Walton Goggins: ‘I’m very grateful Quentin Tarantino saw something in me’
The actor, who made his breakthrough in The Hateful Eight, puts the same thought into his Tomb Raider character that another actor might reserve for Richard III
Walton Goggins: “My dialect coach said: You don’t have the looks, so you’re going to need to work harder than everybody else.” Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty
Walton Goggins is in chipper form and he has a question: “I just did the 23-and-Me genetic test. My wife and my son did it at the same time. It came back saying I was 50 per cent Irish and a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. So do you think I can get an Irish passport? Would it help that my wife is Conners?”
We’re not sure that would cut it legally, but we’ll be happy to claim him, nonetheless.
There are many actors who have lucked into their own midlife McConaissance or Downey jnr upswing. But there’s no career boost quite like the Tarantino effect, a phenomenon that works a treat for fading superstars, most famously for John Travolta in the post-Look Who’s Talking doldrums. The Tarantino boost is arguably even more potent for those talented actors who could have, should have, been contenders – think Robert Forster in Jackie Brown – but instead are known among most film fans as That Guy.
Before Quentin came along, Walton Goggins was That Guy. As in: oh, that guy from TV show The Shield, the dude from Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, the one who was Daniel Craig’s outlaw pal in Cowboys & Aliens.
The old west certainly suits the Alabama-born actor. In another life he might have been Walter Brennan or one of John Ford’s stock players. Goggins had already taken on frontier life for Shanghai Noon and Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder when Tarantino cast him in Django Unchained and then again in The Hateful Eight.
“I can look back on my working life and look at this break or that break,” says Goggins. “But the most definite shift in my working life was before Quentin Tarantino and after Quentin Tarantino. I’m very grateful he saw something in me. It was a gift to help him realise the images he had in his brain.”
In the background
At the turn of the millennium Goggins was steadily, if rather anonymously, employed. Look here, he’s in a straight-to-video sequel to The Crow; look there, he’s a background tech guy in The Bourne Identity, and then a doomed cop in Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses.
These days he’s much farther up the cast list on much larger movies. It’s been a “beautiful run” of late, as he puts it. Last January, he led the rebellion against WICKED in Maze Runner: The Death Cure. In July, he’ll play Tony Stark’s tech rival in Ant-Man and the Wasp. As of this week, he’s Lara Croft’s primary antagonist in the latest reboot of Tomb Raider.
“The last video games I played were Frogger and Donkey Kong,” admits the 46-year-old. “I just missed the whole video game thing by about four or five years. So I’ve never played Tomb Raider, if I’m honest. And I didn’t see the first two movies. But am I familiar with Tomb Raider? Who isn’t? I purposely avoided going back to the movies and the games once they cast me in this role. Because I wanted my participation to be based on what was there on the page.”
We should explain. The Tomb Raider movie reboot, improbably headlined by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, is not a reboot of the 2001 and 2003 films starring Angelina Jolie. Rather, the new film is based on the reboot of the video games. That hasn’t prevented the talented Mr Goggins from putting the same level of thought into his character that another actor might reserve for Richard III.
“I thought of it as the story of a young woman using her brains and physical capabilities to solve problems, becoming a strong woman in the process,” says Goggins. “Now my job was to work out: how can I make that difficult for her? How can my character make her earn that wisdom?”
Goggins excels at screen villainy, deftly moving between the pure evil of Justified’s Boyd Crowther and the petty scheming of Vice Principal’s Lee Russell. His craft recalls William Blake’s famous observation that, in writing Paradise Lost, Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
“There’s a lot of truth in that,” says Goggins. “You can’t let your ego get in the way. You can’t force a river. You can look at the roles you are offered and try to expand the definition of what those roles can be. I’ve always found great joy in the work. Doesn’t matter if it’s one line in Beverley Hills 90210 or a leading role in a Tarantino movie. I don’t look at the characters I play as bad guys. I look at them as flawed human beings. I know actors say that a lot. But it’s true. The world isn’t that back and white.”
