Walton Goggins is best known for playing dangerous and/or disarming characters on series like The Shield, Vice Principals, and The Righteous Gemstones, and in films like The Hateful Eight. But as audiences learned when The Unicorn premiered on CBS in 2019, the Justified alum is just as at home in the cozier confines of a broadcast comedy. The charming sitcom, from co-creators Bill Martin, Mike Schiff, and Grady Cooper, follows a widower, Wade Felton (Goggins), as he raises two teen daughters (played by Ruby Jay and Makenzie Moss) and rebuilds his life with the help of his friends (played by Rob Corddry, Maya Lynne Robinson, Michaela Watkins, and Omar Miller).
The Unicorn’s premise hits close to home for Goggins, who was himself a widower, and for Cooper, who also had a couple of teens to take care of after the death of his wife. That storyline certainly drew Goggins to the series, which just premiered its second season on November 12, but as the actor tells The A.V. Club, The Unicorn has a lot to offer a variety of viewers, not just those recovering from tragic loss. Even Justified fans were on alert after the season-one finale reunited Goggins with Natalie Zea. The A.V. Club spoke to Goggins about working with Zea again, filming in the middle of a pandemic, and how The Unicorn offers catharsis and comfort through its comedy.
The A.V. Club: You started filming season two back in October, seven months after the shutdowns started. What’s it like to work on the show now?
Walton Goggins: Initially, it felt like there was so much to kind of overcome. But CBS and all of the studios, both big and small, had done such a good job taking into consideration people’s safety, and the protocols that they put in place are extraordinary. The one thing that was so jarring at first is, you know, you’ve got a mask on and the shield in front of your face. And I can’t read with my glasses off, so I had to figure out a way to get my glasses on and off. I’m not savvy enough to have bifocals, so I’m taking them on and off, and I have nowhere to put them. I got to get them over the shield, and it’s very complicated. [Laughs.] Our job is predicated on looking another person in the eyes and communicating to them, with and without words. When we started doing rehearsals with all of this stuff on, I thought, “Oh man, how’s this going to work? I don’t know how this is going to work.” As soon as that mask came off the first take, and it was just us, and there were two people looking into each other’s eyes, saying these lines, experiencing these emotions. It all just–I almost started crying because it made me feel so human. It was beautiful. And we’re back, and that’s it. It’s the new normal. You just adjust like everyone else.
AVC: Lately, there’s a lot of talk of the “perfect show for these times,” with a lot of people being drawn to comedies for comfort. Where does The Unicorn, which has a very lovely little community at the center of it, fit in that discussion?
WG: When we set out to do this a year and a half ago, it was this subject matter that attracted me. This is a story about a guy who loses his wife to cancer, and he has two daughters, and he has to learn how to live again. His group of friends come around to help him do that. It was very, very, very funny, but also infinitely relatable because when we are earnest and when we come from the heart, it lands in a real place. I felt then, and even more so now, that if we get this right, and we don’t shy away from what Wade is going through—because it’s happened to me. It’s happened to six friends of mine. It’s happened to all of us on some level. Whether you’re losing a job or you’ve lost a pet, we all experience loss. That is what we all have in common. And if we can get that right, and come from our hearts, and be unapologetically earnest in this endeavor, then we could do some real good in the world. Over the course of the last year, I’ve had countless people stop me on the street and just break down crying. I’m just holding them saying, “Hey, man, tell me about it. Tell me what’s going on in your life.” And it’s been cathartic. It’s been extraordinary.
But it just so happens that now, in our second season, we’re coming into a changed world, and we’re all experiencing it, like every single day on whatever level we’re experiencing it. To have a place to go to where you can see your own struggles reflected in your entertainment and you can laugh for a moment at your situation. God, we all need that, man. We all need it. And I think for all of us at any 24-hour period, you will definitely experience anxiety and fear and sadness. But in the same 24-hour period, you will experience a great amount of joy and laughter and comedy, because life is absurd. And that’s the fine line that we’re trying to walk on The Unicorn. We’re not forcing it. It’s just, that’s just built into the DNA of this show. That’s the nature of the guy’s life that the story is predicated on, Grady Cooper, and life in general.
AVC: Sitcoms rely on a certain degree of stability—the characters can’t change too much or too quickly. But we’ve already seen so much growth for the characters on The Unicorn, including Wade. That feels built into the show.
WG: You know, it’s funny that you use the word “sitcom,” because that is a conventional way of kind of describing this format, and we are on CBS. Out of the gate, CBS said, “We want what you’re selling. We want to tell this story,” to both our showrunners, Mike [Schiff] and Bill [Martin]. “We want to tell this story, and we want to tell it organically.” I think the thing that we had to overcome was that people thought the show was about dating. It was never, ever a show about dating. It was about learning how to live again. Over the course of this first season, what we had to do for [Wade] and his friends and his daughters is really understand how deeply affected they were by the loss of his wife, Jill. It was very important to me, and the writers agreed, that at the end of season one, he had to be back where he started, at Jill’s grave site. From the outside, it seems maudlin. You would think, “Oh, my god, it was a sad thing.” But it’s not. It’s the inverse of that, because what he’s saying to her is, “I just wanted to check in with you and let you know that I’m doing okay. And our daughters are doing okay. And our friends are batshit crazy, but they’re doing okay too. And I haven’t found anyone, and you know what, maybe I’ll never find anyone, but that’s okay. I found you, and maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all I’m ever supposed to have, but god, what a thing I had. And I just wanted you to know that.”
