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Robin Weigert talks about Calamity Jane, ‘Deadwood’ and the ailing David Milch

Robin Weigert talks about Calamity Jane, ‘Deadwood’ and the ailing David Milch
In HBO's original "Deadwood" series, actress Robin Weigert fit the bill for a tough but vulnerable Calamity Jane. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Robin Weigert was a New York theater actress whose only television work was a bit part as a traumatized shooting witness on a “Law & Order” episode when she was called in to read for the pilot of a new HBO Western called “Deadwood.”

Show creator David Milch and director Walter Hill had already searched Los Angeles and Chicago but couldn’t find a fit for the perpetually drunk and tough-but-vulnerable Calamity Jane. “It’s amazing that I booked it at that point in my career, but it speaks to how thoroughly they canvassed when they were casting,” Weigert recalls.

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She was called back for a second New York audition, for which she rented a cowboy costume to help her feel more authentic. Then Milch flew her to Los Angeles for a third meeting, where she brought the chaps, fringed vest and cowboy hat and wore them from her room at the old Century Plaza Hotel to the HBO offices across Avenue of the Stars. (Being a New Yorker, she walked it, of course.)

“That was what I felt I had to do so that no one would see me looking like myself,” she says of the wardrobe change 15 years later. “I thought that would kill it.”

It was at that L.A. audition she finally landed the role of Jane — one of the series’ most compelling characters — which she played with great gusto until the series was somewhat mysteriously dumped after its third season in 2006. Now Weigert is reprising the role in the highly anticipated wrap-up movie premiering Friday on HBO.

Robin Weigert takes a swig, preping herself for an entrance into town.
Robin Weigert takes a swig, preping herself for an entrance into town. (Warrick Page/HBO)

And from the moment the film opens with her riding back into town, muttering about her mule’s bodily functions and the condition of her own saddle-sore behind, it is instantly clear that even if for only one last, glorious hurrah, “Deadwood” — and Jane — are back in form.

The acclaimed series, and the way she delivers its creator Milch's profane, often belligerent and sometimes hilarious dialogue, kick-started a busy TV and film career for Weigert that will see her resume her recurring role as Dr. Amanda Reisman on the second season of HBO's “Big Little Lies” beginning June 9. She’s also landed a part in Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes movie, “Fair and Balanced,” scheduled for release around Christmas.

In her spare time, she’s been commuting between the rented West Hollywood duplex she calls home and the New York condo she bought days before news of “Deadwood’s” cancellation to direct her first film, a short, that she’s hoping to complete before an Aug. 1 festival deadline. The film, whose story she helped shape with a partner, includes a character suffering from dementia, about which she’s been thinking a lot lately, especially since Milch’s announcement that he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013 and that the disease had progressed more recently.

That news was a “gut punch” to the entire “Deadwood” cast and crew, Weigert says, though she adds that Milch was his brilliant self when he was on set and helped the actors deepen their understanding of their characters in the 10 years that had supposedly passed between series and film by writing or quoting poetry that pertained to each role. These musings were compiled into a collection and distributed to the cast. It’s a document Weigert treasures.

A former writing professor at Yale, Milch was mentored there by poet, novelist and literary critic Robert Penn Warren and later by Steven Bochco in Hollywood. (Milch declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Despite Weigert’s success, which includes an Emmy nomination in “Deadwood’s” first year — even before the show’s popularity began to snowball with audiences and it landed on several critics’ all-time-best lists — she still shakes her head in disbelief over the fateful turn of her career.

“In my mind, L.A. was built up as the land of the beautiful people,” says Weigert, a striking figure herself as she approaches her 50th birthday. “I thought I was going to have a career in the theater and that would be lovely. I certainly never planned to go to L.A. So it really did change my life in every possible way.”

The shift was especially jarring when she shot her first scenes at the show’s Melody Ranch location in Newhall. “They had to sandbag me to get me to hit my marks like you would for a horse,” she says. “Keith Carradine (who played Buffalo Bill Cody in the series’ first season) would open me to the camera with his hands on the base of my spine because I instinctively would turn away. I just didn’t get it.

“I was tipping the Teamsters, you know, the way I would tip people in a play, and they were insulted by it. They would use the $20 to buy me flowers and come back and say, ‘Never tip again.’ Those are the kind of mistakes you make when you come straight out of the theater and you’re an idiot.”

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The daughter of a concert pianist mother and German-born psychoanalyst father, Weigart is just as comfortable tossing around references to poetry, philosophy and acting technique as she is discussing the finer points of cracking a bullwhip or winning poker strategies, which she employs at her regular no-limit Texas hold ’em games (W. Earl Brown, who costars on “Deadwood” as Dan Dority, also participates).

“When Robin’s working as Jane, she sort of completely immerses herself,” says Daniel Minahan, who directed the upcoming movie as well as several episodes of the series. “We’ll shoot something, and she walks away almost immediately after the take and kind of walks it off, and then she comes back and wants to talk about it.”

Robin Weigert, left, and Kim Dickens in a scene from HBO's "Deadwood: The Movie."
Robin Weigert, left, and Kim Dickens in a scene from HBO's "Deadwood: The Movie." (Warrick Page/HBO)

Costar Kim Dickens, whose Joanie Stubbs character becomes a romantic interest for Jane that is further explored in the movie, says Weigert is, “really a visionary as far as building a character. A true professional — sensitive and respectful. For any insecurities or shyness that she has, she jumps right in. That’s what we all had to do on “Deadwood” was just lift up your skirts and jump each day. She is nothing but game.”

Well, except for one thing. In keeping with the custom of the times, the women of “Deadwood” were expected to let their underarm hair grow out — a practice that Weigert, despite playing the scruffiest character in the production, just could not abide. These details mattered in the show’s nude scenes, which eventually caught up with her when Jane is shown ridding herself of what seems like years of grime in a third-season sponge bath scene.

“I didn’t like the sort of caged-in smell of having underarm hair,” she says, “and I thought I could get away with it, but no, I had to use an underarm merkin, I guess you’d call it.”

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