Walton Goggins is best-known for his roles as a career criminal on “Justified,” based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a detective in the crime drama “The Shield,” so it might seem a little out of place to see him in the comedy “The Unicorn,” which premieres Thursday on CBS.
Not for Goggins, a Birmingham native.
“I think ‘The Shield’ was one of the funniest shows on TV,” he says from Los Angeles. “It was really serious, but it was pretty funny. Same with Elmore Leonard. He’s a very funny guy. Everything I’ve done has walked the line between drama and comedy.”
The same could be said for “The Unicorn,” about a recently widowed father of two re-entering the dating scene. Much to his surprise, he becomes a sought-after single because he is a “unicorn,” an attractive working father in the dating world.
“We set out to tell something that is absurd and really funny and really heartfelt and earnest,” Goggins says. “That’s what I wanted more than anything.”
Goggins’ parents moved the family to Atlanta when he was only 1, but he spent a lot of time in Birmingham, visiting his aunt and uncle, who were active in Birmingham theater.
“I remember watching them on stage when I was 6 years old,” he recalls. “The room would go dark, and I saw my aunt and uncle walk on to the stage not as my aunt and uncle but as other people … As soon as they started speaking, I was just so taken with it. … I was just blown away by it, profoundly impacted by that experience. … That’s really where I got the bug. That’s where I was bitten or smitten with the possibility of telling stories.”
He got his first paying acting job in Georgia at age 16 (the movie “Murder in Mississippi”) and attended Georgia State University for a year before moving to Los Angeles.
“I got my first job a week after being there,” he said. That was a role in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” where he was cut from the movie but made the DVD.
Some struggling and smaller roles followed, until he landed “The Apostle” when he was 24, sharing the screen with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall. “That really changed my life,” says Goggins, who later would produce and star in the Oscar-winning short film “The Accountant.”
What followed were his roles in “The Shield,” movies like “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” “Sons of Anarchy” and his Emmy-nominated turn as Boyd Crowder in “Justified.” “The Unicorn” came his way after he starred in the movie “The Hateful Eight” and the series “Vice Principals,” “Six” and “The Righteous Gemstones.”
In “The Unicorn,” Goggins is Wade Felton, who is trying to move on after losing his wife a year before. He’s raising two daughters on this own, reluctantly enters the dating world (via a dating app) and, to his and others’ surprise, finds he’s a hot commodity.
This is not entirely unfamiliar turf to Goggins.
“I am a widower,” he says. “I can’t talk about the actual events surrounding this very traumatic period in my life, but suffice it to say this story is very personal to me and I’ve been there. … I understand what it means to learn how to live again. I went through that fire, and I couldn’t have done it alone.”
He’s hoping others can do the same by watching “The Unicorn.”
“I hope we can really get this right, for people who have struggled, which is all of us – we’ve all experienced things in life that are difficult,” Goggins says. “But there is life on the other side of it. … This is a way to come together and laugh at the absurdity of everything we all go through when we’re faced with a difficult period in our life.”
Goggins remarried about 14 years ago, and he and his wife have one son, 8-year-old Augustus.
“It’s a full-time job being a real dad and pretending to be a dad to two other daughters,” he says with a laugh. Wade’s two adolescent daughters on “The Unicorn” are rooting him on in his quest toward happiness.
“What you’ll see very quickly is that this is a show about moving on, about community, living in the society in which we live in now,” Goggins adds. “An episode can take place over a month or over two yours. This is not a show about dating. It’s a show about learning how to live again.”
“The Unicorn” airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.