“I actually got my first job after being here for one week — a role opposite Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night.” – Walton Goggins
Walton Goggins has done just about any kind of role an actor could be asked to do — background, walk-on, supporting — before his roles on the FX series Justified and in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained served as a one-two punch to make him more than just a go-to guy for scrappy Southerners. In a revealing interview with Vulture, Goggins goes into detail about not being “that guy” anymore and talks about his early years trying to make it in Hollywood, including how he turned one of his worst rejections into a positive.
After years of small parts and supporting roles, Goggins is proud to be working so steadily in key roles in films and television — but he admits there is another advantage of being in this position. He says, “It’s incredible, but mostly a total fucking relief not having to work so hard just to get a seat at the table.”
Goggins has had several so-called “moments of manifestation” that have marked his great accomplishments in acting — and he includes his role on Justified as one of many. He reveals, “I’m proud of Boyd because I feel like I was able to educate people in urban areas about the struggles that people have in rural America. And then to have moments, like I did at Comic-Con for Django, where I’m sitting on the dais with Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and just like, How the fuck did I get here? What is happening right now? I’ve had a lot of those in my career: ‘moments of manifestation,’ I call them. Doing Shanghai Noon with Owen Wilson was one of those. Bottle Rocket was one of my favorite movies, and as soon as I saw it I thought, ‘I’m just gonna focus on this dude. I want to work with this guy.’ And I did.”
However, it took years for Goggins to get that seat on the dais at Comic-Con. He credits his early life as an only child for teaching him to become a better listener — although he doesn’t like listening to other actors talk about acting. He says, “First I refused to work in a restaurant. [Laughs.] Nothing against waiters and waitresses, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be that actor in L.A. having conversations with other actors about acting. I usually run away from those things. I generally don’t hang out with actors in between takes. I’m an only child, so I’ve always been off in a corner somewhere. I think it’s actually taken some learning to know how to be around other people. But the one thing I never had a problem with was listening. My mother was a great listener. And so I never had to compete for her attention because I was an only child.”
Though some actors wait an eternity for their first big break, Goggins actually landed his first acting gig shortly after moving to Los Angeles — but it was tougher to make ends meet after that. He explains, “I actually got my first job after being here for one week — a role opposite Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night. I was the Nervous Kid in a flashback sequence. It didn’t make the movie, but it made the DVD. [Laughs.] That was a really big deal. I actually ran into Billy about three years ago. I wasn’t gonna say anything, but he looked at me and said, ‘You’re not so nervous anymore!’ But even getting a role to play a role like ‘Guard at the Gate’ was a struggle. I worked a lot at night, too. I had a valet parking business. I had six restaurants and three parking garages as clients in the Valley — places like the Moonlight Tango Café, the Great Greek, and Cha Cha Cha. I also sold cowboy boots. Around that time I got a part in The Next Karate Kid with Hilary Swank. I was twenty-fucking-one years old and the main bad-guy part was down to me and a guy named Michael Cavalieri. So I went in first, and nailed it. It was like, Wow, my life’s about to change! I’m the bad guy in Karate Kid! Everyone’s gonna know who I am. This is real work! And then he got the part.”
But Goggins didn’t give up on The Next Karate Kid — he still saw opportunity there and because of his drive he turned failure into success. He recalls, “I told myself, ‘Don’t cry in front of these people. Hold it together, walk off this lot right now.‘ And on my way out, I walked passed Warren Beatty. I had tears in my eyes and he looked right at me; I’m sure he could tell what was happening. He nodded kindly and kept walking. It was like he knew, you know? So I go back to my boot-selling job on Pico. I’m helping somebody find a size 10 and I’m like, ‘You know what, man? Fuck this!’ I pick up the phone and call Warner Brothers and say, ‘I need [late producer]Jerry Weintraub’s office.’ The director Chris Cain picks up the phone and I tell him, ‘I understand why I didn’t get the part. But the character has a best friend. I’m calling to see if I could audition for that part. I just want to learn from you.’ He says, ‘Hold on a second. Jerry!’ He comes back and says, ‘Okay, the job’s yours.’ And I was with Hillary in Boston for four months and made $21,000 — more money than my mother made in two fucking years. And I continued to work pretty steadily until I got The Apostle three years later and was able to quit all my other jobs.”