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Deadweek: A Mystery to Himself—A Portrait of Seth Bullock

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Deadweek: A Mystery to Himself—A Portrait of Seth Bullock

The following is a feature on Seth Bullock and actor Timothy Olyphant that originally ran in the Star-Ledger May 5, 2005. I wrote it early in the season, after having seen just the first two episodes of season two, which showcased Bullock’s volcanic temper and showed the arrival of his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and stepson William (Josh Eriksson) and the end of his affair with socialite Alma Garret (Molly Parker). For various reasons, the piece didn’t run until later, after weeks of Bullock’s being sidelined by domestic drama, and on the brink of an even more bleak, recessive period following his son’s death. However, Olyphant and creator David Milch’s insights into Bullock remain relevant, and are highlighted again in the first five episodes of Season Three, so for what it’s worth, I’m reprinting the piece here.

Let us now praise the law.

On HBO’s western Deadwood, the law is Seth Bullock, a hardware store owner and sometime politician who somehow wound up wearing a badge in a Gold Rush mud-hole full of hustlers, killers and thieves.

But Bullock is not your standard Western goody-two-shoes. As written by series creator David Milch and played by Timothy Olyphant, he’s Andy Sipowicz in a Stetson, a dark knight weighed down by invisible armor. His public mission to civilize a lawless town mirrors his private struggle to contain his own demons.

Bullock is a brave, righteous lawman, but also a sullen, hypocritical bully. He prizes loyalty and craves respect, but is rude to his friends and often takes their love and patience for granted. He cheats on his absent wife (Anna Gunn) with recently widowed Alma Garret (Molly Parker), yet still strides through Deadwood as if he has a lock on virtue, and thrashes any man who dares disagree.

He cracks down on common thugs and killers, yet forges a deep and curiously respectful relationship with the town’s deadliest crime boss, saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). He can spot a troublemaker from a block away, yet seems unable or unwilling to see his own flaws.

“What it comes down to is the burden of responsibility,” said Olyphant, 37, during a visit to the Los Angeles set of Deadwood in January. “It’s the burden you went out and took upon yourself. You regret that moment for every day you have to live it all out.”

At this point, Olyphant has no regrets. As the leading man on TV’s oddest, most dramatically complex series, he gets to explore powerfully contradictory feelings each week. But playing Bullock is still a challenge for Olyphant, a well-read, talkative fellow with a droll wit.

Born in Honolulu and raised in Modesto, Calif., Olyphant was a competitive swimmer at the University of Southern California. He has been married for 14 years and has two young children. Many of his film and TV credits have played on his slightly devilish charisma - particularly his acclaimed turn as a funny-scary drug dealer in the 1999 cult film “Go.” He was considered a potential star for years, most likely in Gary Oldman-type roles. So how, exactly, did he end up as Gary Cooper?

Some days, even Olyphant wonders.

“I’m surrounded on this show by really funny people, and when the cameras aren’t rolling, we crack each other up,” he said, sitting in his trailer during a break from shooting. “Then we’re rolling and I put the mask on. There are times when I’m playing a scene with Ian or Bill (William Sanderson, who plays hustling jester E.B Farnum) and I kind of look around and think, ’When the fuck did I become the straight man?’”

Olyphant still manages to be funny usually via delayed, incredulous reactions to other characters’ weirdness, but it isn’t easy. Where Al Swearengen constantly analyzes his own motives in monologues and zings supporting players with wisecracks, Bullock is an instinctive, emotional, often withdrawn person who seems to possess little self- awareness. Where McShane tosses words like barroom darts, Olyphant must suggest comparable depths through minute adjustments of his eyes and voice.

Olyphant’s colleagues know what he’s up against.

“Tim has an extraordinary sense of how to suggest Bullock’s character with gestures, and he’s obviously thought a lot about how to do that,” said costar Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays political operative Hugo Jarry. “I was in a scene with him in a scene earlier in the season, and a big element with Bullock is where his gun is. We had to redo part of the blocking of the scene because Tim said, ’No, I would have my gun hand free when I walked into this situation, because I have to move the coat back to get my gun.’”

“David (Milch) has often said to me that he believes we are all mysteries to ourselves, some in more ways than others,” says John Hawkes, who plays Bullock’s best friend and business partner, Sol Star. “Sol was described to me as a guy who could be in a situation and at the same time floating outside the situation, watching it from above, pragmatically. But Seth is much more emotional - and brutal. Seth certainly has a capacity for a great deal of feeling, of kindness, but in this place, those are not necessarily qualities he would want to foster.”

“Bullock is trying to protect himself from his own deepest nature, because it frightens him,” Milch said. “At the core of his being is a rage so powerful that it supplanted what would have ordinarily been there, which is a consciousness.”

While embellished by Milch for dramatic purposes, Bullock is based on a historical figure, the same- named sheriff of the real Deadwood. Key details differ; for example, where the historical Bullock married his childhood sweetheart, the show’s Bullock marries the widow of his slain cavalryman brother and vows to raise her son (who appears to have been killed in last week’s episode by a runaway horse).

But the psychological details are accurate, Milch says, and they inform Olyphant’s performance.

“Bullock was the son of a retired sergeant major who used to beat his balls off every night, which is why Bullock started running away (from home) when he was 12 years old,” Milch said. “His dad would dress up in military garb because when he did that, he felt like he was under control.

“I think Bullock took upon himself this kind of military bearing as a protective mechanism,” Milch continued. “It protected him not only from his father’s rage, but from his own rage in response to what his father did. When Bullock experiences uncontrolled emotion, he wants to answer it with violence, and that frightens him, because it reminds him of what he ran away from.”

Olyphant says that in constructing Bullock’s personality, he drew on some of his favorite screwed- up-hero performances, notably Russell Crowe’s and Guy Pearce’s work in “L.A. Confidential.”

“What I drew from Guy Pearce in that one movie was his willingness to be unliked,” Olyphant said. “He’s a guy who wants to do the right thing so bad that it doesn’t even matter how many people hate him for it. He sticks to his gun, and he doesn’t flinch. Crowe’s character is more emotional, and he’s got such a temper, he could easily have ended up one of the guys he’s always arresting or beating up. If you put those two characters together, you kind of get the two halves of Bullock.”

“He is certainly a mystery to himself,” Milch said of Bullock. “But that’s true of anybody, and the way Tim universalizes that fact makes it easier to connect with this unreachable guy. I’m 60 years old and I understand about one-eighth of one percent of what I do. For so many of us, our lives live us.”