As Betsy Kettleman on AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” Julie Ann Emery solidified herself as one of the more versatile actresses working in television today. Her performance as the headstrong wife and mother of the Kettleman clan became the most memorable of the series, which is impressive considering it is an entire show built around memorable performances. Now the Tennessee native is back at AMC stealing scenes in “Preacher” as the zealot Featherstone, a role she calls one of her favorites.
We recently sat down with Emery to discuss how “Preacher” is speaking directly to its audience, how in many ways the series feels lifted directly from the pages of the comic, and why Betsy Kettleman’s wardrobe meant so much to who the character was.
TrunkSpace: You joined “Preacher” in its second season and you also had an incredible run on “Better Call Saul” with AMC being the common thread that ties both of them together. It really seems like there’s no better place to be in terms of quality, character-driven content than AMC these days.
Julie Ann Emery: Thank you AMC for handing me two of my favorite roles of my entire career! I’m absolutely thrilled to be back at the network and thrilled to be on “Preacher” with Sam Catlin who was of “The Breaking Bad” world before he was of “Preacher” and I feel very at home and very challenged by my character, which is a lot to say as a woman in the business. To actually have two characters like that, who are so incredibly challenging to play and challenging to get into the headspace of, it’s a real gift as an actor.
TrunkSpace: And obviously there’s more content now than ever before, but at the same time, quality has not been overlooked for quantity. In fact, the quality of TV just keeps getting better.
Julie Ann Emery: The thing is, it was four main networks and HBO before everybody else jumped in. And HBO was doing really interesting niche stuff, but when you’re trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the characterization in the stories kind of gets watered down. But with so much programming happening, I feel like we have really embraced more niche programming, which “Preacher” definitely falls into. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: You hear so much about how shows need to be “grounded in reality” in order to get on the air, but what we love about “Preacher” is that in a lot of ways it says to hell with reality and just does its own thing. Does that make the performance aspect of the show more appealing because anything can and does happen?
Julie Ann Emery: I was a fan of season 1 of “Preacher” before I ever got the audition for season 2 and what intrigued me about it was how far it pushed the envelope, but them how grounded the acting was. So, “Preacher” is definitely wacky and it definitely lives in its own universe… the violence is kind of Tarantinoesque and always has a sense of humor… but there is always something grounded and relatable about the characters walking around. And that as a viewer is definitely my sweet spot. To really push the envelope in terms of circumstance, but to still have the interesting, complex, relatable characters doing grounded work inside of that, it’s both challenging as an actor and a thrill.
TrunkSpace: The series also just looks different than most of the other shows on TV, which is another refreshing aspect of it as a whole. In many ways, it feels like they just brought the comic book to life.
Julie Ann Emery: We just had the premiere at the Ace Hotel in LA and watching it on a big screen, there were moments that literally looked lifted straight from Steve Dillon’s art in the comics. They’ve really found a way to honor what they’re doing with the comic book series and still keep some kind of real life going on. It’s really interesting to watch and it struck me how much of the tone of the show happens in post with the choice of music and the visual editing style and the production design by Dave Blass. It’s so brilliantly done. It’s so grounded in reality, but it also honors the comics in such a huge way and takes such risks visually with colors.
It’s a really thrilling thing because when the artistic work on a show is so high across the board and when everyone is so excited to dive into something so unique, it’s a really nice spot to be in as an artist.
TrunkSpace: If everybody is giving 100 percent and there are excited faces all around you, it’s hard not to go to work with an equal level of excitement every day.
Julie Ann Emery: Agreed and I’ve had the great fortune to be in that circumstance both on “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” and now “Preacher.” Everyone is there every day trying to raise the level of what’s going on… trying to elevate the work. It’s really exciting when that happens across the board like that.
To be inspired by a costume or a set piece or a new set they just built… with a show like “Preacher” you can draw inspiration from such a variety of places. It’s great.
TrunkSpace: For those who haven’t read the comic, where does your character Featherstone fall into things?
Julie Ann Emery: So Featherstone is a member of an organization called The Grail. It’s described as a pseudo-fascist religious organization bent on world domination. And they are. Featherstone has a very strong faith. She really believes the world has gone to hell and she is working to save it and she will blow it up if she has to in order to save it. She’s very dedicated. She could be described as a zealot. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do to accomplish her mission or serve the cause.
There’s a transformation aspect to Featherstone that I think lends itself to the “there’s nothing that she wouldn’t do.”
TrunkSpace: Will viewers get to see that transformation and the origin story of how she finds her way?
Julie Ann Emery: I’m not going to get into story spoilers. (Laughter) But, I think you will definitely see that the Featherstone from the comics is very much honored but there are dimensions of her on the show that have taken her further. And those dimensions are such a thrill as an actor to play. They really have rounded her out in a really beautiful way.
