Gerald McRaney reprised his role as the villainous George Hearst in “Deadwood: The Movie,” reuniting with original showrunner David Milch. McRaney won an Emmy two years ago for his guest role on “This Is Us” and earned another nomination last year, and now’s he’s hoping to extend his nomination streak with a nom for “Deadwood.”
McRaney recently sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to discuss playing Hearst again, what makes Milch such a special artist and what’s next in his career. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Gerald McRaney, the whole country, the whole world has now seen “Deadwood: The Movie,” reuniting all of you after a dozen years or so. Is George Hearst the most evil person you’ve ever played?
Gerald McRaney: No, I don’t think so. I think probably the most evil person I’ve ever played was a guy that was drawn absolutely from reality, a guy named Chris Wilder who tortured and killed young women across the country. That was a pretty evil son of a bitch but George Hearst is up there.
GD: When you’re playing somebody like that, let’s say George Hearst in this instance, do you have to get into the mindset? He’s not thinking he’s evil. He’s thinking he’s doing everything for a purpose and that he’s a good guy.
GR: He’s bringing progress and these people keep getting in the way.
GD: Do you have to find those things within that person?
GR: Yeah I think that’s one of the most important things that separates drama from melodrama. If you’re doing a drama and you’re tasked with playing a villain, you can’t play him villainous. You have to find all the things that justify what it is that he’s doing and concentrate on that, eliminate any of the stuff that might look evil and just play the actions.
GD: Hardly anybody thinks of themselves as bad.
GR: No, I’m convinced Adolf Hitler thought he was doing the right thing. In his mind, he was.
GD: What did you think when you got the script? It could’ve been a cameo. It could’ve been just a, “Let’s make sure we get Gerald McRaney in here for a few minutes.” You’re almost a co-lead in this.
GR: Yeah, it was fantastic. It’s interesting. It’s like five years ago, something like that, David approached me and he was working on what was a completely different script at that particular moment in time and by the time it all evolved it was totally changed. He wanted me in there from the beginning but I had no idea it was gonna be as involved as it wound up being. I think David just saw the Hearst character as that violent agent of change that was happening not only to Deadwood but to the country and in fact the world at that time. It was already being dragged into the 20th century in the 1880s and 90s. That was already occurring. Telephones and automobiles were not far behind. It was a lot of radical change going on in the world and, of course, that was the death knell of the Old West.
GD: You are the future. I wanna ask you about some of the actors you work with in the past and now in the present. We just interviewed Timothy a couple weeks ago. We were talking about you. He said you were a true pro at all times and he can’t give a higher compliment than that.
GR: Timothy is too and he’s no-nonsense. He’s an incredible artist but there’s nothing arty about him. He does the work and he does it extremely well. He comes to work, he comes prepared every day. When they say, “Ready first team,” Tim is the first one on the set or the second if I’m there. He’s that kind of actor and I just adore working with him. I worked with him on several other series.
GD: He always puts you through the wringer, too.
GR: Yes, he does. He just tortures me. We were doing the scene where he finally takes Hearst to jail and once we’re inside the thing I’ve got some smart-ass line to him and he’s supposed to just shove me into a cell and I said to him, “Tim, grab me by the ear.” He says, “Oh, of course!”
GD: You were on vacation and you couldn’t be at the premiere but the room just erupted when he grabs you by the ear, ‘cause it’s a callback. There’s so many callbacks in this to prior episodes and prior seasons. He said to apologize to you when I told him we would be speaking in the near future just for all they put you through in the street scene.
GR: (Laughs.) That was brutal. It really was because it was cold and I was wet for the entire night. Doing those stunts is not as easy at 72 as it was at 32.
GD: The thing about this particular show as well as the movie and in your case, George Hearst, he has a real life. He actually does go on to do the things that he goes on to do and he dies at a particular point so they can’t kill you like they might another antagonist on another show.
GR: Well that’s the one thing I knew about the fight scene is I was gonna survive it.
GD: I think the audience needed the catharsis of seeing you beaten to a bloody pulp.
GR: Yes, people need to see the George Hearsts of the world get their ass kicked and they did on this one.
GD: Speaking of cameos there’s a little surprise cameo from Garret Dillahunt.
GR: Who can do anything. I said when he was playing Hearst’s assistant, and he already played the guy who assassinated Bill Hickok, I said the next thing they’re gonna get Garret back and he’s gonna be playing one of the whores in the Gem ‘cause he can do anything.
