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When it comes to your first starring action vehicle, you never think it will happen to you bald in Bulgaria.


But Timothy Olyphant’s steady rise through Hollywood has hit the big time thanks to a bald head and a Bulgarian film shoot. As the lead character in the new action-adventure “Hitman,” he slid into the lethal shoes of Agent 47.


cover art

Hitman (2007)

Director: Xavier Gens
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper

(Fox; US theatrical: 21 Nov 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 30 Nov 2007 (General release); 2007)

Based on the best-selling video game of the same name, “Hitman” follows an enigmatic assassin who is part of a secret sect engineered and trained by a church to be the perfect killing machines. Instead of names, they are given numbers and identified by the bar codes tattooed on the back of their heads.


“It’s a hell of an opportunity,” said Olyphant. “When a studio offers you the lead in a big action film, it’s nothing to blink your eyes at. It was a very flattering offer.”


Olyphant was contacted for the role while still working opposite Bruce Willis on this summer’s big-budget action sequel “Live Free or Die Hard.” The project had been pitched with already follicly challenged star Vin Diesel attached as Agent 47. But after those plans fell through, the studio mentioned Olyphant to producers Adrian Askarieh and Charles Gordon.


“(Gordon) had worked with Timothy on `The Girl Next Door’ and said he has the look and presence to be another Clint Eastwood,” Askarieh said.


“At the same time, I was watching `Deadwood’ (the gritty HBO Western Olyphant starred in for three seasons). I thought he had fantastic eyes and said I thought he would make a very interesting Agent 47. The character is about stealth and it’s very internal. It didn’t even take us a day to tell (the studio) we liked him for the part.”


Olyphant and the crew spent three months in Bulgaria filming “Hitman.”


To get ready for the role, Olyphant hit the gym and, of course, shaved his head. Askarieh said that when he first saw Olyphant decked out as the bald, suited, tattooed antihero, he flipped out.


“I honestly couldn’t believe it how uncanny his look was,” he said.


“People with full heads of hair always have trepidation about how they will look bald. But when I saw him as 47, I couldn’t believe it. When you have an iconic character like this, you always worry how they’ll look. It really was Agent 47 come to life. Timothy in his Agent 47 outfit I would not want to cross in a dark alley.”


The role was not only Olyphant’s first as the lead in an action franchise, but also his first encounter with the fanatical fan base the genre often attracts. Throughout filming, any small snatch of information leaked onto the Internet spread quickly through the gaming community.


“It’s great to be young and so excited about these things,” Olyphant said of the bloggers and online sites tracking the production’s every move. “It’s a completely different experience in terms with the relationship with the people who will see the movie. It is a bizarre culture.”


Even his contract negotiations became part of online chatter. Olyphant said he got called by the studio on a Friday and was asked whether he would consider the part. On Monday, an acquaintance read that Olyphant had taken a part from Vin Diesel on the Web.


“I sincerely had no idea. I thought, `He can’t be talking about that phone call I got on Friday?’ I hadn’t even returned the phone call. I had not even begun negotiations,” he said.


The online speculation also caused some headaches as Olyphant and the producers had to dispel rumors about onset turmoil and studio recuts.


One rumor was that the film’s French director, Xavier Gens, helming his first English-language project, had been fired. He had not.


“I just got an e-mail from the director saying how pleased he was with the final cut,” Olyphant said.


Another was that the studio had toned down the violence to give the film family-friendlier rating. It had not.


“Fox didn’t water it down. The film was always a little long, so it was edited for time,” Askarieh said. “But Fox would have never made `Hitman’ and watered it down. They knew it had to be an R and a hard R. This movie is a glorious R.”


One rumor that was true, however, was that Olyphant had never played the video version of “Hitman” before taking the part. He wasn’t familiar with the franchise, or even a fan of video games in general. In fact, he still hasn’t played the game.


“I think some people might be offended by this, but I’m not sure if (being familiar with the game) applies to my job,” Olyphant said. “At the end of the day, I look at this like any other script. I am trying to get at the heart of the character.”


It was that character that attracted Olyphant to the role in the first place.


“You take one of these guys who is just sort of a number, a bar code, and when his world gets flipped on its (rear) and everything goes crazy, you see where the humanity comes in and what happens,” Olyphant said.


“In a way, it was kind of reminiscent of the `Blade Runner’ movie. There are some great movies of this genre, the John Woo and Luc Besson films, where you take these guys who are born, bred killers and then certain events occur that causes them to start asking questions about who they are and what their purpose is.”


The filming was done primarily in Bulgaria, with a quick trip to Istanbul for a few shoots. Olyphant said the production was demanding, but also rewarding.


“Any time you are the lead in one of these big films, you have more demands on you,” he said. “(The director and I) worked very hard together to look at every angle of the film, asking if we could tell a better story. Once you kind of take on that responsibility, there is a lot of work to be done.”


His family (longtime wife Alexis, their three children and his mother, Modesto resident Katherine Wright) came to visit the set and went with the crew to Istanbul.


“I told him he had a nice shaved head,” Wright said. “The people in Istanbul, they all knew `Hitman,’ they knew the video game, so it was exciting. He has worked very hard. Starting off with just nothing, he went from below the bottom and worked his way up (in the industry),” she said. “I am very proud of him, it takes a lot of dedication to see it through and now he is reaping the rewards of his hard work.”


Producer Askarieh said it was important to make a film that wasn’t just for video gamers. He said the finished product is both true to the source material and a stand-alone movie in its own right. In fact, he said he would love to spin the film into a franchise starring Olyphant.


“I feel very proud of the film. I dare people who have never heard of the `Hitman’ video game to say it felt like a video-game movie,” Askarieh said. “There have been five `Hitman’ games, so there is no reason to believe there won’t be five `Hitman’ movies. Absolutely the intention would be to make several of these, build them around Tim and hopefully make them his signature.”


For now, the cutthroat world of assassins and espionage is the furthest thing from Olyphant’s mind. The actor is filming the heist comedy “High Life” in Canada. Set in 1983 at the advent of the ATM, the movie follows four morphine addicts who conspire, ineptly, to rob a bank. Olyphant plays the ringleader.


“The material is fantastic,” he said. “It reminds me of early Wes Anderson. Like `Bottle Rocket’ meets `Trainspotting.’”


The role comes on the heels of another comedic interlude for the actor.


A few weeks ago, he filmed a guest spot on the new Christina Applegate comedy “Samantha Who?” He plays one of Applegate’s billionaire bosses, who also happens to be in love with her.


“(Applegate) was great, and if they’d have me back, I’d love to do it again,” Olyphant said. The episode should air sometime in January.


“I’ve been very lucky the way my career has gone. It has been a nice, smooth progression every year. Bottom line, I’ve been working. I make a living doing this and, broad strokes, that was the plan. I’ve been very lucky that every year I’ve been given better and better opportunities and bigger opportunities. In that respect, it’s just been golden.”


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