Erica Tazel Talks Elmore Leonard, Raylan, and Justified 3.05: Thick as Mud, premiering February 14th
Erica N. Tazel plays the important key role of U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks on FX's hit series Justified, and as things heat up in Harlan County here in Season 3, things are getting more interesting and intense for Raylan Givens' (Timothy Olyphant) partner in crime. Due to the color of her skin, Rachel has been tasked with trailing new villain Ellstin Limehouse, a duty instilled in last week's episode The Devil You Know. This week, Rachel finds herself getting into deeper waters with Limehouse as Raylan goes after a team of vicious organ harvesters literally set on tearing poor Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) into a million sellable pieces.
We recently caught up with Erica N. Tazel to chat with her about Thick as Mud, which airs this Tuesday night, February 14th, on FX. This particular episode is noteworthy, because it pulls in some of the best material from Elmore Leonard's recently released novel Raylan.
Here is our conversation.
Episodes 4 and 5 of Season 3 are pushing things in Harlan County to a whole new level of crazy. What was your immediate reaction to reading these scripts?
Erica N. Tazel: I was pretty excited. Anytime Rachel can get out there and get dirty? I am all for it. And the opportunities they give her, to come face to face with these formidable characters, especially Limehouse and Errol? I was pretty excited about that...
How do episodes 4 and 5 really set up the rest of the season? Can you give us a hint as to how this might play out?
Erica N. Tazel: All of these characters are definitely on a collision course. I'd say, definitely put on your seatbelt. They have created a big ol' mess. It's going to be interesting to watch how all of these people, who've been introduced, survive on this battlefield. And how they survive this void that Mags left with her death. We are going to get a little dirty this season, and we are going to have some fun. For sure.
Mykelti Williamson's Ellstin Limehouse immediately grabbed me in his first scene. It's a great introduction to what is turning out to be a very complex and detailed character. What was your immediate reaction to Limehouse? And what was it like to step in front of this man for the first time, to witness what he was doing with his performance?
Erica N. Tazel: I was super excited. The addition of that community to the world of Justified is an added color, no pun intended. I don't think people expected this, or even knew this community existed. I am glad that the writers took that turn. We are fortunate that Mykelti Williamson and Graham Yost have a great work history, and Mykelti Williamson was available. He said, "Heck, yeah, I'll come on board." I was super excited because I have been a fan for years. In fact, the first day I worked with him, which was in last week's episode, Rachel and Raylan go to see Limehouse. There was a point where I looked at Mykelti and I said, "This is your fault." I pointed to this big pimple on my face. I said, "This is your fault, and it's his fault..." Mykelti said, "Why?" I said, "Because I love you guys so much. And last night I was just anxiety ridden and exited. This is what happened. Now we have an extra person in the scene!" (Laughs) "Because you both are so phenomenal." I have said it before, but Mykelti is so amazing! He is such a gentleman. He is filled with integrity. He is a consummate actor, and we are very luck to have him in Justified Season 3.
Are shrimp jokes completely off the table?
Erica N. Tazel: I haven't heard any. And I'm not going to make any. (Laughs) I'm sure he would take it with a grain of salt. I'm sure someone has done it. But I haven't heard any. I haven't participated in that.
I've been a Mykelti fan for years, and you know what? I never realized he was Bubba until my girlfriend pointed it out during the show. I know it sounds stupid, but Bubba was Bubba to me. An actor did not exist on screen in that role.
Erica N. Tazel: That does not sound stupid on your part. It's a testament to the work that he does. As actors, we all hope for those moments where we can transform and really disappear into a role. It's the biggest compliment a person can say about another actor's work. I'm sure he would appreciate that.
How do you see Rachel's relationship with Raylan continuing to grow and build throughout the rest of Season 3?
Erica N. Tazel: This season? I would say...There is a nice camaraderie and an easy banter that they've been able to establish after the initial bump, or hiccup, they experienced in season one. I think the bottom line is mutual respect, and enjoyment, and I like their ability to bring out each other's sense of humor. It's much different for Rachel, because she can get kind of serious about herself. Raylan has the ability to bring her out of that. I think she works really well...She is not so much in her head when they work together. It's a nice evolution that they are discovering. Anytime they give Rachel and Raylan an opportunity to get together, I think that is really good. Its like when you see Rayland and Art, or Raylan and Gutterson. Later on this season, you'll get to see Gutterson and Rachel, which is also nice. You know, it will be more of the same. We have each other's back. Hopefully we'll stay out of trouble.
One of my favorite episodes is from Season One. With the Mexican Dentists. There is some great work there between you and Raylan, but that episode seemed to be the turning point in terms of what the show wanted to be. That sort of marks the last episode where the show goes from being a weekly procedural to having a contained, steady narrative that runs through the entirety of a season. What did you thing as the show morphed in its storytelling platform?
Erica N. Tazel: I'm personally a fan of serialized drama. As an actor, I benefit from the stand-alone episodes. Because we really get an opportunity to see the Marshals at work. From an audience point of view, though, I love this idea of introducing these serialized aspects. With how last week's episode ended, how can you not come back this week? You need to see what's going to happen. I loved the evolution. I found it to be very organic and natural. I think this is what the show wants to be. I think that, creatively, all of the departments are thriving under this continual way of telling this story. I am enjoying it.
In season one, though, I don't think the writers had any idea they would be here, where they are at in season three. In turn, that means you are learning new things about your character every time you open a script. How is that for you as an actor, to be building this character, and learn these things about her past? This is baggage the character obviously has, but you weren't aware of it in Season One. How do you use these new details and stay within the continuity of what you've thus far created?