And that’s beautiful, right? Then you move into the second season, and the way that life happens is that once you reach a place of contentment, inevitably an another door will open and there will be a new opportunity for growth. What’s built into the show is evolving—the stages of grief and the stages of life and living it. I guess you could say that we’re a sitcom, but I don’t even think that they’ve ever written a joke. There’s never been a punchline. It’s just about behavior and situation, because we don’t write punchlines in our own lives, yet our lives are absurd and extremely comical because of the situations we find ourselves in. You can’t do anything but laugh in the face of struggle. That’s kind of what our story has always been about. That’s what I’m most proud of, that it’s its own thing. CBS has really supported it in being its own thing.
AVC: I think we use “sitcom” as a kind of shorthand, but you’re right that The Unicorn is unique. It can’t really be classified. In a lot of ways, it’s a hangout show. Wade has this great extended network, with Delia, Forrest, Ben, and Michelle, and all their kids. Some of the best moments are when they’re all just hanging out and shooting the breeze.
WG: The thing is, so much of the story in the premiere is introduction of this significant person [Natalie Zea as Shannon] into Wade’s life, and his daughters’ and friends’ lives. He’s introduced into her life, too. But just when you think everything is rosy, it’s not because it’s complicated. [Shannon’s] life is more complicated than Wade expected. And it’s like, how do you respond to that? It’s what we all go through. You take on a job, it seems like it’s going to be one way, but there’s so much more going on. And we have to really think and look at ourselves. But we do a lot of hanging out this year! There was a whole lot of hanging out and a whole lot of talking. It’s wonderful. I’m so excited for people to see it.
AVC: The show is really thematically rich: It’s a story about grief, and as you mentioned, learning to live again. It’s not quite about dating, but there’s some meta-commentary about rom-com shows. In the premiere, Michelle and Delia have very different views on Wade’s search for Shannon, whose name he doesn’t know at first. Michelle thinks, “It’s kind of like a rom-com,” and Delia says, “It’s more like a stalker movie.” There’s this sly little commentary on rom-coms and dramas, because depending on your own tolerance for those kinds of things, those big gestures can be very sweet or off-putting.
WG: What an astute observation. Wow. Thank you for saying that. There’s so much to take away from it. A friend of mine called me the other day. He’s in our business. I won’t say his name, but he’s one of my best friends. He’s going through some stuff in his life right now, and he said, “I watched the first episode of The Unicorn, and then four hours later, I’m 18 episodes in, and I’m done. I love Wade Felton, and I want to tell you that it brought me a lot of comfort and joy.” He said, “You know this thing I love about this story?” I said, “What?” because I’m really curious to hear what his thoughts were. And he said, “I loved that the morality of this story feels like, for every single person, it’s happening in the moment, that the lesson is stumbled upon. That it doesn’t set out to tell the story. You’re not standing on a soapbox. It’s all happening organically and in real time for these people.”
I don’t know how these things work out. I think with The Shield, Shawn Ryan had no idea what that was going to be. He just wrote a pilot. Elmore Leonard wrote Justified with Graham [Yost], and he had no idea. Boyd Crowder wasn’t even in his world. But sometimes you change based on the people that are saying the words and the situations that you come up with. That type of storytelling just kind of evolves. I heard what my friend said, and I said, “You know, you’re right. I didn’t think about it like that before.” Wade is discovering this new world and how he kind of feels about it, and wrestling with the way things used to be, and the way things are now and as is everyone.
AVC: I know we can’t really talk about what’s ahead for Shannon and Wade, but what was it like working with Natalie Zea again?
WG: It’s been great, it’s been—I already knew almost everybody in this cast, with the exception of Maya Lynne Robinson. Omar [Miller] and I worked together almost 15 years ago for Spike Lee. We did a movie together. Rob [Corddry]’s been a friend of mine for 13 years. I didn’t know Michaela [Watkins], but we’ve got 20 friends in common, and I begged her to do this show. I begged them all to do this show. The same thing happened when this role came up, and Mike and Bill, we all kind of threw out the name “Natalie Zea.” I said, “Oh, my god, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” I love her, first and foremost, and I respect her. She’s one of the best actors I know. And I just called her, and I said, “All right, Nat, this is the deal. You know, this is what it’s going to be. And we’re going to explore this in a very real, organic way.” And she said, “Walton, stop. If you’re doing it, I’m in.” And it’s just the thing that you want to always hear as a friend, that your friend is willing to come and play with you. That history goes back a long way. And it’s like sitting with an old friend every single time we do a scene. It’s awesome.
AVC: I know The Unicorn isn’t a romantic comedy, but Wade definitely falls into the hot dad trend that’s come up in pop culture over the years: You’ve got John Cho in Searching, Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade, John Corbett in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. How does it feel to be a part of that group?
WG: Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t know I was trending in the hot dad category! This is news to me. And wow, I just feel like I should make an acceptance speech. [Laughs.] Wow, that’s pretty cool. I had no idea. I’ll take any trending in any way, regardless of what category.
New episodes of The Unicorn air Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBS.