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March 05, 2020

Unicorn on the Move

Walton Goggins readily admits that the stakes of many characters he’s played have been outside the norm.

Hillary Atkin
  • Walton Goggins in The Unicorn

    CBS
  • Goggins with Rob Corddrey in The Unicorn

    CBS
  • CBS
  • CBS
  • CBS

Walton Goggins has played vigilante cop Shane Vendrell in The Shield, trans prostitute Venus Van Dam in Sons of Anarchy, career outlaw Boyd Crowder in Justified, a slave master's vengeful, violent right-hand man in Django Unchained, and his show-stopping turn as Baby Billy Freeman on The Righteous Gemstones.

But there's never been anything in Goggins' lengthy list of film and television credits that compares with his starring role in The Unicorn, CBS' freshman season single cam comedy.

Goggins is Wade Felton, a newly widowed father of two adolescent girls working to overcome his sorrow and achieve a new sense of normalcy with the help of the daughters and a close circle of friends.

To borrow a description from another popular comedy series, you could call him "hot dad," a handsome, family-oriented, upstanding man who has been with only one woman in the past few decades, giving him a proven track record of commitment.

Felton may or may not be a great father - he lets the girls eat frozen sweets for dinner, much to their delight - but he's totally unprepared for the world of dating.

The series premiered in September 2019 and co-stars Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Omar Benson Miller and Maya Lynne Robinson as his closest pals and Ruby Jay and Makenzie Moss as his young daughters.

During the episodes that have aired as the season heads towards its finale, Felton has grappled with issues involved in joining a grief support group, changing his online dating password so his friends can't interfere anymore and deciding who would get custody of his children in the event of his death.

In short order, Goggins garnered a Critics Choice Awards nomination as best actor in a comedy series earlier this year, adding to a long list of accolades for his work going back 20 years, including a Primetime Emmy nod in 2011 for his role as Crowder. His is a credits list that includes projects with industry legends like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Duvall and Anthony Hopkins.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Goggins grew up in suburban Atlanta and pursued acting from a young age, inspired by the theater careers of an aunt and uncle. As a teenager, he got roles in a movie of the week and a popular TV series. By the time he was 19, he had moved to Los Angeles and quickly lined up auditions.

In The Righteous Gemstones, due to return for Season 2 later this year on HBO, Goggins' Baby Billy Freeman is brought back into the famous televangelist family to run a church in an abandoned Sears building in a mall. That job doesn't last long after he gets into a tiff with the head of the family and his brother-in-law Eli, played by John Goodman.

Sporting a shock of white hair, glasses and a fake tan, the one-time child church superstar Freeman and his much younger wife come into a large amount of money and set off a series of calamitous hijinks that Baby Billy, a known schemer and charlatan, works to his advantage.

It's Goggins' second collaboration with series creator Danny McBride, coming two years after two seasons of their previous HBO comedy, Vice Principals. The role of Lee Russell earned him a best supporting actor Critics Choice award in 2018.

His next feature film marks a sharp departure from his previous roles in films including the recent indies Them That Follow and Three Christs and his noteworthy turns in The Hateful Eight, Tomb Raider and Ant Man and the Wasp.

It's a comedy called Fatman in which he will star with Mel Gibson. The premise: a neglected 12-year old hires a hitman (Goggins) to knock off Santa Claus after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking.

Goggins was getting ready to shoot Fatman in Ottawa and busy packing up all of his cold weather gear- accumulated on the Telluride shoot of The Hateful Eight - when we caught up with him by phone at his Los Angeles home, where he lives with his wife and their 9-year old son.

Our conversation touched on subjects ranging from how The Shield cemented new ground on television and for him personally, how playing characters like Venus Van Dam brought new insights into previously marginalized people and how he started a liquor company with a close friend from the entertainment industry.


Walton Goggins on The Unicorn: The loss of a spouse, of a job, pet, kids going off to college-more often I think all of us feel like grieving happens in isolation, that we're alone in experiencing it. I know from my own tragedies that I've had to overcome, I realize I'm not the first or last person to go through this. You don't have to go through it by yourself ...


Congratulations on The Unicorn. How has starring in your first network comedy been for you, after your many experiences in cable?

It was overwhelming at first when we were doing the pilot. We were not concerned about getting picked up, but rather feeling like let's do something real, grounded and from our hearts and let the chips fall where they may. I had long conversations with David Nevins, Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman, and we set out an authentic version.

