Saying Raylan Givens has daddy issues is a vast understatement.
Raylan’s father is a criminal who works with the man Raylan is trying to apprehend, Boyd Crowder. Season three’s finale made it abundantly clear that Arlo Givens has chosen Boyd over Raylan. Arlo now views Boyd as his only family.
Playing Arlo on Justified is Raymond J. Barry, an accomplished stage actor and former standout athlete. We talked to Barry about last night’s finale, his work in the theatre and the Fosbury Flop.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I was attending Brown University and a professor approached me about being in a play. The play was William Inge’s Picnic. They were looking for a football player to play the part of Hal, who apparently was an ex-football player who had gotten old. The part was played by William Holden in the film of Picnic.
I was so blindsided by his request. I said, “I don’t know anything about theatre” and I said, “I don’t think so.” The idea of being up in front of an audience and acting was completely foreign to me.
Long story short, I kept on having conversations with him in a place where people had coffee. He invited me to audit one of his classes. I did so and next thing I knew I took one of his classes and I became interested in what they were doing. Not so much, but somewhat interested because my mother was an artist and my grandfather was sculptor. My mother was also a published writer, so there was an artistic bent in the family. I had an uncle who was a concert pianist. My sister was a painter. There was a lot of creativity in my family.
I was the jock. But I was smart enough to go to a place like Brown University. I was in the play and I was not very good in it. All the football players came to see me in it and laughed their asses off. It was ridiculous to see me up there trying to act.
Long story short, I did another play after that and the same professor, whose name is Jim Barnhill, asked me if I’d be interested in applying to Yale Drama School after I graduated from Brown. I was a philosophy major at Brown. So I applied. I was interested enough to apply. They accepted me and during the interim of the summer, I studied with Uta Hagen and Bill Hickey at Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City. By that time, I was completely committed to it and interested in learning how to act.
Actually, my interest in athletics in high school and college – I also was on the track team and I played two years of basketball at Brown – that was my first performance in front of audiences. I could perform. And there were crowds of people watching games and I was used to that. But I didn’t have to speak. That’s the difficult part when it comes to acting.
When did you start feeling like an actor? When did you feel comfortable getting on stage and talking in front of people?
I think probably somewhere in the vicinity of age 30 I began to recognize that this was my commitment and this is what I was going to be. I wasn’t at ease with myself on stage. That took a long time. But I knew I was going to hang in there at that time.
By that time I had worked with the Open Theatre, Joseph Chaikin’s company, and I had been traveling all over Europe performing. We performed in places like Algeria, Israel, Paris, London. I was doing 200 performances a year by that time with the Open Theatre and I still wasn’t what I would consider skilled at what I was doing, but I was becoming seasoned by putting my hand in the fire.
There were times when I felt I was good at what I was doing and there were times when I felt I wasn’t. It was only when I began to not care if I was good or bad that I became pretty proficient at acting. But that takes a long time.
At what point did television come into your career? And do you still primarily consider yourself a stage actor with television gigs thrown in sporadically?
That’s an interesting question. I just finished an eight-week run of my own play. I write plays and I perform in them. I did the same play for five weeks in New York at the Theatre for the New City. I do both for different reasons. I make my living from doing television. I’ve been doing the FX series Justified for three years. Now they’ve committed to a new season, so I’ll be doing it for a fourth year.
So my income comes from doing film and television. It’s a very modest income working on stage, unless you’re on Broadway, which I’ve done upon occasion. I guess I’ve done about four Broadway plays. But you can’t count on being on Broadway in terms of income. So I greatly appreciate the film and television work and I enjoy it and it does require skill and you do have to be calm inside. It requires a kind of center. You have to know what you’re doing.
Theatre is another animal. It’s blue collar work. You sweat. It’s uncomfortable at times. At times it’s euphoric. You’re out there for one and a half hours to two hours and there are no retakes. It’s tough work and you get sweaty and dirty and you’re not paid very much. But it makes you very tough in your head.
You mentioned Justified. How were you cast as Arlo Givens and how was the role originally described to you?
They gave me the role. I didn’t have to audition. By that time, I had enough work under my belt that they could just give people my tape. I think somebody fought for me. I don’t know who. There was a woman. I don’t remember her name.
But the process of getting the role was like water off of a duck’s ass. I didn’t have to do anything except a lifetime of work. They looked at tapes of things I had done, like Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Man Walking, Interview with the Assassin. Another thing that helped also was that I had done a rural character in a movie called Walk Hard. Since the character is rural, I think the parallel between the two characters helped a great deal.
And generally, I think what has happened over the decades is I’ve established somewhat of a good reputation. I don’t waste people’s time. I know the lines. I’m dependable. I give a decent performance. They know that they’re not going to waste all kinds of money waiting for me to say the right words. I’m dependable.
I gravitated to the role immediately. I liked what they had written for me, particularly the first season. It’s been a pretty simpatico relationship between myself and the producers since I’ve been working on it.
How did you go about preparing for the role? How did you see the character and how did you prepare yourself to play Arlo?
I had done two roles that required Southern accents. One of which was Tim Robbin’s movie Dead Man Walking, which required a Louisianan accent, which I studied very, very diligently. I think I did pretty well with it in the movie. The other film I did that required a Mississippi accent was The Chamber.
From my memory on my research of the Southern accent, I did my own take on how Arlo would speak. I didn’t go to a dialect coach. I just worked with the information I had gathered from working on those other two roles. The primary reason was because I didn’t have a lot of time. They hired me five days before we started shooting. I had to learn the lines and study the script. I couldn’t go to a dialect coach, I didn’t have enough time for that.
