AMC continues its fine tradition of adapting quality comics into television shows. In this case, we’re talking specifically about Preacher – the amazing 90’s comic sensation by Garth Ennis and Matt Dillon, which has found new life in its second dynamic season with an incredibly talented cast.
Pop Mythology was most fortunate to have a chance to talk to one of these gifted performers, namely Julie Ann Emery who plays the second season character of Lara Featherstone, aide-de-camp to the ruthless Herr Starr, leader of the conspiracy known as The Grail.
But what draws a performer to a role like this? Is it a love of comics, an appreciation of TV’s ability to compellingly portray comic stories or is it just the challenge of playing a really exciting role? For Julie Ann, it’s a combination of all three as well as an appreciation of the nature of Lara Featherstone and her fundamental importance to the plot of the show.
“I went after this role… hard!” she told me. “I mean, she’s really wonderful. Complex, driven and interesting – the men in the room defer to her. There’s something about her character. Ever since Better Call Saul, I’ve been searching for a gritty follow-up role to Betsy Kettleman and she is it.”
Julie Ann was drawn to this role because of its uniqueness. If you’re a fan of the comic, like me, then you can see that Featherstone is a character who’s prepared to do whatever it takes to see her plan – and the plans of the organization she works for – come to fruition. She’s completely driven, as Emery says, and there was clearly research that she had to do in order for her to convincingly become Lara Featherstone.
“You can’t read this comic quickly. Panel by panel, it’s a really dense amount of information that you miss if you aren’t careful. So even though I grew up as a comic reader, I wasn’t really a graphic novel reader as an adult, so in preparation for the role, I had to read this with a sense of exploration and there’s so much to absorb! If you’re not careful, you can miss what’s in Dillon’s art! So reading the comic was the first and best way to research for this role.”
There’s always one dominant trait in a role that attracts an actor to it. My question to Julie Ann was, what was it about Lara Featherstone that made her want to go after it?
“Her complexity is what drew me to her,” she answered. “But I think what I can relate to in her is that she’s very driven and very focused. She is very determined and I am a very determined person! That’s what I do! She takes the bit, she goes running! But the Featherstone from the comic is the core of the book and very honoured in the show. She has an added dimension of a chameleon-like quality in that she can lay traps for people, get information. It’s a very transformative ability and something that I always look for in a character as an actor. As Featherstone, I get to transform and play something completely different than Featherstone, like to trap Jesse, and that’s really challenging and I look forward to playing. It’s an absolute thrill and a dream to play!”
Julie Ann had more to add to this:
“If I had my druthers, I would always go for a role that I don’t fully understand. I’m challenged by Featherstone and I’ve been lucky to play a wide range of roles and characters, like Ida from Fargo. There’s an inner-strength to these characters that’s really admirable and that brings out the best in me.”
It’s clear that Julie Ann is a consummate professional. But there were a couple of aspects of her character that I was not prepared for – and was most pleasantly surprised to discover! The first was her consummate professionalism. Given her preparation level and devotion to this role, her process of discovery and exploration into the nature of Featherstone naturally led me to ask her about the audition process. This, then, took me to my second pleasant discovery: her delightful sense of humour.
“[Laughter] So, it was pilot season but had I nailed her down; this was the role I wanted and I loved the role so much! I had a second round of call-backs and met with the show-runner (Sam Caitlin) and I was a train-wreck! I wanted this role so badly that I was a mess [laughter]! I was sure I came across as a crazy person and I thought, ‘They’re never going to hire me,’ and I even texted my agent. [Laughter] But even though I thought I blew it, my agent was laughing at me and like, ‘Well, I guess you didn’t [blow it] because you got it!’ and was laughing at me. But it was one of those roles that doesn’t come along too often!”
I asked if the “craziness” helped the audition.
“Well, here’s what I think: it was transformational. I think talking to me was such a vast difference from the scenework that it did lend itself to the audition – and I haven’t had the guts to talk to Sam about it [laughs] but you know, maybe it did add to the extreme focus that Featherstone has to have when it comes to the job in hand? All the nervous energy disappeared and went straight into the character!”
