You may know Walton Goggins from his Emmy-nominated turn as charismatic outlaw Boyd Crowder on FX's modern Western Justified. You may also know him from his seven-season stint as the flawed cop Shane Vendrell on the groundbreaking drama The Shield. Or you may know him as one of the many other memorable characters he's brought to life over the years: Venus Van Dam (Sons of Anarchy), Chris Mannix (The Hateful Eight), Lee Russell (Vice Principals), Sonny Burch (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Nathan Miller (Deep State), or "Baby" Billy Freeman (The Righteous Gemstones). The list goes on and on and on.
Regardless of where you know Goggins from — and trust us, you definitely know him from somewhere — you've experienced the actor's impressive, somewhat hypnotic ability to make viewers feel for even the most flawed or complicated of characters. He doesn't set out to do it — quite the opposite actually — it's just something that happens.
But Goggins, who it should go without saying is nothing like the morally gray men he is most famous for playing, is leaving those roles behind, at least for now. This fall, Goggins is taking on the starring role in CBS's new sitcom The Unicorn as a widower stepping back into the world a year after losing his wife. "[The Unicorn is] kind and ... earnest, and I think that this character and this show wear [their hearts on their sleeves]," Goggins told TV Guide of the show and its overwhelmingly compassionate message. "I think we need that in the world right now."
As he prepares to lead this heartfelt new comedy on the most-watched network, the versatile actor takes a stroll down memory lane and looks back at some of the roles that got him to where he is today before previewing what's to come.
SHANE VENDRELL, THE SHIELD
A not insignificant portion of Goggins' television career has been spent appearing on FX prestige dramas. This fruitful relationship began when he first stepped into the shoes of Strike Team member Shane Vendrell on The Shield, a critically beloved drama about corrupt cops starring Michael Chiklis that ran from 2002 to 2008 and put FX on the map in terms of scripted programming.
"The Sopranos had been out, and we came on six months later and told a story that, on some level, vilified police officers right after 9/11, when police officers were running upstairs to save lives," Goggins recalled of the early days of the show. "The people in charge questioned whether or not that was a good thing to do, but ultimately, I think it asked the question that we're still answering today, and that is, what are we willing to accept from our law enforcement in pursuit of our own security? What does that mean? What [is] the price of protection or feeling safe, what does that really mean? I think we're all so very proud of [The Shield] and what it ultimately had to say."
The Shield ran for seven seasons, culminating in what many critics consider to be one of the best series finales of all time. Its longevity meant that Shane, whose lengthy list of offenses came to include betraying and killing his friend and fellow team member Lem (Kenny Johnson) and eventually poisoning his wife and son before turning the gun on himself, was the first character Goggins had the opportunity to get close to as an actor, and as such Shane remains a big part of his life.
"I think about his journey often," revealed Goggins. "He was a very complicated guy, but he was never self-serving; he thought he was servicing the person that ran this entire operation. And while on paper he's easy to vilify ... the price that he ultimately pays, I think, more than compensates for anything that he ever did in his life. I think he's one of the great, tragic characters in television, to be quite honest with you. I think his journey is so, so unbelievably bittersweet."
I don't even like to call these characters, to be quite honest with you; I just think of them as people.
When asked if he'd have changed anything about the character or his journey, Goggins definitively said that he would not. Had Shane survived, the actor explained, it would have likely brought him great anxiety and pain to imagine what the character was doing now. "There was something about the finality of how ugly that [ending] was and the decision that he made for his family and how selfish that was that [it] allowed me to just make peace with it and to let him go," Goggins said.
Still, Goggins remains best friends with much of the cast (he attended Chiklis' birthday party the weekend before our interview) and those relationships, now quickly approaching the two-decade mark, are still vitally important to him. "The relationships that I made over the course of that show, with everyone on it, to have that stable of friends this long after that experience has been one of the most important things in my life," said Goggins. "I never knew about community from an artistic point of view before that experience. I didn't know that it would be that deep."
BOYD CROWDER, JUSTIFIED
About a year after The Shield ended, another promising FX project came knocking: Justified, a neo-Western based on the short story "Fire in the Hole" written by renowned crime novelist Elmore Leonard. Goggins was only ever supposed to appear in the series' first episode, as Boyd Crowder, a wannabe outlaw who crossed paths with Timothy Olyphant's modern cowboy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens many years after the two dug coal together in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. But Goggins was too good in the role, and the character miraculously survived the gunshot wound he received in the pilot. By the time the writers started digging into Boyd as a person outside of his relationship with Raylan, plumbing his emotional depths while building a deeper relationship with his former sister-in-law, Ava (Joelle Carter), in Season 2, he'd already become a fan-favorite character — and an Emmy nomination for Goggins soon followed.
