Fox's Secret 'Weapon': Clayne Crawford on Being the Hot New Thing (Again)

LETHAL WEAPON - Clayne Crawford-Publicity-H 2016
Richard Foreman/FOX

When it came time to cast Fox's forthcoming Lethal Weapon reboot, the executive producers knew the part of Martin Riggs was a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The role, indelibly played by Mel Gibson in the original film franchise, was “unbelievably hard to cast,” executive producer Matt Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter. During auditions, “a lot of people were doing a poor man’s Mel Gibson." Adds director and executive producer McG: "We saw every actor in town."

During that search, McG stumbled on an indie film — Baytown Outlaws, a 2012 Southern redneck action flick trashed by critics and starring Clayne Crawford. Before even finishing the screening (he never did), McG says Crawford demonstrated that “he has verbal acuity, he’s masculine, he’s a wild thing, I believe him. He’s got some pain. He satisfied the criteria.”

McG soon met with Crawford. Although he said "all the right things," as the director recalls, there was one slight problem: "Clayne didn’t want to do it."

Crawford, as it turned out, was very happy in Alabama working on his family farm. After nearly two decades in Hollywood, the lure of show business had become quite resistible.

“He’s been there,” McG says. “He’s been the hot new shiny thing in Hollywood for a minute. He was very reticent to jump onboard."

Since he moved to Los Angeles right out of high school in 1996, Crawford estimates he clocked "probably 100 guest roles" on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, CSI, NCIS and The Glades, as well as films like A Walk to Remember and Swimfan to earn a living.

He won a Young Hollywood Award and was named “One to Watch” back in 2003. However, widespread fame never followed. Instead, Crawford found critical, if not commercial, success with a series regular role on the acclaimed Sundance TV drama Rectify, now in the midst of its fourth and final season.

“I was not in a place to read anything new,” Crawford says of why he initially passed on Lethal Weapon. “I really wanted to give Rectify its final season. I wasn’t interested in a remake.”

From his work as Teddy on Rectify, the producers judged him to be “very soulful," as Miller puts it, and felt convinced Crawford's "authenticity" made him the right man for the role.

“He’s a special find,” McG says. “A very earnest actor.”

After Crawford passed, Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden urged him to reconsider and the actor excused himself to “go to the mountaintop” and think it over.

“He disappeared for six hours,” McG says. (He assumes the actor climbed Mount Wilson in the San Gabriels above L.A.) “Dana Walden was having a heart attack. He comes back down and says, 'I’ll do it.'"

“They sold me,” Crawford said.

Once he sat down with Damon Wayans, already cast as Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover’s part in the movie), it felt right. “We got on set, and something just clicked," Crawford says. "It goes to his willingness to leave his ego at home.”

Crawford also credits Miller with writing an “incredible" script. “All you had to do is show up and give the material its justice," he says. "Then you have McG, his energy just feels so right in this world. He’s so good at making things go boom but at the same time he can bring it down and really ground it — that was the surprise of the pilot, how emotional we became.”

Similar to the film, the series kicks off with Riggs reeling from the death of his wife, and in this case, also their unborn child.

“I wanted it to be about a guy who is genuinely broken,” Miller says of the series, as opposed to the giddy bromance that famously evolved between the characters in the subsequent sequels.

Crawford stressed that he has not watched the Lethal Weapon films again so as not to be influenced in his performance. Actors are natural mimics, he says.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen those films, … but they still resonate with me. You can’t forget those moments because [Gibson] was so good," he says. "As an actor, I knew the trap because I watch people in my life. … If I watch someone play the role I’m about to play, I’m going to steal everything he’s got.”

His goal is to achieve a fresh take — “only out of 100 percent respect for Mel Gibson. It was lightning in a bottle for godsakes.”

The only way he could take on such an iconic role is to imagine a blank slate: “You have to trick yourself. I read the material as if I’m reading it for the very first time.”

While it aims to be cinematic, the TV version necessarily has a different vibe than the original.

“It was an R-rated 1987 film, when you could clearly push the bar” in terms of profanity, drugs, sex and violence, says Crawford. “This is primetime. The family is just sitting down to dinner," he says. "It has to be something my children could watch."

“I couldn’t go straight to the wall with this badass, crazy, lunatic character. I had to slowly build this guy from a place of sadness. We’ll get to that place of complete chaos, but right now we have to see this guy from a very sad, confused place," Crawford says. “If I go for it off the bat, people are going to be exhausted after six episodes."

Crawford is taking the same slow-and-steady approach offscreen. He is now moving his family (including his younger kids, ages 9 and 4) from his family's longtime hometown of Clay (population 9,711) to Los Angeles, where the series films. “We’ll home-school and see how this whole thing goes.” (His 18-year-old daughter, however, is staying in Alabama, minding the farm and tackling medical school.)

“It’s hard to leave the tranquility of farm life,” and his bee boxes, cows, chickens and more. “I can always sit on my farm when I’m in my 60s,” Crawford says.

And so, at 38, he’s about to be the hot, shiny new thing in Hollywood yet again. He leaves behind his hometown, where his family has lived since the late 1800s and where, he says, nobody cares about his career.

“My buddies got a good laugh about me being 'discovered,'" he says. “In some ways, it is justified.”

So how does he get his head around the idea that he is starring in one of the highest-profile freshman shows of the season, with a presold title, paired by the network on Wednesdays with broadcast TV's biggest drama in Empire?

His defenses are in place.

“I don’t put too much stock in any of it,” Crawford says. “It’s a ratings game, so if our numbers drop … they’ll kick us off the air pretty quick.”

Crawford laughs at the idea that, after decades in the business, he’s suddenly arrived. He cites the adage, “It takes 20 years to be an overnight success.”

For now, he’s taking it “one scene at a time.”

Lethal Weapon premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m. on Fox.