To hear Timothy Olyphant tell it, playing speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-Glock Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on Justified is like shooting fish in a proverbial barrel. "I hesitate to say this, but I find the acting to be a piece of cake," he confesses. "Good writing is always pretty easy to do. Bad writing is hard to act, hard to memorize, hard to figure out what the f--- you're doing. When it's well written, it gives you a lot of room to play."
It's clear to the nearly four million Oly-fans who tune in to FX's adaptation of crime-novel mastermind Elmore Leonard's work each week that everybody involved is having a blast. "Elmore doesn't know how to write anything that's not cool," Olyphant raves of the Get Shorty/Be Cool/Out of Sight author. "When it really cooks, it's just a great job."
That sense of fun carries over to viewers. "People get a kick out of it," says executive producer Graham Yost, an Emmy winner for HBO's historical miniseries, The Pacific . "When people talk to me about The Pacific, they have a certain awe in their voice. When they talk about Justified, their eyes are twinkling."
The glint shines even brighter in the series' current second season, up 16 percent in the ratings from last year. That's thanks in large part to Justified's new Big Bads, the Bennetts, a backwoods Kentucky drug clan comprised of the chilling yet maternal Mags (Margo Martindale — it'll be a crime if she doesn't win an Emmy!) and dumb, dumber and dumbest sons Doyle, Dicky and Coover (Joseph Lyle Taylor, Lost's Jeremy Davies and Brad William Henke). "They're fantastic — they all get the joke," says Olyphant. "The entire family just showed up ready to play. It's been a big win for the second season."
The Bennetts are but one of Justified's myriad triumphs. There's also the explosive chemistry between Raylan and his ex-wife, court reporter Winona (Natalie Zea): The two have hooked back up and landed in a heap of trouble after he helped cover up the money she lifted from an evidence locker. What's the ongoing attraction? "I dunno — she still looks great!" cackles Olyphant. "I'm sure this bats--t crazy thing can get worked out with some therapy."
In this week's episode, well directed by Ghost costar-turned-filmmaker Tony Goldwyn (Conviction), Raylan also strikes sparks with a sexy coal-company exec (Hung's Rebecca Creskoff), who's come to his native Harlan County to try and convince the locals to sell their land for mining. "They're adversaries," Olyphant says. "But at the same time, they find things attractive about each other, so there's a game being played."
Raylan plays his most dangerous game with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a lifelong cohort who's crossed back over to the wrong side of the law after a possibly bogus religious conversion. The mad bomber re-embraced his dark side in a mesmerizing monologue to new live-in lover/partner-in-crime Ava (Joelle Carter) that was eerily reminiscent of a certain notorious celeb. Confirms Yost, "Oh, yeah, Boyd's got tiger blood in him."
This richly colorful community of characters comes together for a big "whoop-de-do" at Mags' place this week. "I had a great time," says Olyphant, of shooting the party. "It reminded me of what it was like making Deadwood — the theater of it, and all the players were there." The matriarch's unofficially adopted teenage daughter Loretta (the remarkably gifted Kaitlyn Dever) finally learns her father was murdered by Mags, with deadly consequences. Plus, Tony-nominated thespian Martindale sings and childhood clogging champ Goggins dances!
As for Olyphant, any hidden musical talents will remain so. "These f---ing people are talented, aren't they?" he marvels of his costars. "I just shoot people."
For TV Guide Magazine's complete list of 7 shows you need to watch, pick up this week's issue on newsstands Thursday, March 31!