By the end of the series, Boyd, who'd killed and schemed his way to the top of Harlan County's criminal enterprise, was as integral to the whiskey-soaked narrative as Raylan, who was more than ready to leave Harlan and everyone in it in the rearview mirror. Their relationship, powered by the chemistry between the men who embodied them for six seasons, had become the lifeblood of the entire series. Goggins knew that the show was going to explore the deep, shared connection between them — creator Graham Yost and the executives at FX had said as such after Boyd was made a recurring character — but he never foresaw the extent to which fans would latch onto Boyd and see the story from his point of view.
"I'm not a manipulative guy, so I wasn't trying to manipulate the audience or engender any kind of empathy [toward Boyd] along the way. I just wanted to expand the definition of what it meant to be from rural America. I wanted to stand up for people that have often been stereotyped in storytelling, to reflect how intelligent they really are. That was important to me," said Goggins, who grew up less than 20 miles outside of Atlanta but in an area that he described as still feeling very rural.
Being able to bring to life the words and world of Elmore Leonard was an incredible experience that changed Goggins' life, and he isn't wrong when he says he thinks it was "some of the best writing on television." But after six seasons of trading barbs with Raylan, outsmarting nearly every foe he went up against, and, as one character memorably put it, "using 40 words where four will do," Boyd's story came to an end in the series finale, when Raylan finally got his white whale.
In the final moments of the series finale, which jumped four years into the future, the series, and the duo's complex two-sides-of-the-same-coin relationship, came full circle, with Raylan visiting Boyd in prison and remembering where the pair had come from. "I'm the one who told them to say ['We dug coal together']. Those final words came from me, because it has to come back to that, doesn't it?" Goggins said about that pitch-perfect final scene that encapsulated six years of storytelling.
"And Graham [Yost] said, 'You know what, Boyd needs to say it this time,' because regardless of wherever we are in our lives, whatever happens on the other side of a shared experience, a seminal shared experience, you will always have that. You will always have that history, certainly in this part of the world. And regardless of what decisions you make, what paths you choose, you will forever have that in common and you will forever be bound by that experience."
I wasn't trying to manipulate the audience or engender any kind of empathy along the way. I just wanted to expand the definition of what it meant to be from rural America.
Unlike Shane, and much to the delight of many Justified fans, Boyd ultimately lived to see another day. It was a narrative decision Goggins didn't personally agree with, but while the actor said it was gratifying to say goodbye to Boyd, it was deeply painful to say goodbye to him too. Goggins still thinks about Boyd, and said that if he had the chance to reprise any of his roles one day, it would have to be Harlan's best dressed outlaw. "That's the jacket that every time I put it on, there's a level of comfort to that, to him, that is so unbelievably close to me as a person," he said.
VENUS VAN DAM, SONS OF ANARCHY
Goggins' relationship with FX didn't end there though. Beginning in 2012, while he was still a series regular on Justified, the actor made multiple appearances as a transgender prostitute, Venus Van Dam, on Sons of Anarchy, the popular biker drama created by former Shield writer and executive producer Kurt Sutter. Though the character was well received by both viewers and critics at the time, Goggins' casting likely would not happen today, and almost certainly not on FX, a network that has made strides in terms of representation in the years since Sons went off the air, and which currently airs Pose, a series that made history by featuring the largest cast of trans actors on TV when it debuted in 2018.
But after previously auditioning for a trans character in his 20s — he ultimately didn't get the part — Goggins said he was eager to take on the role of Venus when it came his way ... though the story of how the casting came about isn't so simple.
"I read an interview that Kurt Sutter gave, and over the course of this conversation, he said, 'The only two people that I could never have on my show ... are Michael Chiklis and Walton Goggins, because no one would ever see them as anything but Shane and Vic,'" said Goggins. "Someone sent that article to me and I sent it back to him with a note that said, 'Go f--- yourself. I would never do your show. And the only way that I would do it is if I was a transgender [character].'"
[Editor's note: Both Goggins and Chiklis would eventually appear on the show by the time it ended.]
Sutter wrote back a year later and asked Goggins if he was serious about what he'd said, and once he found out he was, Sutter sent him some pages. "The first, literally the first sentence out of [Venus'] mouth, I thought, yeah, I want to do this, I want to play her," he recalled. "She was so three-dimensional. We both agreed, let's speak to this community, let's honor this community with this three-dimensional, incredibly charismatic woman and what she would mean in this world."
Although Goggins' time on the show was brief — he made just six appearances across the show's final three seasons — fans came to deeply care about Venus. The show treated her personal struggles with her identity — which came to light through her relationships with her son, whom the club helped to rescue from Venus' abusive mother, and with club member Tig (Kim Coates) — with tender care. By the time the series ended in 2014, Venus was not only in a relationship with Tig, but had become yet another fan-favorite character. When asked why he thought fans gravitated toward Venus, Goggins admitted he wasn't quite sure.
"Maybe because [Kurt and I] loved her so much? I think that if you don't believe it, then [viewers] won't believe it. If you don't love them, then they won't love them. And maybe because there was such care and consideration that went into her and went into her story by Kurt," he said.
