For the better part of two decades, Garret Dillahunt has been making a name for himself as an actor’s actor. A chameleon of character roles, par excellence.
After coming onto the scene with two different roles in the now iconic HBO series Deadwood, the California-native has worked steadily with such giants as Brad Pitt, director Steve McQueen, and The Coen Brothers. Now, the actor takes the lead—producing and starring in his own Amazon series Sprung.
Sprung is available to stream now on Amazon Freevee.
LEO: Can you tell us a little bit about your new series, Sprung?
GARRET DILLAHUNT: Sprung is sort of centered around my character, Jack, who is in jail for selling weed when he was just out of high school. It’s back when there was a mandatory minimum drug sentencing. So, he’s been in for 26 years when the COVID virus hits, and as you may remember, they let a lot of prisoners out because of it. And the hijinks kind of go on from there. COVID is the catalyst. It’s not a show about COVID, I don’t want people to think that, but it does provide a lot of welcome relief and laughter at the virus’ expense. I think it’s the first time we’ve been able to sort of laugh about that ridiculous time. And it’s a story about finding your place and noticing change and working together. There’s a lot of humanity in it.
You famously starred in Raising Hope, which—like Sprung—was also created by Greg Garcia and starred Martha Plimpton. What was it like reuniting and working with them again?
I loved working with Martha and Greg on Raising Hope. One of my reasons for deciding to try to produce my own show was that I wanted to have such a good time again, so, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the first phone call I made was to Greg, because then he took over, and it’s really easy to produce a show when you have friends like Greg Garcia who are gonna write and direct 10 episodes with his crack team that follows him everywhere. He’s a wonderful presence to have at the top of the food chain on a show. And with Martha, I’ve said this before in a few other interviews, I’m going to take the responsibility for it. I think I felt because we so often heard that everyone wanted to see [the characters] Bert and Virginia together again all the time, that people wouldn’t be able to separate us from Bert and Virginia. And I think that was a real mistake on my part, thinking that way. That because we did such a good job the first time around, we’re not supposed to work together again. It was stupid. And so, partially because she was unavailable at first and partially because of those fears, we didn’t think we could get her on the show, but we soon needed her on the show and we called her and we managed to get her on like three or four days notice. She flew in from London, reading the scripts on the plane and got involved. And it’s just such a relief.
She’s just so good and so easy to act with, and she knows how to tell the story that needs to be told. And I hope I do too. And I think that’s why we have such good chemistry, because we know what the job is. We trust each other. She is such an instinctively great actor that it’s like an energy source opposite me that I can draw from. And I know she’s always going to be believable. She’s always going to have an opinion as a character about what she’s saying and doing, and it will manifest physically. It’s just a joy to watch and be around.
Speaking of Martha, I am reminded that you killed her father, Keith Carradine, as Bill Hickok in season one of Deadwood.
Yes, and Keith actually made an appearance on Raising Hope as a cowboy, which was funny. And then Keith also played my father on Fear the Walking Dead. We didn’t have scenes together, he came on after I left the show to do Sprung, but I’m hoping that we can join forces again sometime. I keep being connected to the Carradine/Plimpton clan.
You also produced Sprung. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do, to take more control? And do you have interest in directing?
I directed an episode of Raising Hope, and I enjoyed it very much. For a long time, I didn’t have any aspirations beyond that. I felt very fulfilled. I feel pretty lucky in the roles I’ve gotten to play as an actor. I know plenty of actors that can do what I do. I get flattered when people say, you can do anything, you do comedy, you do drama, you do whatever, because I feel like I know so many people that can do that and do it even better, but just weren’t given the opportunity. And I’ve been given those opportunities, and I love it and I never thought I would produce anything. But as you get older, you want to have a little more of a hand in things. If I’m not having fun, what’s the point? And so, if you think you can do better, why don’t you get your hands a little dirty? And I wish I’d done that a long time ago. Don’t wait until you think you deserve it or that you have all the knowledge, ’cause you’ll never feel that way.
We’ve been talking about comedy, but in movies like Last House on the Left, 12 Years A Slave, The Road, you’re much more associated with unsavory characters. Do you think this all snowballed from Deadwood or do you enjoy playing the heavies?
I do enjoy them. I mean, I started in comedy as you mentioned, but I think what I really like is change. I come from the theatre, like a lot of my British friends, and I respect how they just kinda get on with it. I really like the energy from actors from the UK. They’re so fashioned, so well trained, so much respect and facility with language, and I like working that way. The work ethic and the sensibility and the commitment to story. I aspire to that action and those kinds of experiences. I think they’re more fulfilling for everyone on set. It’s how Deadwood was. It was so exciting and so fulfilling, and it’s not fair to the other jobs because sometimes we took 21 days to shoot an episode. That’s a massive amount of time for one episode of television. The writing was so good, the character development, the thick layer of subtext. And I was fresh out of school, pretty much. I’d been doing theater for a while, but this was one of my first forays into film and television. And I’m thinking, this is how it is, this is how it will always be for me, and I got to play two characters. You kidding me? And all you want to do is serve the story 100%. And then you get away from that kind of magic, that no one else can replicate to be fair, and it’s a struggle. But it made me want that kind of quality. And with the choices I’m given, I try to pick the ones that are most closely aligned with those goals.
