Neal McDonough Takes 'Justified' To Another Level

March 13th, 2012 2:00pm EDT

Neal McDonough It was a tall order to follow up Margo Martindale's award-winning villainy on Justified. Yet veteran actor Neal McDonough has done just that and more.

He is the man behind Detroit mobster Robert Quarles, the latest adversary to cross paths with the infamous Raylan Givens, as played perfectly by Timothy Olyphant. When playing against an actor of Olyphant's caliber, one must be at a certain higher level already. But what makes McDonough a fantastic choice, the choice that I can't believe it took this long to think of, is that he doesn't just hold his own; watching him, one gets the sense that the third season of Justified could legitimately go either way. That Raylan Givens could have actually met his match.

That's because McDonough is one of the best actors working on the small screen, particularly when it comes to the dark side. You've seen it at work on Desperate Housewives and movies like Walking Tall and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Now, he's in Kentucky, keeping people tied up in his house and having his lackeys paint the walls to cover up the blood.

"When people see me, some people do get scared. I think it's really kind of funny," he says when we connect recently.

He is, of course, nothing like his character: he's a happily married family man who had taken a break when Justified showrunner Graham Yost wanted him to become the show's next villain.

"I'd just taken four or five months off from acting [and] nothing was shooting in Los Angeles. Ten seconds later, the phone rings and it's Graham," he explains with a laugh.

So far, we've seen Quarles come in and make a previously major villain, Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) his minion, kill Winona's ex-husband Gary (William Ragsdale) and frame Raylan for the crime, and who knows what he's doing with the guy bound and gagged in the bedroom. So what's McDonough's favorite part of the role?

"Oh, the suits. Those suits are just awesome. That and the gun up my sleeve was great," he tells me. "Really, it was getting to play with the best of the best, all of these people. Tim and I are both game players, and Walton [Goggins] too. Mykelti [Williamson], who's one of my best friends, he's the same way: 'Let's go crush this thing.' We all have that kind of mentality. [It's] just a crackerjack crew."

Certainly playing a villain that has to pose a legitimate threat to someone as intense as Raylan Givens isn't easy. I asked McDonough what his process was for finding the character of Robert Quarles.

"Quarles was, 'I'm a family guy, I've got to do my job, but I also know I'm a whole lot smarter than these hicks down there,'" he explains. "When I first met the actors, I didn't really say anything. Right out of the gate, it was kind of me against the world on Justified. But because of that, it works so well when people talk about me when I'm not on screen. I was so off-putting. The one person that got it was Walton."

He says that we've only just begun to see the arc of his character. "The first six episodes, I am the man. Episode seven, you see the crack in the veneer. Episode eight, this guy's going deep. You can't wait to see episode ten. Before you know it, Quarles [is] this roller coaster you can't wait to see crash. I am just an absolute mess," he tells me, adding that "we get to do something really different and interesting. You can be as whacked out of your skull if you completely believe that's who you are."

There's no doubt that he's achieved that. Not only is Quarles a bonafide villain, but he's honestly disturbing. I've been a McDonough fan for a decade now, and even with my bias toward the actor, I've caught myself squirming uncomfortably in my chair a time or two. This is the kind of bad guy who would appear in your nightmares.

Would you believe this is the man who also played one of the best heroes in television's recent memory? Yes, he is. And we have that to thank for his appearance on Justified.

Before he came to Harlan County, Yost created a series called Boomtown for NBC. It was unique in that it showed crimes in Los Angeles from every point of view. The show's breakout character was the womanizing, alcoholic, yet tortured and utterly brilliant Deputy District Attorney, David McNorris - played by McDonough.

McNorris was no saint. He had plenty of sins on record, whether it was being asked to cover things up or cheating on his wife with a news reporter. Yet by the same token, there was no doubt that he was the best lawyer in the city of Los Angeles. He was ruthless, fearless, and utterly unpredictable: a force of nature both in the courtroom and out of it. Boomtown's finest episodes were the ones in which he took center stage, such as "Blackout," where McNorris believed he may have killed someone during another drinking binge. It would have been tough material for any actor, but McDonough put us squarely in the head of his character. We felt his fear, his anger, his paranoia and his utter self-loathing.

I had never been struck speechless by an individual performance until I saw McDonough playing McNorris. To this day, when I see a fictional lawyer on television, McNorris is the standard by which I judge them. Ten years later, I still can't get him out of my head, if only because I still, now and then, wonder what became of him.

"I do miss McNorris," McDonough tells me, saying that he'd love to revisit the character on another series if the opportunity should arise, "cleaned-up, married, whatever the case. Quarles is kind of McNorris off the rails a bit. I have a pretty good feeling that's how Graham designed the character."

McNorris isn't the only hero on his resume. After Boomtown, McDonough played the lead in another NBC series, Medical Investigation, and was part of the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man. He's also well known for his role as Lynn "Buck" Compton in HBO's Band of Brothers, and played one of the most memorable 'redshirt' characters in the Star Trek universe, Lt. Hawk, in Star Trek: First Contact. He can save the day just as well as he can ruin it for you. He doesn't necessarily have a preference, but one is less strenuous than the other.

"The process of playing a villain is actually easier on my psyche. The harder ones are when I do something like Tin Man or Band of Brothers, especially Band of Brothers in particular. When you're the good guy and you've lost a lot, that's baggage," he explains, adding that his wife Ruve gave him his best acting advice while he was working on the HBO miniseries. "I was such a method guy and I lived it from episode one all the way through. When we got to episode three, she said, 'You've got to figure out how to leave your work at work.' They never taught that in college."

Whether hero or villain, McDonough has taken on so many memorable characters that even he can't pick just one piece of work that best represents him. Instead, he's got quite a few picks for the Justified fan who wants to see more of him.

"I'm so proud of Ravenous; it was so cool. There's another one called American Gothic that I did with Patrick Wilson. It was more like a play on film. That is something I am incredibly proud of. We did like fifteen-page scenes and just let it roll. It was one of those weird treats," he says. "My favorite character so far is probably Wyatt Cain from Tin Man. He was the one that's closest to me. If I talk about Cain, I get choked up. It was so raw and emotional and I had to keep it all in."

He doesn't have to confine himself with Justified, which plays to McDonough's ability to compel an emotional reaction out of the audience with each role. Even if, in this case, it's just rooting for his demise.

"I want the audience to love me," he says, "and hate me so much that they can't wait to see me get the s@!t kicked out of me."

Therein lies what's so fantastic about Neal McDonough: whether you hate his character or love him, whether he's a bad guy or a good one, if he's center stage or the guy that doesn't even have a first name, the one thing that's certain is that you will not forget him.

My thanks to Neal McDonough for this interview! Don't miss him when Justified airs its next new episode tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Related: Band of Brothers, Boomtown, Desperate Housewives, Graham Yost, Jere Burns, Justified, Margo Martindale, Medical Investigation, Mykelti Williamson, Neal McDonough, Star Trek: First Contact, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Timothy Olyphant, Walking Tall, Walton Goggins, William Ragsdale, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Drama, Interviews, FX

© 2012

Photo Credits: FX, NBC

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