It's Time To Stop Typecasting Timothy Olyphant

After years of playing lawmen and criminals, Timothy Olyphant's work in Santa Clarita Diet makes a great case for his second act as a comedy star.

It does not take a sophisticated consumer of pop culture to know that Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is very much a vehicle for the talents of Drew Barrymore. When the time comes for award campaigns, she is likely to be the one the producers usher into contention. And there is much to recommend on the show. The storyline is basically a sunny delivery system for a shiny and bright version of woman power and feminism in which Sheila Hammond, a realtor in the titular town, develops a sudden “condition” that essentially turns her into a revenant (complete with the requirement of human flesh and blood for sustenance). Her awakening is only interesting in the landscape of what we have come to know as “women’s stories” — aka women entering middle age and finally discovering their voice, their fierceness. That story, in this instance conveyed with Barrymore’s own slightly too-bright, too-broad take on it, is a little played out.

What is more compelling than Barrymore is the work of the cast assembled around her, specifically that of her onscreen husband Joel Hammond, played by 48-year-old Timothy Olyphant. Santa Clarita Diet is less about Sheila’s change and more about her relationship with Joel — and he is, weirdly enough, the character who goes through more of a journey as the series progresses. It is little wonder, then, that the focus of the viewer soon moves on to him, the quietly supportive spouse who leans into new challenges of a long-term relationship. It’s about the way Joel is written, of course, but it is also about what Olyphant brings to the character (and all his roles).

A solid set piece in the show’s third episode, between Joel and the weed dealer who’s been lured to one of their properties so Sheila can feed, illustrates his comedic depth perfectly. Smoking a blunt, feet dangling in the pool, Joel delivers a spiel about how he wound up at this juncture in life: quarterback and prom king in high school, married to the prom queen, tried guitar and improv, took a few classes in hotel management before he woke up one day as a realtor, unsure if this is even what he wants. Olyphant skates through about six different emotions as he tells the story: He’s sad, genuinely happy, confused, guilty, and terrified, and it prompts the dealer to open his arms and offer a hug. In another scene, the family’s neighbor Dan Palmer, a domineering and unpleasant cop played by Ricardo Chavira, begs Joel to be his best friend. He pretends to be above it all, but there’s just something cool about Joel/Olyphant, and he wants to tap into it. Joel, rather than Sheila, is the sun all the flowers innately point to. Joel feels like an extension of Olyphant’s own real-life persona, long hidden under big hats and a grim expression, and finally allowed to bloom.

The lazy thing to say is that Olyphant is a revelation in the show. But for those of us who have been watching his career for the last two decades, it confirms what we already knew: Timothy Olyphant is criminally under- and misused. By virtue of his pre-internet fame, and the projects he has chosen over the years, Olyphant’s fanbase does not immediately reveal itself — we have not traditionally congregated in large numbers on Twitter or Tumblr, though that is slowly changing thanks to his turn on Santa Clarita Diet – but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist. Starting from his beginnings as a savvy and media-literate killer in Scream 2 to his latest work as the absurdly considerate husband of a newly minted zombie wife, Olyphant has been showing us what he’s capable of all along. In a 2012 mini-profile, the New York Times described him as “an actor of rangy grace and wolfish good looks” who had carved out “the career of a man Hollywood isn’t quite sure how to use.” In Santa Clarita Diet, he finally opens up a 10-episode door: Despite more than a decade of playing grim-faced cops and crooks, comedy is truly his natural home, and we shouldn’t let that jawline fool us any longer. The campaign for Timothy Olyphant as comedy actor begins here.

Raised in Modesto in Northern California, Timothy Olyphant was an “artsy jock.” He went to college at USC, where he majored in fine art and was on the swim team. Post-graduation, he moved from Southern California to New York and dabbled in stand-up but ended up training to become an actor at the same studio where John Malkovich and Tracee Ellis Ross studied (he would later return to the New York stage — and critical acclaim — in 2016 to Pulitzer nominee and Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan’s Off-Broadway play Hold On to Me Darling).

Towards the end of Episode 304 of the Nerdist podcast in January 2013, Olyphant talks to the hosts Jonah Ray and Chris Hardwick about his flirtation with New York stand-up. “I think there was a six-month period where I did it with a certain commitment,” he said, recalling getting short spots at clubs and seeing comedians like Louis CK, Dave Attell, and even a young Dave Chappelle, back then a recent new arrival in the city. “[Stand-up] was the first decision,” he said. “I needed to start thinking about work and a career and I was thinking about getting an advertising job, you know, like, remember like Thirtysomething, that show? I thought that could be my life and that would be great.”

Throughout the interview, Olyphant is quick-witted and self-aware (on the profession of acting, he says: “You’re just basically more or less a carpenter, and you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know…there’s very few other jobs where you can be really bad at your job and still shoot straight to the top. And this is one of them.”) and he is really funny. You find yourself thinking, I dunno, I might’ve paid to see this guy do a clean 10-minute set.