You’ve been in two Cormac McCarthy adaptations, No Country for Old Men and The Road. Are you a fan of his books or did you come to him through the films?
I am a big fan of his. There was a time when I vowed to be in every Cormac McCarthy adaptation ever made, which I’ve failed at, but I’ve been in two. I discovered him in college. I think Suttree might be my favorite of his books, which hasn’t been made. It’s just beautiful. And I always get a little girly around writers, more than actors or anyone else. It’s just something that I can’t do well. I wanted to, and I’m just amazed by it, and I want to be one, I think.
You said you were spoiled on Deadwood. I imagine that working with the likes of Steve McQueen, the Coen Brothers, Rian Johnson, and people like that must also be outside the norm when it comes to making movies. You’ve worked with so many fascinating artists. Is there one that’s been particularly rewarding?
Favorites kinds of questions are difficult for me ’cause I feel like it changes every day. The Assassination of Jesse James, for some reason, that’s the first one that popped into my mind. I just remember having such a wonderful time. I’m a big fan of Brad Pitt and his company Plan B (with Dede Gardner). I think he’s got great taste in projects and films and the people he works with. He has enough confidence in himself that he’s not afraid to work with really good people; he knows that’s what makes the whole thing better, if you surround yourself and challenge yourself. And Andrew Dominic [the director] I think is a real artist. In terms of filmmakers, I’m very excited to see Blonde coming up. So that was a big one for me, but I’ve missed out so many. Maybe because they’re all so different, I’m having trouble picking one.
Raising Hope started the whole relationship with Greg and Martha, and I’ve worked with Martha more than any other actor in my career. We’ve made the equivalent of about 30 movies together. And then Deadwood – David Milch is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever worked with. It’s like having a Herman Melville on set, writing your scenes. It’s shocking.
Is there anyone in the industry – from any era – that you would say has been your biggest inspiration?
That’s tricky because there’s so many. I started pretty late as an actor. I was gonna be a reporter. And then my older brother died from a drunk driving accident when he was 19 and I was 16, and it really threw me for a loop. And I fell into acting in college, I’m sure more for therapy than anything else. I just hid in other people. I became as many other people as I could be. I think I’m still doing that to some degree, still running a bit. But I read a lot of biographies in those times. I don’t know why this is occurring to me. I’ve been asked this question before and I’ve never given this answer. But I remember reading Montgomery Clift’s biography and Alec Guinness’ autobiography. And I think about those two things a lot. Alec talking about a life that was not downstage-center but maybe upstage-right, and his joy at playing these supporting characters and how sometimes it’s the better place to be. And I certainly want to be downstage-center, that’s what I’m doing with Sprung. But I think I’ve always had a character actor’s idea of what this profession is.
It’s interesting that you brought up Montgomery Clift’s biography, because he is somewhat associated with a famous car accident himself. I’m wondering if you made that connection at the time or if it was maybe subconscious?
I didn’t think of that connection. That’s interesting you bring that up. We don’t have a lot in common, he and I. But it was his work ethic. There’s an underlying sadness about him, sort of like he is constantly asking for forgiveness, that I related to. But I wonder if it might have been a subconscious thing. I remember vividly a part in the book about him working with one of his friends on – I think it was Romeo and Juliet. And they were up all night, and he was trying to help him with an audition. And he was using a pillow for Juliet and doing all his lines. And I remember being struck by the strength of this adult’s imagination. That’s the kind of thing that kids have the imagination power to do and view these objects and transport you with no props and no sets, no whatever. And I wanted to hold onto that and replicate it as much as I can in my own life and career.
I can get crabby on set. I have chosen the wrong projects. I’m sure there’s been times that I’ve done things that weren’t that good. There’s been days I performed poorly. But the desire is there, and the work ethic I think instilled in me by my blue-collar parents and the heroes that I’ve referenced, to just keep trying. It’s worthy of doing well. It’s worthy of being excellent. And I still get nervous. There are people I can’t wait to work with again, and people I can’t wait to work with someday, and I just hope it’s always this way. I hope I die on stage or on screen. [Laughs] No, not on screen, I suppose, but on set.
CHECK OUT GARRET
In director Andrew Dominik’s upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde
As Jack in the Amazon Freevee comedy series Sprung
As both Jack McCall and Francis Wolcott in the HBO series Deadwood
As Wendell in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men
As Ed Miller in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
As Armsby in director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave