Like any young actor starting his career in the early ’90s, Walton Goggins would have cut off somebody’s ear to get cast in a Quentin Tarantino film. It took him two decades to make it happen and land a role in the new “Django Unchained,” which opens on Christmas Day — years during which he found success playing charismatic bad guys in FX dramas “The Shield” and “Justified” — but it almost happened much earlier.
Having worked almost exclusively in TV since moving to Los Angeles from Lithia Springs, Ga., at 19, Goggins got a break when he was cast in actor/director Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, “The Apostle.” Before that film’s release, the tango-obsessed Duvall hosted an intimate dance party in Venice and invited Goggins.
“There were only about nine people there,” Goggins recalls, “and in walked Quentin Tarantino. The man is tall, and he’s such a force when he comes into a room. I’d seen ‘Reservoir Dogs’; a goal of my life was to get to work with this man. He was standing right next to me — for four hours! — and the only thing I could say to him was, ‘Hey, that’s a really nice suit.’ ”
Goggins may have been too starstruck to seize that opportunity, but he took matters into his own hands years later. By the time he found and fell in love with the “Django” script (“Oh my, God, this is going to start a revolution,” he recalls thinking.), Goggins had started acting in films in between his TV gigs and had even produced some. (A short he produced, “The Accountant,” won an Oscar; the feature-length Hal Holbrook vehicle “That Evening Sun” was a hit at festivals.) More important, he’d met longtime Tarantino pal Robert Rodriguez while working on the reboot of the “Predator” series.
Sensing an opportunity he couldn’t let pass, he decided to exploit the friendship. Having discovered the “Django” script shortly after working with Tarantino’s longtime friend Robert Rodriguez on the Rodriguez-produced reboot of the “Predator” series, Goggins decided he had to exploit the friendship.
“I texted him and said: ‘Robert, this is not my thing, I don’t do this, but I’m asking: Please text QT! Please! Just send him one line. Just two words: Walton Goggins.’ He said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ and maybe an hour later, or the next day, he forwarded me Quentin’s response. It said, ‘Walton Goggins has been on my radar for a very long time.’ ”
The 41-year-old actor gasps at the memory. “In some ways, that was enough!” he says, only half joking.
Actually getting hired would be better, of course. A mutual friend held a small barbecue to introduce the two men, and Tarantino invited Goggins to audition. The actor learned nearly 40 pages of script, performing bits of many roles; he says he even read the part of the head house slave, destined for Samuel L. Jackson. His feeling was: “I am going to take this opportunity to say as many of your words as I possibly can before you kick me out. These words, they’re so delicious you just want to say them in front of the man who wrote ’em.”
Tarantino cast him as Billy Crash, a plantation worker who trains slaves to fight each other for the amusement of sadistic owners. As with “Justified,” where his character was supposed to die in the first episode but was made an ongoing co-star after viewers embraced him (that series begins its fourth season Jan. 8), Goggins’s role grew during production. Kevin Costner had originally been cast as slave trainer Ace Woody; when he left the film due to scheduling conflicts (and replacement Kurt Russell fell through as well), the Ace and Billy roles were combined into one.
In terms of screen time, Goggins’s role is still small compared to those of stars Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and the compulsive scene-stealer Christoph Waltz. But Billy Crash is the most hands-on perpetrator of the movie’s central, horrific crime (exploited in the lurid 1975 film “Mandingo”): the use of slaves for a blood sport resembling present-day dog- or cockfighting.
As Crash, Goggins not only had to commit revolting acts of brutality, he was required (as was practically every other actor in the film) to make liberal use of the racist epithet he refused to utter while playing a white supremacist in “Justified.”
“ ‘Justified’ is not a story about slavery,” says Goggins, who notes that while using “the N-word, as it were, is the least offensive thing that happens in this movie” (compared with whippings, rape and the like), it’s still something he would say only for a director such as Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee, whose films he believes make important statements about race. (Goggins played a racist officer in Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna.”) “As Sam [Jackson] said about the character he played, you can’t show the oppressed without showing the oppressor.”
Plenty of viewers will feel “Django Unchained” is less high-minded than all that — that slavery is just an excuse for Tarantino, a lover of all flavors of exploitation cinema, to transport the cartoonishly violent revenge fantasies of “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds” to the Old West. But Goggins felt deadly serious about the role and says other cast members did, too. “It was my ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Really, it was not easy,” he says. At the end of every shooting day, he apologized to his black co-stars for the vile things he said and did on camera. (Lest Goggins feel too guilty, his other big-screen gig this year — Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” — allowed him to participate in the abolition of slavery.)
This being a Quentin Tarantino film, it will hardly ruin any surprise to reveal that Billy Crash eventually suffers a grisly punishment — the specifics of which are appropriate for someone who previously threatened Django with castration. In that payback scene, Goggins lets out a wail so otherworldly it’s hard not to wonder how he created it.
Goggins enthusiastically admits that the cry surprised even him. As the moment of the stunt approached, he recalls, “I was so scared that my voice just went up.” Its pitch kept rising as crew members responded during subsequent takes: “It’s like my little boy. When he makes a joke at the table and you snicker at it, he’s just going to keep going — take it to the next level and the next level.”
“By the end of the day,” he laughs, “Quentin said: ‘You know, you gotta bring that down a little bit. We can go high, but we can’t go that high.’ ”
Getting a role in a Quentin Tarantino film is a rare enough honor. But taking a moment of Grand-Guignol suffering so far that it freaks out even the bloodthirsty Tarantino? Now that’s a real achievement.
165 minutes, opening at area theaters Dec. 25, is rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
The fourth season returns to FX at 10 p.m. Jan. 8.