True Detective, Season 1 - Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) ©2013 HBO, Photo by Jim Bridges

HBO’s new anthology drama True Detective premieres on Sunday, January 12, with a  stellar cast for its first season.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson star as detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division, assigned to a macabre murder. The story spans 17 years, from 1995 to 2012, focusing on the investigation and their lives, including why Cohle left the CID in 2002.

The actors came to the TV Critics tour a couple of days ago to talk about the series, which has been receiving glowing reviews.

We’ve seen big stars do television, but both of you are at  the top of your game in film, and here you are doing a TV show. What was it about this project or characters that made you come to HBO at this point in your career?

True Detective, Season 1 – Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) ©2013 HBO, Photo by Jim Bridges

Woody: I already had worked with HBO on Game Change. There’s just no finer organization making amazing stuff out there than HBO. So it’s a privilege to work with them.

I love Matthew. He’s my brother, [he’s a] phenomenal, amazing person. Cary (Fukunaga) is a terrific director, and Nic (Pizzolatto) wrote this phenomenal script that you couldn’t put down. His writing is so amazing.

Matthew: For me, as we all know, it’s a different time in television. I read the first two episodes, and I was in. I was just looking for quality. And it wasn’t something like, ‘I’m in, but wait, it’s TV.’ To me, it was, ‘Television? Great.’ Some of the best drama going on is on television.

People change a lot in 17 years, which is the scope of this series. Can you talk about the balance for your two characters, how we have to recognize you as the same guys at some level?

Woody: I just took off my wig.

True Detective, Season 1 – Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) ©2013 HBO, Photo by Jim Bridges

Matthew: I just put on my wig. (he laughs) Speaking for myself, it was clear in the writing, which identifies the men at these [different] times, so I didn’t have to do a lot of creative wandering in my head.

One of my favorite things I got to do with Cohle is go, ‘Who is he in ’95?’ Here’s a guy who’s coming back on to a case to keep his sh-t together, literally. 2012, he’s off the rails. He’s cashed in. He’s fallen prey to his own beliefs.

Can you talk about working together. Do you have a shorthand with each other?

Woody: We do have a shorthand, but interestingly, on this project we didn’t use a lot of our normal kind of shorthand, the way we kind of finish each other’s sentences. [Matthew’s] one of the most gregarious, awesome guys I know, but in this he was fully in character, and he was very much an island. It was very different. And part of that complication helped.

Matthew: [Woody and I] get on each other’s frequency, and we add on and affirm each other, and we one-up each other. And it can turn into improvisation, but it can go and go into the ether and then some. But this was different.

This is the first time we worked together where there’s real opposition, and our relationship is not built on opposition.

I found myself laughing starting around episode 3 because the opposition out-endured me as a viewer. And that’s where I started to find the humor in it, in our relationship.

Did it affect your off-screen relationship while you were shooting?

Woody: I didn’t talk to him the whole time (he laughs). Just kidding, not at all.

Woody, one of the cool things in this is you get to play a relatively normal guy. Did that feel different to you?

Woody: In fact, it does feel different. I kind of liked it. It’s weird. Although, I really liked the Rust Cohle role, I didn’t ever get a chance to play it because Matthew had that part.

I really love what he did with it. I can’t imagine anybody playing that part better. It was phenomenal. He played a much different role from what I’ve even seen him play before, but I think he knocked it out of the park.

True Detective, Season 1 – Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) ©2013 HBO, Photo by Jim Bridges

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.