Finding the humanity beneath the horrible makes it all worthwhile

The following is a series of love stories, a great big meet cute between men any sane person would shun and the charmingly insane actors who can’t resist them.

Some of TV’s most savored characters say or do things that would make most of their audiences cringe in real life, such as the morally mixed bag that is Jon Hamm’s Don Draper on “Mad Men” or the troubled cutthroat Nucky Thompson portrayed by Steve Buscemi on “Boardwalk Empire.” Despite their considerable flaws, folks can’t help falling head over heels for them — most of all, the actors who play them.

Take Boyd Crowder, the beguiling antihero of FX’s “Justified.” Boyd has swastikas on his skin, avarice on his mind and killing in his heart. And yet, there is an intellect and a personal code — along with a potential for redemption — that makes him irresistible.

Mr. Wrong is Mr. Right.

“My first impression (of Boyd) would be, ‘God damn, that’s a smart guy,’ ” says Walton Goggins, who transformed the role from an intended one-off guest shot in the pilot into an integral part of the series. “I would want to continue the conversation over dinner. I would find him fascinating.

“You get right away the mercurial nature of this guy would keep me on edge, but it’s a flame to be drawn to. I like people with an edge. To use a filmmaking analogy, I like people who film out of sequence.”

Across a spectrum of evil and villainy is Howard Wolowitz, the pre-Bieber bowlcut aerospace engineer emboldened to lascivious come-ons in tight pants and a dickey on CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

“What a handsome fellow,” jokes Simon Helberg, who plays Howard.

Like Boyd, Howard is objectively distasteful yet compellingly magnetic.

“I think, ‘Oh man, this is a really delusional person that seriously might need to be captured in a net and taken away,’ ” Helberg says. “But I also think there is something completely innocent and non-threatening about him, and it can be fun to see what he’s going to cook up.”

The nonpareil barrel of manhood that is Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) of “Parks and Recreation” comes with the irony that many of the viewers who adore him no more swallow his extreme Libertarian stance than they could the prodigious amounts of beef he eats each day. But it works.

“I think Ron is a Fantasy-American,” Offerman says. “I think a guy that says, ‘You can do all you want, please get away from me, I’m going to eat six pounds of red meat right now and then I’m going to smoke a cigar,’ you can’t do that in real life. I’ve tried — it can’t be done. And so I think it’s really enjoyable to see a character really living that way.

“Now, will there be arterial repercussions in the future? I don’t know. But I think everyone wishes they could be a bacon-eating hedonist.”

Though the writers who create and script these characters are their founding fathers, the top actors go beyond being vessels for the words.

Offerman’s offscreen persona and life, including his own woodshop, migrated directly into Swanson’s character. When Howard was given an opportunity in season two to tell Penny (Kaley Cuoco) how his terrible treatment in high school had formed his current personality, Helberg revved up like it was his Olympic moment.

“I was really excited, and I worked really hard on it,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time (rehearsing). I wanted to make it sincere. He’s supposed to be crying the entire time, and I guess my fear was ‘sitcom crying’ or something bad. I wanted to make it real but not too indulgent — just have a nice moment where we see a little insight of who he is.

“But of course he fucks it up and tries to make out with (Penny), and she breaks his nose. But that’s OK. I’m always excited when there’s some real meat.”

Goggins says he went so far as to suggest a character arc for Boyd.

“I pitched that if a person has a near-death experience, more often than not, they’re going to move toward God,” Goggins says. “(Showrunner) Graham Yost and the rest of the writers kind of took that and ran with it, and it allowed us to explore the other extreme. And it was fascinating, man.”

As Goggins notes, we’re a long way believing “that a villain just twirls his mustache,” or thinking that characters must be your soulmates to be lovable. We live in complicated times, and things just aren’t black and white anymore, whether it’s a renegade, soliloquizing Kentuckian or an upright Indiana government official who looks down on the system that employs him.

“And so by having a lighthearted comedy with heart that strips away a lot of that confusion, I think that’s part of the refreshing sense of nostalgia,” Offerman says. “I think there’s a feeling of, ‘This is what it used to be like in whatever are our fantasies of an easier political time.’ ”

At that point, there’s no way not to fall in love.

“When we see them be funny,” says Goggins, “when we see them be fucking cool, man, really cool and when we see them be vulnerable, then we’ll let them do anything.”

ROAD TO THE EMMYS: THE ACTOR
Antiheroes and the actors who love them | Actors always playing the bridesmaid | Prior noms hope to repeat | Actors in Emmy contention
Lead Actor Contenders
Sean Bean | Steve Buscemi | Jeremy Irons | Matt LeBlanc |

Andrew Lincoln | Louis C.K. | William H. Macy | Tom Selleck

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more