Boss Man: Interview with Justified's Nick Searcy

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James Minchin/FX

Nick Searcy as Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen in Justified

It was back in 1998 that veteran stage, feature film and TV actor Nick Searcy portrayed Deke Slayton, NASA’s Director of Flight Operations, in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Working behind-the-scenes on the same project was writer Graham Yost, who, 12 years later, created the popular FX Network series Justified, which he also executive produces. When Yost was looking to cast the character of Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen, he looked right in Searcy’s direction.

“Graham and I had become good friends while shooting From the Earth to the Moon,” says Searcy, “and for years after that I kept e-mailing him and [jokingly] asking, ‘Don’t you ever think about me? I thought you liked me?’ And Graham would e-mail me back saying, ‘I’m sorry, there’s just nothing for you [acting-wise],’ but then this part on Justified came up, and Graham admitted to me later that he was thinking of me from the beginning when he originally created the role of Art.

“It’s always terrific to see a character like this come along that has a sense of humor and is also a serious person. So many times the two just don’t mix. You’ll get a dramatic series or character and there’s no sense of humor, or a comedic role will come along and there’s no reality to it. This was great, though, because it had both elements. Art is a witty, kind of funny character, but he’s also a serious man and a law enforcement official, and I think that’s a terrific combination to play.

“We shot the Justified pilot in Pittsburgh, and when I first read the script and even when filming initially began I thought, ‘This show is going to work.’ There were just too many good actors in it and too many good [story] elements for it not to. I had done a movie with Joelle Carter [Ava Crowder] before and I had met Walt Goggins [Boyd Crowder] a couple of times. In many ways it was sort of like getting together with old friends and putting on a show with them. So it’s been great right from the start.”

Justified follows the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a tough, no-nonsense law enforcement officer who prefers old-fashioned law and order to the system’s more modern approach. His way of dealing out justice ends up getting him reassigned from Miami to the Lexington, Kentucky marshals’ office. Givens’ new jurisdiction includes Harlan County, a poor community and a thorn in his side from Raylan’s days as a youth. When it comes to playing Givens’ longtime friend and boss Art Mullen, it is a character that Searcy slips into and out of like an old comfortable pair of shoes.

“Art Mullen is one of those roles that just really seemed to fit me so well, to the point where I could relax and allow my own sensibilities along with my personality to be a part of the character,” notes the actor. “As such, this isn’t necessarily one of my most challenging roles, as it is one of the most fun ones. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy playing Art. It is a challenge, though, to keep up with the other guys. Working with Tim Olyphant is always a challenge because he’s such a good actor. You’ve got to match him acting-wise, and the same is true of the rest of the cast.

“So it’s challenging in that way, but in terms of creating the character, I asked Graham Yost once, ‘Why do I even have to change clothes? Can’t I just wear what I wear to come to work? I mean, with me and Art it’s really the same guy.’”

When it comes to Art’s relationship with Raylan, it’s very much a balancing act, with the chief deputy having to make sure their friendship does not get in the way of their official duties. “I think my character has gotten used to Raylan’s antics a little bit and he’s found a way to live with him,” explains Searcy. “Early on, I don’t think Art believed that Raylan would last very long, and he also wasn’t sure that he wanted to keep him. However, now I think he’s found a workable system to kind of incorporate Raylan into the business of the office and use his may good qualities while also sort of mitigate the damage of his bad qualities. I consider that to be one of Art’s strengths as a boss, too. He’s about seeing the bigger picture and not getting caught up in the minor details.”

With Justified’s fourth season currently airing on FX, how has Searcy managed to keep his character and performance fresh after four years of playing Art?

“Honestly, the show’s writers keep it fresh, they really do,” he says. “They have a nice little storyline for my character this year, and I think it’s going to continue to be that way. This is not the type of TV show where all the characters just kind of do the same thing every week. Graham and the other writers are constantly looking to move everyone forward and that does keep things fresh. The first thing I do whenever I get a new script is flip through it and make sure Art doesn’t get shot,” jokes Searcy, “but I’m always surprised, and usually very pleasantly surprised, by what they have me doing.”

The actor cannot help but chuckle when asked if he has a favorite Justified scene or episode. “Season two’s "Blaze of Glory" is an episode where I had the slowest chase scene in cinema history with Scott Wilson [who played Frank Reasoner]. That was a great episode for my character. There’s also "Cut Ties" in the third season, where Art got a bit frisky with one of the suspects and sort of beat the truth out of him. That episode helped show why Art Mullen understands Raylan as much as he does, because I think when Art was young, he might have been a lot like Raylan.”

