Timothy Olyphant returns for a new chapter of ‘Justified’

“I like to think there has been some growth.”

Actor Timothy Olyphant was in New York last month, reflecting on his career path from the sidewalk of TriBeCa. He was referring specifically to the stint of reviving past roles, which he first took on a few years ago in the 2019 revival of “Deadwood.”

Now comes “Justified: City Primeval,” an eight-episode limited series that premieres July 18, on FX. And Olyphant returns to what is arguably his defining character, Rylan Givens, the deputy U.S. athletic marshal Stetson who anchored the Kentucky crime drama “Justified” for six seasons.

The new show follows Raylan to Detroit on an adventure out of the water with a deadly villain (Boyd Holbrook) and a sharp-elbowed but charismatic attorney, played by Ongano Ellis. The creators describe it as the existential evolution of a character, invented by crime fiction master Elmore Leonard, who begins to realize he can’t hunt down killers forever and is running out of opportunities to connect with his teenage daughter.

“It’s a mature version of the show that we’ve done,” said Michael Diener, who created the limited series with Dave Andron. Both are former writers and executive producers on “Justified,” which ended its run on FX in 2015.

The creators and Oliphant, who is also an executive producer on “City Primeval,” hope to bring Raylan back for at least one more series after this one. But first, they’ll find out if people are still interested in the character or “Justified” without the original show’s evocative setup and color criminals, played by the likes of Walton Goggins and Margo Martindale.

Oliphant said, “With all due respect to our original cast, who I loved and love and miss, it’s been a really fun experience with all the new cast members but we still feel like we’re doing our show,” Oliphant said. “It sounds right in the sweet spot, but I don’t know, it could be a complete failure.”

If he did not seem particularly disturbed at the prospect of tainting the legacy of his most famous creation, this was partly due to his influence. In conversation, Oliphant is calm and quick-witted, qualities he brings to his work and which also belie another of his defining traits: blunt intensity.

This combination proved ideal for the dark, morally dark comic world of “Justified”. Olyphant’s performance on the series turned his former career hit-and-miss career up a notch, which in turn made his future prospects less dependent on the revival’s “justified” success.

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As it happened, Olyphant was in New York for a screening of a different crime thriller: “Full Circle,” in which he plays a Manhattan guy with secrets who marries into a wealthy family to a celebrity chef, played by Dennis Quaid. (Other stars include Claire Danes, Jarrell Jerome, and C.C. Pounder.) Premiering Thursday on Max, the series’ gripping six-episode is about a botched kidnapping with international ramifications.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Full Circle” is the latest in a list of talented people Olyphant has long wanted to work with and now has. Others include Quentin Tarantino, who portrayed Olyphant as 1960s TV cowboy James Stacy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and David O. Russell, who hired him to play a disfigured thug in “Amsterdam” (2022). Kenneth Lonergan made him the center of his famous play Hold On to Me Darling (2016).

“You can throw Larry David on the list,” Olyphant said, referring to his appearance as the smart groom on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2020. “I don’t know how long I’m going to keep doing this, but I’m going to show up every single day for this guy.”

There was also a brief stint as a Star Wars lawman in “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” and a longer stint as a Mormon lawman in “Fargo.” He has played a zombie husband in the horror comedy “Santa Clarita Diet” and has starred in two different sitcoms: “The Good Place” and “The Grinder”. Earlier this year, he had a memorable role as a grizzly-haired tour manager on “Daisy Jones & the Six.”

Soderbergh, who said he had wanted for years to cast Olyphant, called him “the perfect example of a seasoned professional, who can give you anything you want.”

“It’s the best I can say about a person,” he added.

On the afternoon after the “Full Circle” show, Oliphant reclined on a metal chair outside the TriBeCa café and marveled at the company he’s been keeping these days.

“To be with Steven Soderbergh last night watching something he made that I’m a part of, it just means the world,” he said. “I don’t know why it took me so long to get there, but it’s really nice to be there now.”

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Now, 55, Oliphant maintains an athletic physique—he had just come back from a swim in Asphalt Green at Battery Park—but his hair is mostly grey. As he’s revived old roles, he’s entered a new phase of his life: His three children with Alexis Kniff, his wife of over 30, are now all grown up, and one of them has traced her father not only into show business but also into the “Justified” world. Vivian Olyphant plays Raylan’s daughter, Willa, in the revival. “Nepotism, you can’t beat it,” he cracked.

Olyphant wasn’t sure he wanted to reprise his “Deadwood” role as Sheriff Seth Bullock. (Bullock got a promotion for the movie, adding another mention to Olyphant’s bio.) Once on the set, however, he realized how important the show was to him. It also gave him one last chance to work with David Milch, one of television’s greatest writers, whom Olyphant admired deeply. (Milch has since entered an assisted living facility for Alzheimer’s care.)

He said, “I don’t know what I was afraid of.” “It was very touching for everyone involved.”

But Olyphant always thought he’d play Raylan again. “She seemed like the kind of person who could age well,” he said.

The new series updates Leonard’s 1980 novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, one of his most beloved books. When Raylan joins forces with the Detroit police on a case involving a string of murders, a psychopathic aspiring singer, Albanian mobsters, corrupt cops, and a crooked judge, he’s often the odd man out on his own show.

“I think they wanted this bump, and that’s why they sent him to one of the blackest cities in the country,” said Ellis, who plays the defense attorney at the center of the story. Other stars include Victor Williams, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Marin Ireland.

During the original run of “Justified,” Olyphant was known as an occasional Leonard fanatic, insisting that the show stay true to the author’s dry wit and sneaky emotional complexity. That didn’t change — Olyphant said Olyphant carried a ripped copy of “City Primeval” on set “as if it were a Bible” — though Olyphant suggested that terms of engagement had evolved.

“I enjoyed working with the book,” he said. “They picked up where we left off except this time, there was no one throwing things. They were all used to my country.” [expletive]. (Diener, who also directed several episodes, said he “was an amazing collaborator.”)

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All productions have their ups and downs, but this show was more extreme than most. In the additional column, Oliphant described working with his daughter, who is studying acting at the William Esper Studio in New York, as “one of the greatest experiences of my adult life.”

“Very private and difficult,” he said, “walking that line between trying to have a scene and trying to be a parent.” (“He definitely gave a lot of feedback,” said Vivian, 20. “But in-between, we’d have a lot of fun.”)

Less fantastic: The night the show, which was filmed mostly in Chicago, was filming in a park and the cast and crew found themselves in the middle of an actual shoot. They were all moving for cover as two cars ripped up the street toward and past them, exchanging machine guns with automatic fire.

“You could hear the bullets coming off the rear bumper of the car in front: hum, hum, hum,” Oliphant recalled. No one was injured in the production, but everyone was stunned.

“My heart goes out to the people who live in those neighborhoods because this is not any way to live,” he said.

So is Rylan’s age good? Is there growth? Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions.

“The road ahead is much shorter than the road behind,” said Diner. “We put him in a place by the end of the story where he makes some decisions about his life.”

Oliphant’s path is also getting shorter, but the trade-off is that “the game just got simpler,” he said. “I realize it’s all a joke, just an impunity.” Colleagues say that whatever his tendency to downplay the job, his enthusiasm for it is evident.

“Obviously he’s got a lot of experience now,” Danes said. “But there’s still a sense of giddy and searching, which is great.”

Oliphant, in turn, takes inspiration from those with more experience, by their example that growth can be its own reward. Co-stars like Quaid, he said, “look like they’re having more fun than I do.”

He said, “So if they have me and keep inviting me to dances, I think I’ll keep appearing.”

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