Emmy Hopeful: Neal McDonough - 'Justified'

by Jarett Wieselman 1:47 PM PDT, June 27, 2012
Photo: FX

Margo Martindale took home 2011's Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her powerful performance as Justified's big bad, Mags Bennett. And now, coming off an equally tremendous third season, the FX drama is once again in the Supporting race thanks to Neal McDonough's terrifying portrayal of Robert Quarles -- a man who began the season as a perfectly composed businessman but went out in a wild blaze of inglorious bastard-dom.

It's a testament to McDonough's acting prowess that both halves of Quarles' coin, as well as every step of his devolution, were grounded in the kind of reality that's become a Justified signature. Now, with Emmy nominations looming, ETonline caught up with McDonough to find out how he came to this role, how he went about shaping Quarles and why it's been the toughest character to say goodbye to.

ETonline: How did this role come to you?
Neal McDonough: I always say, In Graham I Trust. All Graham [Yost, Justified showrunner] asked was, "Do you want to be the bad guy on the show?" I said yes and that was literally our conversation. I didn't know anything about the character, so it was a complete leap of faith – but boy did he deliver.

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ETonline: When Yost finally broke Quarles down for you, what did you think?
McDonough: He actually kept Quarles very mysterious to me. All he said was, "You're from Detroit" and "You're an outsider coming in to this small town." After reading the first script, I went to wardrobe and suggested we use some really nice, very expensive suits I had from movies. I wanted this guy to look like money. I showed up to the set and Graham said it was exactly what he had in mind. Everyone thinks the gun was the most important part of the character, but I think it was the suits because it made me such a fish out of water. If I wore a suit without a tie, it wouldn't have worked. To be so buttoned up yet psychotic yet a family man, made him such a dream role. I've played a lot of great roles in my life, but I love acting and this was a piece that allowed me to do just that.

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ETonline: That said, where did the gun sleeve come from?
McDonough: That was completely devised by the genius Graham Yost. He wanted Quarles to have that so there was an imminent danger to him all the time. Especially in the later episodes, when he really starts to unravel, you're always wondering who he's going to shoot now. That just creates extra tension and more drama because he’s hopped up on Oxy and Bourbon too. I mean, the guy is just a train out of control. Finally, when I go to Limehouse in the end, you know he must be insane ... but I played it like he wasn't nervous at all. Until he turned his back and you see the sh*t running down his pants.

ETonline: I read somewhere that you wouldn't talk to the cast in between takes -- true?
McDonough: True. I wanted him to seem uncomfortable. Tim [Olyphant, who plays Raylan Givens] and I kind of knew each other, but I didn't say boo to him. It's not that I stayed in character, but I treated everyone like real live characters. With the crew, I was funny, joking around, having a great old time. With the actors, it was "I'm Robert Quarles – I'm going to f*cking kill you." Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all-time would say in his mind, before each at bat, "I'm Ted Williams, I'm the best batter in the world." And that was the mantra that went through my head. It made me so calm because I didn't have to force anything. I didn't have to try. I just had to know I was the greatest man on earth. I was Superman.

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ETonline: Calm is an excellent adjective, because I was constantly amazed at the zen on Quarles' face. Even in the scene when the cop is just outside a door where he's got a kid tied up inside. Quarles just keeps eating that spaghetti.
McDonough: That was my favorite little ad lib – we were shooting at this woman's house and I asked for something to eat. I just thought he should be eating in that scene to show that I could give a sh*t. I literally rifled through this lady's fridge and took out a bowl of pasta to eat in the scene. It was perfect. The only note I gave Graham was that by episode 10, I thought he should be hopped up on his own stash and naked. Boy, did he deliver on that one [laughs].

ETonline: What was it about his descent into drugs that you felt was important to his journey?
McDonough: Quarles is so completely in control of everything even though he's a drug dealer. But as we find out, he's always keeping his temper down. When it starts to bubble up, that's when he starts drinking more in order to repress it. When that's not working, he tries one of the pills and freedom!!!!! That's what is going through his head – in this space, he feels good about himself for the first time in a long time. Yes, he's drugged out and not thinking clearly, which is why he does such heinous things. He was a bit of a monster.

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ETonline: The revelations about his past took a long time to come to light, when you began to integrate them into the character you'd built, how did you approach it?
McDonough: If you're just a black and white villain, the audience will get bored. To be a great villain, you have make the audience want to care for the guy. Make them want to fix him only realize in the end that he's incapable of fixing. It's kind of like Jack Nicholson as The Joker – you were so entertained by that guy, you began to feel for him. If you can do that, you've now got the audience listening. I mean, the speech I got to give in the trailer is one of the best written things I've ever seen on television. And when you can say something like that, you know the TV landscape has changed. And thank goodness it has!

ETonline: Given where the character goes in the end of the season, did you have a hard time shaking him off?
McDonough: Absolutely -- and that's a rarity for me. There are a few characters that took me a while to shake off. With Quarles, at the end of every day, I had to take a shower – and drink a glass of whiskey. My wife came by the set a lot, and one day happened to be the day I've got the kid handcuffed to the toilet and we're all laughing because I'm naked in front of everyone and it's just silly. But a few weeks later we saw it on TV and she didn't talk to me for three days. She said that I freaked her out too much. I'm going to miss Robert Quarles like you have no idea. I actually thought about buying an actual plot in a cemetery for him so I could go visit once in a while. I mean, I'm going to miss that messed up dude!