Born and raised in the small town of Cullowhee, North Carolina, Searcy was not even a teenager when he decided that he wanted to make his living as an actor. “We lived in a university town — Western Carolina University — and as a child, I wound up doing a couple of stage productions at the university,” recalls the actor. “Whenever they needed a kid, the university would send someone down to my school and ask, ‘Is there anyone here who you can recommend to do a play?’ My teachers would always point to me and say, ‘How about him? He’s been doing Tom Jones impressions in class.’

“So I got a little bit of the acting bug just by doing that as a kid. However, I distinctly remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show when I was around 12 years old and thinking, ‘Those guys look like they’re having fun. I want to be one of those guys and do that.’

“When I graduated college, I moved to New York and spent seven years living there and doing a number of plays, but I never really got a film career going. In 1989, my wife and I moved back to North Carolina because she was pregnant and wanted to have our baby there. That’s when I started doing little parts in movies that were filming locally, and I wound up booking a good role in Fried Green Tomatoes. The movie did very well and that gave me enough of a profile to come to California. So it was rather ironic that I moved away from New York and back home to North Carolina for my film career to start, but that’s how it happened.”

Nell, The Fugitive, Cast Away, Head of State, Runaway Jury and The Ugly Truth are among the actor’s other film credits. On TV, he has worked on a number of made-for-TV movies as well as the miniseries Return to Lonesome Dove, the aforementioned From the Earth to the Moon and the upcoming Appomattox. He has guest starred on several series including L.A. Law, CSI: Miami, The West Wing, NCIS and The Mentalist. Searcy also had regular or recurring roles on such shows as Thunder Alley, American Gothic and Seven Days. Of all the characters he has played, is there one that he found especially challenging or tough to pull off?

“In terms of challenging, I don’t think of roles that way,” he says. “The real challenge is getting the part, you know? Obviously, the Frank Bennett character in Fried Green Tomatoes was such an event for me, personally. It was the first time I had ever gotten a decent film role that was more than one scene and it was a really good part. I was so tense because it was really kind of my first big role, so that will always have a special place in my heart.

“Art Mullen on Justified is a great role, too. I enjoy it probably more than any other that I’ve done, but I’ve enjoyed them all. Playing [stand-up comedian] Rodney Carrington’s best friend on the sitcom Rodney was also a terrific experience. It’s such a pleasure to actually be able to make a living doing the thing I love. I realize every day how fortunate I am, and I try to remember and try to be grateful that God has given me this opportunity.

“A number of people go into this industry with the same dreams and hopes that everybody else has, but it just doesn’t happen for some people. A lot of times it’s not anything they did wrong. It just that the numbers are what they are and luck is what it is. So I feel extremely blessed and lucky every day that I’m able to make a living as an actor.”

In addition to Justified, Searcy is also busy working on his ongoing web series, Acting School with Nick Searcy. “I’m having a tremendous amount of fun with that; some people think that maybe I’m having too much fun,” says the actor with a laugh. “You can find the web series by going to my website and clicking on the little acting school icon. We have five episodes up so far, which are all about five or six minutes long, and it’s a quasi-reality show about my life. The neat thing is that I don’t have anyone telling me what I should and should not do. I’m just doing things that I think are funny and, again, it’s great fun for me.

“My buddy Chris Burgard and I are the ones that put the web series together and I’m really proud of it. I would love for it to one day become an actual TV series because I think it’s a good idea, but we’ll see. Some of my Justified friends make appearances in it, too. Tim Olyphant is in episode four, and Jacob Pitts and Natalie Zea are coming up as well, and so is my pal Stephen Root.

“As soon as Justified finishes filming season four in March, I’m going to do a play in Los Angeles for the first time in 15 years. It’s called Billy and Ray, and it was written by my good friend Mike Bencivenga. It’s about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler and the process of writing the screenplay for the movie Double Indemnity, which they did together in the same room. It’s really a terrific play that’s being done at Garry Marshall’s theatre, The Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake Village, and Garry will be directing as well. I’m very excited and looking forward to it, but I’m nervous, too. As I said, I haven’t done a play in 15 years, so that will be a challenge, but a welcome one."

Please note, all photos courtesy/copyright of the FX Network.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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