Watching Raising Hope's dim-witted Burt, you might wonder, "Where have I seen this guy before?" The answer: everywhere. "I just enjoy working so much, it's hard to say no," says Garret Dillahunt. But with the acclaimed actor hiding himself so well in each character — and with other roles so different from the Chance family's lovably oafish patriarch — he's actually pretty hard to pin down.
Along with a less menacing part on The Glades (costarring real-life wife Michelle Hurd), Dillahunt's played an assassin on Burn Notice, a paralyzed serial killer on Criminal Minds, a murderous machine on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and a pedophile on Law & Order: SVU. That's not even counting the crooked cop or the cannibal from films like Winter's Bone and The Road. "Even when he's playing these sickos," says Hope costar Martha Plimpton (Virginia), "Garret can make you feel like you're getting inside these guys."
Easy with a joke, the warm 46-year-old is anything but creepy in real life. "My dad said to me, 'This character seems more like you,'" laughs Dillahunt. "I think he meant Burt's goofball sense of humor, rather than the dumb part. At least, that's what I'm choosing to believe!" Plimpton insists it's just brilliant casting: "You can't play a dumb guy if you're dumb. That's why Garret's the prime person for this role — because he finds a smart way into dumb," she says. "That's what makes it interesting to watch."
Raised in Washington state, Dillahunt discovered acting in college. "I was an incredibly shy fellow. Everyone was surprised," he says. "After NYU graduate school, I did theater nonstop for seven years, until I got hungry — literally hungry — so I started auditioning for film and TV."
But it was portraying two vastly different, major characters on HBO's Deadwood — "That never happens," says Plimpton — that finally gained him industry cred. He played filthy drunk Jack McCall in Season 1 and disturbingly proper, prostitute-killing geologist Francis Wolcott in Season 2. "I would guess most viewers did not even know it was him in both parts," says creator David Milch. "Garret disappears into his roles. He's in that much possession of his gift."
That versatility later paid off in landing Raising Hope. "He was somebody I'd seen mostly in dramas," says creator Greg Garcia, "but he went on tape in New York and it was just like, 'Oh, my God, this guy! All the little things he's doing! He's hilarious!'"
But while others rave about his amazing range, Dillahunt is quick to dismiss compliments. "I've been really lucky to be able to play a wide variety of roles," he says, shifting credit to his exec producers. "I feel the same kind of support from and confidence for Greg Garcia that I felt for David Milch."
He also credits the rest of his Hope family. Lucas Neff (Jimmy) is "doing a great job and is a really talented playwright," Dillahunt says. "And Martha Plimpton is just there. She gets it." He even turns a question about his many admirers into a shout-out for the woman running his fan site: "She's a computer genius. She knew about one of my roles before I did!"
But if talking about himself doesn't come easy, the actor's certainly comfortable discussing his character, whom he speaks of like an old friend. "I wish I were a little more like him," he admits surprisingly enough, considering the former teen dad/pool cleaner is not the brightest. "He's loyal and he takes things in stride. It's about loving life and having a good time — Burt's really good at that. I could learn from him."
With the show renewed for a second season, Dillahunt will have plenty of time to pick up some tips — and he couldn't be happier about it. "I like playing the fool. I've never understood actors who are like, 'I don't wanna do that. That makes me look like a loser!' That's when things are interesting — when you're down."
And if being on a hit show makes him too recognizable to play the chameleon and slip in and out of roles unnoticed? Dillahunt's not worried: "That would be an exciting obstacle to overcome, right?"
Raising Hope airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox.