Emmys 2018: Walton Goggins, Hollywood’s Ultimate Journeyman, Is Finally a Breakout Star (Exclusive)

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The actor known for his roles on “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” finally gets the attention he deserves with “Vice Principals.”

Walton Goggins delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the 2017-18 season.

Walton Goggins is, perhaps, Hollywood’s ultimate journeyman.

The actor, who has bounced between film and TV for the past 29 years after first appearing in a 1989 episode of The Heat of the Night, has been this way “since I was a young man,” he tells ET by phone, acknowledging, in some way, that he’s been “that guy from that show” for most of his career. In fact, to many, he has become known for supporting roles on The Shield, Justified and Sons of Anarchy -- three shows that have earned Goggins critical praise and steady work if not “it” status or covers of magazines.

Then, in 2015, all of that changed thanks to, yes, another supporting role, but this time as Sheriff Chris Mannix in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. It was his second time working with Tarantino, after an even smaller role in Django Unchained. But this time he ran away with the entire film, stealing scenes from Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell.

While on set of The Hateful Eight, outside of Telluride, Colorado, Goggins was offered the opportunity to star opposite Danny McBride in Vice Principals, a new comedy marking the return of McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green to HBO after four seasons of Eastbound and Down. “I read the first three scripts and I was just blown away by it,” Goggins says. “I was just grateful for the invitation to come play with them.”

Soon, he was playing Chris Mannix for Tarantino during the day and at night getting into the character of Lee Russell, a conniving and sociopathic vice principal vying for the top job at a South Carolina high school. “You know, you're tired when you fall asleep but it's a high-class problem, isn't it?” Goggins says of the experience.

The show, which ran for two seasons, premiered in July 2016 to rave reviews and has since earned Goggins photo spreads in high-profile magazines as well as also roles in History Channel’s Six, this year’s big-budget films Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Tomb Raider and Ant-Man and the Wasp, and the lead in the CBS pilot for a new TV adaptation of L.A. Confidential.

In a conversation with ET, Goggins reflects on playing Lee Russell, the most diabolical character of his career, and how much of his career is instinct versus luck.

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in a scene from 'Vice Principals.' - HBO

ET: You auditioned for Eastbound and Down and didn’t get the role. But then the opportunity to audition for Vice Principals came back around and you got that. What was it about Eastbound that wasn't a right fit, but Vice Principals worked out?

Walton Goggins: Well, that's really interesting. I think they were looking for something different for Eastbound and Down, and when I walked in, I knew that. At least, I felt in my heart that if I got into a room with Danny, there would be chemistry. Real chemistry. That's what you hope with people that you look up to and it was, there was a lot of chemistry in this reading. I think by my very nature, my take on things is pretty dark. I'm not a comedian by trade. I'm just a storyteller, and most of the actors in the room when I showed up were all people from SNL and comedians. So I didn't think I had a shot in hell of ever getting that whatsoever. It's not really ever about that for me, it's just about the opportunity to come play with someone you respect and admire. I think because of that reading, they were kind of going back and forth on whether or not they wanted to go darker with this particular role on Eastbound and Down. Then they made the right decision and they went with Jason Sudeikis. But in their mind, when it came to Lee Russell and when it came to Vice Principals, they wanted to go a different direction. They wanted to mine these characters for who they are, their tragedies as well as their comedic experiences.

You have had such a great track record with The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy and now Vice Principals. When it comes to being involved in these projects and knowing they’re going to be so great, how much of it is instinct and how much of it is luck?

Oh, God, The Shield was luck. For sure. [Creator] Shawn Ryan had been around a little bit, but it was really his first time manning the wheel, so no one knew. But it was on the page. The same with Justified. It's Elmore Leonard [who authored the short story on which the series is based], so we had that going with us, and the great Tim Olyphant. With all of these things, it is luck. I suppose the instinct or the gut feeling is the other part of that. I read Boyd Crowder and I just saw him immediately. I saw Shane McDonnell instantly. I saw Venus Van Dam immediately and I saw Lee Russell immediately. So I think it's a combination of luck and just knowing when I can really add something to this or that I can help this storyteller share their story.

So in most cases, if you can see the character then you know you're for it, versus walking away when you don’t?

Yeah, at this point in my career. If you’d asked me that 10 or 12 years ago, it would have been a different answer: “Well, I don't see it but I'm gonna try and figure it out.” And that's a struggle. It isn't the lack of trying. That's not it at all. I try to challenge myself anyway. But when it comes to choosing something I think is for me, I know pretty quickly, even if it's something that scares the shit out of me. I feel like I understand I have something to offer my director or my writer -- something worthy of their time. That is a big consideration for me at this point in my career.

