I got the opportunity to do an email interview with actor Jim Beaver who portrays Ellsworth on HBO’s Deadwood. Deadwood has continued HBO’s tradition of putting out uncensored, critically acclaimed dramatic programming. The show received 11 Emmy nominations for its first season, winning two of them. Ian McShane, who portrays Al Swearengen, won a Golden Globe for best male actor in a dramatic TV series. Jim Beaver is a veteran actor having appeared in hit movies such as Magnolia, The Life of David Gale, Adaptation and NBC daytime drama Days of Our Lives from 1996 to 2002. Along the way Beaver has been involved in many other TV shows including The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Murder One, The X-Files and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Matthew Romanada: Hi Jim, thanks a lot for agreeing to the email interview. First off I would like to know how you originally got involved in Deadwood?
Jim Beaver: My involvement with Deadwood started just like any other job, with an audition. The casting directors, Junie Lowry Johnson and Libby Goldstein, have hired me a number of times in the past and knew my work, and my agent was on top of his game in reminding them to think of me. I received an audition scene and knew as soon as I read it that this was as close to the perfect part for me as I’d ever seen. I auditioned for David Milch and for director Walter Hill, with whom I’d worked years ago on a Western called “Geronimo.” The audition went as well as any I’d ever had, and the next thing I knew, I had the part. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that it was a regular role. I thought it was a one-shot deal, for one episode. So when they hired me for the whole series I was astonished — and really, really, really happy.
MR: You previously worked with creator David Milch on Murder One. What was that like? Did your experience with Murder One convince Milch to cast you for Deadwood? How does your experience with Deadwood differ from working on Murder One?
JB: I didn’t have much to do on “Murder One,” and I’m not sure I remember even meeting David while doing that show. I’m really only in a couple of episodes, as I recall. But I had worked for David previously on a really interesting episode of “NYPD Blue,” in an episode with a dream sequence in which I played a truck driver who, it turns out, is Jesus Christ. It was a powerful episode and one that I got a lot of attention for. But again, I was there fairly briefly — I think we shot my scenes in two days, and I did not get to know David in any meaningful way. The truth is, I’m not sure he recognized me at the “Deadwood” audition, which was several years later and a lot of water under the bridge. I think it was my audition and nothing else that got me the part on “Deadwood,” as there really was nothing to connect me in David’s mind with any of those previous projects where our working relationship was exceptionally brief.
MR: When you signed up for Deadwood what, if any, sort of input did you have in creating your character Ellsworth?
JB: I had virtually nothing to do with creating Ellsworth, beyond saying the words as well as I could manage to say them. Oh, I picked out the hat and I asked for the Confederate belt buckle, but like Ivory Soap, Ellsworth is 99 44/100% pure Milch. Now, with that understood, there’s still the fact that David writes in large part by watching his characters and the actors playing them, and he writes to the strengths and idiosyncracies of his performers. I’m sure I would not be the first to say that elements of my personality and my personal experiences have found their way into David’s scripting of my character. In some cases, some very personal things in my life have been reflected either in Ellsworth’s demeanor and attitude or in his actual experiences. Which is fine with me, it simply makes my job easier and more familiar. There have been some small things in Ellsworth’s life that may have derived from suggestions I’ve made, but I try to stay away from that sort of thing. My job is to do my very best with what’s handed to me to say and do, not to shove things off in some direction I’d like them to go. And as long as I don’t get et by the pigs, I’m happy to do whatever David dreams up.
MR: Several of the characters in Deadwood have real-life counterparts. Yours however does not. What sort of research did you do to prepare to play Ellsworth?
