Walton Goggins Finally Plays the Good Guy: On Death, Dating, and ‘The Unicorn’

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CBS Photo Archive/Getty
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Walton Goggins is a very good bad guy.

Boyd Crowder on Justified is about as great as a bad guy gets, from a TV fan’s perspective. Shane Vendrell on The Shield was a standout in a murderer’s row of these kinds of characters on that show. But hell, Walton Goggins is so good at playing the type that Quentin Tarantino, of all people, decided he was going to be the go-to actor for him when casting such parts, which Goggins played exquisitely in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.

Even in comedies, which allow for the Alabama-born, Georgia-raised performer to arch his eyebrows and weaponize his twang for laughs, he typically plays the kind of person we’re meant to love to hate. For his work in Vice Principals on HBO, on which he plays perhaps the most conniving school administrator put on screen, the New York Times wrote, “Walton Goggins makes a habit of being the best thing about the television shows he’s in.”

It makes for a great story that, in reality, Walton Goggins is, by all accounts, a great man. A very good guy. One of the best good guys, if I’m being honest, a conclusion arrived at after spending hours poring through stories about him, and a good bit of time talking with him as well. Like, talking though. About real things. Life. Death. Happiness. Sadness. Actually, what it means to be a good guy.

Perhaps it fits, then, that Goggins is playing the titular character in a show named The Unicorn.

Premiering Thursday night on CBS, the single-cam comedy centers on a man named Wade Felton. We meet Wade a year after his wife’s death. He has so fastidiously dedicated himself to raising his two daughters and ensuring that they’ve handled the trauma well, he’s failed to realize that he’s become a sad case in his own right.

His best friends intervene, insisting that he rejoin the dating pool. After all, he is “the unicorn”: a good-looking man in his forties on the dating apps who isn’t looking to just have sex or an affair. He’s there for the right reasons. In other words, he’s a good guy.

When the trailer for The Unicorn played at the CBS Upfronts this summer, during which networks pitch their new slate to advertisers, Goggins did something patently unusual for what may rank among the most clinical and cynical of all showbiz endeavors. He cried.

As we talk about it, nestled on a couch in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel, that wide, toothy smile, so often used to exceptional, menacing effect, spreads an incredibly inviting warmth.

“We have all experienced tragedy in our lives,” he says. “I said there that it is the great equalizer in life.” After a career that he describes as “the great fortune of humanizing villains,” he was so grateful to participate in something as heartfelt and unapologetically earnest as The Unicorn. “I have in my own life experienced tragedy,” he says. “And it was my community that helped carry me to a new place in life.”

The Unicorn is an all-around personal endeavor. Creators Bill Martin and Mike Schiff based the show on their friend, Grady. His wife had died, the worst thing any family can go through, and Grady just put his head down in the weeds to take care of his daughters and make sure they were OK. Then something happened: They were. They were OK. The clouds parted, and here he was. After all that tragedy, suddenly his life got funny. Grady re-entered the dating pool. Martin and Schiff created a TV show.

That is essentially the plot of The Unicorn. Goggins’ Wade stands in for Grady. Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Ruby Jay, and Omar Benson Miller play his friends, pushing him into the dating pool. He goes on a date. He’s not emotionally ready for it. It’s horrible. It’s hilarious. The show? It’s hilarious, too. And very heartwarming.

“The thing that scared me the most, to be quite honest with you, is that this is closer to who I am than anything I’ve ever played,” Goggins says. “Really, it kind of is me. I don’t have anything to hide behind.”

Goggins has a great life now. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, writer-director Nadia Conners, and their 8-year-old son, Augustus. His career is going great. He’s in CBS’s best new series! He likes it so much he cried in front of hundreds of businessmen!

Back in 2004, his wife, Leanne, died, under circumstances which Goggins doesn’t discuss, though Wikipedia links to a since-erased obituary for her written in the local publication Canyon News, and there is other gossip that can be easily googled.

