How ‘Fallout’ Star Walton Goggins Found the Humanity in The Ghoul

The actor tells TheWrap about his intense makeup and philosophical take on his character in Prime Video’s video game adaptation

Walton Goggins (The Ghoul) in “Fallout” (Courtesy of Prime Video)

When Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner began developing the characters of Prime Video’s “Fallout,” the pair knew that there was one actor in particular they wanted for the role of The Ghoul/Cooper Howard: Walton Goggins. 

“We had this very basic game that we’d play together, the whole writers room. We were like, ‘how do you make this a show you just have to watch?’,” Wagner told TheWrap. “That is the basic job of writing television. There’s a billion, zillion TV shows out there. What makes you go, “shit I guess I’ve got to watch that.” And having Walton playing the Ghoul scratched that itch for us.”  

Goggins was immediately drawn to the project for the opportunity to work with its creative team. 

“First and foremost, it was Jonathan Nolan. He was someone that I’ve respected and wanted to work with for a very, very long time, going all the way back to ‘Memento.’ He’s an unbelievable writer and storyteller,” he told TheWrap. “Geneva is an old friend of mine, we did ‘Tomb Raider’ together and I respect her so very much, and I’d been a fan of Graham’s for such a long time.”

He admitted that he wasn’t familiar with the Bethesda video game franchise prior to taking on the role and gave up trying to research it before talking to the producers about the show. 

“I read like half of an article before we got on the phone, but thought, ‘OK, there’s no way I’m going to understand the mythology of this in a couple of days.’ So I kind of laid that down and just went into it and heard what they wanted to do. And then immediately I said, ‘Look, I’m in’ and they said, ‘Well, do you want to know what you’re gonna play?’ and I said, “It’s irrelevant,” and they said “Well, you’re going to play a bounty hunter who has been walking around a post-apocalyptic landscape for 200 years and you don’t have a nose,” he recalled. “I said, “Okay, maybe I should read the scripts.” And I did and they were so compelling that we talked right after and I said “I’m in. This is too rich.”

Creating Cooper Howard and The Ghoul

While the “Fallout” adaptation is set in the same world as the games (and is canon), its characters and story are completely original. The show opens not in the Wasteland, but right before the initial bombs go off through the point of view of Goggins’ character pre-transformation.

Cooper Howard is a popular Western film star whose wife works for Vault-Tec. 200 years later, he’s separated from his family and completely transformed into a zombie-like bounty hunter after nuclear war reshapes the Earth, leaving devastation, chaos and a violent wasteland behind it. Nolan described Howard as the series’ “guide through hell,” likening him to Virgil from the “Fallout” games.

“He has a unique perspective of having lived before the fall and lived all the way through it, which I thought was such a brilliant way to transport the audience,” Nolan said. “This is one of the things that the game doesn’t get to do with as much facility as the series does, because it’s a hallmark of television rather than gaming to jump back into the past and spend time in that world beforehand. As the series goes on, one of the things I was most excited about was the ability to go back into that world and see how the world did fall apart.”

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Cooper Howard (Walton Goggins) and Janey (Teagan Meredith) in “Fallout” (Photo Credit: Prime Video)

When it came time to prepare for the show, Goggins started with figuring out who Cooper Howard was.

“I really had to understand who Cooper Howard was before I understood who The Ghoul was. I didn’t want to play an idea of a ghoul or a character in a video game in that way. I wanted to play a person that lives in the world and experienced that kind of pain,” Goggins said. “In order to understand that, I had to understand what it was he lost and it took going back into the world of Cooper Howard, even while some of this stuff was still being written and all the conversations that were happening at that time, and seeing who he was, what his life was, what he did for a living and more importantly, what was he like when the cameras weren’t rolling?”

To get into character, Goggins watched westerns like “GunSmoke,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Butch Cassiy and the Sundance Kid,” as well as interviews with stars from the time period, like Alan Ladd, John Wayne and Paul Newman. 

“There was an elegance and a charisma to all of them. They were very funny people. So I had that to look at and think about and juxtapose to The Ghoul’,” he said. “And then you throw all of that away and it comes from your own imagination and you look at what’s on the page. It was a complicated but very gratifying experience doing the research to play these two people and figure out how they speak to each other over time.” 

While Cooper Howard and The Ghoul have a shared sense of humor, charisma and grit, Goggins acknowledged that the latter is “deeply more cynical than the other having seen the worst of humanity.”

“I wanted them to feel like one person was looking at himself, obviously a very long time ago, and mourning the loss of that innocence if you will and not wanting to know what he knows about the world,” he said.

Walton Goggins as The Ghoul in “Fallout” (Courtesy of Prime Video)

When it came to crafting The Ghoul’s look on screen, Goggins revealed there were conversations for about nine months before attempting to create the prosthetics. The only non-practical aspect of his appearance was removing his nose with CGI.  

