Exclusive True Detective (HBO) Interview: Michael Potts Delves Into His Character’s Psyche and the Importance of Storytelling

HBO’s addictive crime drama True Detective is a time-bending exploration into the dark hearts of men. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are the stars as Detectives Martin Hart and Rust Cohle, two men whose lives become hopelessly twisted with a dark case, but as one of the two detectives investigating them, Michale Potts’ Detective Gilbough is an important piece of the series’ ever-shifting puzzle.

Having previously worked on three HBO projects– Oz, Bored to Death and The Wire –before True Detective, Potts is an acclaimed character actor both onscreen and onstage. Currently, he is starring in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, but Potts took time out of his busy schedule to discuss True Detective, Detective Gilbough and the importance of long form storytelling with TV Equals.

What Potts Hopes Fans Will Take From True Detective

True Detective‘s winding narrative requires a great deal of time investment from fans. In order to unwind the mystery that has Detectives Hart and Cohle being interviewed by Detectives Gilbough and Papania (Tory Kittles) a decade after the case was closed, viewers can’t miss a single episode. For Potts, that is the beauty of the show.

“I love the idea of great storytelling and the time to tell it,” Potts explained. While he has worked on and understands the appeal of procedural dramas that offer an easy wrap-up at the end of an hour, he spoke passionately about why shows like True Detective can be game changers for the police drama.

“There is a place for great dramatic narrative storytelling and I hope audiences are beginning to ask more from their television and get into more complex storytelling and characters and the time it takes to investigate these things,” Potts elaborated. “It is a cop drama taken to a much higher level than what normally comes on broadcast television. I hope people appreciate that and I hope they’re being hooked on it for that reason, and it’s largely because of storytelling and the incredible acting of so many people, and the work of people behind the camera. It really was like making an eight hour movie; it was of that caliber.”

On Gilbough

Detectives Gilbough and Papania are our guides in many ways, but they also know more than we do about where the story is going. Potts describes Gilbough as “the cerebral one,” a far less pessimistic alter to Rust. He’s the kind of man who “wants the truth” and “believes in the good guy.” This is where he differs most sharply from Rust, who, as Potts pointed out, is a nihilist at heart.

Our primary view of Gilbough is as a man with many questions, who is reluctant to explain why he is asking them. “You never know what is going on in his head, but he is literally evaluating every single thing that is going on around him without letting you know he’s examining and intuiting,” Potts explained. “He really is a still waters run deep person.”

Gilbough is only half of a partnership though. Much as Marty has Rust, Gilbough has Papania. The two men spend much of their time off-screen in the intimate interrogation scenes, but through the smallest of glances we see them communicating with one another. Potts explained how he and Kittles bring the partnership to life with so few words.

“I had never worked with Tory before,” Potts said. “I had known of him because of his work in film and television, so we kind of bonded really quickly. We were living in the same hotel, and because we would spend the whole day together, basically as partners, we developed the relationship pretty quickly as a result of being, sort of, immersed in that situation. We would hang out and decompress after the shoot when we had time and talk about our characters, talk about motivation, what we had shot that day, what the arc was going to be, so it was that. Just being trained actors together.”

Why The Most Important Thing An Actor Can Do Is To Listen

There is an intensity to watching Gilbough and Papania interrogate Rust and Marty that comes purely from the actors in the room. With so much of his character’s role being wrapped up in scenes that are essentially one-on-one interviews, it seems Potts job would be all the harder. However, he told us it was quite the opposite.

“The hardest thing to do is for an actor to be still and listen,” Potts explained. “That is really the most important thing, it is the key thing; it is actually listening and being present in the moment, and I’ve been doing this 22 years now, so you get better and better at it. It’s also easier when you have strong actors that you’re partnered with and you’re dealing with. So you have Matthew and Woody, I mean doing this amazing work, these two guys who are at the height of their craft, truly, so it went very easily because you could stay connected with them and they were connected with you. I mean you could see them watching you and listening to you, so you needed to be present for them to do what they needed to do.”

If He Could Guest Star On Any Show…

Potts not only had a show in mind, but also a role– sadly, it is already taken.

“Well, a role I really would have wanted would be on Scandal playing Kerry Washington’s father,” Potts confessed. “Which is a role Joe Morton has, and I remember watching for the first time and thinking she (Shonda Rhimes) has written him such amazing monologues, they’re almost theatric, so that would have been the show.”

It wasn’t just the monologues that drew him in though. Potts has a love for deep roles. “It’s just the writing is so brilliant and it plays so well between the two of them. But no, he’s a wonderful character, wonderfully complex, wonderfully dark and has so many layers. And that’s what I want. I like complex characters, with layers;I think that is the character I saw on a hugely successful show,” he laughed.

Tune in to True Detective, Sundays at 9PM ET/PT on HBO to see Potts in action.

Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman