Why Walton Goggins is a bona fide unicorn, on screen and off

At this stage of his career, Walton Goggins knows that he's certainly a unicorn himself. Or maybe a Hollywood take on a centaur: half character actor and half leading man. Full Credit: CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

At this stage of his career, Walton Goggins knows that he’s certainly a unicorn himself. Or maybe a Hollywood take on a centaur: half character actor and half leading man.

Even rarer, Goggins has built a filmography that’s displayed significant scales of range and diversity. Since his breakout performance as the corrupt, morally flip-flopping cop Shane Vendrell on “The Shield,” yes, he’s played his share of straight-up big screen bad guys — most recently in “Tomb Raider” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” most memorably in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”

But he’s also had opportunities to play more complex, layered roles, like Lost Causer lawman Chris Mannix as in Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” the ambitious bank-robbing white supremacist Boyd Crowther on “Justified” and as tragicomic trans prostitute Venus Van Damme in “Sons of Anarchy.” Then he veered straight into edgy, offbeat comedy as one of the two warring high school administrators at the center of “Vice Principals.”

Now, unexpectedly, he’s taking center stage as the star of “The Unicorn,” a warm, heartfelt, single-camera broadcast network sitcom that casts him as a widowed father of two young daughters reluctantly re-entering the dating world, only to discover that — for good reasons and bad — he’s a unique, highly coveted prospect.

Goggins knows that actors with rough-hewn good looks who start out excelling at heavies aren’t always allowed to evolve out of their specialties. “The ones that do get that opportunity usually get it in film, and I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my career to have it both in film and television,” he tells CNN. “I just keep going…[looking for] things that scare me and that I find interesting.”

“The Unicorn” came at a moment where Goggins’ career opportunities were really opening up, and the emotional honesty at the core of its comedy was highly alluring.

“One of the biggest factors for wanting to get involved in this story is I believe that it’s kind and it’s earnest and it’s sentimental, in all the right ways,” he says.

“Over the course of my career I have often the opportunity, I suppose, to play the bad guy and try to flesh him out and make him human and three-dimensional and find the good in him. And this is a very different experience for me,” Goggins explains. “But it’s more close to who I am than anything I have ever played. Really, if you were to take a video camera with me home this morning, even with my son, I am Wade Felton on a number of levels! But it’s also, it’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I have nothing to really hide behind. It’s just me.”

Indeed, the actor found himself second-guessing his desire — and ability — to play a network comedy lead, until both CBS and his close friends kept giving him the same advice.

“They say ‘Walton, do the thing man. We, we want you,'” he recalls. “I just kind of turned myself over to it.”

The comedy, he recognized, wasn’t really new ground.

“I think ‘The Shield’ was one of the funniest shows on television, and I think ‘Justified’ was one of the funniest shows on television, and Venus Van Dam was really, really funny — and also very serious,” Goggins explains. “This kind of falls in line with all of the things that I’ve done before.”

But he really connected to the universal appeal of the circumstances, which were based on the life of a friend of the show’s creators, Bill Martin and Mike Schiff.

“It’s a story about a guy who loses his wife to cancer. From my mind, he nursed her through the last year of her life and the story picks up a year after her passing. He has two teenage daughters and he’s in an arrested state of development. It’s a story about life on the other side of loss, or some profound tragedy or some great moment of struggle in a person’s life, and the community that comes together that ferries you to the other side of that,” Goggins says.

“Whether it’s the passing of a spouse or a parent that is aging or insert whatever personal struggles that we’ve all experienced, we’ve all been here, we’ve all been Wade Felton,” he says. “We were either seeking advice or giving advice. That’s what life is, if you’re lucky enough to get out there and be a part of it. that’s what spoke to me.”

As for the high-concept of being an ultra-rare catch in the dating world, that felt like more of a stretch for Goggins, whose been married since 2011.

“I was never very good at dating, to be quite honest with you,” he says. “I haven’t really dated in a really long time. And I’m so grateful that I’m not walking that tightrope, especially today with social media being what it is.”

But he got why the concept made sense.

“This is a real thing, and why wouldn’t it be? ” he explains. “Because you were committed for very long time, and now you’re not because your spouse passed away…You have children and you’re a great guy, so that’s why you’re a unicorn. I have seen and I’ve experienced it in my own life that when tragedy on any level befalls a person there is this openness and this vulnerability on the other side of it — this rawness if you will — that is extremely attractive to people. I think people gravitate towards that kind of vulnerability.”

He says that conventional stardom was never an aspiration, even though he allowed some expectations to creep in after getting great notices in an early film, 1997’s “The Apostle,” directed by Robert Duvall, that nevertheless didn’t result in a rocket ride to the top of Hollywood’s A-list.

“I thought about ‘What does it mean to make it?'” he concedes. “I think everybody has to go to war with that, and some of that’s ego and some of that is just desire, I suppose. But for me it was never about celebrity, never about recognition. It was always about story.”

Instead he embraced the credo suggested by one of his longtime representatives.

“He said, ‘Walton, you’re a person whose career will be made in the aggregate. It’s not one role. It would be all of them and they will add up to something, and whatever that means to you, that’s what it will mean to you.’ And that’s a piece of advice that I’ve gotten that has served me really well,” Goggins says.

Recognition of his body of work is at an all-time high: he’s also currently in a high-profile role, reteaming with his “Vice Principals” cohort Danny McBride on HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones,” playing 67-year-old preacher Baby Billy Freeman in truly out-there style.

“I just try to keep them guessing, and not be boxed in but not make decisions as a reaction to ‘Well, what will this get me? What will this get me?'” says Goggins. “If I have something that I feel like I can contribute to film, and if I can help them tell their story, and if it’s something that that scares me on some level, that I don’t have all the answers to but I feel like I can find the answers than more often than not, nine out of 10 times I say yes. Whether it’s a first time filmmaker or one of the greats, like Quentin [Tarantino], that’s what I’m looking for and that’s what I predicate my decisions on.”

“I’m just grateful to still be standing after all of this time and, I look back over the course of the last 30 years of my life and I think, ‘Man, I’ve done what I set out to do,” which is tell great stories with great storytellers,” he adds. “I still have a love for it, man and a real passion for it.”

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