"She transcended being a transgender, and I think that was the point. When you stop labeling people and you just see them as a person in the world without religion, without politics, without gender, but just as a person struggling in the world, then I think universally we can all have empathy for them. And maybe that's what happened. I'd like to think so."
It took me really coming to terms with either you will be enough or you won't be enough, but the only way that you can do this is being as close to you as you've ever been.
LEE RUSSELL, VICE PRINCIPALS
From 2016 to 2017, Goggins starred in two seasons of the HBO comedy Vice Principals as Lee Russell, a deeply insecure man who competes with his fellow vice principal (played by co-creator Danny McBride) when the chance to become principal finally arises. Although he was once again playing a man of questionable moral fiber, Lee felt different from Shane and Boyd to Goggins. It helped that the show was deliriously funny and that it told the story of a quest for power not, as Goggins noted, in a corporate boardroom but "in the absurd dynamic of two guys who just want to be principal of a school that is just a regular school in a small town America." But Goggins wasn't necessarily even looking for a comedy when the opportunity to do Vice Principals arose.
"I just loved [McBride] and I love what [he and co-creator Jody Hill] do. And I've said this time and again ... but when it comes down to it, when the rubber hits the road for me, it's what's on the page. I read it while I was doing The Hateful Eight ... and I just couldn't stop laughing," Goggins explained. "And then I cried because I really understood how deeply insecure both of these men were. ... I thought that it would overcome the initial label of being a comedy and it would delve into deeper issues about the waning days of white privilege, if you will, or the anger that they have."
"I don't even like to call these characters to be quite honest with you," he continued, "I just think of them as people — but I think Lee Russell was someone that I had never experienced before. I'd never read anything quite like him before. I was deeply insecure [at] the thought of really kind of playing him or telling his story, but it was a challenge and a risk worth taking."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, viewers were taken in by Lee and his frosted tips and excellent wardrobe. But Goggins wasn't trying to make people really care about Lee, let alone love him — and the same goes for all the characters he's had the honor of portraying.
"I think you just live out their reality and just look at the world through their eyes," he explained. "With most of the roles that I've played, most of them, the first time that [I] read [the script], [I] just know that if I can help my director tell this story in a way — either I can help them or I can't. And if I can, it's all there. I don't know how I'm going to get there. I don't know how they're going to sound. I don't know how they're gonna walk. I don't know how they're going to dress. ... You don't know until you put it all together and then all of a sudden that's the alchemy of what we do for a living."
WADE FELTON, THE UNICORN
Despite the number of flawed men he's memorably brought to life on the small screen, when you ask Goggins how he chooses his projects, he repeatedly says he simply follows the writing. In recent years that process has led him everywhere from the History Channel (Six, where he starred as a former Navy SEAL) to Epix (Deep State, where he played an ex-CIA operative turned fixer), and now it's led him to CBS for The Unicorn, in what might just be his most unexpected move yet.
As Wade Felton, the actor steps into a role that he said is the hardest he's ever done. A widowed father of two who is returning to the land of the living after one of the hardest years of his life, Wade is the closest Goggins has ever come to playing himself, a revelation that made him unbelievably nervous at the outset.
"There are no affectations. There is no wardrobe that you can hide behind or a way the person walks, the way a person talks," Goggins explained. "So when I put on the wardrobe and it's like, yeah, I'm still me. I started talking and it's like, that sounds like me. I started walking, and it's like he's walking like me. Will you stop being me?! ... I just didn't know that I could be OK with that. ... I think it took me really coming to terms with either you will be enough or you won't be enough, but the only way that you can do this is being as close to you as you've ever been."
The story at the heart of the series is a universal one. As we follow Wade's journey to move forward, it touches upon familiar anxieties and experiences that are painfully human, whether you've lost a loved one or are simply going through a rough period. Regardless of the circumstances, no one has all the answers and must rely on their support system in order to figure out how to live again, and it's the emotional bonds that Wade has with his family and friends that help him do just that, and they are also what gives The Unicorn its heart.
"What I think we're trying to do is ... be honest, as honest as we can about what it means to learn how to live again and how important family is in your lives and how important community is in your lives. And also how important it is to start learning how to love yourself again," Goggins said of the show.
"There is sadness and there is anxiety and there are obstacles, but there's also laughter. And there's also an extraordinary amount of absurdity in starting over or coming into the world for the first time in a very significant way after you've been out of it for 20 years. ... But I like the fact that that's the story that we're telling and we're doing it in this way, with this cast, and these writers, on this network."
"If you had [told] me six months ago that this would be my life, I would've thought you were crazy," Goggins said. "But that's the other kind of magical element of what we do in the life that we live. You have no idea what will come your way. Just say yes in your life more than you say no, and I think you will be surprised where life takes you."
The Unicorn premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 at 8:30/7:30c on CBS.
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