A lengthy and perhaps surprising recurring role on one enduring series and a freshman season in the books with another, Jesse Luken’s future is growing ever brighter. Luken has recently wrapped shooting on Season 5 of the southern drama ‘Justified,’ a cop and robbers western where a lot of criminals come and go (read: die), and yet somehow Luken’s Jimmy Tolan has survived in the three seasons he’s been on.
In December, Luken also finished filming the inaugural season of CW’s fantasy drama ‘Star-Crossed,’ and while his character wasn’t in any danger on screen, there were certainly many temptations off screen in shooting in New Orleans.
Luken spoke on the phone from Los Angeles about working on these two very different shows, shedding some light on the world of ‘Justified,’ how maybe his linguistic skills kept his character alive, and what’s to come for the steely Eric on ‘Star-Crossed.’
TVRage: You just finished shooting Season 5 of ‘Justified,’ and at least from what we’ve seen, Jimmy is alive. How do you think he has survived this long?
Jesse Luken: There were two guys introduced at the same time (Season 3 premiere), Jimmy and Rip, and Rip didn’t make it past [Episode 6]. I don’t know if I won a coin flip.
Jimmy has done well in choosing the right side. When Johnny and Boyd (Walton Goggins) have their little spat, Johnny tried to get Jimmy and Jimmy wanted to stay with Boyd, and he picked with the right team.
TVRage: Looking back the all bad guys and associates, pretty much all of them have died at some point. Is it fair to say he flies under the radar?
JL: Yeah, I think he does. I think he trusts Boyd completely, and whatever Boyd says to do, he will do. Other characters maybe get a complex when they work for Boyd. They feel like they can branch out on their own and they fly too close to the sun and they end up getting burned. I think Jimmy has done well to understand his role is secondary and to be follow.
There is a great line [in a recent episode]: “some men lead and some men follow.” I think Jimmy understand that he is not the man to lead.
TVRage: Exactly. When characters try to step up, things seem to go poorly.
JL: When they start to get too big for their britches, it doesn’t bode well. Jimmy’s a little bit of a cat too with the nine lives thing. He fell into the pit of snakes and I thought I was gone when I read that, but it was plot point of the episode that the snakes had been de-venomized, so, I guess I keep on trucking.
TVRage: What is like to be a part of a show where you could go at any time? Does it enter to your mind?
JL: It’s on your mind, you’re always aware it’s a possibility. The way this season has gone, there have been several crucial characters that have been killed off, some that have been around for a few seasons. And you understand that’s the nature of a business when dealing with a show with a high body count like that.
I’m pretty sure one of these days Jimmy’s luck will run out. I don’t know what day it will be, but I’ve said from Day One that I’m leaving in a body bag.
TVRage: Recently Jimmy saved the day because it turned out that he speaks fluent Spanish, and that came up in the episode because you in fact speak fluent Spanish. When did you learn another language, and was this part of your upbringing?
JL: I was born and raised in Colorado, and foreign languages have just sort of always been a hobby of mine since college. I majored in international relations and it was something I always wanted to do. I sort of taught myself Spanish, French, Italian and a little bit of German. Spanish is easier, growing up in Colorado; we do have a bit of backbone for it where it’s sort of like Los Angeles in that it’s part of the lexicon, its part of the common and every day.
So that was really one of the easy ones to pick up without having subconsciously grown up with it.
TVRage: I understand that when you first started on ‘Justified,’ your agent tried to make the writers aware that you could speak Spanish, and so maybe that it helped keep you alive?
JL: Maybe this season it helped it. I think when it first happened, when my agent was talking to [showrunner] Graham Yost, and I think he was just trying to fight for more screen time. He says, “hey you know, he speaks Spanish,” and Graham is like, “well, this show is in rural Kentucky, if it ever comes up, well yet him know.” (laughs) But then a few years later, sure enough, it comes.
TVRage: That’s great; I love thinking that because you as actor can speak Spanish that perhaps it kept your character alive. So growing up in Colorado then, how familiar were you to this world of ‘Justified’ and Kentucky?
