Paul Booth chats with Alicia Witt
Alicia Witt took time out from her busy schedule of recording music, playing concerts and acting in film and television, to talk with us about the fifth season of the hit TV show Justified , her process as an artist, working with cinema greats and what brings her joys from the fans. Please watch the attached video of Alicia singing.
Paul Booth: Let’s get the small stuff out of the way. How long does it take to shoot an episode? How much time do you have with the script? Do you enjoy the tight schedule or does it make your process harder?
Alicia Witt: One of the things I liked the best about the process of shooting Justified was that they rewrite constantly- often revising a scene only an hour or two before it was set to be shot. i prefer not having a ton of rehearsal time, and memorizing more last minute so that the choices remain really instinctive as opposed to having time to get set in what you think you should be doing. So you can make the decisions in the moment that you’re filming- so for me the last minute rewrites were exciting.
Schedule wise, once it started airing and we got caught up from the ones we had filmed in the fall, there would often be only about 4 weeks between shooting and airing. We usually had about 8 days total to film each episode, but another thing that was unusual about this show was that we would often shoot out of sequence, since the producers go above and beyond to accommodate the actors’ and directors’ schedules and work around any conflicts they may have. Due to that, we ended up filming episode 511, where I was already bruised from the fight with Rapaport, before we filmed 510- so we had already established where the bruises needed to land on my face before the fight was staged, instead of the other way around.
PB: Given it is Elmore Leonard material, any actor would want to be involved; were you a fan of Justified and what aspects of the story drew your attention?
AW: I actually had never seen the show before- it was on the list of shows that i’d always heard was one of the best on TV and that so many people i respected told me i had to see, but i just never had. Yes, given that it was initially based on Elmore Leonard characters and the caliber of writers/actors already involved, as well as its reputation, i knew that this was going to be a great experience. When I was offered the role, all I had to go on was the excellent pilot script – i spoke to Graham Yost to find out more about who Wendy was and where she was going, and honestly he didn’t divulge much!
I also asked him whether he wanted me to go back and familiarize myself with the series but he responded exactly as i had initially thought – which was that because Wendy was a new character and she didn’t have any existing history with the people on the show, there was no reason for me to know them any more than she did. I think that not having a preconceived notion about how kickass the show was, actually helped me – I got to know Tim Olyphant as Raylan Givens in real time, as Wendy did, without having seen him on the previous four seasons and being starstruck!
PB: Your character has a very well drawn out naivety to her, how much of this was on the page vs. you working your prep vs. you being in the game with Michael Rapaport?
AW: Thank you! I didn’t think of it as naivety until you mentioned it–to me it felt more like an almost brainwashed, borderline abusive relationship kind of thing. Wendy knows better than to trust Darryl, but she can’t erase the history they have, trying to ‘hold the family together’ after their parents died- so she has spent all these years trying to ride the line between making a better life for herself, trying to get a law degree and working as a paralegal, but also coming back time and time again to that family loyalty she just can’t shake. I think what you see in season five is everything coming to a head for Wendy–she comes clean to Kendall that she is his mother, not his sister, and finally admits to herself, with Raylan’s help, that Darryl is only out for himself and that the family loyalty thing he spouts to keep her coming back is bullshit.
PB: You guys had a very believable brother/sister chemistry; what do you feel made that work? You guys both brought an A-game beyond “acting.”
AW: Thank you- working with Rapaport and getting to create that relationship together is one of my favorite things I’ve gotten to do so far in my career. We didn’t discuss it as much as you might think- it was more something that was instinctively there between us. In that final showdown in 513, there was stuff going on as we looked at each other that I couldn’t even begin to explain. It was like we just knew, when we were on set as Darryl and Wendy, what it had been like for us as kids. Rapp is just an actor’s dream to get to do scenes like that with, too- so humble, so quietly strong and fierce, so supportive, and so completely present. he’s incredible. I hope I get to work with him again soon.
PB: Do you have a favorite episode or scene from Justified? Also, a favorite episode or scene you are in?
