it's got good characters and writing of the level I've become accustomed to recently, I'm in, no matter what the subject or genre. I've been very lucky in that area, and I'd like to keep the streak going.
Where can we see you next?
The only thing I can talk about, and coincidentally, the only thing I'm sure about is my role as a homicide cop named Arliss Fontenot in a pilot I just shot for a web series called The N&N Files. It's a private eye show with a twist, set in New Orleans. It's been completely crowd-funded and we just finished shooting it on location in New Orleans. It's about Nikki and Nora, a pair of romantically involved female P.I.'s, played by Liz Vassey (CSI) and Christina Cox (Blood Ties). It also stars Oscar-nominee Tess Harper, Janina Gravanka (True Blood), Armin Shimerman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and Wallace Langham (CSI). It should be online by August or September.