JL: I have a lot of family in Cincinnati and we’d go to Kentucky every summer. And I’ve been to Harlan before.
So ‘Justified,’ it takes place in Kentucky, but there is a distinction here that is hard to come across and I wouldn’t begrudge. This isn’t a criticism of anybody, but ‘Justified’ is a western show and Kentucky is a southern state. Colorado is a western state. I kind of understand the lexicon and vocabulary of ‘Justified’ having been lucky to experience the southern state of Kentucky and the western state of Colorado.
It’s westernized; there are gunshots and showdowns, so Colorado is not as far off as one might think from the tone of the show as it is geographically from Kentucky.
TVRage: I’m fascinated by that aspect of it. It’s gripping; it’s cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, so I’m always curious about how familiar people are with this world, how true to life it is.
JL: There are a lot of great characters that populate the world with a rich dynamic. I was lucky enough to have my mom come out to the Season 5 premiere. She was watching the episode, and there is all the Crowe family. [My mom], growing up in Cincinnati, says Damon [Herriman] who plays Dewey Crowe, does such a good job because he is just like those boys who come up from Covington [Kentucky] to hit on all the Cincinnati girls (laughs). “They’d come across the river and be drunk and raising hell and I knew thirty of that guy.”
TVRage: Of course one of the best characters is Boyd Crowder. He’s a bad guy, but I’m rooting for him, and I think others are too. What is it about Boyd that makes him so loveable, and what’s it like to work with Walton?
JL: I think that you’re able to root for him because that the end of the day, he has love in his heart, a passion in his heart, and he has a code to live by: the code of an outlaw. He’s hyper-intelligent, seriously intelligent, and incredibly loyal and loves his family. Those are things that humans can relate to and root for. And everyone loves a good bad guy.
It’s also Walton. If there is a more committed actor on the planet, and I haven’t met him. He is gracious and giving and brilliant and selfless and I can’t say enough good things about Walt. This is the first sort of bigger part that I’ve had, and I got to see Walt work for years, and I like to think that he hopefully molded me. He is an idol to me.
TVRage: Let’s talk about ‘Star-Crossed,’ which of course references ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and plays on that story. What drew you to the show and your character?
JL: It has some very cool sci-fi elements, very cool historical allegories with quality integration. It’s interesting to see it in a future setting. The show is really smart, well-made. My character (Eric), if you’re going along the Romeo and Juliet parallel, is the Tybalt character, which I really dig.
Tibalt is my favorite character in the play. I love that he is unapologetic, unrelenting, and you see that with Eric. You understand his motivations and back-story and why he is the way he is. But he is unwavering and unapologetic, at least for the few first episodes. I like playing a character that is strong like that, strong in his convictions, even if they aren’t the most popular.
TVRage: You’ve wrapped the first season, so did everyone survive New Orleans?
JL: Everyone is still alive, mostly. We stayed out jail, mostly (laughs). It was a lot of fun. When you’re passionate about the work, though, you stay focus. There is indulgence everywhere. The food you’re eating, it’s 7,000 calories a plate and when you work on the CW, they’re going to ask you to take your shirt off. So you put your head down and enjoy New Orleans selectively.
TVRage: What can you tease about the rest of the season?
JL: Well, you get to see a lot of the continued growth between the Red Hawks and the Trags, that’s the human extremist group and the alien extremist group, as they are preparing for war.
There is maybe another surprise, as one or two characters in one of those groups, we find out towards the end of the season may have ulterior intentions. And Eric, I think I’m allowed to share, within the next couple of episodes begins to fall in love, and it’s with a very surprising choice. It’s not what you think.
It’s a fun thing to play because he has been so angry, so when he is falling in love with this girl, you say, “wait a minute, I’m angry.” That’s the beauty of love, it takes you over, you don’t understand it, and you just have to deal with it.
‘Justified’ airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX, while 'Star-Crossed’ airs Mondays at 8/7c on CW.