'Justified': Michael Rapaport on playing the new Big Bad (and that time he saw a gator at Michael Jackson's house)

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Image Credit: Guy D'Alama/FX

Justified fans have plenty of reasons to look forward to season 5 (which begins Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. ET on FX). Top on the list: Fan favorite Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) is back and we’ll be meeting his Florida swamp cousins — led by Darryl Crowe Jr. (Michael Rapaport), this year’s Big Bad. “It’s that sense that they’re carrion birds,” executive producer Graham Yost says. “They come in, they’re invasive, they’re hard to get rid of. We meet essentially all of them in the first episode, then they start coming up to Kentucky and settle on the wire one at a time. You just know that it’s bad news.”

Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), who we’ll learn has put Darryl away before, is called to Florida in the premiere to help locate and vanquish the Crowes’ latest moneymaker. Darryl’s next move after hearing his cousin Dewey has come into money? Harlan, where he’ll learn Dewey is now the proud owner of Audrey’s, having bought it from Boyd (Walton Goggins).

Rapaport was offered the role of the smart gator farmer/hustler contingent on him being able to do a Southern accent. He sent producers a clip of a tiny indie film he’d done (2004′s America Brown) and a fresh voice memo he’d recorded on his phone of a made-up monologue. He worked with a dialect coach and channeled his deep reality TV addiction: “Reality shows are a good resource for actors because there’s a lot of great accents,” explains the fan of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop New York, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and Shahs of Sunset. “Now I have an excuse: Moonshiners, those guys got thick, thick accents, so much that they sometimes have subtitles, and then there’s another one with snakes [National Geographic Channel's Snake Salvation].”

He warms that Southern drawl up in his trailer every morning to Johnny Paycheck’s “Colorado Kool-Aid.” “For the first time in my life, I have started to listen to and appreciate country music for the accent and the cadence and the pace of talk,” he says. “I’m from New York, you know what I mean? So the accent is something I really warm up to. My kids and my girlfriend, they’ve had enough of it already because I do it around the house — particularly my girlfriend gets kinda freaked out by it and all the things I say. It’s important for me because it’s so far from the way I speak normally.”

He’s cut his “East Side of Manhattan Jewfro” the shortest it’s ever been, is wearing shirts with cutoff sleeves for the first time in his adult life, rocks a gold tooth, has asked that Darryl never be totally clean (“He’s just a dusty dude”), and found himself filming with live gators in the season premiere. “The only time I ever saw an alligator up-close,” he says, “was when I wound up with Jay-Z at some tour of Michael Jackson’s house years ago. He had an alligator there, so I saw one, and I was like, holy s–t! You could hear the alligator and everything. But to be at the swamps in Miami and see them creeping up during the middle of scenes was pretty impressive. I remember I was doing one scene with Tim and an alligator just made its way like he was watching us, like he was a fan of the show or something. To see that up close, being from New York City your whole life, was kind of startling. But it made for a good shot.”

As a fan of Justified, Rapaport was looking forward to playing an Elmore Leonard bad guy in the world the writers, Olyphant and Goggins have established so well. “I’m a fan of Tim’s and I’m a fan of Walt’s, so I knew going into it that I wanted to bring it to them and bring something special,” he says. He sees a sort of yin and yang in himself and Olyphant:  “We’re very different in our physical dispositions. Tim Olyphant has just got a real ease and a swagger about him when he plays the part. Like, I think he’d be like one of those swimmers that just does slow laps. Darryl is definitely a little bit more uptight and wound up.”

When we spoke with Rapaport in late November, he’d filmed one big scene with Goggins’ Boyd and was anticipating more. “I feel like Walt’s that classic American Southern actor — not that he just plays Southern characters, but that’s something that he does very, very well. So I was excited to work with him, especially in this genre,” Rapaport says. “Boyd’s the resident badass, and Darryl Crowe doesn’t move or budge for anybody, so we had a big run-in, and we really clicked well together. I felt like it was a great tennis match between Darryl and Boyd.”

Let the games begin.

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To read more about Justified and 67 other new and returning shows, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now. Keep looking for more Justified scoop here on Inside TV leading up to the Jan. 7 season premiere.

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