Springboarding off this question, I brought up the point that Preacher is a comic adaptation; as such is there anything that an actor needs to keep in mind when playing a role like this on television?
“Well, I think the answer for that has to be specific to Preacher. Preacher is such an unusual and distinct comic book that we’re not talking about a classic hero comic book. It’s so irreverent and our cast is so high-end (I mean, Ruth Negga was nominated for an Oscar), I think Preacher escapes some of those comic book tropes that actors can get caught up in: like the classic hero – Dominic is not playing a classic hero, and I’m not playing a classic villain here. So I think the complexity of Preacher manages to allow us to bypass those comic book tropes and gives us a lot of freedom.”
With the determination and sense of loyalty to this character, Emery is paying tribute to those elements that make Featherstone such a compelling character, and if you caught the second episode of Season Two recently, you’d have seen those elements come to play. Her delivery is impeccable and she has a smooth, flawless transition from character to character, evincing that chameleon-like capacity necessary for portraying Featherstone.
But the sense of ownership that Julie Ann has for this character also comes out in her performance. I asked her more about the commonality that she shares with Featherstone.
“It is a delicious role. Every script I read, I silently pray, ‘Oh please, let me be able to pull this off!’ [laughter] I like characters that make me work – I like hard work and I’m accustomed to it and I grew up with it. This makes me reach and take risks.”
In fact, Julie Ann even went further to illustrate the risks in the relationship between Featherstone and the leader of the Grail, Herr Starr.
“He is her opposite. She’s always in charge – except with him. He’s incredibly decisive and she’s the one who’s used to being in that role. So it’s a real change for her and everything falls apart for her. “
In fact, it’s pretty safe to say that this is the role that really allows Julie Ann to take risks with a character. Featherstone has so many ups and downs that she not only experiences the freedom of comic tropes but also gets the freedom to play this character to varying extremes. It’s a role that has its risks, but the rewards for the audience are so great in appreciating the fabulous roller-coaster ride that is Preacher.
Even the creator and writer of the original comic, Garth Ennis, thinks so. I asked Julie about speaking to Garth about the show and what he thought about her performance.
“Yeah, he came to visit the set. We talked a bit about her and he was very happy with how I was playing her. That made me want to jump up and down and while my heart was beating wildly on the inside, on the outside I was trying to play it cool! I did not want another Sam Catlin incident! [Laughs] He’s lovely and he’s happy how the show honours the comic, how it’s recognizable and how we’ve managed to flesh out that world. It was a real thrill to know that he’s happy with the show. You take it in, and it was so hard not to fan-girl all over him!”
Julie Ann delivers such a respectful treatment of this property, which is such a requirement for actors portraying comic book characters.
“For me, it is,” she agreed. “Once I dove into the comic, I wanted to know as much about that source material as possible. I want to digest it, to call upon it for inspiration, and I want it to form how I build my character’s history. What are the bones of my character? I think that comics are interesting in that they take things to extremes so quickly and the best thing I think about Preacher is how quickly it moves to those crazy extremes as well. The comedy is dark and the show is so well-grounded and the characters so well-rounded that it has so many recognizable virtues that can’t be ignored.”
I asked Julie if she had any major geek influences that she could draw on for her role – i.e. comics, television shows, films, etc.
“Well, right now, there’s not much else for me but Preacher! [Laughs] But I grew up reading lots of fantasy novels – Star Wars and I’m a big Star Trek fan! I love any story about the battle between good and evil!”
Preacher is one of those shows that stand in a category by itself. It playfully throws around concepts of Heaven/Hell and the role of God in the universe like they were toys, but it does this in such a humorous manner that their importance is lightened by the characters in the story. Their humanity and their desire to understand these things is framed by dark comedy that underlines their importance and allows us to realize and appreciate them in a way that adds to the enjoyment.
Quality attracts quality. When you see the winning combination of characters like Lara Featherstone and the talented performances of actresses like Julie Ann Emery, you know you’re in for a television treat. The combination of her dedication and respect for the comic source – as shared by her fellow performers – is clearly the reason for its runaway success, and with talent and reverence like this, how can this show possibly fail?