ESQUIRE – The Lethal Weapon star talks about creating a new version of the character on the TV reboot.
If Clayne Crawford is known to television audiences at all its for his work on Rectify, the bet-you-can’t-watch-just-one SundanceTV family drama where tensions are slowly popping up from below the surface like a just-baked apple pie. There, he plays Teddy, an honors graduate from the Pete Campbell School for Irritating Douchbags who is not as over the moon as other family members that his stepbrother Daniel (Aden Young) has been released from Death Row.
This all might change for Crawford, as he is now starring in Fox’s televised reboot of Lethal Weapon. Premiering September 21, Crawford plays Martin Riggs, the reckless and brilliant cop with an actual death wish who was made famous by Mel Gibson in the 1987 action movie. (Damon Wayans Sr. plays the Danny Glover part).
In real life, Crawford is much the old-school Southern gentleman who lives with his family on a farm in Alabama. He was late for his phone interview with Esquire because he was talking to his grandfather. “The VA just gave him new hearing aids,” he apologized. “He was extremely excited that he could hear me and we could have a conversation. Wrapping that up was not an option.”
He also talked about the end of Rectify, which begins its final season on October 26, and the requirements for his new show (read: fame, car chases, and nude scenes).
Lethal Weapon’s Riggs is very different part from Rectify’s Teddy. What interested you in it?
In fairness, I wasn’t interested in doing a show like this. The idea of network television—you know, coming from Rectify and [creator] Ray McKinnon and SundanceTV and the magic they do there—I was fearful of the restrictions. I was certainly fearful of taking on a role that Mr. Gibson certainly did not leave very much meat on the bone for another actor.
It’s kind of like playing in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s kind of a challenge. You have to forget everything you know about this guy. It wasn’t something I wanted to take on and I kind of had to run from it. In fairness, I said no without reading the script. I just couldn’t match what [movie writer] Shane Black did and match Gibson and Glover. But when I read what they wrote, I was excited and I’d never had the opportunity to do comedy in any form. I always played quite heavy characters. I thought what a great opportunity to bring everything I’ve been training for with heavy drama into this role. It’s the training that I’ve had, but I can also show other sides of me.
And Damon Wayans, Sr. is incredible. It’s difficult to turn down an opportunity to work with such an iconic … not only comedian, but actor as well. I think what he and his brothers did in the ’90s is just incredible.
It’s interesting that you call it a comedy. Your character is a suicidal cop.
I said comedy because, like all great comedians, Riggs is the kind of guy who is so broken and so sad that everything he does is a façade and a show. You have to laugh at him for crying. Riggs is so out there and so big. But what I’m trying to create is only the audience sees the sad side of Riggs. Everyone in his world only sees this crazy goofball. He’s not crazy. He’s just broken and he just doesn’t care anymore.
Was it interesting to play someone you actually want to root for after playing Rectify’s Teddy?
The thing is, I loved Teddy. I saw Teddy as the poor guy who never had a chance. His mom ran off and his dad didn’t know how to communicate … Teddy’s just been always been left out. I saw Teddy as this poor guy who always just needed a hug. He’s a lot like Riggs; he’s just a broken guy who didn’t know who he was. I love Teddy. He’s a little shitface, but I love him.
Are you prepared for leaving the anonymity that Rectify and your other projects gave you?
Of course. I’m still terrified. I have a breakdown once a week. I’ve lived my life for 20 years and no one has a clue who I am. I took a path to do more indies and only focus on the work, and it’s been beautiful. I have my family and my farm. I could go to the grocery store and no one cared. My family didn’t care because I was doing stuff they didn’t want to watch like Rectify.
I’ll say this, I’m glad I’m at the age I am, and I’m glad I have the support of my wife and my children to take on this role. I could not have done this 10 years ago.
Wait. Your own family didn’t watch your other TV show?
My mom and dad are into it, but c’mon? My uncles and my grandparents? They’re just like, it’s way too weird and really slow. They say they fall asleep watching it. They would prefer if I just did NCIS for the rest of my career.
You changed your look for Lethal Weapon, too, and you now have shaggy hair and facial scruff. Was that homage to Mel Gibson’s ’80s hair from the first movie?
I just saw [Riggs] more from the military side, which is why I wanted to do the mustache. And the hair just kind of happened with where I was at that time, and when I read the material, it just seemed to fit.
This show has so much going on. In one scene, it’s a car chase. In another, you’re sobbing in a trailer by yourself. How do you stay in character for all of these different scenes?
It’s a creative muscle that I’ve been working for a long time. I’ve never gone without acting, whether it’s in my buddy’s film or on stage or it’s in my backyard or going and doing a recurring role. I’ve been that guy, and I’ve caught a lot of flak for it. I think I’ve been labeled “actor for hire.”
But I just wanted to feed my soul and the only way to scratch that itch is just act, act, act. I’ve always wanted to know all aspects. My family’s always said if you want to run a business, you have to truly start from the ground up. I just need to understand all of that that I’m truly never stumped.
I don’t know if that answers your question, but I’ve just been doing it for so long that I trust my mechanism and I trust where I’m at. And I have faith with the people behind the camera because if something feels right, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s playing right. I have to leave my ego at home and be willing to take chances and screw up and possibly look like an idiot, but know that if I continue to do that the right thing will land.
There have been so many iterations of buddy cops since TV has pretty much been around. Did this one feel more right to you than others?
I don’t want to judge other projects, but for me I think goes to where Clayne Crawford was as a human being when I read the material and where Damon Wayans was a human being when he read the material, and what he went through with his medical history. Both of us coming into this, we knew we had something and we knew it when we met each other at breakfast that first morning with [creator] Matt Miller and [director] McG.
We sat down and we said, “Are we going to redefine the buddy cop? Are we going to make people forget what Mel and those guys did?” I doubt it. But I think we did something that’s genuine, and we’re not trying to play to comedy. I think we let the comedy come from these obscure situations, and we just try to live honestly as much as possible.
Are you worried about the comparisons to Mel Gibson?
Of course. I’m such a fan and you almost feel guilty doing this. And I had a massive breakdown again today. I feel like it should have been put in a time capsule and left alone. And I certainly don’t understand why they wanted me to do it. But that’s what gets me through the day.
Mel Gibson could care less about who I am or what we’re doing, but I hope I make him proud. If he could watch this and say right on, that would be the ultimate goal.
At least you don’t have to worry about the nude scenes like he did.
Look, they’ve got me naked a couple of times. But you won’t be able to see my ass on camera. They’ve already written that stuff in. They are trying to pay as much homage to the original as possible.