GD: That was so smart to bring him in and I didn’t even notice but at the party afterward people said, “Did you notice that was Garret?” I said no so I had to go back and take another look ‘cause he was so well-disguised. Ian McShane and you had some fierce dialogue sessions over the years.
GR: Yes, indeed. It’s such a joy. One of the things I like best about Ian is that he will try anything. He’s game for anything. He’ll get a take done perfectly and David then might suggest, “Let’s do it a completely different way.” “Certainly. Let’s do that. Let’s try it. Sounds good.” He’s totally amenable to damn near anything you might suggest especially if it came from David because he trusts him so implicitly. We all do.
GD: He’s played every nationality I think you can imagine under the sun when I’ve seen him in guest roles and another movies and things over the years. He’s very talented.
GR: I remember him from “Lovejoy.” I was a fan of that show back in the day.
GD: I remember seeing him on “West Wing” once. He was, I think, a Russian person who came in to negotiate something within the offices. I wasn’t gonna bring this up ’til later but that’s one of my favorite guest spots you ever did.
GR: Yeah, I loved that. One of my favorite lines of all time is when somebody mentioned war crimes and my character, the general’s line, “All wars are crimes.”
GD: You and John Spencer, that’s a team right there.
GR: Oh, man. He was so good. Lost a great one.
GD: Talk about pros.
GR: Yes indeed, and that same approach.
GD: I’ll tell this as fast as I can. I interviewed Kristin Chenoweth once and she said the next episode they did after he died, it was a cold room as all the studio sets are and they gave her a coat which happened to be the coat he had worn in his last episode he had shot. It was filled with the candies he always kept in his pockets still. I always loved “West Wing” and I never have asked you about that. That was a great episode. Wish you had been recurring.
GR: Yeah, I do, too.
GD: Another actress I wanted to ask you about on “Deadwood” that just knocks the roof off here is Paula Malcomson. It was nice to see her get such a meaty role and you and she go at it a couple times.
GR: God, I love working with her even if it is 20 yards apart. The scene that we had in the saloon, I really loved working on that one with her.
GD: You come in on the wedding right as the wedding’s over.
GR: She was just delightful in that scene. Trying her dead level best now to make peace and knowing that she’s blown it but, “Please for the sake of my baby.”
GD: He has no heart. I wanna ask about a scene that I talked to Timothy about, I talked to a couple people at the party about, the scene where you’re on the roof, got the two guys beside you and you’ve got the showdown with the marshal. I don’t even know how you shot that and stayed so still. I know you knew what was coming but still, it was an amazing scene to watch.
GR: One of the things is I am a hunter and I go target shooting a lot so the sound of gunfire doesn’t startle me the way it does some actors. Even when the gunfire was going on, I was conditioned to it, in a way. It was easy for me not to react to it and I think that was the most important part of being still is not to react to all the violence that’s spinning around Hearst. I wanted him to be the center of the violence, not a participant in it.
GD: The thing about it is in terms of somebody who’s never seen “Deadwood,” they get a really clear picture of George Hearst in that scene. You know now nothing fazes him. Nothing surprises him. Nothing fazes him. He’s in control.
GR: My approach to it is he really doesn’t have an emotional life. He’s really all about finding ore. That’s it, and the most efficient way of processing it. Apart from that, nothing.
GD: Incredibly intelligent guy.
GR: Yeah, instinctively so. Not schooled but instinctively so.
GD: Another nice scene is you and Dayton Callie when you go to make the offer to him out on the river on the land. That scene is so nice because they let it breathe.
GR: Yes. We were allowed to take so much time with that scene and it was so much left on-camera of transitions being made and time being taken and it helped. It played. You don’t find a lot of directors with that kind of patience and then editors who know exactly when to leave that shot and go to another one. “This one, alright, it’s lived up until now but now we’ve got to put the scissors in. Now we gotta cut to the other thing.” It was extremely well-done.
GD: You enjoyed working with Dayton?
GR: I was just gonna say I enjoy working with every actor on that set. It’s, I think, the most incredibly talented group of people I’ve ever been with. You consider the size of that cast and not a dud in the whole bunch. Everybody there is brilliant, not just good. They’re brilliant.
GD: And they got everybody together. Almost to a person, everybody’s had such a good career since then. They’re all busy.
GR: I’ll tell you what, there’s not a person there who isn’t extremely grateful to David Milch for having created that show and brought us into the show.
GD: They found a way to get back.
