There's a reason Garret Dillahunt is one of Hollywood's favorite hired guns. As Jack McCall on HBO's Deadwood, he ended his arc after murdering Wild Bill Hickok, then returned to the show as an entirely different character with many viewers unaware they were watching the same actor. He played three roles (four by some counts) on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, including an emotionless killing machine and the human-like interface of a benevolent artificial intelligence. He was evil incarnate in the 2009 horror film The Last House on the Left and landed the role of a sitcom dad on Fox's Raising Hope just a year later. With uncanny adaptability, Dillahunt sinks into his characters so deeply that the performer himself is nearly undetectable.
"It's kind of my whole philosophy as an actor," Dillahunt tells Iconic Interview. "I think that's what we're supposed to do is play a wide range of characters -- or it's just what I like to do, I should say. I like to try to be as different as I can from one thing to the next." As a case in point, his current gig on Raising Hope is worlds away from his role as a duty-bound, yet wavering Sheriff in Winter's Bone or the sharp-shooting "gat man" he played in Looper. The show needed the complexity of the chameleon-like Dillahunt to nail the nuances of the uncomplicated and hilarious Burt Chance. "There's an innocence about Burt that he has managed to maintain," the seasoned star relates in his easy cadence, "or has accidentally maintained, that allows him to respond to things as they happen. He's guileless, and it's fun to play."
Following the struggles of a hapless 20-something (Lucas Neff ) who -- with the help of his family (Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton, Shannon Woodward, Cloris Leachman) -- is raising the daughter he unwittingly had with a serial murderer, Raising Hope is an unconventional sitcom. The show earns its laughs from the subtleties of story rather than a barrage of punchlines, and it's great to see such a different kind of comedy find mainstream success. Dillahunt suggests that a big part of the show's popularity is that people identify with the humor, quirks, and love that keep the Chances close. "They're idiosyncratic, but loving," he explains. "I think that's how most families are, really. Everyone thinks their family is the craziest family in the world. Like, 'My God, my family's crazy!' So I think it's not far from home for everybody."
When asked if he lets go of the complexities of life when he plays the brood's patriarch, he laughs, "I wish I was that free and that quick to accept when things don't go the way I want. Burt doesn't spend a lot of time agonizing about it; he just gets on with it. I'd like to be like that."
Dillahunt is also currently co-starring with Alan Cumming in Any Day Now, a film about a gay couple in the 1970s who take in an abandoned teenaged boy with Down syndrome and battle a prejudiced legal system to retain custody. The powerful piece features newcomer Isaac Leyva as the boy at the center of it all and an icy Frances Fisher as a family court judge. Dillahunt plays Paul Fleiger, an assistant district attorney who is only "recently out, or at least recently admitted his sexuality," Dillahunt says. "He meets a guy who brings out his inner fire. He's one of those guys that's slow to rile, but when [he does], it's a 'better watch out' kind of thing. He has a very strong sense of what's right and what's wrong, but sometimes lacks the courage to chase it, but Rudy [played by Cumming] forces him."
Dubbed "the cowboy guy" by his peers at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Dillahunt was thrilled to be a part of the Deadwood epic and talks of his character McCall with fondness and a grin. He recalls his "makeup job" as getting himself dirty, drooping his eye, and stuffing the clipped-off tip of a baby bottle up his nose so it looked crooked, "and that was that," the screen veteran smiles. "I remember being described often as 'the horrifically ugly Jack McCall,' and I kept thinking it took me about 10 seconds to get like that." Upon his return to the show as Francis Wolcott, he grew a beard, put in brown contact lenses, and transformed into a dapper, well-to-do, calculating, blood-thirsty sociopath. "I think for the most part," Dillahunt says of the section of the audience who figured it out, "people understood it was someone completely different, and a story is being told, and I was pleased to be a part of that piece of history."
Dillahunt's on-screen acumen has landed him on the short list at the highest levels. Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, for example, cast him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly, and the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, and the Coen brothers made him right-hand man to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. He has a lengthy list of credits on the small screen as well, including Leap Years, The 4400, ER, Numb3rs, John from Cincinnati, Damages, Life, Criminal Minds, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and Burn Notice. And with a spate of bad-guy characters under his belt, even those in the know tend to forget that Dillahunt got his start in comedy on shows like Maximum Bob with Beau Bridges and A Minute with Stan Hooper with Norm MacDonald.
From lovable Burt, to Cromartie the terminator, to Jesus Christ on The Book of Daniel, there's a certain Zen-like calm running through Dillahunt's uncommonly diverse array of characters, which is perhaps a reason he's embraced by viewers time and again, even when he's being bad. We inquire if this tranquility is something that comes naturally to him and he responds with a laugh, "I guess so! I'm not upset that you feel that way, but I wasn't aware of it and it's not something I cultivate. It must just be a characteristic of mine you pick up on. I'm glad it hasn't gotten in the way!"
Read the full interview at IconicInterview.com for more on Dillahunt's work on Deadwood, Sarah Connor Chronicles, and No Country for Old Men -- and catch Raising Hope on Fox!