The way television works, you get the script and sometimes you have to memorize the lines on the same day that you’re shooting because they’ll change the lines all the time. So I didn’t get bogged down with being absolutely accurate in terms with the way people from Kentucky speak. I made up my own accent.
In addition to that, I’ve gotten to the point in my work where I trust myself. I don’t go through some enormous dialogue inside my head about “Should I do do this? Shouldn’t I do this? Am I good? Is this not good? Is that good?” I don’t judge myself. I just go out and I do it.
I finally arrived at that plateau in my work. It’s like if I was Kareem Abdul Jabbar throwing up a million hook shots. After a while, he doesn’t have to think about it. That’s kind of what I do with acting now. I just go up and I play at it like a child. It’s taken me a long time to get back to that innocence where I’m not questioning, I’m doing. That’s kind of how I approached the role. I play at it. I have fun. I don’t work, per say. I don’t struggle and sweat over what I’m doing. I just get out there and I make sure I know the work and I concentrate on what I’m doing. I zero in on it and I just do it. And it works.
Justified is told primarily from Raylan’s perspective, so we see Arlo as sort of a villain in the show. If it was told from Arlo’s perspective, would we see the character differently or be more sympathetic toward him?
Arlo is a survival-oriented character with no education. The way he survives is criminal. He sells drugs. He affiliates himself with people who sell drugs. That’s what he knows. He knows how to take shortcuts to a given end. He’s also prone to self-destruction.
In terms of saving grace, I think he means no harm if you leave him alone. And just let him spend his money on booze and a little food here and there. He misses his wife, who’s dead, and now he’s beginning to talk to himself. He imagines that [Helen] is alive.
Basically, he’s a harmless character if you let him break the rules. He’s an anarchist. The normal fare of “You better not sell drugs,” “You better obey the law,” he doesn’t understand that. He just hasn’t been brought up that way. He survives in any way that is possible. And he happens to live in a part of the country where the economy is terrible and the way to compensate for the lack of resources is to sell illicit drugs.
He doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. He thinks it’s a way for him to get over in a system that hasn’t provided for his particular class of people. And apparently in this county in Kentucky, that’s precisely what the situation is. There are a lot of meth labs and so on and so forth in this area. They don’t know any other way to do it. It’s not like they graduated from Harvard. They work with what they have.
You mentioned the conversations he has with Helen. Is Arlo going senile?
I feel that this is a very tricky area because I think he sincerely believes he’s talking to her, which would imply that there’s a certain degree of dementia going on.
I once knew a person who had Alzheimer’s and she would ask me the same question over and over again and I would answer the question logically over and over again. And it wasn’t as if she was behaving crazy. She was behaving in a very logical fashion given the boundaries of what she knew.
I believe there’s something similar with regards to Arlo. He believes that he’s speaking to [Helen] and he believes that she is in the room or near him. Given that that is the premise, there’s no need for him to behave crazy or anything like that. But yes, his mind is beginning to fail him. It’s a phenomenon perhaps of getting older. It’s possibly a phenomenon that’s connected with grief. I believe he genuinely loved her and needed the companionship. And she’s gone.
And this is another thing about him. I don’t think that it’s so important for him to be alive. I believe that death is imminent for a character like this. I believe that if he died tomorrow, he’d be in agreement with it. He lives somewhat of a dangerous life. There are guns, people get shot all the time. I think when there’s imminent danger consistently in a person’s life coupled with aging and a kind of hopelessness in his existence. It’s not as if he’s being creatively nurtured or has some belief in God or creative thought that keeps him going. That’s not the case at all. I think money is the only motivating factor that drives him along.
He also seems to have a loyalty to Boyd. Not to his son, so much.
Why do you think he has that loyalty to Boyd?
He is transferring his emotions in a very paternal fashion. You could even argue that he’s substituting Raylan with Boyd. Boyd has become his surrogate son to some degree. That again is connected with some kind of frailty of the mind, a kind of dementia.
We’ll see what comes of that. I’m going to jail now, starting the fourth season. I just confessed to two murders. I shot a cop and I admitted to killing Devil. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It could be a big cover up, just to protect Boyd.
He keeps on repeating in that episode, “I had to protect Boyd.” He says that over and over again. One could argue that possibly the reason he’s confessed to these murders is just to protect his surrogate son. And we shall see.
What else is on the horizon for you?
I’m writing a lot of essays. Particularly essays about my son, who has a basketball scholarship at Amherst College. I’m sort of writing a memoir of various things that are happening in my life right now. I write plays. I have an anthology of plays that has been published by Chicago Plays. And I do the plays that I write all over the country at very small theatres.
What do you think you’d do for a living if you never got into acting?
I think I’d be a painter or a sculptor.
I also was a football coach for two years after I got out of Yale. I taught English and I coached football and track at a private high school called Oakland Academy in Newburgh, New York.
I probably was best trained when I first came out of college for coaching and teaching. But that’s not the way it worked out. You could argue my ego was too big for that or something in that fashion. Maybe I wanted a lot of attention, so I wanted to be in the movies. All of those are true.
But I do think if I weren’t an actor, I’d be a painter and a sculptor. Possibly a writer, but I think I’m more gifted as a painter and a sculptor.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I was the New York state high jumping champion in 1957. [Laughs.]
How high did you jump?
I jumped 6’6” with a Western roll. In those days, they didn’t have the Fosbury Flop. They had the Eastern roll, the Western roll and some guys were still using the scissor kick. But those techniques were less efficient than the Fosbury. The difference with the Fosbury is a difference of four to six inches.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. To see Raymond J. Barry’s artwork, visit RaymondJBarry.org.
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