GR: You find a way to get back for that man, yeah.
GD: What is it about him? I’ll ask you the same thing I asked Timothy, see if you have a similar answer, but go ahead.
GR: Two things. His genius, obviously, but that’s an easy one. The other thing is his kindness, his gentleness. He is in the truest sense of that world a gentle man. He might not like my telling this but when I was working on the original show it was the time of Hurricane Katrina and I told him about a friend of mine who lost his home in New Orleans and was just living with a friend for the time being in Arkansas somewhere. I told him we’d been friends since we were in a rep company together in New Orleans. David said, “Does he still act?” I said, “Well, he hasn’t in years but that’s how we met.” He said, “I’ll tell you what, tell him to come down here. I’ve got some apartments that I keep for people at Oakwood. We’ll find something for him to do.” And he wrote a role for this guy who hadn’t acted in 20 years and put him up until he could get on his feet.
GD: Isn’t that amazing?
GR: That’s the kind of person David Milch is apart from that genius. There’s that humanity and I think the two go hand in hand with him. His respect and his love for literature is just a reflection of his respect and his love for the human condition.
GD: I think he’s gonna win an Emmy this September.
GR: God, I hope so.
GD: That’d be amazing. What I asked Timothy that wonder about you as well, see if you have a similar answer, when you have somebody, David Milch in this case, or anybody you worked with who’s so specific of a writer, the rhythms, everything matters, is that harder as an actor or easier?
GR: No, no. It’s much easier. Also, that first year, when we went on Christmas break, I went by the writers’ room before we left for our Christmas break to thank David and everybody who contributed to any of the scripts for writing such stuff as we actors could so totally trust that now we could just deal with the business of acting. We didn’t have to think, “Is this scene working? Will this play?” Of course it will play. Now you just do your job and everything will be fine. That’s a gift for an actor. Then, when you get into such a specific use of language from a specific time period and written in a particular cadence that way, it gives you your limit, your playground. This is where you are. That’s very grounding for an actor. It’s just an incredible gift all the way around.
GD: Timothy said so many jobs that any of you get, he said it’s just like turning crap into mediocrity. He said when the level of the work is already there, then you get to really play.
GR: That’s what I’m saying. All I have to do is my job now. I don’t have to second guess a writer, a director. No. Those guys are pros. They know what they’re doing. They’re gifted artists. Now I just get to relax and do what it is that I’ve trained my whole life for and trust. They’re there to catch me in the air and there’s a net under me. I’m perfectly safe doing whatever they ask me to do.
GD: The other actor I was gonna ask you about who you had some great scenes with in the series and one really good one here, William Sanderson. He makes everything he’s ever been in better.
GR: He does. Bill just has a gift. It’s something in him. It’s not so much acting training, although I’m sure he’s done that. There’s just something about Bill himself that he breathes the characters.
GD: He takes a random walk-on role in “Newhart” and makes it an eight-year role.
GR: Yeah. But even what he did, that role that he had in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” he was perfect. He was just spot-on.
GD: I was just watching “The Client” the other day with Susan Sarandon. He’s great in that. Everything.
GR: Everything he does is great. He’s a very well-educated fella. He got his law degree from what was then Memphis State. He’s no slouch in the intellect department.
GD: He’s from our part of the world.
GR: Yes he is, good ol’ boy.
GD: Speaking of our part of the world, I wanted to wrap up today with “Filthy Rich,” the show that just got picked up for series for the fall by Fox. Tell us what it is.
GR: I play the patriarch of a family of, for lack of a better word, televangelists, but they’ve started this Christian empire and the original premise is the patriarch of the family is killed in a plane crash. It comes about that he has three legitimate children that he’s cut into the will unbeknownst to anybody and now the fight begins over dividing the spoils of this empire that’s been created.
GD: Who plays your wife?
GR: Kim Cattrall, and she is just a delight.
GD: That’s gonna be a great pairing.
GR: I think it will. I just adored working with her. I didn’t get to do much with her in the pilot itself but what I did was just spectacular. An odd coincidence, the first day of work on the pilot, the first scenes that we were shooting were done in the theater where I started my career 52 years ago. It’s just bizarre.
GD: So the show is set in the Deep South, the televangelist world. That’s not gonna step on any toes.
GR: No, it’s not, any at all. That won’t offend anyone.
GD: Gerald, thank you so much. Good luck with another Emmy round. You had two in a row. We need to make it three.
GR: Your lips to God’s ears.