JB: The closest thing to research I did was to watch some documentaries on gold prospecting, which were not such a great deal of help, since Ellsworth is rarely seen prospecting. David suggested early on that I take a look at Walter Huston’s character in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and since I am extremely familiar with that film, I knew what he was talking about. I can’t say, though, that any of Huston rubbed off on me consciously, because though there are similiarities, that’s still quite a different character. I’ve done research as an actor on many occasions, but mostly, as I’ve said, my job is to interpret the script as well as possible. On a show like “Deadwood,” I take it for granted that the writer has done HIS research, and most of my work relies on that research rather than my own. I did do a little research into 1870’s dental care a while back, and that ended up in an upcoming episode. But mostly I say the lines written for me and try to make the writer happy he gave them to me and not someone else.
MR: Deadwood sure has lived up to its name as in a season and a half many characters have fallen victim to “accidents.” I hear a lot of times that actors on The Sopranos have no idea when or if their role is going to be killed off until they are handed the script. In the first season your character looked like he was going to be killed by Swearengen because he witnessed the murder of Brom Garret. Did any of the producers/writers tell you before hand what they had in mind for Ellsworth? Were you worried that Ellsworth was going to be fed to the pigs?
JB: EVERYBODY on “Deadwood” is worried their going to end up pig chow. Well, maybe not everybody, but I think the worriers outnumber the non-worriers! As for Ellsworth witnessing Brom’s murder, it seems to me that the fans were more worried about Ellsworth’s future than I was. I had a pretty strong feeling that Ellsworth would be around for a while, because he was too good a character to establish and then bump off. But on a show which kills off its most famous character and one of its most famous actors four episodes into the first season, it’s clear that drama trumps longevity. The little the producers told me about what they had in mind for Ellsworth actually never happened. There was some talk about Ellsworth and Wild Bill Hickok becoming close friends, but I never had a scene with him, so I guess that’s not happening! Everything else has been revealed to me pretty much on a day-to-day basis — though I confess I knew how Ellsworth’s proposal to Alma is going to turn out long before we shot it. Even then, though, I knew that things change without notice on this show, and there are no guarantees.
MR: Along the same vein, Ellsworth has been given a great deal of more prominence this year. Was this something originally planned or did it evolve?
JB: Ellsworth’s increased prominence this year was a pleasant surprise for me. No one told me, “There’s going to be a lot more for you to do this next year,” or anything like that. But it seemed clear from the developing relationship between Ellsworth and Alma at the end of the first season that the two of them would have a great deal of interaction this season. I never had a clue, though, what that interaction would involve, not until it was revealed to me that I would be proposing to her in a few episodes. And I don’t know anything at all about what will happen next season. Ellsworth might fade into the background, or he might become even more prominent. It’s all in the mind of the maestro.
MR: Part of this prominence ties into the possibility of Ellsworth marrying Alma Garret. Just in this past week’s episode you proposed to Alma. I know you can’t give away any future story lines but what was your reaction about the possibility of Ellsworth marrying Alma Garret?
JB: I was delighted when it was revealed to me that Ellsworth would propose to Alma, simply because it meant involvement in a central storyline. It seemed inevitable that some good scenes would come out of the premise, and they certainly have. I do remember talking to David last season about an episode of “Hill Street Blues” that I loved, in which a very unlikely fellow suddenly reveals that he’s always been desperately in love with his beautiful (and unavailable) colleague, and how touching that impossible and one-sided romantic impulse was to watch. Whether that had anything to do with David’s conjuring up the idea of grubby old Ellsworth courting the elegant Alma, I don’t know. But I’m delighted in the turn of events, at least so far as the storyline that has aired. I can’t say what I think about what’s coming, without giving away too much. But just the idea of Gabby Hayes proposing to Dale Evans is pretty delicious. At least from Gabby’s point of view.
MR: Since Ellsworth began to work for Alma Garret he has begun to have a very unique, caring relationship with Sophie, the child under her care. You are a father of a young girl, how did that play into the development of the relationship between Ellsworth and Sophie?
