Reflecting on a great year with BETTER CALL SAUL’s Julie Ann Emery
I’ve been a fan of Julie Ann Emery for a long time, going back to one of my favorite one-season-wonders, LINE OF FIRE, on ABC. 2014/15 has been a big season for the former FBI Agent Jennifer Sampson, as she has found herself with great roles in FARGO (my favorite show from 2014) and this year’s phenomenal BETTER CALL SAUL. Julie Ann and I spent some time talking about building character, whether we’ll see Betsy Kettleman again, how she brought light to FARGO’s darkness, and what comes next. Check it out!
I have to say, I’ve been such a fan for a long time. Honestly, not a week goes by where I don’t quote David Paymer from LINE OF FIRE, with “That’s that with that!”
Is there anyone better to quote than David Paymer from LINE OF FIRE [laughs]? I loved that show so much. I still miss my Jennifer fans and I still miss my character on that show. That was one of my favorite projects of my lifetime, and I think that will always be the case!
It’s amazing how over 10 years later, I still go back there – it was a blip in the radar but I loved it so much!
I know, it’s sad that we didn’t last longer! It was great. I still see all of those guys. I just saw Anson Mount a couple of weeks ago, actually.
You have had quite a year, so far!
I’ve had a really lucky year so far! [laughs] I actually had a really lucky year last year, too. Last year, I shot FARGO and BETTER CALL SAUL. We finished BETTER CALL SAUL filming in the first week of October and then it just didn’t air until February, so I had a really, really lucky great year surrounded by great artists.
I loved Ida (on FARGO); I loved Betsy (BCS). Both such great shows, not only for us to watch, but for you to be a part of, I can imagine! Some of the best writing we’ve seen in a long time.
I think it’s some of the best writing we have on television, period. The best directors we have on television, period. They’re full of casts where nobody wants to suck on either of those shows [laughs], right? Everybody is showing up everyday. When you know that you’re working on something that has great potential, everyone shows up all day long trying to elevate the material, and doing their work. It’s a really wonderful atmosphere. It’s great. BETTER CALL SAUL – I was lucky enough to work with Bob Odenkirk on both shows, and he is just one of the nicest human beings, ever, and then Vince Gilligan is one of the nicest human beings on the planet, so the trickle down effect on that set is great, great talent, with beautiful, lovely, nice, temperaments. There couldn’t be a better place to jump off a cliff as a performer, and Betsy was definitely jumping off a cliff for me. I’ve never played anyone like her. I’m not positive we’ve seen anyone like her. I watched a lot of video in my prep for her and throughout when we were shooting. None of it was fictional; I was all over YouTube for hours on end, looking at different people, she was an interesting to get into the headspace of.
In the hands of different writers, different actors, different directors, she could have just been this wife that wouldn’t let it go, but it was elevated and it was different than what we’ve seen. The character made such a mark on the viewers throughout season. People are rallying behind Betsy!
[laughs] I know, we have out Kettleheads, and our Team Kettleman fans! Thank you for saying that – I think there was a desire on all ends – I think the Kettlemans, both of them, could have been cartoonish, but there was a great desire and urge to both flesh them out and make sure that they were still real people walking around. We all meet ridiculous people in life. Vince said to Jeremy Shamos, the brilliant theater actor from New York who plays Mr Kettleman – he said to him the first day of shooting, “I don’t think he knew how to put on his socks before he met her!” We kind of ran with that, like crazy. I think there was a desire on the writers’ part and on our parts to really discover who these people are, to not just let them live on the surface. And they could have; that’s completely true! I got really lucky.
Vince and his team did that with BREAKING BAD, too, where so many of these characters, that aren’t Saul and aren’t Walter White, could have just been someone you forget, but I don’t think there’s a character on BREAKING BAD or BETTER CALL SAUL, that people will forget.
I think that’s a great gift on the part of the writers. I think that is there gift. Sony and AMC, originally, we were spposed to start airing in November, and they pushed the start date, because Vince and Peter requested it. I think Sony and AMC have both given them their space to do that, to become fascinated with characters. I did the DVD commentary with those guys [recently] and Peter was talking about that. They are given the time when they need it to explore characters. The Kettlemans were never supposed to be what they turned into when we started. But they saw something in that first episode when we were shooting that they wanted to run with. What a lucky girl am I? [laughs]
When you read something like Betsy in the first episode – is it something where you think, “Ok, here’s what I can do with this character?” How did it change from when you first read it to what we saw?
