Robin Weigert Talks Becoming Calamity Jane, Dealing With Cancellation and Returning for “Deadwood: The Movie”
After more than a decade away, Deadwood returns in the form of Deadwood: The Movie. The long-awaited conclusion to one of the best television shows of all time picks up with nearly every character from the original series, bringing individual stories to a satisfying conclusion. One of those characters is Calamity Jane, played once again by the estimable Robin Weigert. Weigert spoke to /Film about what it was like to work on the original Deadwood series – which is available to stream in full on HBO Now – and how it felt to slip back into Calamity Jane’s boots after so much time away. Read our Robin Weigert Deadwood interview below.
When you first joined the cast of Deadwood, did you have any inclination that you were about to be apart of something iconic? Something that would be hailed by critics and fans for years to come?
I really hadn’t done much television [at the time], because I came largely from having done only theater prior. I had done a single, very small guest turn on Law and Order. So I didn’t have anything to compare it to, and I just thought, “My God, television is great!” I had no idea that my experience was so incredibly atypical. I knew it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had…it seemed like a great world to get to step into; this world of television. I knew I had been placed into exceptional company. I knew that the man at the helm [David Milch] was a genius, and I knew that every single mind working with him in the writer’s room was really, really, really smart. So we were getting incredible words to say. And I knew that I was with an exceptional cast – that everybody I got to partner with in scenes was humbling, wonderful.
The set also was so incredibly well rendered that it seemed like more of a real place to me than Los Angeles itself. The set for Deadwood felt totally real; so absolutely real, and the smells and textures of the place in the horses. I’m very nostalgic for that first entry point. Because everything was so brand new. It was all virgin territory, you know, including including acting in front of the camera was just all so new.
Many of the characters on Deadwood are based on historical figures. But I think your character is one of the few that many people were aware of long before the show started, since she’s been the subject of movies of her own in the past. I was wondering how you approached this character from a historical perspective. And I was also really curious about how you created her voice for the series, since it’s so distinct.
I found the character several ways, but one of them was just to look at still photographs. And [as I looked at them, I] was trying to find a voice, and clothes, and a way of moving, and everything that made me believe I might be that woman I saw looking back at me from the still photographs. I started there and sort of waited till I could believe myself. So it was about getting an intuitive hit, like, “This is right.”
So I found this voice very early on, like at the beginning of the audition process, but it changed – it mutated over the seasons, and over time. And part of the [reason] it mutated was [because] I started to take on some of [series creator] David Milch‘s physicality, because sometimes when he’d come to set and be inventing, he’d step into the shoes of the different characters he was creating for. So I saw him be Jane a time or two, and twist his body into a pretzel…or the way you use his hands. And I would just kept poaching from that.
As far as research, I talked extensively with an actress who really values research, Jane Alexander, who had played Calamity Jane before [in the 1984 TV movie Calamity Jane]. And I read things – David warned me off of a bunch of books on [Calamity Jane] because he said that a lot of it’s b.s., which it is – because she created a whole mythology around herself at a certain point, so that she could make her way as a celebrity. But Jane [Alexander] had researched very seriously, and was able to compliment the research I was doing with anecdotes about actual people.[Jane Alexander] had had conversations with a guy who was still living [when Calamity Jane was alive], who had been a young enough that he’d met Calamity Jane. He painted and mended fences for her once upon a time when he was a boy. And this gentleman was connecting history across a century and a half. It was great to know that somebody had touched base with her – [someone] that Jane had actually spoken to.
There’s a lot of what moved to me about the way David wrote for Jane in the series, like she’d see herself as a total piece of shit. Other people would see the potential for good in her, and these hidden virtues just kept coming out. So it was quite a character to play, and she got very deep into my heart. It was really hard to let her go the first time, and it was really hard to let her go this time – having just reacquainted myself with her again. I felt such love for this character.
