Walt Goggins has a knack for playing the tough, gritty and effortlessly brutal characters, a tradition he continues with his role as the sadistic slave trainer with a Cheshire cat smile that he plays in Django Unchained. Thankfully, the 41-year-old, Alabama-born actor is nothing like the evil cowboy he plays in Quentin Tarantino's new film; he is welcoming and enthusiastic, thoughtful but not too serious, all of which came in handy while filming some of the toughest scenes in Tarantino's epic Spaghetti Western.
Floored by the massive Django script (which won a Golden Globe on Sunday), Goggins set up a meeting with Tarantino through a few mutual friends. The actor, who has a regular TV gig on Justified, told The Hollywood Reporter during the film's press tour that he was eager to speak any of Tarantino's lines, and read for six different characters. His role ended up a hybrid of two characters, as he played the enforcer for Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has a particularly difficult scene with the film's hero, Django (Jamie Foxx).
THR: Was there any role you were angling for?
Goggins: The role that I wanted was Ace Woody, but Kevin Costner was playing that role, and they weren’t about to recast me in that. And so aside from Ace, I wanted to play Billy Crash because there was a scene that didn’t ultimately make it in the movie, but there was a scene between Billy and Broomhilda that was so -- Quentin can do so complicated and so weird and so funny, and I thought, now I want to play that guy. That’s something that I can really add. And as fate would have it, once I got down there and started filming, Kevin had dropped out by that time because of a scheduling conflict, and then Kurt Russell had to drop out, it was a scheduling conflict, and Quentin came and said, "I want you to play the part, I want you to play Ace Woody, we’re just going to call him Billy Crash," because he loved the name so much.
THR: It’s a sweet name.
Goggins: It’s a sweet name. Jamie Foxx said, "You could have your own radio show. Billy Crash, 101.9!"
THR: I think it’s every kid’s dream to be a cowboy.
Goggins: Do you think it’s every kid’s dream to be a good guy or bad guy? Is it a 50/50 split?
THR: Every kid dreams of being a good guy with a bad guy’s lines.
Goggins: [Laughs] I couldn’t have put it better myself. I want to be a good guy with a bad guy’s lines.
THR: I heard that there was a scene where Calvin Candie’s lawyer, played by Dennis Christopher, he buys a slave and you end up shooting that slave.
Goggins: Yeah, the alternative to meeting Billy Crash was at Candie Land, and Billy comes down the steps in this grand sort of way, grabs his hat, puts it on, and they’ve returned from town with the Mandingos, one of which Dennis Christopher’s character bought, and a few that Calvin Candie bought. And Billy is Calvin’s Mandingo fight trainer extraordinaire. So he just takes his time, walks down the line looking at people as if they aren’t people, and is having this kind of conversation back and forth between Leo, like, “Where’d you get this one? How bout this one? How bout this one?" And he says, "Well, Mr. Moguy bought that one."
And there’s this great dialogue. Billy says, "You bought him?” And Moguy [Dennis Christopher, as Candie's lawyer] says yes. And Billy says, “Why?” And he says, "Because I like his prospects." And Billy says, "Well, you know I’m not an educated fellow like yourself, so now what does prospects means?" And Moguy says, "Hopes for the future." And Billy says, “You got hopes for his future?” And then he turns around and kills him.
It’s like Auschwitz, man. And what Quentin did, he can’t traumatize the audience. He balances it with everything, he balances it with a heavy, heavy dose of humor, so it just makes it more palatable. So again, I’m just so eternally grateful on the other side of this experience now, for this collaborative experience with Quentin Tarantino. Very few people have had this opportunity.
THR: The film is more jarring than I expected it to be. I’ve seen war films, torture scenes, but the sheer treatment of slaves in this, it’s so jarring to watch.
Goggins: Isn’t it? Quentin said it better than anyone. At points along the way, he said I can hide from the truth a little bit, I can pull back from it, I can scathe the pain a little bit. And those around him, told him, "No, this is the time. You have to see it. You can’t sugarcoat this one." And that’s how I felt, that’s how Jamie felt, and Kerry felt and Sam and Leo felt. As you heard in the press conference, you’ve got to go at it on this one, you’ve got to go all in. And for me, the scene in the barn, that was my place to go all in, and to not sugarcoat it out of respect, to all of the slaves that endured pain like this, and pain far worse than this.
THR: That scene in the barn is shocking, you’ve got Jamie upside down, shackled ... What’s it like standing there?
Goggins: It’s surreal. Really, the whole thing, you look at another human being hanging upside down in a barn. I, Walton Goggins, can’t process that. But that person is not in that room, and you turn yourself over to your imagination, and you’re in the world of Quentin Tarantino, and if you believe you’re in the 1848, the year 1858, then it’s not weird, it’s something that they saw, something the slavers did. At that moment, you’re just in the service of the story.
THR: Did you at some point, were you able to dehumanize people in your brain, as the character?
Goggins: Absolutely, immediately. Right after I apologized in the morning for what we were about to do. Right after that, I wasn’t Walton, I was Billy Crash. You have to; it’s the only way you can get through an experience like this. It’s the only way you can really, earnestly contribute to an experience like this. And at the end of the day, I’d apologize to the guys I was working with, and then I’d go home and take a shower. But everyone supported each other, everyone knew that we were in the service of something greater than ourselves, and we all were there saying we know it’s hard, we know it’s hard, we know it’s hard. And we were all there for each other, and Quentin was there more than anybody.
THR: So what did they say when you apologized to them?
Goggins: "Don’t apologize to me. You have nothing to apologize for in this moment. We’re here as people trying the best we can to shed some light on the atrocities that happened during this period in this nation’s history." And they were very gracious. Everyone is sensitive to everyone else. And we were constantly checking in on each other. “Alright man, we’re going to have a beer tonight."
THR: Funny you also have a movie now, Lincoln, where you’re abolishing slavery.
Goggins: Yeah, it is. I had met with the people over at Lincoln and Leslee Feldman, in particular the casting director, leaving the office from talking about Lincoln, I said, “You know, Django is being made," and they knew that, but I said, “If these movies, if the stars align and the fates conspire, these movies could come out at the same time, you’re going to have a story about changing the ideology in this country through legislation, and you’re going to have a story about changing the ideology in this country through revolution." And that’s special, man. Because you need both, in order to bring about any real change, and that I got to be on both sides of that argument, in a span of a month, is mind-blowing.