What I had as an actor when I shot the first episode is what’s in the first episode. So it was very little to go on there, and as an actor, my impulse, I’m a big nerd in my work, and my impulse is always going to be to flesh it out and make her as three dimensional as possible. If she has 5 lines or if she is in every scene. That is always going to be what sort of fascinates me and keeps me working, so I sort of went that direction. But you don’t always, as an actor, run upon directors and writers who have that same goal. We really have, I guess, one and a half scenes in the first episode, but all day long, Vince was like “who are these people? Why are they this way? Why would they do this? Why did they…” I mean, we weren’t even sure when we got the first script that they were guilty. I mean, Betsy would still say that they’re allegedly guilty, even now! But we had to ask if they actually did or not, because we had that first scene, but I also think that Vince and Peter are attracted to nice people and they’re attracted to talent. They’re always going to be attracted to somebody who walks into that audition having fleshed out that character in a more three dimensional way, because that’s what they’re after, but that’s also what makes them brilliant. That’s why everybody wants that gig. You take Mrs Kettleman even if she winds up being one scene in the first episode, right? Because you get to be on set with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and the crew from BREAKING BAD, and you want to live in that environment for however long you can!
I was impressed with how BETTER CALL SAUL was. You hear “oh they’re making a BREAKING BAD prequel about Saul” and it’s like “what can they do” and to see the finished project, it’s completely what I didn’t expect and this show stands alone. It doesn’t need the 5 seasons of BREAKING BAD.
That statement you just made is music to their ears. That’s what Peter Gould says all the time. He says – the thing I’m most proud of right now is that they feel that the show is now being called BETTER CALL SAUL instead of the BREAKING BAD spinoff, which is what we were called when we first started airing and now, people are asking things like when are the Kettlemans going to be back and what’s going to happen with Nacho, instead of, not instead of, but there are voices as loud for that as there are for “when will Gus Fring show up?” I think they’re really proud, in the first season that the were able to create some characters that are having their own little fan outcry, for when will they be back? And they should be proud of that. BREAKING BAD is brilliant; I was a huge BREAKING BAD fan, but that’s a huge shadow, not necessarily to come out from under, but you want the show to stand on its own, and I think it does.
Has there been talk about what season 2 has in store for the Kettlemans?
Obviously, this world is very hardcore on the spoilers. I can say this – Peter did a Deadline interview right after our finale aired, and he said that they’re in the midst in the writers’ room of breaking season 2. He said that on the side board, they have a list of characters that they’d like to see show up or show back up, and that the Kettlemans are on the top of that list. I think there’s no guarantee; I think it’s a possibility. I can tell you that I would move Heaven and Earth to make that happen, but it has to serve the story. The story is how does Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman. So if they can find a way for the Kettlemans to serve that story, I think there’s a desire to bring them back, but that’s all in the future. Nobody can predict that at this moment!
You mention you’re a nerd for the acting craft and researching the role, making little scenes count. Looking back at FARGO, Ida was only in one scene, but every time, she made a mark. There were so many important moments after her husband died – was it a concerted effort to really flesh out this character as well?
I felt, on FARGO, that I filled the gap. I think Keith Carradine and I filled the gap on that show. There was a lot of fun really dark stuff happening, and I felt that Ida was kind of a light. Ida was a moment for the audience to take a breath and go “oh yeah, there’s decency” [laughs] and something really sort of true to life. It was really important to me that Ida be fully fleshed out, no matter what. And that was another one of those shows, where you get the script and you go “if I have three lines, I’m going to make this as fully formed as I possibly can.” On FARGO, in the first episode, I had that lovely stuff to do with Shawn Doyle, and he’s such a wonderful actor, and we got to flesh out those characters together, and it wasn’t, moving on from there, wasn’t difficult. We fleshed those characters out in that first episode, and I had to live without him after that. I always kind of joked on FARGO that they brought Ida in when they were afraid they’d gone too dark [laughs] but I think that there is something to that. I think that her space in that was decency and goodness, and there wasn’t a ton of decency and goodness in certain parts of that story.
We saw you popup on THE FOLLOWING – what can you say is next for you coming up?
I was on THE FOLLOWING and died gloriously! I got to get squibbed. I know, I’m such a dork about that! I’m like “Do I get to get squibbed if I get shot?” Squibbed is where they put the little explosive on you and make it bleed, and it blows up when they point the gun, and yeah, so I was excited about that! And my friend Mary Leah Sutton wrote the episode and she, speaking of LINE OF FIRE, she was Jeff Melvoin’s assistant on LINE OF FIRE. Jeff Melvoin was our showrunner on LINE OF FIRE, so I’ve known her forever, and I’m so proud to see her on a writing staff and on a great show and I was really thrilled to get to say her words.
