Thursday, April 3, 2014

In Character: Garret Dillahunt

I’ve been a fan of Garret Dillahunt’s work since his scene stealing days on HBO’s Deadwood. But it wasn’t until I heard to him on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show (an excellent weekly podcast that film fans should regularly listen to) that I began to truly respect him. Hearing Dillahunt tell his career story with the timid sensibilities of a kind farm boy, made for one of the Chat Show’s finest episodes yet. If you have some time, I highly recommend giving the episode a listen (or watch, here). Until then, I hope you enjoy my insight into the wonderful career of this most talented character actor. 

Five Essential Roles
Deadwood (2004)
Jack McCall
Jack McCall has a penchant for strong drink and poker. When he mixes them together, as he so often does, trouble is to be had. He runs his mouth, displays his (almost laughable) machismo, and issues half-hearted threats that no one takes seriously. Why aren’t the citizens of Deadwood afraid of Jack McCall? Probably because they’re too busy being repulsed by him. He’s constantly covered in dirt, reeking of booze and flashing his lazy eye (a nifty trick Dillahunt achieved without make-up, seriously, watch the Kevin Pollak podcast). So how does the village idiot let his voice be heard? By making a very loud statement.

I don’t want to spoil Jack McCall’s big statement, but I will say that it makes for one of Deadwood’s most memorable moments. There wasn’t an inkling of Garret Dillahunt to be found in Jack McCall. It’s an actor wholly committed to displaying a truly vile man.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
“These boys is all swole up. So this was earlier, getting set to trade. Then, whoa, differences. You know, might not of even been no money.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from No Country for Old Men, delivered by the film’s main source of comic relief, Deputy Wendell. Wendell’s a hard character to pull off – the amicable buffoon stuck in the dead-serious thriller. But among the many feats in the Coen brothers’ canon is an exquisite sense of comedic timing. They know how and when an amusing line should be delivered, but finding the appropriate actor to execute those lines is certainly no easy task. Enter Garret Dillahunt, who struts onto No Country for Old Men as a guy perpetually two steps behind.

There are really two schools of thought when it comes to comedy: play it straight, or go for the laugh. Dillahunt isn’t playing it straight here, but he’s so good at masking his humor. We believe this is how Wendell really behaves, and that, perhaps, is the greatest gift an actor can bestow.

Raising Hope (2010-2014)
Burt Chance
There are a few things I require of a sitcom in order to remain actively interested, one of which is chemistry. If the actors have believable chemistry – a wit, a charm, and familiarity – to their interactions, then that makes the show worthwhile. I mention this because the chemistry between Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton on Raising Hope is some of the best chemistry I’ve ever seen in a sitcom. Dillahunt and Plimpton play married couple Burt and Virginia Chance, whose son, Jimmy, realizes he has a child as a result of a one night stand. This technically makes Burt and Virginia, both in their early 40s, reluctant grandparents, which immediately establishes a hilarious dichotomy within the show. Granted, I’ve only seen the first season of Raising Hope (after four seasons, the show ends its series run this week), but I absolutely loved what I saw. Dillahunt embraces Burt’s foolishness with the utmost conviction. He’s the kind of guy you love to laugh at, and his dynamic with Plimpton is endlessly spirited.

Winter’s Bone (2010)
Sheriff Baskin
Dillahunt isn’t in Debra Granik’s splendid white trash thriller, Winter’s Bone, very much, but he owns his time on screen. Take, for example, the film’s tensest moment, when Sheriff Baskin pulls over one of the town’s most notorious residents, Teardrop (John Hawkes). Baskin orders Teardrop to get out of his truck, saying it with a familiar urgency that lets us know this is routine for both of them. But Teardrop won’t budge. He’s pissed that Baskin sold his brother, Jessup, out, which presumably lead to Jessup’s murder. So Teardrop sits and waits. Baskin moves closer, draws his gun, and Teardrop readies his rifle.

“Is this gonna be our time?” Teardrop blankly asks through his driver’s side mirror. Fearing the worst, Baskin backs down. Think about the psychology of this scene for a moment. Think about the humiliation and dereliction of duty Sheriff Baskin must feel in backing down from a mean old bastard with a rifle. Honestly, it doesn’t require much thought, because it is written all over Dillahunt’s conflicted face, resulting in a wonderfully taut moment between two great character actors.