Once I got over my own insecurity over what people would want, I allowed myself to play and have fun in this world. When we got the call, there was so much joy. But the joy turned to deep profound insecurity, again. During episode 2, I said this is a story we're telling, if we reach lots of people we have the opportunity to do good in the world, come from the heart and be a safe place to talk about grieving.

The loss of a spouse, of a job, pet, kids going off to college-more often I think all of us feel like grieving happens in isolation, that we're alone in experiencing it. I know from my own tragedies that I've had to overcome, I realize I'm not the first or last person to go through this. You don't have to go through it by yourself, there is a community and friends offering help, so why wouldn't I take it?

The genesis of the story comes from the best friend of Mike Schiff and Bill Martin, Grady Cooper.

If we did it right, if we hit a vein, it would make life a little easier, make their own grief a little more palatable—and we did it, that's why I'm so grateful for it and humbled by it. It's all everyone wanted.

We knew it was going to be funny. Finding situations was easy because that's what happens. The network supports leaning into it, when its gets real and it's sad and walking the line on this scale to be given permission. It's been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Being a father yourself, is it teaching you anything about parenthood?

Over the last few years, I haven't worked with kids, and things that may seem a perfunctory part of raising a child, I haven't been given. The stakes of the characters I've played have been outside the norm, so being given a chance to relate is extraordinary.

I've learned what's coming, to reflect on my own journey as a spouse raising a child with a partner and what's that's like doing it alone. Some elements I'm very familiar with, some I didn't know, but I think I am a great father. I love my child and raising him with my wife.

On the set, we have seven children total and navigate their needs. A person who is naïve to this might think it's a lot of work and sacrifice but it's a lot the opposite. We're all going through it together. We have to get them off the clock, and it has been a team effort, even with the dogs.

Let's talk about a special relationship, that of you and Danny McBride on Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones.

I do believe in manifesting and I meditate and come from that place so that a version of that reality may present itself. That's what happened with Robert Duvall. I got The Apostle after seeing Wes Anderson's first film with Owen Wilson. The same thing happened with Tony Hopkins—and the same thing with Sam Rockwell, who is one of my best friends.

With Danny, watching the first episode of Eastbound & Down, I thought he was so special. I went in for Season 4 of Eastbound, but Jason Sudeikis got the part. Three years later Danny called. I read it and I knew right away and told him, "I think I can help you with this." Beginning with the first day on set I knew he would be my brother. It was everything I hoped for and continues to be.

On Vice Principals, there was joy, insanity and chaos behind the scenes, and it was such a joy to live that way. In Charleston, South Carolina, it's unfiltered -people doing what they do.

When I read the first Gemstones script, I thought you're going to burn this house down. It's a bold move, and I had no idea of the cultural juggernaut it would become.

Danny's got his finger on the pulse; it was extraordinary. It's ultimately about something deep - what does faith mean, the relationship between a religious father and son, the corporate structure of people that control a message and our conduits to God, and looking at it from the inside out. In Season 2, the world will get bigger with other players.

If there's one profession you've played several times, it's being a preacher. Why is that?

It started with Boyd, who wasn't supposed to live [after getting shot in the chest]. The story didn't exist past what Elmore Leonard had written.

For me, I wanted to explore someone who lived after their near-death experience and through incarceration they find God in a meaningful way. That would be his journey. Graham Yost agreed that it would be put into that framework. You can see the through line in Lemuel in Them that Follow, going back to The Apostle.

Then Danny wants me to play Baby Billy, and to explore spirituality from that point of view. Is he a charlatan? All these roles fold back in and add up to something. Including Three Christs. My whole story is about understanding why we're here and understanding my place in the world. This wasn't supposed to happen to a kid from a small town [Lithia Springs, Georgia].

I never wanted anything but to tell stories and play with the best. I worked myself hard, working two jobs and being in class. I still love it, just as much as day I started. While I'm still figuring it out, the roles I get give me an opportunity to choose. Who gets to do that in real life?


On the role of Venus Van Dam: It was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I was stopped when Venus came out, so many times, by a transgender person who hugged and thanked me for caring and caring about highlighting our struggle.


Speaking of special roles, not much compares to you playing trans prostitute Venus Van Dam in Sons of Anarchy and the incredibly moving love story with one of baddest-ass bikers on the show.

When I read the pages Kurt Sutter sent over, I wanted to know this person, wanted to sit down and get to know her story. At the time it was a different world, [2014] and if we could approach her story with honesty and authenticity and see the world from her point of view and explore her pain and isolation and sexuality, then we will have done something worthwhile.