I also just wrapped a pilot – it’s the Untitled Johnny Knoxville Pilot for ABC. It’s a half hour single family comedy, and it’s about Johnny Knoxville growing up in Tennessee in the late 70s and early 80s. He narrates it; it’s sort of THE WONDERS YEARS meets MY NAME IS EARL, I guess. I play his ten year old self’s mother and she is a character and a half. I mean, I guess you’d have to be to raise Johnny Knoxville, right? But she’s completely different from Betsy Kettleman, but oh good lord, she’s a character! So that was really fun. The show has a lot of physical humor in it. His dad was a big prankster and he sort of turned that into a business model, but it also is a really sweet family comedy. It’s got a lot of a good hear to it. So I hope! We’ll hope ABC picks us up and I get to play another outrageous character on television [laughs].
Is there one thing when you read scripts, when you get a new set of auditions sides, what’s the first thing you gravitate towards, a sweeping monologue, a description of the character, what draws you in?
I’m very drawn to good writing, but I’m very drawn to characters, and I’m very drawn to characters that are the opposite of what I just played. I like the idea of transformation. For example, when I was shooting LINE OF FIRE, HITCH came across my desk, and Stacy in HITCH is the furthest thing on Earth from a hardcore FBI agent, so I was like, this is great! I like the idea of stretching myself in opposite directions as far as I can go. I also like the idea of characters who have opposites to play, who have internal opposites happening. Betsy Kettleman, for example, seems so nice and almost sweet on the outside when you meet her, but in fact, there’s something, I think, almost even darker than we’ve seen going on inside her head. I love that place where, it can be challenging as an actor to play, but that place where opposites exist in a character is very attractive to me.
I know that you’re involved in acting classes, being a coach to other actors – what’s the number one piece of advice you give to people? Is there one thing or one idea you try to give to every person you instruct?
I tell people, in a career kind of way, I tell people to separate their craft from their career. So, I tell people to build your craft, and it’s no one’s job to care about that and care for that, but you. The business is going to do with you whatever it’s going to do with you. So, that’s something else entirely. If you take care of your craft, good writers and directors will migrate towards you. You will wind up, eventually, somewhere, surrounded by good people that have also been taking care of their craft, and working their craft. It’s really hard to, I think sometimes, hold on to something deeply artistic in the business but if you take care of your own work, then the right thing will pop up for you. Hopefully, you’ll wind up in something you’re proud of, and hopefully, you’ll wind up with a really brilliant year like I had [laughs]. Everybody has ups and downs, but if you take care of your own work, then eventually, the right thing will play out for you, will find itself. That’s true on set, too. There is a lot happening on a film set or a television set. Your job is to take care of your character and focus in, and take care of the moments and the scene work. BETTER CALL SAUL was a brilliant set to do that on. Everyone is so good at their job and so good at what they do that it’s so easy to focus in on what you do.
When you get time, do you watch shows, have favorite things that you need to sit at watch?
I love it. I will stay home and eat popcorn instead of going out of the house! I’m a giant GAME OF THRONES fan. I’m a big HOUSE OF CARDS fan. I’m marathoning ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK right now. I was a gigantic BATTLESTAR GALACTICA fan. High end sci-fi is right up my alley! Late at night, I’m re-marathoning STAR TREK. My tastes can run a little wide. For example, I would have marathoned FARGO whether I was in it or not. It’s completely up my alley. I’m so excited that GAME OF THRONES [is back] and by the way, thank God that George RR Martin is writing again. Because those books were crack for me. I mean…I inhaled those books and mourned when I didn’t have any more to read.
It’s one of those things where you think “will I make it through this absurdly long book” and then you hit the end and you’re jonesing.
You go “I can’t believe that I’m done! Why didn’t I wait!” I chastised myself, and I’m up at 2 in the morning the reading the thing!
I can’t wait to see what comes next for you!
I love so much that you’re a LINE OF FIRE fan. When people ask me, what was your favorite role of all time…oh I don’t know, Betsy Kettleman might compete with her!! Oh God, I didn’t think about that until right now. My answer has always been in five seconds has been “Special Agent Jennifer Sampson.” Oh wow! Betsy might give her a run for her money!
I would love to do a rewatch –
Yeah, I have them on DVD, but I really wish that they would put them on Netflix. I wish they would release them for streaming somewhere. I don’t know that ABC would ever do that, but I wish they would! It’s such a great show! You know what else I watch all the time? FIREFLY. I just marathoned FIREFLY for the 15th time.
If you have the DVDs or you have it on Netflix, that’s a show where it’s like, do I really want to start a new show, or just watch this one that I know I’ll love from start to finish?
OH yeah! I’m like flipping through Netflix, and there’s all of these new things, and I want to check out PEAKY BLINDERS, I want to check out this and that, and what am I doing, I’m watching FIREFLY again, for the 15th time. That’s the brilliance of living in the digital age!