With the double-whammy of Django Unchained and Lincoln hitting our screens, life is pretty good for veteran actor Walton Goggins
Finding yourself in one Oscar fave could be dismissed as mere dumb luck, but two would suggest that Walton Goggins knows a good script when he finds one. Then again, the Birmingham, Alabama-born 41-year old has been in this business long enough to recognise the good, the bad and the Oscar worthy. Having first come to notice as Detective Shane Vendrell in the TV series The Shield (2002-2008), Goggins made his screen debut in the 1990 TV movie Murder In Mississippi before making his presence felt in such notable outings as The Apostle (1997), The Bourne Identity (2002), The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) and, more recently, a second highly acclaimed TV series, Sons Of Anarchy.
By his own admission, Goggins has hit something of a career high right about now though, with the release of both Tarantino’s Django Unchained (think Inglorious Basterds meets Roots) and Spielberg’s Lincoln (think, eh, Spielberg. And Lincoln).
In the former, Goggins plays slave plantation heavy Billy Crash, his glittering career as a hired gun coming to a bloody halt with the arrival of avenging angel Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty hunter co-conspirator Dr. Schultz (a show-stealing Christoph Waltz).
We began by talking about Tarantino’s fevered fantasy, Django Unchained somehow a perfect blend of the Coens and Carry On, like The Help reimagined by Itchy & Scratchy, a film that manages to be darkly political and deeply dippy at the same time. It might just be Tarantino’s finest movie to date, the personal quest of Django to rescue his beloved from a plantation a pretty love story that counters neatly the heavy weight of America’s ugly slave past.
Given the layers to this story, and the difficult subject matter, did you know from the start that Django Unchained was going to work, or did you just trust your director?
WALTON GOGGINS: You know, you always trust someone like Quentin to get it right. From the first time I read the script, it was all there. It was all there on the page. And you just knew. It was just a matter of getting it in the can, and how he was going to tell it. There was no question in my mind whether or not it was going to be executed well. It was so good out of the gate, I really felt that it would start a revolution. I’ve said that before, but I feel it’s true. It’s exploring the ultimate fear in white America when it comes to slavery in our country. It’s a love story at heart though; that’s what Quentin made.
The love story adds some welcome tenderness, but, just as Quentin tackled an ugly part of Germany’s past with Inglorious Basterds, here he addresses a very ugly part of America’s history whilst being ridiculously, shamelessly entertaining. Not an easy trick to pull off.
WG: I agree. This story – the most painful chapter in the history of our country – needs to be retold, over and over, and over again. By all of the filmmakers that Quentin stands on the shoulders of, and by all the future filmmakers who will be standing on the shoulders of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s fans are all over the map when it comes to age, but there’s a new generation of people who maybe didn’t get to see Inglorious Basterds, because they were just too young, but they are now coming up and they’re going to see… it’s not a history lesson, but they’re going to see an exploration of this very painful time in America’s history, and having it told to them this way, it’s probably going to be more meaningful. Because it is more violent than previous tellings, and it’s so funny. And maybe that’s the perfect language to speak to the next generation of filmmakers. Who knows what the future’s going to be like 50 years from now, when you try to tell this story, but I think Quentin is the perfect person to tell the story in his style right now.
He sweetens a very bitter pill here. Quentin is a man who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and with Django, he’s got the sun in the lens, John Ford on the horizon, and Ennio Morricone on the hi-fi. Did he sit down and offer up a list of influences for his cast?
WG: Not a sit-down, per se, but he will speak about them as he’s shooting a scene. And there are things that he has in his mind and you won’t really know what that is until you’re in the middle of it all. There was one scene in particular, which actually didn’t make it in the movie, but it involves my character, Billy Crash, and Quentin said on the first day, ‘Goddamn, you must have done something good in a previous lifetime, Goggins, because this frame is beautiful’. And he’s right. There are so many images in this movie that are memorable, but one in particular that stands out to me is the shot where Sam Jackson is holding Leo’s character, and Schultz is flying through the background, having just been shot, and you know, he’s just being pulled and yanked along, and you’re thinking, what am I seeing right now? You’re not cutting to a shot of Schultz being killed. You’re in another shot when this seminal character in the movie is just being pulled through the frame. It’s fucking crazy, man.