JB: I don’t know that I’d ever consciously thought about the parallels between Ellsworth’s relationship with Sophie and my own situation with my daughter. Ellsworth and I are, obviously, the same in some of our aspects, and the playful nature he has with Sophie is completely in tune with, and probably rooted in, my own attitude toward kids, especially my own. The little peek-a-boo games and sticking our tongues out at each other really grew out of off-camera goofing around when I did my first scene with Bree Wall, who plays Sophie, in the first season. Being on a set and starting a scene with someone you don’t know can be a little intimidating, and I wanted Bree, whom I didn’t really know, to be at ease and to see through the filthy teeth and grubby exterior of Ellsworth into the soul beneath. So I joked around with her and pretty soon we were doing it in the scene, as well. It just grew naturally from there. She’s an adorable girl, so sweet, and she reminds me of a slightly older version of my own little girl, so it doesn’t take much effort for Ellsworth to be caring and happy in her presence.
MR: I am not sure if you know this or not but there is an Air Force Base near Deadwood, South Dakota called Ellsworth. I’ve seen on a few fan message boards speculate that it is named after your character. I found out that it is in fact named after Brigadier General Richard E. Ellsworth, who commanded the Air Force Base in the 1950s.
JB: Sure, NOW the Air Force says Ellsworth AFB is named after some general from the 1950s, but I have it on good authority that it was really named after a Black Hills prospector named Ellsworth who reportedly was a balloon pilot in the Confederate Air Force during the Civil War. They’re just upset because I shot down so many Yankee balloons!
MR: I did however find another famous Ellsworth, Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, who many call the first Union casualty of the Civil War. He became a martyr and his death became a symbol of the Union cause. Are there any plans to connect this Ellsworth with the Ellsworth you portray, possibly as your brother?
JB: I remember reading about this Colonel Ellsworth when I was in high school. But no one connected with the show has ever mentioned him to me, and I’d be surprised if an attempt were made to link us up. And of course, Col. Ellsworth was a Yank, unlike “Deadwood’s” Ellsworth. In real life, though, I have ancestors who were brothers on opposite sides of the War Between the States, so anything’s possible!
MR: Speaking about Ellsworth’s background just this week viewers found out that Ellsworth was married with a child, both of whom died of typhus. Will more background information be revealed regarding Ellsworth?
JB: I can’t say what else we’ll learn about Ellsworth’s past. As with everything else on this show, it’s all in the mind of the magician, and he ain’t tellin’, at least not yet.
MR: I read that during the time after season 1 and before season 2 you and several other cast members traveled to the real Deadwood, South Dakota. What was that experience like? Why did you decide to go there?
JB: I had a wonderful time in Deadwood, South Dakota. The people were incredibly welcoming and generous and friendly, and it was a beautiful natural experience, with physical grandeur all around. At the end of filming the first season, I lost my wife Cecily to cancer. I was pretty much adrift emotionally and wanted very badly to get away, to go somewhere, anywhere. I’d been to all fifty states except for four, and the Dakotas were among those four. So I thought a visit to the real town of Deadwood would cover a lot of bases for me. It would knock a couple of states off my list, it would give me a chance to get away from home at a time when I really needed to get away, and it would give me a chance to see what had happened to our little TV town in the intervening 128 years. I feel like I made some real friends there, and I was treated like a king, so I’m very happy I went. A bunch of us from the show are going there this June, and I’m looking forward to renewing old acquaintances and having more fun.
MR: Jim I want to thank you for your time and I just have one last question. What should the fans of Deadwood look forward to for the rest of season 2?
JB: The rest of season two of “Deadwood” will, I hope, seem both surprising and inevitable, as the best drama does. Like any town in any place in any time, it will be filled with successes and tragedies and horrors and celebrations and, always, fascinating people. For anything more, you’re just going to have to keep watching HBO.
Deadwood is currently midway through its second season. New episodes air Sunday nights at 9PM on HBO in the US or on TMN in Canada. Recently it has been announced that HBO has picked up Deadwood for a third season. The show’s second season finale airs Sunday, May 22.