Erica N. Tazel: In this way of working...And when I say "this way", I mean the medium of television...It gives us an opportunity in our own way to be forensic scientists. We get a script every week, we go in and we excavate for some bones, and then we go in and add that piece to this body of this person we are building from week to week. I think that process informs all departments. It would be great if the writers knew. If they had that luxury of knowing. No one is going to know every part of their character through five seasons, six seasons, even seven seasons...But part of the joy in this ride is that you don't know. Each week you get a piece of information that you didn't have. It serves as a building block. When all is said and done, you will have some beautiful composites of characters, and costumes, and lights, and photos, and props, and all of that...It's a scary way of working. It's an exciting way to work as well.
How open are the writers with you, as an actor, moving on in the future? You mentioned Season 4 to me earlier. Do they have a rough outline where this story is headed. Do they know what's in store for Rachel? Or is it a week-to-week thing? Do you just go with the flow?
Erica N. Tazel: I am not 100% sure what the answer to that is. I think what happens before a season...Before the actors come in...obviously the writers start before we do. I think they start each new season by throwing some ideas out there. They put them on a board, and then they connect the pieces together. What will work. What they are keeping, adding, throwing out. It's a constant adjustment. From there, they get a rough outline of what this season will be. Then things happen. You have a character or actor come in who may have only been planned to be used for just two weeks. They come in, and they have amazing chemistry with another actor. The writers get inspired by that. They write more for that character, or expand that storyline. Everything is rough. It is also very flexible and fluid. We wait to see what the season tells us it wants to be. And the characters tell us where they want to go.
When W. Earl was on the show in season one, he mentions Prince's Hot Chicken. Did the cast and crew know how much of an impact that would have on Prince's business?
Erica N. Tazel: I don't think anybody knew. But I am sure those people are completely grateful. I think we got a letter saying that if we were ever in that part of the country, we should stop by. They would treat us, because they did see an increase in their business. It's nice when things like that happen. We don't expect it too, or intend for it too...But when something great like that happens for a small business, you are like, "Yes!"
We actually lived next door to Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville when that episode ran...
Erica N. Tazel: Oh! What happened? What happened?
To say there business experienced a bump is an understatement. It used to take maybe 30 to 40 minutes to get your chicken. After that, it could take sometimes 90 minutes to get your food. The line was out the door.
Erica N. Tazel: That is fantastic. I have never been there. My first time hearing about it was when he said it on the show. I wondered if it was a real place, or something the writers came up with. I discovered it was real, and then I later heard that they benefited from it.
It's a mom and pop restaurant. It looks like this little run down shake. It's very unassuming, but the chicken is phenomenal.
Erica N. Tazel: That is good, when you find a hole in the wall? That is always the best food. Always.
I completely agree. Always. I love it. Now...Elmore Leonard put out this new book, Rayland...I haven't read it yet, but it looks like this week's episode is based on some of what happens in that story. Is Rachel in the book?
Erica N. Tazel: Yes. I am so pleased with that. Rachel is not an Elmore Leonard creation. She is not in the original short story "Fire in the Hole". We always hear Timothy Olyphant say that is the biggest compliment. That Elmore Leonard is a fan of the show. For me personally, it is the ultimate compliment that he is including Rachel in his new book series. That he is using her, and that she is part of the new book. I think the book is made of three stories. Or three parts. Rachel is in one of these three sections a whole bunch, and we've used some of that material this year. I am completely grateful, and completely humbled that I have a character whom Mr. Elmore Leonard has included in one of his book.
That is so cool. I need to get that book and read it soon. Does Elmore's writing give you a slightly different take on who Rachel is? Is there any new bones to be excavated from these stories?
Erica N. Tazel: Yes! The book came from a conversation that Timothy Olyphant and Elmore Leonard had, where Tim said, "You should write more short stories." He did. It ended up being an entire novel. There is some stuff that we used last year. Because we got some sneak preview stuff from him. And there are some things we are going to see this year. Especially in this upcoming episode. It revolves around the story in the book. It has been a little bit of both this season. He has been completely inspired by the series, and we continue to be inspired by his writing.
What do the cast and crew make of the fact that here, in January, the two best shows on television have to go up against one another? Its kind of a bummer that Southland and Justified are butting heads.
Erica N. Tazel: Yeah. I'm not sure how much it affected the set. We all thought about it, and considered it. Its just one of those things. We are fortunate enough to be in a season right now where there is a lot of great television. There are going to be times when two or three really good shows are on at the same time, on the same day. I don't know how it's affected our numbers or their numbers. But the fans are loyal. Hopefully they will find a way to us.
It's a little crazy. Now, looking at Rachel in the long term, how do you think she's going to change from now going into the season finale? Do you think she will arrive stronger? Weaker?
Erica N. Tazel: I think she is growing stronger. Definitely. We saw some evidence of that in episode two, and even more of that in last week's episode. We'll see some of her growth in this upcoming episode five. What is great is that we're getting back to the woman that was hinted at in the pilot of Justified. That's the luxury of being able to be on the air for some time. We can get back to the basics, and get back to things that were pre-developed and didn't go any further. Or where something else took over. You will definitely see glimpses as the season progresses, of a marshal that was hinted at before. This is a really good Marshal. She might be the best Marshal. We get to see what they are talking about when these things are said.
Will she put Rayland's hat on once again?
Erica N. Tazel: Well, you know, there are possibilities. We'll see what happens (laughs)!