Law and Order: Interview with Justified's Jacob Pitts

By , Contributor

FX Network

Jacob Pitts as Deputy U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson in FX's Justified

When he was 13 years old, actor Jacob Pitts was interested in one day becoming a lawyer, but he subsequently realized that his desire was being driven by a romanticized vision of the profession. “At the time I was deep into John Grisham novels, and I think I assumed that being a lawyer involved lots of intrigue, judges and those types of things,” he notes.

“The acting came along as a result of my being a natural ham,” jokes Pitts, “and doing high school plays. I eventually broke into the business thanks to a series of connections and lucky happenings. I was working with people who were doing readings in New York, then ended up meeting so-and-so and I was just at the right place at the right time. I wish I had some sage advice to pass on to aspiring actors, but I don’t. I was just extremely fortunate, and here I am today.”

Seventeen years later, Pitts’ interest in law and order was rekindled, albeit fictionally, when he was cast as Deputy U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson in the FX network TV series Justified. The role came about thanks to a prior professional collaboration with the show’s creator/executive producer, Graham Yost.

“I had met Graham while doing an HBO miniseries called The Pacific, and when he was developing Justified, he offered me the part of Tim Gutterson,” says the actor. “Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’ As an actor, when you’re offered anything outright, it has to be a pretty calamitous disaster to turn it down. However, the pilot script for Justified was great and it had wonderful characters in it like Dewey Crowe [Damon Herriman]. That was attraction enough for me.

“We shot the pilot episode in Pittsburgh, which was my first time in that city. I spent my off-time going to various music stores and catching up on my dearth of knowledge on The Doors, so it was a terrific experience for me all around.”

Set in Lexington, Kentucky and the state’s eastern hill county, specifically in and around the rough Harlan County, Justified tells the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). A law officer who tends to defer to older and more “reliable” ways of upholding justice as opposed to more modern methods, his work ethic ultimately gets him transferred back to the last place he wants to be. Given his surroundings, Raylan can use plenty of backup to help get the job done, including fellow Marshal Tim Gutterson. For Pitts, feeling completely at home in his character’s shoes took a bit of time.

“I think Tim was fairly undefined in the show’s first season,” he explains. “I’d done a couple of TV pilots before that didn’t go anywhere, and with those, I made very specific [acting] choices with my character. I wound up not being very pliable when it came to direction. I couldn’t go very far with the character and I’d be rather stiff in my acting. With Justified, I decided not to make any choices until I saw them specifically laid out in the script.

“Because of that, in the first season I didn’t do much other than deliver information and do some utility work, so you were left with kind of a bland, nothing character. In-between the first and second seasons, I did a bunch of mental ‘pushups’ and adopted a different type of approach. So with my character, it turned out to be, I feel, a complete do-over when you compare seasons one and two to each other. I’m rather proud of the fact that I had the guts to do that.

“So Tim has become better defined and more specific in terms of his accent, his walk, the way he carries himself, etc. Between the second season and now [season four] I feel I’ve also given him sort of a laconic, deadeye spirit as well as gone for a bit more goofiness, I guess you could say, and made him somewhat closer to who I am as a human being. I’m far more at ease now in playing around with my performance and it feels good,” enthuses Pitts.

As Tim Gutterson has grown as an individual, so have his working relationships with those around him, including Raylan Givens and their boss, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy).

“I’d like to think that there’s a Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid-type of vibe at this point between my character and Raylan,” says Pitts. “It’s probably not as developed as it is with Boyd Crowder [Walter Goggins] and Raylan, but I feel we’ve landed on that between Tim and Raylan. With Tim and Art, in upcoming episodes we’ll see more of a dynamic with them, which isn’t so much between those two as it is between me and Nick Searcy.

“I have to tell you that Tim Olyphant is brilliant. I don’t know how he is able to keep in his head the 50 or so pages of script that we have each week, most of which are his, and then also have [creative] designs on just about every aspect of the scenes when it comes time to film them. I don’t know where he finds the hours in the day, and it’s an example that I don’t think I’m even going to try to aspire to, but I can still admire it.

“As far as Nick Searcy, we’re a couple of silly billies on set and I have a lot of fun working with him. One of my favorite Justified episodes is one that aired just recently. There was a long stretch of material in it that went on for about five or six pages in the script. We shot it as one entire sequence and I had a great time. It was with me, Nick and Ron Eldard, who plays Colt, and I would say it was probably some of the best dialogue that anyone has ever had to work with on a TV show,” praises the actor.

In addition to Justified, Pitts has appeared in a variety of made-for-TV movies as well as other series such as Law & Order, Sex and the City, Ed and Person of Interest. His first professional acting role was on the small screen and to this day remains unforgettable for him.

“I was a guest star on Comedy Central’s Strangers with Candy with Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinillo, who are these great comedy deities from Chicago’s famous Second City improv theatre,” he recalls. “I spent pretty much from the age of 11 to 14 worshipping at the altar of Comedy Central and taping hours of Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall and Monty Python off that network. So to get my first-ever acting gig on Strangers with Candy just felt serendipitous and filled a kind of ‘boy-of-destiny’ ideal in my mind. It was neat, but I was terrified. I spent most of my time trying to avoid looking directly into the camera and trying to get the words out of my mouth. I had a blast, though.”

To moviegoers, the actor is probably best known as Cooper Harris in EuroTrip. His other feature film credits include K-19: The Widowmaker, The Novice, Quid Pro Quo and 21, which won the ShoWest Best Ensemble Award and was inspired by the story of the M.I.T. blackjack team as told in Ben Mezrich’s best-selling book Bringing Down the House.

“They shot 21 in Las Vegas for about a month and we lived in the Aladdin Hotel, which was soon to be the Planet Hollywood casino hotel. You don’t have to go anywhere in Vegas in order to live. They have the shops and anything else you need right inside the hotel, so there was, I think, a good week-and-a-half where I never left the hotel,” says Pitts with a laugh.

“That was a fun time and the movie had a terrific cast. One night a bunch of us went to the Playboy Club, and I wound up sitting down at one of the blackjack tables and across from this bald, cigar-chomping longshoreman-type of guy. At one point he looked over at me and asked, ‘So what do you do?’ I said I was an actor, and then asked what he did. He told me, ‘I make chemical/biological nuclear weapons for the government.’

“We talked for a while and then he got up and excused himself. He left every colored chip imaginable sitting right there on the table with the certainty that no one would take them. I didn’t see him for the rest of the night. For some reason I find that moment pretty emblematic of Vegas.”

In addition to Justified, Pitts can be seen in the upcoming film That Thing with the Cat, which was shot in the Bronx. The actor has also lent his vocal talents to another new project. “A friend of mine, Danny Bland, has written a book called In Case We Die [scheduled for a July 2013 release], and I’ll be heard on the audio version of that along with another friend, Damien Echols, as well as some various rock ‘n’ roll luminaries including Wayne Cramer [co-founder of the Detroit rock group MC5]. It’s a very good book about a guy in the Seattle grunge scene and his recovering in the '90s. It’s sort of like [the 1996 film] Trainspotting only in Seattle, so I’m hoping people will check it out."

Please note, all photos copyright of FX.

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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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