When it came to Billy, did you feel the need to give him a life off-camera? Maybe coming from Birmingham, Alabama, you might have had a sense of who he is and where he’s coming from beforehand…?
WG: I don’t know people like Billy Crash, thankfully, so, yeah, you do your research and then just turn it over to your imagination. And even though some of the things we shot and some of the things Quentin wrote didn’t make it into the movie, Billy was so 3-dimensional and he had such a specific point of view, it was easy to find him. It was through a working man’s perspective. He’s not a wealthy, wealthy guy, and he’ll never be a landed gentleman. You don’t have that kind of upward mobility in lower economic strati during this time in our country. And that’s where he is. Very few people make it out of that kind of poverty, but one way to do it was through the slave corporation. That’s how you found employment, and that’s how you found power. If you were smart enough, if you were a smart guy, you would rise to the top. And that’s where Billy Crash was coming from. It wasn’t just racism. And I’m in no way trying to explain away that attitude, or make excuses – it’s not that; it’s more complicated than that. And Quentin’s a more complicated filmmaker than that. So, what he did with Billy was really show that a person who has risen to the top, perpetuating this violence and enforcing slavery in these plantations, he loses that when his boss is killed. It’s a case of, now, my opportunities are gone. What am I going to do now? It’s like, ‘Look at it from my point of view, Django. You’re a smart man. You’ve done fucked up my good thing’. And that’s really interesting – I had never seen it told that way before.
Was there a worry on your part that once you take on a subject like slavery in America, the edit could skewer the tone and the message drastically?
WG: I would be surprised if Quentin didn’t experience that emotion, but, speaking for myself, I trusted the man whose name was no.1 on the call sheet. The man who penned it, the man who was steering the ship. So, I never had a question. Given the nature of the film, and the controversy that would inevitably surround it, there’s always that kind of concern, but I think people should be uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable subject matter, and growth only comes from being uncomfortable. So, I don’t know if Quentin experienced those emotions or not, but I certainly did.
You’ve either been incredibly smart or incredibly lucky in your choices of late, with both Django Unchained and Lincoln on our screens right now. Two movies dealing with the same time in America’s history, but two very different films nonetheless.
WG: If you think about it, that fate should conspire to have these two films come out at the same time, and I’m in both of them, man, it’s unbelievable. Really, I can’t really wrap my mind around it.
That’s going to be a nice double-bill for your son, when he grows up…
WG: Yeah. When you think about it, one deals with this issue through legislation, and the other deals with this issue through revolution, and that’s, you know… what unbelievable bookends, man. What a way to end 2012! Let the race conversations begin again.
Unsurprisingly, Daniel Day Lewis is up for an Oscar for Lincoln. Here’s an actor dedicated to his craft enough to stay in character throughout a shoot. Working with someone like that, I’m guessing you have to come prepared.
WG: Yeah, you’re not only ready for that, but it should inspire you too. That’s how any great artist should approach his work, and I can’t take on anything unless I do it with both feet in, you know. And Daniel is the poster boy, as it were, for that kind of dedication.
You yourself said once, “The life of a character doesn’t just exist between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’…
WG: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right.
In stark contrast to Lincoln, you’ve got G.I. Joe: Retaliation heading our way next, a movie that will most likely follow its predecessor to the top of the box-office. It’s all coming up Milhouse for you right now…
WG: Yeah, it feels good right now. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and have a great life, and a great career, coming into this new season, but I think the thing that is most satisfying for me as the stars align in this way is that, as a 41 year old man with a young son, experiencing great joys in my life and some pains, I really have something to say as an artist. And it’s taken me a little bit longer to get there than others. Or maybe I’m just blossoming right on time. I’m just grateful to be given an opportunity to do what I love to do for a living.
Given your success right now, you must be keen to get your and Ray McKinnon’s production company Ginny Mule active again, having won an Oscar in 2001 for the short, The Accountant. Your last production was 2009’s The Evening Sun…
WG: It helps, having some big movies out there, but I’m doing my own thing right now and Ray’s doing his own thing. I hope to be directing a movie sometime later in the year, and I have a television show that I’m producing, and we have it written and sold now – we’re just waiting to see which network we’ll go to – so, yeah, everything helps everything else. That’s how the universe works…
Words: Paul Byrne
Django Unchained is unleashed Jan 18th/Lincoln arrives January 25th