In the end, though, he found the stand-up lifestyle (the hours, the mentality) a bit too much, and too unsteady (he was married by then, and late nights in smoky venues is not necessarily conducive to a full family life). “I was terrified of all of it. I felt like it was really taxing. I think a lot of it was fear.” Hardwick jokes it might have been something else too: “I would guess you might be too handsome to be a stand-up.” Olyphant’s voice is a little rueful when he admits, “I got shit for it.”

The face that you are given is an indicator of both what you have seen and who you are. In Hollywood, it is also a signifier of which stories you get to tell. Geopolitics and learned cultural markers mean we are, for example, predisposed to think about white people as default protagonists when it comes to romantic comedies, musicals, and virtually every hero in action films. For Olyphant, who returned west for his first big screen role in the bestselling book-turned-movie, 1996’s The First Wives Club, the contours of his face led him to a part playing a skeevy and smooth movie director looking to cast Goldie Hawn’s actress character in that most dastardly of roles for a woman of a certain age – an aging mother. Though his role was a bit part and rather unnoticeable, that laid-back insouciance set the tone for the kind of work he’d be tasked with over the next few years. It wasn’t until his next big release two years later that he proved himself unmissable. He burned himself into my brain while working with classic horror director Wes Craven on the not-so-classic sequel Scream 2 (1997): It was his turn as Mickey, a deranged and savvy killer who terrorizes Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the survivor of the first Scream movie, that proved him as a talent to watch more closely.

Once again Olyphant’s top note is a suave skeeviness, as evidenced in the monologue he delivers about his motivations for the crimes he’s committed. The "I’m gonna blame the movies" speech is both timeless and forever trapped in the amber of a very specific 1990s moral panic. Mickey might be out of his mind, but there is a deliberateness to his actions: He catches Sid with quick, fancy footwork or an outstretched arm every time she attempts to escape, the gun snug in his hand; his voice, as he imagines a world where he is defended in court by both Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz, is amused and almost conversational. Watching him in that scene, it’s easy to imagine casting directors taking notes in the margins by his name — intense, hot, crime. And by the time he was cast as Todd, a (charming, sexy, skeevy) drug dealer in Doug Liman’s kinetic black comedy Go (1999), the typecasting was more or less complete.

Whether as a straight-shooting lawman or a criminal mastermind, he has been firmly locked into “crime” as a default home for his talents; frankly, you don’t have a jaw like that and not. Add in his serious brown eyes, his straight and cunning-looking teeth that he bares easily in his wolf/shark grin (a colleague describes them as “racist teeth”), those slim hips, his walk (that weird walk!), the way he bites out his words, and the conclusion is foregone. Timothy Olyphant is in possession of a specifically masculine swagger that lacks self-consciousness. Think Bruce Willis, or Eddie Murphy (in the ’80s), complete with a hint of wildness that is almost always exciting to viewers. Yet a certain self-aware drollness lurks in the background of Olyphant’s voice, an Easter egg that rewards whoever spots and responds to it. It is sexiness as fact, which is probably why he was cast as Sam, Carrie Bradshaw’s twentysomething lover, in an episode from the first season of Sex and the City.

So of course it doesn’t take much imagination to stick a 10-gallon hat on his head and send him into the West. David Milch's Deadwood, the 2006 (flawed) masterpiece on HBO, played very strongly to the core of Olyphant’s abilities and proved that he could stand out in an ensemble full of exceptional performers. In the series he played Seth Bullock (based on a real historical figure), a buttoned down and principled lawman with an obviously restrained passion bubbling beneath the surface. It was hot. The Wild West came alive in the show, and in a cast of scene stealers (both lifelong lead and character actors) Olyphant was a clear star — giving his character, often the straight man and the show’s angry and flawed moral core, a perfect stillness around which the rest of the cast calm to circle around. Whatever the story of Deadwood behind the scenes (the myths are truly legendary), his Seth is a compelling hero, aptly described by that aphorism “men want to be him, women want to be with him.” It’s an indelible — and SAG Award–nominated — performance, and one that would define the actor for years to come.

After Deadwood’s success, it might’ve been tempting to stay on television, ploughing a singular furrow. It probably would’ve placed him somewhere in lower A-list bliss: a strong performer in a series of just different-enough roles. But after you have a TV hit, it’s time to go (back) to the movies: It worked for Bruce Willis after Moonlighting, after all, and George Clooney with his post-ER ascension.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the thought process behind the choice of starring in a romantic comedy with Jennifer Garner: off the back of critical acclaim for Deadwood, it made sense to go relatively “light.” But Catch and Release (2007) is a bad movie. It is a bad movie that is easy to love because it is so bad. Olyphant plays Fritz, a bad-boy photographer (obviously) who is working through unexpected feelings for the fiancé (Garner) of his dead best friend who had a secret love child. The resulting film is just as muddled as its premise, but Olyphant is easily the best thing in it. For a film about sex and betrayal and forbidden attraction, it is oddly cold — except when he is in frame, at which point it comes to crackling life, like in this scene with Garner that is erotic and damn near magical, and leaves her visibly dazed and confused (which, same, Jennifer). He is Mickey and Todd and Sam to the power of 10, with shades of Seth Bullock to boot, but the film was a box office washout, earning just $16 million on its $25 million budget, and is largely (rightly) forgotten. Later that year, Olyphant leaned all the way out from romance, starring next in video game action thriller Hitman and then in Live Free or Die Hard aka Die Hard 4 aka the return of Bruce Willis’s John McClane.