AW: It’s hard to pick scenes – but if i had to pick one I guess it would have to be the showdown with Rapp in the finale. It’s just a rare gift when you pick up a script for a show you’re already signed on to and find the writers have given you a scene like that. it was also one that was massively rewritten a few hours before we shot it. There’s so much going on in that one- Wendy knows what she has to do and is face to face with the man who’s betrayed her, but she also has grown up with this person and has this incredible love for him, so it made the scene extremely complicated and thrilling to bring to life. I also loved the entire episode 508, where I got to have lots to do with the amazing Tim Olyphant and where I revealed to Jacob Lofland, who played my son, that I am in fact his mother and not his sister. as for scenes I wasn’t in- everyone on the show is so damn good, but really you can just freeze frame on any moment with Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe and it will be epic.
PB: You were a child actor; what specifically were you able to use in playing scenes with your son (on the show)?
AW: Jacob, who played Kendall, is actually 17 in real life and he is such a pro already- I never thought of him as younger than anyone else. He was so very easy to work with and so instinctive–like me, he has never taken an acting class and is learning on the job, which is how I learned (and am still learning), so I think having that in common made working together especially familiar.
PB: The show is very tight in all aspects of filmmaking; what for you as an artist was most exciting? I mean, ex. Did you get to see great DP’s or were you just amazed at how the editors shaped your work? I guess, mainly, something you did not “expect.”
AW: It’s a rare gift to not only get scripts with material to dig into that’s as great as I think Justified was this season, but also to have actors that are as solid, and directors who make sure that the work you do on the day is the very best it can be, making the scripts even better. and then on top of it all, to see the finished product and feel that the editors topped what you did on the set and made it one step better than you even thought it turned out–in my experience that’s not often the case. it was an absolute joy not only to work on this show, but also to sit back and see the finished product and anticipate it airing every week. I’m so honored to have been a part of such a kickass ensemble, in front of and behind the cameras.
PB: If you had to tell me in one sentence who you are in Justified, what would you say?
AW: I play Wendy Crowe- a woman who finally realizes that the brother she’s spent her life defending will stop at nothing to save his own skin – even betraying her and her teenage son while preaching family loyalty- and who ultimately finds the strength to break free.
PB: Looking at the bigger picture, you have done big studio films, indie films, television, number 1 TV shows, worked with the newest talents, Oscar and Emmy winning writers and some of the greatest movie directors alive; what (for those who have no clue) is the constant factor between all levels of work? Sure a first or second time indie director may be 1,000 miles away from Mr. Crowe (Vanilla Sky) but there are factors that never change, like intelligence, passion or pure love of cinema.
AW: For me it always starts with the character–my goal is to keep playing roles that I haven’t done before. That being said, I think for directors, the one thing you notice the most as an actor, is the confidence a director exudes; the sure hand and ability to collaborate, but also the sense you get with a truly great director like Cameron Crowe, that they know EXACTLY what they want, and you can rest assured they won’t stop ’til they get it. I had the privilege to work on Alexander Paynes’ first feature, Citizen Ruth, and he had all those qualities, even then.
PB: With all your experience, both as a musician and actress; what is the ingredient you bring to a project and that you brought to Justified? For those who don’t know your electricity as a musician, is it just second-nature to fit so well in an ensemble? The classical piano training, love of Jazz music, etc. …
AW: One thing that I’ve found is that since I started writing and performing my music in earnest- about seven years ago- I’ve felt so much more grounded in my work as an actor. It was like something was missing before. Now that I constantly have partially written songs or upcoming gigs in my brain, it fills up the space between shooting scenes or days off, and that makes me feel more present when I’m inhabiting a role.
PB: Do you have any recent films or projects you are proud of you would like to mention? I know people will enjoy you in Justified and probably want to see some other parts of your extensive repertoire.
AW: My last two indie films, Cold Turkey, with Peter Bogdanovich, and Away From Here opposite Nick Stahl, are both things that I’m very proud of. Cold Turkey played in theatres last Thanksgiving and featured an end credits song that I wrote and performed with the greatest musician I know, Ben Folds. Away From Here was released in December and both are available currently on VOD- they’re very different characters from each other and also from Wendy Crowe on Justified, so it makes me happy that they all came out within a few months.
Interview by Entertainment & Festival Writer, Paul Booth
Photo by David Livingston – © 2011 David Livingston – Image courtesy gettyimages.com