Walton Sanders Goggins jnr was raised in in Lithia Springs, Georgia, in what he describes as a very matriarchal family. His grandmother was an actor in New Orleans during the 1930s. His aunt also treaded the boards. Another aunt was a publicist for BB King and Phyllis Diller. The family history reads like a Tennessee Williams play. His grandfather grew peaches and pulpwood on more than a thousand acres and was friends with Franklin Roosevelt. After his grandfather died from diabetes, the house burned down, and his grieving grandmother became addicted to amphetamines.
“It was like Gone with the Wind. Then came the rebuilding. And I was part of the rebuild. All of the women in my family were very strong and very good storytellers. We didn’t watch a lot of movies in my house. We sat on the porch and told stories. Sometimes the stories would last five minutes and sometimes they would last for hours. The success of the story was based on if you could make the listeners feel four or five emotions while telling it. So that was all I ever wanted to do. To tell stories.”
With that in mind, he journeyed to Los Angeles aged 19. He sold cowboy boots. He set up a valet company that operated across various restaurants. He took classes. He worked on his southern drawl.
“I found a very good dialect coach,” recalls Goggins. “And after being in his classes for a couple of months, he said: You don’t have the looks, so you’re going to have to have the talent, and for that you’re going to need to work harder than everybody else. My first thought? Did he just say I’m ugly as shit? But he gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and while I was working as a valet, I’d sit in parking lots reading it over and over and over, for months and months, until I was able to rein in my accent.”
He has always been an industrious sort. In 2001 he produced and starred in The Accountant, which won an Academy Award for best live action short film. Last year, he co-founded a whiskey distillery, which (remarkably) is one of the first spirits companies to emerge from Los Angeles since Prohibition.
“I am a person in motion. I love being with my son because it’s like meditation, you need to be present. I get peace from movement, from doing. My greatest opportunity to delve into the characters is when I’m cleaning or re-arranging things. Some people like to sit in a quiet room and study and absorb. Give me paper towels and orange spray.”
Tomb Raider is on general release
GOGGINS ON DANIEL DAY-LEWIS
“I met Daniel Day-Lewis once. It was the first year of The Shield and I was at the Golden Globes with the rest of the cast. I saw him and said: Oh my God, you guys, I’m walking up. And he looked at me with those intense eyes and said: “I know you. You’re Walton Goggins. The Apostle is one of my favourite movies.” I was speechless. So that was my lovely brush with greatness.”
THE FIVE LEAST TERRIBLE VIDEO GAME MOVIES
Apologies. But this is the best we can do. No genre of film has been quite so consistently awful as the video game adaptation. Not one of the films listed below registered positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Not one! These five can, however, claim to be less appalling than all the rest. We’ll mull on the new Tomb Raider before positioning it.
5 Warcraft (2016)
Okay, it’s complete rubbish. But just look at what we’re working with. Duncan Jones did, at least, manage to create a believable universe for his take on the MMORPG (that’s “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” to non-gamers).
4 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
It didn’t make any sense, but it was a proper film with proper actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton) and a proper director (Mike Newell). At times the desert fantasy came close to escaping its sorry origins.
3 Resident Evil (2002)
We could have saved time by filling this list with five of the six Resident Evil movies. They’re pacy, unpretentious and – in Milla Jovovich – they have a star who really burns up the screen. Better than at least four Tim Burton films.
2 The Angry Birds Movie (2016)
Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly didn’t mess too much with the formula when translating the game to the big screen. Angry Birds was, after all, already pretty funny in its handheld version. The film maybe arrived a little too late to fully capitalise.
1 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Remember this creepy flick? Nearly a decade before Avatar, Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy sequence, delivered the first photorealistic computer-animated feature. Its position here is a bit of a cheat, as it has very little to do with the complex role-playing games that inspired it. Then again, there is, maybe, a useful message there: ignore the source.