Julie Ann Emery
Taking on the Preacher Man
By Jay S. Jacobs
Many actors, after they have been working for a while, tend to take on safer roles. Why push boundaries when people like what you’re doing?
That kind of attitude seems boring to Julie Ann Emery.
Emery has been a regular presence on our TVs for well over a decade, playing such roles as a nurse on ER, the supportive best friend in the romantic comedy Hitch, a tough special agent in Line of Fire and a Secret Service Agent on Commander in Chief. As much as she enjoyed these roles, she wanted to stretch out as an actress. Over the last few years, she has played roles on some of television’s most cutting-edge shows. First, she did an arc on Fargo, then she played an arresting recurring role on Better Call Saul.
Her latest character may be the quirkiest yet – and it is a role that carries a lot of baggage with it. She has joined the cast of the irreverent AMC series Preacher – based on the popular graphic novels – in the role of Lara Featherstone, one of the most iconic characters of the beloved cult series. As her character bio says: “She’s smart, calculating and isn’t afraid to use any means, including her sexuality, to complete her assigned mission.”
We hooked up with Emery a few days before the airing of second season finale of Preacher – to make sure that no spoilers about the episode slip out too soon – to discuss the show and her career.
The worldview of Preacher is very eccentric, to say the least. Were you familiar with the show or the comics before getting involved in it? What was it about the show that intrigued you to be a part of it?
The role of Featherstone, in and of itself. I was a fan of season one of the show. I’m a sci-fi fan. I’m a fantasy fan. It’s right up my alley. So, when the material came across my desk, I was like (makes a guttural noise). I did not start reading the comics until I was cast. Initially I thought: Oh, I’ll skip through to the Featherstone bits while building my character. I immediately got sucked in. I mean, something hard. I’m delighted to discover the source material. I’m delighted to still be giving them a slow read. I’m about three-quarters of the way through now.
Your character has a lot of interesting quirks, on the outside she appears to be a paper-pushing bureaucrat, but periodically it becomes obvious that she’s a bit of a sociopath. How is she interesting to play?
I think of Featherstone as a zealot. She’s a complete zealot, straight up. She believes the world has gone to a horrible, dark place. If you have to blow it up to bring it back, she will do that. That’s where her motivation comes through for me. She’s not unpredictably violent. She’s always violent with a purpose. Her actions line up with a zealot’s. Once you see her that way, they don’t come out of nowhere. However, she is willing to do anything. Absolutely anything. There is no line for her. No line she won’t cross. She doesn’t even see a line existing. She just sees what needs to happen and thinks in a straight line to there.
That’s true. Most people have sort of a breaking point at a job where there is something they won’t do, but Featherstone does not appear to have anything she would not do to advance her career and her cause. Do you think there is anything that she would consider just going too far? I mean, I’d think when the tarp comes out, that may be a time to reexamine your life choices.
The idea of losing her life is absolutely okay with her. If she has to lose her life for the cause, that is something that is acceptable to her. Whether there is a line, somewhere down the road, that she has yet to see, that’s up to the writers. But, I find it fascinating – and freeing, frankly – to play a character where there are no lines she won’t cross. Hoover [her partner, played by Malcolm Barrett] has that line. He’s always wavering. But Featherstone doesn’t waver.
Over the years you’ve tended to play good guys – heroic cops, or best girlfriends and stuff. What is it like to play someone who is basically bad?
I think the bad guys are in a lot of ways more interesting. I like complex women. I like complicated female roles. In the last three or four years, I find those more in villain roles. Everybody likes to save the day, but in terms of psychologically and in terms of my work as an actor, I’m finding villains to be far more of interest. (laughs)
One interesting part of Featherstone is that you are sort of playing her as three people – Preacher sees her as the femme fatale lounge singer, Tulip sees her as the battered neighbor, and then of course there is the real Featherstone. Do you enjoy playing all her masks?
Yeah. It’s my favorite part of the role. Jenny is almost an ingenue. Jenny is normally what we consider a victim or a good guy. Lara, the jazz singer, felt like something out of a film noir movie to me, which was fascinating all of itself. And straight-up Featherstone I love so much. She is fascinating and interesting. I mean, as an actor, you can’t ask for a better role than that, right? There are potentially an unlimited number of personalities she can play. Because we decided to make her brilliant at transforming into these characters, that speaks to her in a diabolical way, to me. Like how far she is willing to go. It also is thrilling as an actor to play.
Was it fun doing the scene as the lounge singer? You did a very nice, sultry version of Chet Baker’s “Almost Blue.”