12 Years a Slave (2013)
By the time Dillahunt shows up in 12 Years a Slave, we’ve long since established who is good and who is evil within the world of the film. Solomon Northup knows he’ll never receive empathy from his owner (or his owner’s wife, for that matter), so he takes a chance by confiding in Armsby, a new, white worker hired to help out on the plantation. Solomon begs Armsby to deliver a letter on his behalf (a letter that took Solomon years to write). Armsby agrees, noting the potential danger that could befall him for helping Solomon. They settle the matter, and that is that. Until, of course, it isn’t. Armsby’s eventual betrayal of Solomon is one of the most violent acts in the movie. It puts us in constant fear for Solomon’s safety, and makes Solomon’s trust of Brad Pitt’s character that much more questionable. Armsby is a brief but pivotal role in 12 Years a Slave, played by an actor with a great command of moral desperation.

The Best of the Best
Deadwood (2005)
Francis Wolcott
For the first time in my In Character series, I’m listing two separate performances by the same actor, on the same show. The reason I’m able to do this is twofold: one, Deadwood creator David Milch made the ballsy, nearly unprecedented decision to cast Dillahunt as two different characters on Deadwood. And two, Dillahunt played them both to utter perfection. Jack McCall appeared in six episodes of Season 1, and Francis Wolcott was a lead of Season 2. The characters had virtually nothing in common, save the man who played them.

In the truest sense of the term, Dillahunt’s work here is a genuine role reversal. Jack McCall is the loud braggart, filthy from years of whiskey and nights in the mud. Francis Wolcott is the two-faced gentleman, with a proper, well-kempt exterior that conceals his tormented, psychopathic personality. The first time I watched the show, I genuinely had no idea they were both Dillahunt, which is a testament to his abilities.

As mentioned, Francis Wolcott has some issues. At first meeting, there’s nothing in place to rouse our suspicions about Wolcott. He’s an unassuming geologist working for George Hearst, sent to Deadwood to evaluate its land. But as the season progresses, we’re privy to Wolcott’s inner madness. A sexual deviant and habitual murderer, there’s seemingly no end to Wolcott’s grotesque behavior. Thing is, he’s aware of the brutality of his actions; ashamed by then, even. He regrets his misdeeds, but simply can’t curb his lust for murder. All of this, it should be noted, is contained within Wolcott’s inward sensibilities. There’s nothing flashy about his crimes; they’re instead committed with a shameful monotony.

Simply put, Francis Wolcott was one of Deadwood’s most complex characters; an utterly fascinating portrayal of a man gone mad, never to return.

Other Notable Roles
with Emily Blunt in Looper
Maximum Bob (1998)
The Believer (2001)
The 4400 (2005-2006)
ER (2005-2006)
The Book of Daniel (2006)
John from Cincinnati (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Damages (2007)
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009)
The Last House on the Left (2009)
The Road (2009)
Amigo (2010)
Burn Notice (2010-2013)
Any Day Now (2012)
Looper (2012)
Houston (2013)


  1. That scene he has in 12 Years a Slave was chilling as I didn't recognize him at first but then, I realized it was him. Man, he's fucking great as I think No Country for Old Men is his best role so far.

    1. So fucking chilling in 12 Years. He really is a remarkably versatile actor. Love hearing that you appreciate his No Country work. Have you seen Deadwood? I think you'd really dig it.

    2. I have never seen Deadwood as it's one of those shows that I missed out on.

    3. I know what you mean man, I've missed out on a ton of TV along the way too. Deadwood is a lot like The Wire... after you get through the first few episodes, you'll loose the next several hours of your life because you Just. Can't. Stop. So fuckin' good.

  2. Oh I love Dillahunt. It actually took me a moment to recognize him in season 2 of Deadwood - was he hired because the showrunner liked his work in s1 so much? His story arc in s2 was great and the big moment in s1 was such a crazy memorable scene, unexpected too since I thought Carradine will be a regular on the show.