This is a two-parter question. First: were you surprised when Deadwood was cancelled – did you have any inclination that was coming? And second: did you ever think the movie would happen? Or did you sort of give up on the idea after so many years went by without it coming together?
I’ll always remember getting that phone call from David Milch. Every single sign pointed towards health and longevity [of the show]. I had made an investment in a property just before the [cancellation]. So there was also that feeling of like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do in my life?” But I was in Central Park, and I got a call from David, and I was in such profound disbelief that it was cancelled. I could not understand that. And I think like many of us [on the show], I didn’t want to saddle David with how much emotion I was feeling.
To his great credit, he made all those calls himself. He could have outsourced that, but he called us each, and had one-on-one conversation with each of us. I knew that he was calling everybody, and I didn’t want him to have to feel how devastated I was. But I’m not very good at hiding anything. It’s another way in which he shows love and care. It was so that he could personalize that so much for all of us. It was like a sad but loving phone call. And I told him, kind of by way of a joke, “David, oh God, I just bought a place.” And immediately, being David, [he asked] “Do you need me to buy it from you?” “No, you don’t have to buy my New York apartment. It’s okay, I’m going to sort it out.”
You know, he’s a two fisted giver, and he always has been his whole life. Just an amazing, amazing capacity for generosity.[As for the movie], I’m not one of the people who was like, “It’s never, never going to happen.” I honestly did say with so much good faith that something would happen. I didn’t know whether it would be a movie, or two movies, or whether we do six episodes. I didn’t know what format was going to take. But I did have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that we were going to be revisiting these people – and maybe that was just that I was wishing it so much – we’d revisit these people again, and then there was a slow build towards it being a reality.
It wasn’t like there was one day where there was a phone call saying, “Guess what?” It was like, “Maybe it’s going to happen….Oh, it’s looking more likely…Oh, there’s a script…Oh, the script’s really good.” There was a visit with David where he showed me some pages and I was like, “Ah! I love this!” And I remember him letting me have those couple of pages he showed me. There’s a gift in this. There’s something waiting. It’s going to happen. It has to happen.
Then there was the phase where a few of us are signed on to do it, and a few more, and a few more. And then there were a couple who weren’t sure yet. Then there was one who wasn’t sure yet. At that point, my manager was saying it was going to happen. He’s always the most circumspect, [so] that’s when I was like, “Okay, I think I’m free next time I’ve interviewed to say it’s a 95% [certainty it’s going to happen]. It was that sort of slow build towards certainty. It was frustrating how long it took. God knows. But I’m glad we had a chance, just for the sake of reunion, to be together again in that space.
You said you had a hard time letting the character go the first time. Did that make stepping back into the role for the movie easier? What was it like to be Jane again?
I think she and I have had a chance to mature some. So reaching back into that same place where she lives, it was interesting to rediscover her. I did reach back in to see where she was at, and discovered all the same issues, and all the same struggles. But with that determination that happens in middle age where you say a little bit, “It’s now or never” about a lot of things in your life, right? When you’re younger you’re like, “Oh, I wonder if I can do this…I wonder if I can make my life happen the way I to,” and you’re struggling, you’re pushing the ball up hill.
But then when you hit middle age, you’re like, “Wow, it’s really all about the decisions that we make, isn’t it?” And it could go this way or it could go that way. And it’s all kind of about what I do right now. So that’s where the movie finds her at the beginning – just sort of recognizing that now or never feeling. Recognizing where she is. And I think, without any guarantee of a positive outcome, it takes courage to plunge back into old territory, and see what might be waiting for you there.
So that was true for both Jane and me. And what a beautiful experience it was. What we wanted from it all so much was mostly to be able to give [a] gift to David. I think there was a sense of wanting to do what we did as an offering to David. It still feels like a kind of a fever dream, because the intensity we all felt around it was so great.
All three seasons of Deadwood are now streaming on HBO Now. Deadwood: The Movie premieres on HBO May 31.