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I actually did sing for myself. I worked with Jay Weigel, he was our jazz consultant on the show. From the moment I landed in New Orleans to start work, we started working together and found a great rendition of the song to do. It was really thrilling to revisit my singing roots a little bit. The jazz singer herself is as manipulative all her own. She’s got an interesting way of controlling the men around her. That’s for sure.
True; Tallahassee really is the capitol of Florida. Have you ever gotten a worse come-on line than “I swear, you’re the hottest thing I’ve seen since fire?”
(laughs) I don’t know if there is a worse come-on line than “I swear you’re the hottest thing since fire.”
Preacher has some sly political jabs throughout – Tulip was listening to some books on tape about psychopaths and there was one about Dick Cheney, and there were some Trump jokes. I may be reading too much into this, but your boss is always called Herr Starr. They never gave his first name as far as I can recall, but his desk says that his first initial is K. I was wondering if he was named after Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel against Bill Clinton?
Well, the Herr Starr name is fully based off of Garth Ennis’ comics. I guess that would have maybe been the 90s. That would be a question for Garth Ennis. It’s not something I would know.
Do you feel a responsibility to the fans of the character from the comics to play her in a way that is faithful to the source material, or do you think you can add little parts of you to her?
I feel like creatively we both honor Featherstone and take her further. The transformational aspect of her is different than the comics. She’s a bit more of a badass than she is in the comic books. In the comics, she is a little more corporate, although she does throw herself out of a moving car, which is proof that she’s willing to do anything, early on even in the comics. I think we’ve honored the heart of her and taken her further at the same time, in a really beautiful way. I felt enormous responsibility and anxiety when we started airing, about the fan response to Featherstone. Because, there are people who wrote to me on Twitter, saying, “I’ve been waiting 20 years to see this character brought to life.” “I’ve been waiting 17 years to see Featherstone brought to life.” I felt enormous responsibility to that. I don’t know if it’s anything that you can ever actually accomplish. When you read something, it’s always your own personal interpretation in your own mind. I don’t know that it’s possible to ever perfectly live up to anyone’s experience. That’s what’s beautiful about us all reading different material, but I hope we’ve lived up to the spirit of Featherstone.
Have you heard how the fan base has responded?
Yeah, they’re very vocal on Twitter. It’s been mostly positive, or what I’ve read has been positive, I thought. I’m very pleased with it. Very relieved, actually.
AMC has been very secretive on the series. Do you ever feel like someone is watching you to make sure you don’t let out some little morsel of information on the plot?
(laughs) Oh, yeah! You know, working an AMC show before – I worked on Better Call Saul – I’m used to the spoiler police. And I agree with the spoiler police. I would hate to ruin anything for anybody. There are big, big things coming up on the season finale on Monday that I would never in a million years spoil for people. There are going to be shocking events on Monday night, for sure.
I know you can’t give away any spoilers and I have not seen the season finale yet, but do you think Featherstone will come back next season?
I have a contract. I’m a series regular on the show. So, that would be up to AMC to go pick up season three and pick up my option with it. I hope we see Featherstone for a long, long time. She certainly exists right up until almost near the end of the comics.
Like you said, this is your second series for AMC. You were also in Better Call Saul. How did that come about and what was it like to be on that show?
I auditioned and got lucky. The casting director, Sharon Bialy, has been bringing me in for a long time. I was a huge Breaking Bad fan, as I feel most of us walking around America were. I got lucky. I didn’t even think I was right for the role. I thought maybe I’ll do a good enough job they’ll look at me for something else down the road. Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] saw something in my take on it that they liked and ran with. I’m the luckiest girl in the world, for sure.
I also loved your role on Fargo. You certainly have gotten to be on some very cutting-edge series. What do you look for in a role?
I am always looking for complexity in female roles. We’re starting to see more of that, but we still don’t see enough of it. I still see way too many things come across my desk that are two dimensional. I’m always looking for three dimensional, complicated women. I like roles with opposites in them, so that you just figure out behavior. We’re getting there, but we’ve still got a way to go.
With series coming from cable sources like AMC and FX, the landscape for television has broadened so much since the glory day of the networks. What do you think the cable renaissance as added to television programming?
Yeah, I absolutely think so. Both cable and digital streaming have made niche programming valuable again. When you speak to a niche audience, you can get more complicated in your story. You can get more complicated in your characters. When you’re trying to talk to the broadest possible audience, like it was with the original three old-school networks, everything gets watered down. It’s definitely helping, artistically, what we’re seeing out in the world, for sure.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 11, 2017.
Photo #1 © 2017 Ryan West Photo. Courtesy of MLC PR. All rights reserved.
All other photos © 2017. Courtesy of AMC. All rights reserved.