“What we landed on was we wanted to be attractive so that the audience isn’t repulsed by this horrific disconfiguration. So we wanted them to lean in and look at his face. Once we settled on that, Vincent Van Dyk designed pieces that were very thin, but very durable so that it would still be me underneath there and I could still experience my own facial reactions and they would be able to pick all of that up,” he explained.

But Goggins still felt uneasy on the first day of filming in the makeup, and turned to Nolan — who directed the first three episodes of the season — for reassurance.

“That’s the thing I was most insecure about when we first started, because I didn’t know if what I was feeling was being conveyed and asked Jonah after the first couple of takes, ‘What are you reading? What are you seeing?’ He said, ‘We’re seeing it all, everything that you’re doing’ and a big part of that was because I had my eyes. At one point, we toyed with putting contacts in and then all of a sudden, it became a very different experience for everyone in the room, so we quickly took them out.” 

When all was said and done, it took three different attempts to get the final look right. During shooting, Goggins said getting his makeup done by special effects artist Jake Garber initially took five hours before being cut down to an hour and 45 minutes.

“I couldn’t close my eyes. I had to sit in one place the whole time. So I just would put on a Western and just did research,” he said. “He got so good at it that I said, ‘Man, you need to take a little more time’ because some of these movies we were watching were like two and a half hours long.”

Lucy and The Ghoul’s ‘Antagonistic’ Relationship

Goggins’ co-star Ella Purnell, who plays the optimistic Vault dweller Lucy, recalled seeing The Ghoul on set for the first time. 

“He’s terrifying to look at. It is really creepy and they did such a great job with the prosthetics of making him look alien in a way and yet still hauntingly human and I think that’s actually what makes it so scary,” she said. 

Lucy’s peaceful and idealistic nature is tested during an incident in the show’s first episode, which prompts her to venture to the surface where she’s shocked to discover an incredibly complex, gleefully weird and highly violent world she’s never seen before. Along her journey, she crosses paths with The Ghoul, who serves as her “reality check,” according to Purnell. 

“Lucy obviously comes out of the Vault and she’s incredibly naive and inexperienced and sheltered and she comes out really believing in the golden rule, and they’re in completely different places,” she said. “He is really her biggest influence, especially in the first half of the show. He is the reason she has to make a lot of her choices and he shapes her into the person that she is going to become and for better or for worse, he helps her survive. It might not seem that way, but he forces her to adapt.” 

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Ella Purnell in “Fallout.” (Prime Video)

Goggins described The Ghoul’s first encounter with Lucy as “antagonistic.” In an early moment in the series, he attempts to use her as bait for a Gulper, which has stolen an artifact they’re both chasing after.

“The first time you watch it, you think, ‘Wow, where is this anger coming from? Where is this treatment coming from?’ And you realize that maybe he’s not treating her any different than he would treat anyone,” he said. “This isn’t personal, this has nothing to do with you. I don’t know you. I don’t really care about you. I’ve been doing this for 200 years, I’m just surviving. It’s not vindictive, he doesn’t have a bone to pick with this person at all.” 

Goggins continued, unpacking the dialogue exchange during the scene. “He’s waxing poetically about the plusses and minuses of torture from an article he read 200 years ago. It’s so f–ing weird. Where does that even come from? He just had a thought about it. It’s like, ‘Well this reminds me of this article that I read a really long time ago.’ And it’s not personal.”

The relationship between Lucy and The Ghoul is central to the series’ first season. “It’s a very complicated relationship between the two of them that will continue to evolve over the course of the show,” he said.

Purnell praised Goggins as a “fantastic” and “very generous” scene partner and “master of the craft.”

“Every single take is different and you really get to play and push and pull and where you end up is a completely different place from where you started,” she said. “That’s all you can ask for an actor and a scene partner. It was truly a joy to learn from him.”

“Walton is just the most committed actor. It’s really admirable, the amount of energy that he pours into every decision that he makes on screen,” Robertson-Dworet added. “It’s just an honor to work with people like him.”

Goggins said he’s most excited about die hard fans getting to see an adaptation of games they love that’s created with great care and attention to detail.

“The people that made this show, Jonathan Nolan and the writers and all of the technicians, the people that were creating this show in conjunction with Todd Howard and James [Altman] from Bethesda Games who were there, they love this game. They understand how much this means to the fans because they themselves are players of the game,” he said. “All of these Easter eggs that are planted throughout this experience are there for a reason and it’s because they respect the fans so much.” 

But that doesn’t mean the show just appeals to video game diehards.

“For everybody else, there are people that have never played this game, never heard of this game, but are big sci-fi fans. There are people that are big Western fans, there are people like me, who just like a good story. All of that is there. There’s something really for everyone. And it’s pulled off by very capable filmmakers and I hope that people enjoy it,” he added. “I enjoyed the process of making it and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

All episodes of Fallout are streaming now on Prime Video

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