As FX’s critically-acclaimed drama “Justified” returns for a third season, it will be very difficult for some fans to imagine the world of Harlan County, Kentucky, without its beloved and feared crime matriarch Mags Bennett. Margo Martindale‘s Emmy-winning role was so emotionally affecting that to call Mags a tough act to follow is beyond an understatement.
To meet that challenge this season, “Justified’s” executive producer Graham Yost is serving up not one, but two new crime bosses. Neal McDonough plays one of those heavies, a smooth-talking Detroit criminal named Robert Quarles. Quarles wears expensive suits and has a glaring white smile, and between that and his go-getter attitude, he is utterly frightening.
But he’s also a very different kind of villain than the ones we’re used to seeing Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) face on his home turf. Raylan knew Mags, just as he knows the reputation of the third season’s other great antagonist Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson, who previously co-starred with McDonough in Yost’s “Boomtown“).
Limehouse, who lords over an African-American community known as Nobles Holler, has a long history in Harlan and is a hospitable man, offering barbecue to his visitors before he doles out threats. Quarles, on the other hand, is unerringly polite but uninterested in pleasantries.
We sat down with McDonough at the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour to get more details about his work on this season of “Justified,”* which kicks off tonight at 10pm ET/PT on FX, and to find out about his upcoming appearances as Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan, one of the Marvel Universe’s better-known good guys.
(WARNING: This interview contains a minor spoiler about a subplot in an upcoming episode of “Justified.”)
IMDbTV: Your character is amazingly creepy.
McDonough: Yes, and I didn’t realize how creepy he was until I saw the first episode the other night. But it’s not so much that he’s creepy as much as he’s… I keep on saying this with the “Ds”: He’s despicable, he’s delectable, he’s delightful, he’s dastardly, he’s everything you would want as a character to play as a villain.
But I’m playing him as a hero. And in his mind, all of these other people are villains in the show, and I have to get rid of these bad guys.
The first time I introduce myself to these other actors in the show, I’ll just start giggling at them for no apparent reason. I can see, in their minds, that it puts them off, and it kind of stays with the character throughout the piece. It’s a lot of fun playing this guy.
The other thing that’s interesting about “Justified” is that, even though the story has protagonists and antagonists going at each other, in the preface to any conflict, there’s almost a Southern politeness about it. Your character is also very polite, but in a specific Northern way. Can you talk about the “carpetbagger” aspect of Quarles?
It’s great because I think that I’m the king. I graduated summa cum laude from Michigan, enjoy all of the great things – fine wines, foods – I’ve been bred really well. But I just have this horrible anger inside me, this temper and this rage that builds inside me and once in a while, it comes out. And when it does come out, it’s just deplorable.
It’s tough playing a guy like this, because I always want to infuse so much emotion into it. Before I do this horrible thing, my eyes just start to well up. There’s this really tight close-up of my face where I look really remorseful about what I’m about to do.
On that note, can you give any hints as to what’s to come for your character? (WARNING: Minor spoiler ahead!)
The things I do to this one boy in the series… I read the script and it says, “Quarles opens the door and sees pretty boy handcuffed to the head post.” So I called (executive producer Graham Yost) immediately and I asked, “So how pretty does this boy have to be?” And he starts laughing. Then I asked, “Are you going to answer why this boy is here?” And he goes, “I’m not sure yet. I might not.” I said, “OK, great.”
Well, he actually did answer it and… it’s just awful.
(END SPOILER ALERT.)
Wow. You look like you feel awful about it right now.
I do! You know, when I do this I can always just say, “Well, it’s just fun, it’s entertainment.” But when I want to do it right, I really have to do it right. If you don’t have that remorse in a villain, it doesn’t work. You can’t play it like an android and not have any emotions. I think that’s what makes this role so chilling to play.
Is that something that Graham and (executive producer and author Elmore Leonard) inspired in you to do?
Graham doesn’t say boo. He’s come by the set once, maybe twice this year. He lets me just play… “In Graham I trust” has basically been my slogan for years. The stuff he wrote for me in “Boomtown” was just phenomenal, and the stuff he’s writing here is fantastic. I would love to see Graham write me another David McNorris, because I miss playing that guy…When you get to see the insides of a man’s soul, then you’ve got great television.
It seems that the villains from the first couple of seasons on this series, um, don’t come back.
Oh, I’m going end up in a slaughterhouse, or whatever, at the end of the season. I just heard, what is it called, “American Horror Story”? What a genius approach to have the whole cast gone after the first year and recast it for the second year. That’s genius, because you get to watch a whole new story. Like Graham has alluded to, if you have the same villain and he keeps staying around, he loses his shine. Even if they wanted to keep me around for another year or so, it wouldn’t make sense for the show. I don’t think they will. I think Graham is figuring out a beautiful way for my demise as we speak.
I understand that you’re going to reprise your Captain America role.
Yeah, they’re planning (to go into production for) Captain America 2 for the end of this year, because Marvel does one film at a time. So they’re going to do Thor 2 and as soon as Thor has wrapped, they’ll do Cap 2. Hopefully right after that, we’ll jump into Nick Fury because that’s the one I’m looking forward to more than anything.
Why is that?
Because it’ll be me and Sam Jackson. In the real Marvel universe, Dum Dum Dugan is Nick Fury’s right hand man.
…And I just pray that they have a 1970s setting, because I want to see Sam Jackson with lambchops kicking people’s asses for Marvel universe. It would just be awesome. And to work with Sam would be a treat. We’ve become friendly over the years.
It sounds like you were a fan of the comic beforehand.
Absolutely. I’m very well aware of the Marvel universe, and to be part of it is such a blessing. To go back to London and shoot there for four months, that was just a great year.