Lee Russell is such a specific and unique character. Obviously you must have seen yourself in him and known this was something you could play. What went into creating him?

You know, I have to go back to a part of your statement. I felt like I could play him, but I didn't really know what that was going to be. I just knew it would be there if you put in the work, and I was so unbelievably intimidated by the prospect of playing with Danny in that kind of way because he's so good at improvising and he's so good at his own material. I desperately didn't want to let him down; when you're playing with a giant in that way, you want to put the ball back over the net consistently. So for me, it really kind of goes into reading the script. I read them over and over an over and over and over again -- all of which is like 200, 250 times and, you know, around the sixtieth time you're not really kind of reading it for the words anymore. It's just an opportunity to access your imagination. That coupled with the great work done by our wardrobe designer Sarah Trost on Vice Principals, who just help me find the look. Immediately, as soon as we put on the bow, it all made sense. What I didn't know was how emotionally difficult Lee Russell was going to be in this comedy, and I think Danny will say the same thing about Neal Gamby. These are bucking broncos, man. They are heightened but grounded; they're both deeply flawed human beings.

Lee is pretty dark and twisted in some ways. Do you ever get lost in the psyche of a character like this? Do you go down that road, or are you able to kind of remove yourself from that?

I do. I go down that road as long as I come back out for my 7-year-old, who’ll say, “Dad, you're talking to yourself. Stop talking to yourself right now and get over here and play Magna-Tiles with me.” But I enjoy that process. I enjoy going down those holes, and that's hopefully why people do this for a living. It's not for a free T-shirt or dinner reservations at a particular restaurant. I've never really had those things anyway. For me, it’s really just that I enjoy the process of discovering who these guys are and kind of living in their heads. I don't take it home the way that I used to because I just don't have the time. But I do quite enjoy occupying their headspace when I'm at work.

When you signed on to Vice Principals, was there anything you wanted to achieve career-wise?

I don't look at things in a Machiavellian way, even as benign as what you're suggesting. I don't look at things as a stepping stone to something else or how this may open up an opportunity for me. I've always been happy with the opportunities that I've been given, and I've tried to make the most of them. This wasn't a gateway to do romantic comedies for me. It was an opportunity to work with people I deeply respect and admire. On the other side of this great journey, I'm really proud to say that Danny McBride is not only my friend, he's a very good friend, and so is David and so is Jody. We're like family. It's really the most rewarding thing to come out of this entire experience.

What about in terms of acting itself? Was there anything you got to do while playing Lee that you hadn't been able to do before?

I mean, I've done some pretty terrible things in my career, you know, the nefarious people that I've been given the opportunity to play. But I've never played someone that was so physically powerless and yet intellectually powerful. What I mean is his conniving nature versus his brute strength. His insecurities were so deep. They were so unbelievably ingrained into him. I think Danny is so good at playing that -- he has developed this genre of very deeply insecure men. I've never been given an opportunity to play that on that level, and it was really interesting to walk around with that, because when this show turns in an episode -- at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season or at the end of the season or the end of the entire experience -- he falls hard. When Lee Russell’s wife leaves him, he's looking to God for answers and incapable of seeing the reason as to why he arrived at this place that he's in -- that's fucking difficult. But it's so rewarding simultaneously.

When Vice Principals first premiered, it followed shortly after The Hateful Eight and it kind of felt like suddenly you were part of the zeitgeist in a way that you hadn’t been before. How does it feel at this point in the career to have people in the industry or fans to know you as Walton instead of “that guy from that show”?

I suppose it means a lot of different things, doesn't it? I suppose, for survival, for being a parent who needs to take care of his child, it means I'll get another job. But I suppose, moreover, I'm a journeyman. It's not just action or storytelling or making movies that I'm curious about. I've been a journeyman since I was a young man, and to arrive at a place I never anticipated and experience the kind of gratitude that I have for these opportunities, it feels really good, man.

This year alone, you're in several major blockbusters, from Tomb Raider to Ant-Man. Is that a result of that zeitgeist moment and the attention surrounding Hateful Eight and Vice Principals?

I think so. I think that it was a combination of Justified, Sons of Anarchy, The Hateful Eight and Vice Principals. I've been given opportunities in a number of different arenas, you know, including the one that we just grabbed, L.A. Confidential. I am grateful for all of them. I'm just trying to keep myself on my toes and flow seamlessly between doing these two mediums. After doing these big-budget movies this year, I desperately wanted to do a low-budget independent movie and just to get back to that. So I did in this move, Them That Follow, that will hopefully come out this year about a snake-handling community in southern Appalachia, and that was extraordinary. There's no great plan that I have except what is unfolding right in front of me. You get great joy out of it if you approach it that way.


This interview has been edited and condensed.