“I drifted for upwards of three years after that,” he tells me. “It took me a really long time to come back from it. If it weren’t for the people in my life that cared about me, that stepped in and helped me understand that life goes on, I don’t know what would have happened.”

At its core, The Unicorn is a family sitcom, one that’s reminiscent in tone to Modern Family. It just happens that the family dynamics are depicted through a close-knit group of friends, each with traditional family units of their own, but who care so deeply about each other that they think nothing of being intertwined in their respective lives.

There’s a small scene in the show’s pilot that may seem inconsequential, but is actually quite touching. Wade’s daughter needs to be picked up from school, and without considering whether it’s strange, his four friends start discussing whose schedule is freest to run the errand. It’s taken as a matter of fact, that they’re all raising everyone’s kids together.

“None of us are islands,” Goggins says. “Why would you want to go through this experience alone? We all need help.”

I ask about his experience dating again after his wife died. On paper, the successful, handsome actor would be “the unicorn” that his show talks about. Was that the case?

I wasn’t aware that it was possible to say the word “no” so many times in just a few seconds. “I would be the kind of guy you would catch and release,” he says. “I’ve never been as great as Wade Felton. You know, it’s just so scary. I think it’s scary for many of us.”

Goggins’ Hollywood story is the kind of thing magazine editors drool over.

His parents divorced when he was 3, and he was largely raised by his mother, who made about $12,000 a year in the workers’ comp department for the state of Georgia. His first attraction to performing came through his aunt, an actress whom he spent time with as a young boy in her dinner theater dressing room.

When he was 14 he asked his mother to drive him to the office of an Atlanta-based casting director named Chez Griffin. He demanded to see her, despite not having an appointment. She was intrigued, and agreed to work with him. He started doing some shooting around Atlanta. In 1990, he was cast in the TV movie Murder in the Mississippi.

He moved to Los Angeles by himself when he was 19. Within a week, he booked a role opposite Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night. His scene, “Nervous Kid” in a flashback sequence, was cut. At night, he worked a valet parking business and sold—get this—cowboy boots.

A few years later, he was up for his big break, playing the villain opposite Hilary Swank in The Next Karate Kid. After a final audition, he lost the part. He called up producer Jerry Weintraub after to ask if, as a consolation, he could audition to play the character’s best friend. He was offered the role on the spot, and has been working ever since.

There were a series of bigger breaks. His role in Robert Duvall’s The Apostle in 1997 graduated him to a new level of recognition. In 2001, a short he produced won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. A year later he was cast on FX’s The Shield as Detective Shane Vendrell, kicking off a remarkable track record of roles on prestige cable series, including Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Eastbound and Down, Six, and the recent HBO comedy The Righteous Gemstones.

In addition to his work with Tarantino, he’s appeared in Lincoln, Cowboy & Aliens, and Ant-Man and the Wasp.

It’s a wide range of Southerners that he’s given life to, too. It’s easy to see why. In person, he has a drawl and a tanned ruggedness. He may have well been born in a cowboy hat. Representing that, even while playing a series of bad guys, has always felt like a responsibility to him.

“Anybody worth their weight in salt wants to accurately reflect their culture and not sell their culture out,” he says. “It was important to me not to portray Boyd Crowder as a one-dimensional redneck. I wanted to make him the smartest person in the room. Some of the smartest people I know come from where I come from.”

When you’re in the speeding car of a Hollywood career, trying to capitalize on any opportunity you’re given, it’s rare to have the opportunity, or even make the decision, to pull over and reflect on the ride, the journey, the beginning of the trip. But, actually, Goggins recently sold his mother’s home in Georgia, so he’s been doing a lot of reflecting on all that.

“All I ever wanted from any of this was to see the world,” he says. “I want to hear other people’s stories. This business has given me that. I look back over the course of my life and I think, how did I get here? And then age has taught me not to question how I’ve gotten there, but what are you going to do now that you’re here.”

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