She’s definitely a bad ass. Even more so than in the comics. She’s Type A and a woman in a man’s world. I’m surrounded by men a lot in The Grail, but she is always the most capable person in the room, save maybe for Herr Starr. She is super, super dedicated and has no life outside of The Grail and her mission and she likes it that way.
TrunkSpace: Comic fans are so rabid when it comes to their favorite properties and characters. You mentioned that there are new dimensions to Featherstone that may not be familiar to readers of the comic. Was there a discussion about how those changes or additions would be perceived by fans of the source material?
Julie Ann Emery: I auditioned for the role, so it was something that was added already when I came on board, but I think it is something that they spoke about quite a lot in the development of her. I know that when I auditioned they had already rewritten the character a few times, even throughout the audition process. The bones of Featherstone, what I like to call Featherstone proper where she’s in her Grail uniform and being herself, is very much from the comic. When she goes undercover or lays a trap for someone and there’s this transformational aspect of her and how far she’s willing to go with that, that’s a new element. So it’s not like they diverted from the Featherstone of the comic, it’s just that they have taken her further.
I am a fan of the comics. I had not read them before I started the show and now I’m very deep into them. I recognize her completely from the comics and I think fans of the comics will recognize her as well, but there are other dimensions to her that round her out.
TrunkSpace: Is this your first time playing in the fanboy/comic world sandbox and are you prepared for the feedback that follows?
Julie Ann Emery: I don’t know if there’s preparation for that.
I worked on “Better Call Saul” and the “Breaking Bad” fandom is very intense and very intelligent. They will notice something on a shelf behind you that is barely in focus and then they will have a discussion about it. I’m used to that side of it, but as much of a sci-fi/fantasy fan that I am, I’ve never done anything from a comic or that’s sci-fi related.
Well, that’s not true. I did Steven Spielberg’s “Taken” for the SyFy channel years and years ago, but that was before social media took over the world. (Laughter)
I’m excited about it because I am a fan like that of things. I’m a huge “Star Wars” fan. I’m big fan of “Wonder Woman” and I like to go online and chat with people about stuff, but I have not been on the receiving end of that nerd out, so I guess that’s a journey I have to see play out. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: As a character, Betsy Kettleman is one of the best to ever grace the small screen. She was someone we all know in real life, but at the same time, was completely original in the TV world. She had so many great layers to her and we’re curious where you ventured to in order to discover her?
Julie Ann Emery: The development of the Kettlemans was incredibly collaborative from the top down. Vince Gilligan directed our first episode and he and Peter Gould were on set the first day of shooting and we spent an enormous amount of time doing character development and talking about the Kettlemans and who they are and defining them. That never happens on a TV schedule. We had extra time to shoot the first episode from Sony and AMC, otherwise it might not have happened. And they changed what happened to the Kettlemans after we shot that first episode. The writers became kind of fascinated with what happened out of that collaboration on set and some of the things we talked about, which also never happens on television because they have to turn the scripts over so fast that they’re not very often able or willing to go back in. But they did in this case and it turned out as something, I think, incredibly special.
I love to play characters who are different than who I am. I like to step into someone’s shoes that I don’t necessarily understand. And Featherstone falls into that category in a lot of ways. I always say that a lot of times the character might think differently than I do, but Betsy’s brain works differently than mine does. She was a huge gift for sure and I love that on the outside she does look like someone who is probably walking around your neighborhood and then what you discover about her is something entirely different.
Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad” was the wacky, out there character. The Kettlemans are that on “Better Call Saul.” In some ways they’re so wacky and out there, but they love each other so much that it always comes back to something grounded and relatable. There are a lot of us who would do almost anything for our families and Betsy definitely falls into that category in a meta, uber way. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: Often times actors will say that getting into wardrobe helped them discover who a character was, particularly in period pieces of science fiction. But Betsy had this amazing wardrobe that was also so not amazing at the same time. Did her style help you with who she was?
Julie Ann Emery: I discovered a lot along every step of the way with Betsy and wardrobe had a lot to do with it. In some ways her wardrobe is very plain and something you would see somebody walking around in, but then at the end of the first episode she puts on this lime green skirt suit that’s a little ill-fitting. It was a little big on me and I asked them not to alter it. At the heart of it, I wanted her to have money but have no idea what to do with it. Like, she saw some politician’s wife wearing skirt suits, so she needed a skirt suit, but she went and picked a lime green one. And then she went and picked a burnt orange one. She is figuring out what the world is and getting it wrong sometimes, but she thinks she’s getting it right. And then as the show went on, the clothes started to fit more and the colors were still off, but she was getting more of a handle on it, which was something that I thought no one but the costume designer and I would ever realize. Good on you, man! (Laughter)
“Preacher” airs Mondays on AMC.