    1. On that Kevin Pollak podcast, Dillahunt admitted that he has no idea why David Milch asked him to play a new character in Season 2. (Originally, Milch pitched Dillahunt the part of George Hearst, and after Dillahunt researched Hearst for months, Milch told him that he was too young to play Hearst, so he gave him Wolcott instead.) But Dillahunt doesn't know if it was something Milch planned all along, or just made up on the spot. Either way, worked out great.

  3. Very good actor. That scene in Winter's Bone is insanely tense! Watching 12 Years a Slave this weekend, finally.

    1. Awesome man, hope you appreciate 12 Years. I LOVE that scene in Winter's Bone. They're both so good.

  4. Garret Dillahunt is such a fantastic character actor and it's always such a lovely surprise whenever he pops up in a movie or TV-show. He was by far the best part of Looper even with his limited screen time. I always thought he would be perfect for Justified. Hopefully he can make an appearance during it's last season next year.

    1. Yes! Love that you're a fan. He's was my favorite part of Looper as well. I mean... holy hell, whatta way to go. I think with Raising Hope ending, it'll free him up in terms of new roles and maybe some TV gigs. A spot on Justified would be great.

    2. I can't believe he actually did do a guest spot on Justified this season. That made me so happy. And he is doing a great job so far? Have you been catching up on this season?

    3. Ahh I haven't! I need to do a marathon session of the last two season. I love that damn show.

    4. Yeah, you definitely should catch up. Last season went a bit down for me (except for the always fun to watch Michael Rapaport as the bad guy), but a mediocre season of Justified is still better than most TV though. This season however they are back on track again. So far it's one of my favorite seasons. Not only is Garret Dillahunt doing a great job, but also a mustache less Sam Elliott. It's so strange to see him without it that it makes his character even creepier somehow. So yeah, you should definitely find the time to catch up again now. No show casts fantastic character actors better than Justified.

    5. I did have a little trouble getting into the Michael Rapaport season, but I LOVED that Neal McDonough season. Dude was such a good and depraved villain.

  5. I was seriously getting ready to write an article about this man this weekend, as I find him to be one of the best unrecognized actors working today. He has easily become a reason I watch certain things and one of the only reasons I'm sad Raising Hope is ending. When you have a scope of his career, it's shocking to look at the variety of his roles and how easily he can go from making us laugh our asses off to being absolutely terrified.

    1. Yep, exactly. He really can do it all, I remain absolutely dumbfounded by his versatility. Can't wait to read your post about him!

  6. This guy really disappears into his roles! I never put together that the guy from Raising Hope was the man in 12 Years. Maybe it's because I don't watch the show so I'm not used to seeing his face but wow, that's pretty impressive.

    When I saw your tweet about your In Character post having 2 roles from the same show, I totally thought it was going to be Jessica Lange! Instead, it was yet another reminded that I need to watch Deadwood already.

    1. He's really something else, isn't he? That's right, a lot of that American Horror Story clan would count too! Good call there. Deadwood, though... wow. Such an intense show, but so damn addicting. Once you start, you can't stop. I really want to sit down and crush them all out again. So intricate and finely detailed. Thanks for the comment, Jess!

  7. Great post! Ah, Raising Hope. I love that show so much, I'm really bummed it's going off air for good. I hope Dillahunt and Plimpton have more opportunities in both film and TV after the series finale, they both deserve to be so much more well known than they are now.

    I haven't seen Deadwood yet, but it's near the top of my list! However, I have just finished watching the first season of The Wire. What a phenomenal show! Definitely looking forward to season two! :)

    1. Thanks! Isn't The Wire a fascinating watch? Season 2 is the weakest of the bunch, but I would still give the season a grade A. Three is phenomenal, 5 is fantastic and 4 is the finest season of television I've ever seen. Bar none. Make sure you stop by and let me know what you think!

  8. Good choice. I love his performances in No Country for Old Men, Winter's Bone and 12 Years a Slave. I guess I need to check out Deadwood some time.

    1. Deadwood is so good. Very intricate and detailed, but it really sucks you in. Damn shame it didn't last longer.