But there is a parallel universe in which Timothy Olyphant’s career consistently makes use of his full skill set (not least the comedy that lives in him), and that universe is television. If the subscription fee to HBO was a little too premium for most TV viewers to meet and love Deadwood’s Seth Bullock, then Justified finding a home on FX four years later was just the ticket. In the adaptation of a later work from the oeuvre of Elmore Leonard, Olyphant plays US Marshal Raylan Givens – another lawman with a series of spectacular villains to play against – and it fit him like a hand in glove. Towards the end of the pilot episode, just before Raylan shoots who will become his long-running nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) in the chest, Boyd tells him, “Ooh, you got ice-cold water running through your veins.” He did. But in classic pulpy Leonard style, Raylan Givens was also a man of good humour: an appreciator of jokes, and a wry deliverer of them, too. And Timothy Olyphant was finally able to showcase a version of Leonard’s sly humour over six seasons.

A couple of roles aside (notably as morally ambiguous cop Wes in Damages), TV has been the most excellent venue for his comedic chops to really shine – Santa Clarita Diet is only building on the work precious few casting directors have been doing (via single guest star spots as well as longer arcs) for years. He’s been able to find a short-term outlet on shows like The Office (playing a super-effective paper salesman Danny Cordray, whom Michael Scott describes as “a male model”), The League (playing a white sushi chef), and on The Mindy Project, as Graham, a greasy fortysomething skater (after a little skills display, he says to her: “see that? That’s how good I am at sex.”). His last TV gig was a multi-episode arc on the sadly cancelled Fox comedy The Grinder, playing a version of his real self, “Timothy Olyphant” (his signature line before ravaging his co-star: “Could you give us the room?”). Interestingly, he won a Critics’ Choice Award in 2016 for this guest spot (he never won a solo acting award for either Deadwood or Justified).

He’s also effortlessly charming and funny on the talk show circuit. Over the years, he’s done them all: Ellen, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Chelsea Handler, Seth Meyers, and so on. He saves his best appearances for friend Conan O’Brien, though. His first time on Conan’s NBC sofa was in 1997, promoting Scream 2, and over the years he’s been back several times to have a laugh with his friend. Together they’ve joked about stagecraft versus screencraft, prepared and discarded Emmy speeches, the difficulty of playing himself, dressing for a heatwave, and giving Raylan a lisp as awards bait. He’s a perfect chat show guest: open but not too open about his family (he’s been married for 25 years and has three children), obviously whip smart, self-aware, and just self-indulgent enough to sell his product.

There aren’t a lot of actors who have had similar career trajectories to Olyphant’s. Successful, critically acclaimed, and audience-pleasing TV shows are also a sort of embalming fluid: They preserve perfection, and stunt animation and growth. It’s important to note that Olyphant is not alone in this bubble — one imagines Jon Hamm got a million scripts post–Mad Men, with shady but charismatic characters with names like “Ron Scraper” — and in moving from one three-season cable show to a six-season cable show, the boxing in was as much planned as it was inevitable. But it’s hard to think of stars in Olyphant’s age group and find an instant peer: Also born in 1968 were Hugh Jackman and Will Smith, Owen Wilson and Daniel Craig. His career might be more analogous to say, Lee Pace’s (a decade his junior) or Hamm’s. They too have been sort of narrowly typecast, but give brief glimpses of hidden depths when they’re allowed to break out (see Hamm in Bridesmaids, or Pace guest starring on The Mindy Project). There is a danger of atrophy, helped along by the twin weights of audience expectation and maintaining a steady pay cheque.

Next on Olyphant’s schedule is a film called Beef, whose IMDb synopsis reads: “A manager of a fast food restaurant in the Midwest is wanted by his bookies”; it is listed as a comedy/crime/drama/thriller. Until that movie comes out, Santa Clarita Diet is instructive on the best ways to utilise Timothy Olyphant’s comedy gifts.

In SCD, Olyphant’s hotness is acknowledged, often via a joke (or six), and with that out of the way, he gets to be funny. One of the best scenes comes in Episode 9, when Joel and his teen neighbour Eric (Skyler Gisondo) go to a paranormal convention, and Eric reminds him how his physical attributes are inherently intimidating to normals. It is an active leaning in to what we have been tacitly tapped into for all these years. The difference is that with this series, we finally have a project that highlights his comedic talent in a sustained manner. And it turns out he’s really great at it.

Olyphant’s Joel Hammond may not end up in the pantheon of memorable sitcom husbands, but here’s where he might be more useful: as a turning point when it comes to the roles he will be considered for. And that’s not a bad legacy for a Netflix show to have.

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