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The Contender Q&A: Garret Dillahunt

December 17, 2009 | 12:13 pm

Garret Dillahunt headshot

(Please note -- there are possible spoilers throughout this article.)

Garret Dillahunt's screen time in "The Road" is relatively brief, and his role -- The Gang Member, who has found a particularly unpleasant way to stave off the famine that plagues the survivors -- can be charitably described as loathsome. But the actor manages to find the desperation and humanity beneath the character's madness, and in doing so, etches another indelible performance in a growing list of critically acclaimed turns.

Dillahunt is no stranger to dangerous roles, having played out-and-out heels in features like "The Last House on the Left" remake and on the small screen in "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," "The 4400," and most notably, as two very different and show-stopping villains on HBO's "Deadwood." 

The actor, who is also a veteran stage performer, has worked on the side of the angels on numerous occasions, including a previous engagement with "Road" author Cormac McCarthy in the adaptation of "No Country for Old Men," which earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. But it's his darker roles that continue to attract acclaim -- a status that he embraces with gentle humor, as seen in this interview. 

 Is it true that villains get the best lines?

I guess they get a lot of good lines, huh? I like them -- they're complex, and I like complex characters. Sometimes the villains are the only ones that are completely drawn.

It's funny, because I've actually played a ton of good guys, funny guys -- I played Jesus Christ (in the short-lived and controversial series "The Book of Daniel"). But people remember the bad guys (laughs).

Your character in "The Road" is particularly unsavory. What is the challenge to playing such a role?

There have been a lot of discussions about it online -- people wondering what would they do to survive. To what level would they stoop if there was no food, no vegetation, no animal life. What would you do? Would you just forage for canned goods? And when they ran out, then what? How bad would you want to feed your child? 

He's just a guy with a little bit weaker moral fiber than Viggo [Mortensen]'s character. He didn't choose the noble route, like a lot of people in that world. And the result of him ignoring his soul is what you see on screen.

Do you ever fear being typecast?

I don't know why not. The other day, someone called me this generation's Bruce Dern -- I'd never thought of that, and frankly, I don't know enough of Bruce Dern's work to comment on it, though he is an incredible actor. But it seems to me that it's easier to move around than it used to be. In the past, if you did film, you couldn't do stage, and if you did film, you certainly didn't do television. You had to pick what you wanted to be. Now it seems like we can bounce around, not only between genres, but between mediums, and I like that. I like change and I like a good story.

So is that what moves you from medium to medium? Because you've found some great projects in both television and film.

Yeah, I like to have fun -- I think that's a good way to live. I think you're better at your job if you like it. And I'm a bit of a frustrated writer -- I'm not very skilled at that, and I thought that was what I was going to be. So it doesn't seem like such a big coincidence that a lot of stuff I've done has been adaptation of [books by] my favorite authors. I was planning to make Ron Hansen's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" for about 15 years. I thought I was the only one to know about it. I was going to play Jesse James, of course. (Dillahunt played the outlaw Ed Miller in the 2007 film version with Brad Pitt). 

But you just find these stories, and I don't care about the size of the part, you know? In the end, it's got to be about the story. I can't speak for every actor, but I imagine that's what everyone wants when they sign on to do a role. 

You've said in interviews that you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy's work. What is the appeal for you?

The first one I read was "Blood Meridian," like a lot of college guys. I was just blown away by that one-sentence paragraph where the Comanches come upon the scalphunters. It's just stunning -- the image of the guy wearing the blood-stained wedding veil -- the way he would describe things was so evocative to me. Each line was somehow laden with emotion and history. I think my favorite of his books might be "Suttree." If you read it, you can tell me why that guy doesn't die (laughs). There's something larger and thematic [in his work] than what's going on, and that's appealing to me. 

"The Road" has such an impressive cast - can you talk about your experience in working with them?

I only worked with Viggo and Kodi Smit-McPhee -- I think everyone on that movie besides those two had about three days of work. And again, the reason I took the part was because it's a great story. I think Guy Pearce is great in it -- he just gets better all the time, and Robert Duvall really makes the Old Man come to life. He had a lot more balls than I because I think he did a lot of improv, and I cannot imagine improvising Cormac McCarthy (laughs).

But as far as working with Viggo and Kodi, you know, I've had a few leads in indies since I worked on "The Road," and it's become an adjective when you do something: to "Viggo up." The guy is a mule -- he seems tireless. But he's kind and focused too. Brad Pitt is the same way -- they're secure enough in themselves to want you to be really good. They understand that the whole thing gets better if everyone is working at the same level. I was really inspired by him. 

And as for Kodi, if he wasn't such a sweetheart, I'd probably hate him, because he's just so naturally good out of the gate. We shot in really cold and rainy weather in Pittsburgh, and everyone was freezing and shivering, and he'd kind of hunker into you to try and stay warm like kids do. And you just felt like, "I want to take care of this kid." And like we were just saying, he had fun. In the movie, I do this slide down a hill on my hip and I kind of scoop him up and put a knife to his throat, and I think he had a big smile on his face in a few takes. 

"The Road" might be a challenging film for a lot of viewers, who could see it as having very little light in it. What do you hope that audiences take away from it?

I'm kind of sad that people might have that sort of knock on it -- that it's a bleak film. I think it's actually more hopeful than "No Country for Old Men." That felt like it was saying, "This is how it is, and there's no change." At the end of this, as it is in the book, it seems to be about the unquenchable spirit of man. [Viggo's character] finds another home and more good guys. Maybe they have a little garden. 

I agree, but I do think that for some viewers, it might be hard to get past what comes before the ending, where they might see the light. People do tend to put all films on the same sliding scale.

It's almost like it's the downside of being Cormac McCarthy, because there have certainly been stories and books and films about the end of the world before. But if you're going to have Cormac write one, he's going to imagine it a little more realistically. I'll tell you, it did make me want to stockpile ammunition, I'll tell you that. 

What's your general response to critical praise and talk of nominations and awards?

I'm an ensemble guy, I guess -- that comes from the theater. If I ever won some kind of award someday, I imagine I'd try to be very gracious, but in the end, I just want to keep working. I don't see why that, if you just put your mind to it and keep sowing the right seeds, you can't keep doing the things you want to do. When we won the SAG Award for "Old Men," that was the perfect award, because it takes so many people to make a movie. Someone's always going to argue with the individual awards.

-- Paul Gaita


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