‘Justified’ Villain Backs The Winning Side

'He's a bit of a wiseass, and he thinks he's above them all,' Neal McDonough tells MTV News about playing the bleach-blond big bad on the show.
By Josh Wigler

Neal McDonough on "Justified"
Photo: FX

"Justified" lawman Raylan Givens has faced no shortage of memorable nemeses in his days as a Lexington, Kentucky-based U.S. marshal: hoodlums with "four kidneys," an "apple pie"-brewing and weed-slinging mama crime boss, not to mention the born again and born again and born again Boyd Crowder.

But Robert Quarles? In a sea of backwoods Kentucky killers and thieves, this bleach-blond mobster may very well take the cake.

Television veteran and "Captain America" actor Neal McDonough has graced the FX drama "Justified" with his formidable presence for the show's currently airing third season, and viewers are better off for it — even if deputy Givens, the modern-day cowboy played by lead actor and producer Timothy Olyphant, is ruing the day that McDonough's Quarles first set foot in Harlan County.

"It's like two great chess players in the same room," McDonough told MTV News about this season's ongoing battle between Quarles and Givens. "We both learn about each other. We've done our background checks on each other. So we both know we're worthy opponents — but when we get in front of each other, it's pretty awesome, because we're on the opposite sides of the spectrum, but there's a respect level for what each of us does. We're both really good at what we do. But there's also that ultimate disrespect from both of us: 'Don't think you're going to beat me. I'll let you dance with me for a while, but I'm going to crush you.' "

Quarles has already dished out some crushing blows. In just eight episodes, the Detroit mobster has dropped by Raylan's home unannounced, executed the deputy's ex-wife's ex-husband (it's complicated), framed Raylan for the murder and set him up as a dirty cop. None of that mentions Quarles' other atrocities, such as fatally shooting a businessman and his secretary mainly to prove a point, as well as brutally torturing a prisoner while simultaneously fielding a phone call from his very young son. What kind of monster can commit such crimes, you ask? According to McDonough, a very funny one.

"He has a bit of a sense of humor," said McDonough, who has played other villains with significantly fewer wisecracks to their names, including those in "Walking Tall" and "Street Fighter." "This one, Quarles, his tongue is firmly in cheek in a lot of scenes. He's a bit of a wiseass, and he thinks he's above them all. To play that, and then have him unravel, trying to keep that veneer up, is what makes it really fun for me to play."

Indeed, the walls are closing in on Quarles. Raylan Givens is not his only obstacle: Quarles is now completely cut off from the Detroit crime syndicate he once worked for, and is starting to abuse the illicit pain pills he's been pushing in Harlan County.

"He's a lot like me in a lot of ways: a businessman, but family first," McDonough said of his character. "But Quarles gets addicted not just to the rush of power, but worse, to OxyContin. We all know how bad that gets when you're hooked on junk like that."

Just how bad will Quarles' addiction get? The actor teased, "The only thing I've asked of ['Justified' executive producer and show-runner] Graham Yost is that by episode 10 or 11, I'd like to be naked and hopped up on my own stuff. He goes, 'Already thought of that, trust me!' "

"Justified" marks the third collaboration between McDonough and Yost, having previously worked together on "Boomtown" and "Band of Brothers." In fact, Quarles was written specifically with McDonough in mind, said the actor, who added that he would happily work with Yost on any project, anytime, anywhere.

"If Graham Yost called me and said, 'I have a three-minute infomercial to shoot in Bulgaria, are you in?' I'd say, 'Yes, what time is the flight?' " he said. "Graham tells me what to do and I do it. He gives me the juiciest stuff I can imagine as an actor."

The juicy stuff isn't always cruel and unusual, either. McDonough teased an upcoming scene that shows a "beautifully altruistic" side of Quarles that he described as one of his top moments of the season.

"There's one scene in particular where a young boy comes into my trailer threatening to kill me," said McDonough. "How I disarm him, not just physically but emotionally ... it was maybe my favorite scene of the year. It's just simple, emotional, truthful acting. Graham lobbed it in the air for me and I hit it out of the ballyard for him."

In short, to say that Quarles is an astounding addition to the "Justified" rogues' gallery would be a tremendous understatement — and given where the character is headed in the back half of season three, it appears that we haven't seen anything yet.

"The first half of the season was great," McDonough said. "But the second half ... the second half is money. It's fantastic for me as an actor."

Freshly renewed for a fourth season, "Justified" airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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