After the response to one episode, it was clear there's more to this story about what you're saying about masculinity. It came to a natural conclusion, being able to understand the world from that angle when the makeup was off, and through the response that Kim Coates had, through another's eyes. I couldn't get through it without weeping for humanity.

It was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I was stopped when Venus came out, so many times, by a transgender person who hugged and thanked me for caring and caring about highlighting our struggle.

It's been the same with Wade. People have come up to me thanking me, saying The Unicorn is helping them cope with grief. It speaks to the power of story, if you tell it truthfully and if your heart is in the right place and you're paying it forward in ways you know, or may not at the time… that's been my experience. I'm just grateful.

Let's talk about your breakout on The Shield as corrupt LAPD detective Shane Vendrell.

No one knew when we did the pilot that storytelling was moving in this direction and that we would be some of his first astronauts to tell an 84-hour serialized story. No one knew…

Let's start with Oz and The Sopranos. We were on right after. It was the most important thing that had happened in my career. There wasn't a place for me in TV until The Shield. I didn't see a world past that experience, that this story about corrupt police - we didn't see an end to it. We were consumed by it. Everyone, cast, writers, this was it, it was this story.

One of the hardest things I've done is carry that pain on a daily basis, yet it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

If I talk about one thing, it would be The Shield, and my time telling my story. I didn't know it was going to be a tale of morality. I spent seven years walking a road and I just didn't know it would loom this large. Michael Chiklis and I talk weekly, and Kenny Johnson and I are close. I think we all feel like we did something special that will live in people's hearts.

The thing I'm most looking forward to is watching it with my son - but not until he's 16.

Let's go back to the Goggins origin story and how your first acting job after moving to L.A. was in Billy Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night.

I grew up watching my aunt and her husband performing on stage beginning when I was six years old. I was so enamored how they were able to play someone else and the audience reaction. It was by virtue of watching that the seed was planted. In high school, I wanted to try acting and looked in the Yellow Pages and found casting director Shay Griffin in Atlanta.

I got my mom to take me downtown and put on my best clothes. At the office, I was asked if I had an appointment. I said, "No, but she'll want to see me because I tell stories and she tells stories." Shay remarked on the audacity at 14 to push your way into her office, and that was the beginning.

I did a couple of episodes in a small role with Carroll O'Connor in In the Heat of the Night, which was a big springboard, and then the director of an MOW gave me Murder in Mississippi.

I came close to getting a few other movies. Kyle Chandler and I went out for something and they shaved our heads, so I had to go through 10th grade like that. In college, I went to Georgia Southern. My family was poor, and I wanted to do two years there and then be a lawyer or go into politics. All I wanted was to see the world, and then an invite came to get an American Express card and with it came two airline tickets.

So I did one more semester and then went to L.A., where I knew one guy and had his pager number.

I called a manager I had met who said I could sleep on her couch and then I walked around Hollywood Blvd. near Poinsettia Place. I'm like Andy Griffith from Georgia, but she wanted me to sign a contract [for her to represent me] and I said "no," and she asked me to leave. I asked if I could please stay the night. I walked out at 5:30 a.m.

The irony is I live four blocks from that apartment. I drive by and love that 19-year old kid who had $300 in his pocket and wanted to see the world and figure something else out. Luck and God - whoever she is - and grace played into a lot of youthful ignorance. Now it's 30 years later, and I have a community of friends, 100-200 deep and I'm married with a 9-year old son.

Billy Crystal cast me as Nervous Kid in Mr. Saturday Night with David Paymer. It was so exciting. Even though the scene was cut from the movie, it was included in the DVD as one of four deleted scenes. To me it meant everything at the time. I saw Billy nine years ago at a play, and he said, "Nervous kid, get over here…."

Whiskey, vodka and gin are part of the portfolio of your spirits company, Mulholland Distilling, named for the man who famously brought water to the City of Angels. What inspired you and Matthew Alper to start this up?

We started out in the trunk of a car. I have a love for libations, feeling like they're a conduit for deep conversation, which I've had all over the world. I enjoy making and drinking cocktails. Matthew is one of the biggest first ACs [assistant camera] in the business, and he'd been a winemaker and had made his own small-batch bourbon.

We wondered why L.A. didn't have its own signature brand, and about five months after he had a daughter, we set out on this, the spirit of Los Angeles.

This place is a great incubator of ideas and the feeling that anything is possible. There are so many big shadows we walk through but there is enough room for sunlight to light up your seed. It came from the heart and because of where we live, we wanted to give someone a high aesthetic that is reflected inside the bottle. The brand is our story.

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