Timothy Olyphant seems right at home playing a sheriff in Breck Eisner's remake of George Romero's 1973 film, The Crazies. Though his career started with roles in films like Scream 2 and Go, the Hawaiian-born, California-raised actor is best known for playing Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO's western-drama series, Deadwood. He'll also be playing the lead role of banished US Marshall Rayland Givens in the upcoming FX series Justified, but this Friday he wears the badge of Sheriff Dutton--a man unprepared for the havoc about to be wrecked upon the quiet Iowa town he presides over.
Eisner's reimagining of Romero's story similarly explores the people of a small town trying to come to grips with what is happening to their friends and loved ones when a mysterious toxin contaminates the water supply--transforming everyone they know into mindless killers. Hysteria sets in when the military closes off the town in an attempt to contain the virus. Olyphant's character, David Dutton, is the sheriff leading a group of uninfected townspeople in the fight for survival, alongside his pregnant wife, Judy, played by Radha Mitchell.
I had the opportunity to speak with Olyphant who has not actually watched the original film in its entirety. "What I've seen of George Romero's stuff I love," Olyphant said. "I love when you see a movie like that and it looks like you can dismiss it, yet there's really something going on under the surface. I think it's really smart. Everything I read about him I find really refreshing and kind of cool."
The fundamental themes of paranoia and the unknown in Romero's original are carried over in Eisner's remake, with the similar inclusion of a military group that becomes as menacing as the virus that is rapidly taking over. Romero's story is largely a metaphor condemning the US military and our involvement in the Vietnam War--themes that Olyphant agrees are still relevant in today's sociopolitical climate. "A lot of those issues are alive and well," he states. "I think we obviously went, in some respects, a different way and it feels as though Breck and I were looking at it as if it were a Cormac McCarthy book. But, what we were really inspired by about the original idea was, although his film was about a bunch of crazy people taking over the town, it was also about what was happening with the war. We wanted to be devoted to or try to live up to that."
Though the outlook for the characters in the film is grim, an early clip from The Crazies featured some darkly humorous moments. "We're not looking for yuk yuks, but if we don't get any laughs in this picture then we've missed an opportunity," Olyphant explains. "The whole idea here was, let's go for it. Let's not just throw something up there that the kids might want to go see for a weekend and walk away. Let's really see if we can kind of find something meaningful here and humor was part of that."
While Olyphant's character responds to the horrifying events much like the group he tries to shepherd to safety, there's still a slight rogue element to Sheriff Dutton, that Olyphant seems to be unable to escape from with every role he takes. Not that he or we would want him to. "Nobody's perfect," he quips. "it's fun to try to dig a little deeper and find out what makes a person complicated or what makes a person essentially a little more unpredictable. Those have always been my favorite performances to watch and it makes my job fun if I can go there and look at it from all those different angles."
When he received the script from Eisner, Olyphant was able to collaborate with the director to flesh out his character and figure out his motivations. "Without question that was something Breck and I were on the same page about. About really wanting to see a guy kind of go from point A to point B and watch this character see the things that are beginning to happen around this town and how they affect him in a meaningful way...whatever you can do to elevate the picture, character and story to keep people engaged in something."
With The Crazies now complete and after recently appearing in David Twohy's A Perfect Getaway, Olyphant is ready for the challenges of another genre film. "I'd love to do another horror film," he told me enthusiastically. We'll be waiting.
The Crazies opens in theaters Friday, February 26.