Graham McTavish, who plays the Saint of Killers on AMC’s Preacher, discusses the fun of being an unstoppable killing machine, how Jesse exploits the Saint’s Achilles’ heel, and why the Saint might become scarier than ever.
Q: This season you’ve caused explosions, ripped out tongues, thrown a grown man through a vending machine and repelled machine gun fire. Is there anything better than playing a killing machine like the Saint of Killers?
A: [Laughs] It’s worryingly satisfying, to be honest. All those pent-up feelings of frustration that one has during the day like being stuck in traffic – when you get to play a character like the Saint of Killers, it’s like therapy that you’re getting paid for. It’s very good. The vending machine guy was great. I just loved his performance. It’s a small little cameo, but he really nailed it. It was great to interact with him. The shootout on the highway plays into all of the dreams and fantasies one has when growing up, playing Cowboys and Indians. And the fact is, nobody can kill me. It’s a win-win.
Q: Even so, the Saint does have a softer side as it relates to his family. How do you think he’s he been able to hang onto that one piece of himself through all those years in Hell?
A: It’s love that keeps that little bit of hope and tenderness inside him. Even thinking back to Episode 2 when I killed Fiore, it’s an act of kindness. He’s releasing Fiore from the very Hell he also inhabits. He wants to escape and he understands Fiore’s motivations. When he kills Fiore, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an act of love at that point, but it’s certainly not an act of cruelty. It’s interesting that the show explores how I do these appalling things and I am extremely violent with a huge body count, but the thing that motivates me and has kept that fire going inside of me is the love for my family and the desire to be reunited with them. That’s something anybody can relate to. If you were separated from your family and you knew there were certain things you needed to accomplish to get to them, I think anybody would do pretty much anything to achieve it.
A: With the very nature of an Achilles’ heel, you’re not surprised because you’re not even aware that it’s your Achilles’ heel. [Jesse] just pushes the right buttons with the Saint. At that point, I don’t think [the Saint] is concerned with manipulation or trickery or if Jesse will fulfill his side of the deal. He just sees this as his absolute best opportunity to get what he needs [to go to Heaven] and when he’s offered that, he doesn’t think of the potential consequences. It’s a moment that he quite literally lets his guard down and then, the tables have turned in lots of ways. The “bad guy” – if you want to call me that – and the “good guy” of Jesse Custer are flipped. I really think there’s a moment there in Episode 6 where the audiences’ sympathies are with the Saint and not with Jesse. Jesse becomes the rather cruel character in that particular relationship.
Q: Why do you think the Saint even lets Jesse plead his case and manipulate him rather than just blowing him away?
A: There is a point where you think that as soon as he sees Jesse, he’ll just kill him. That is, after all, what he’s been trying to achieve. But despite the fact that he’s been in Hell and all these terrible things have been done to him, he is human. He has that human side to him and that side is curious. That’s what we’re like. If somebody comes up to us and says, “I know you’re thinking this thing but if I tell you this other thing, maybe that’ll change your mind,” you’ll listen to them. I have him at my mercy. He’s not going anywhere. I could kill him at any moment, and I don’t think the delay in doing so is out of savoring the moment. There’s just no rush, in the same way that the Saint walks everywhere to achieve his goals. He doesn’t run. There is something much more disturbing and menacing about that and that’s what plays out in this scene.
Q: How surprised is the Saint when Genesis suddenly works on him after he has a soul? Does he instantly regret playing into Jesse’s hands?
A: Oh yeah. He knows. As soon as the word of God works on him, he knows he’s made a fatal error. He’s walked right into that trap. It’s really the first time you get to see the Saint afraid. He’s afraid of what’s coming, of the consequences of what’s just happened and that he won’t get into Heaven. … There is a change that comes over him once he’s eaten that soul and he can see the future, the good, the possibilities, the family and then the rug’s pulled out from underneath him. It was great fun to do.
Q: The Saint then manipulates Jesse to keep him from sending him back to Hell. After everything he’s learned about God and Heaven, what does the Saint think he has to gain by staying on Earth?
A: I think it was important for him to make it clear to Jesse that they are essentially the same. It’s not just, “I’ve got a little bit of your soul. You’re coming with me to Hell as well.” It’s, “You and I are not so different. You think you’re doing this great thing, but you’re not.” It is a threat, but he’s also welcoming it. He has lived through Hell, so I don’t think he’s afraid of that at all. The only thing he’s afraid of is not being with his family. He says to Jesse, “Do it. Do it. Let’s go. I’m taking you with me.” I think he’s motivated by making it clear to Jesse the consequences of what he’s done.
Q: For now, that means being in the back of a truck in a lake. What can you say about what the Saint is thinking of in terms of revenge?
A: Something that was impersonal – Jesse was simply a barrier for getting what the Saint wanted, which was Genesis – has now become personal. By doing what he did to him, Jesse has fundamentally changed their relationship. Once he’s in that armored car, with the time that he has to think and the confinements, I think something happens in there that changes the way he views his journey going forward, particularly in relation to Jesse. Now, he doesn’t just want to kill Jesse to get to Genesis. He wants to punish Jesse. And that’s a big change for him.
Q: Do you think he’s gained new respect for Jesse as an opponent, despite being bested by him this time?
A: I think that’s a fair point. It’s like a high stakes chess game between those two characters. He is going to respect Jesse as an opponent and not underestimate him. I think if he’s given the opportunity – which he hopes he will have – he will not underestimate him again. I think he does look at him as a worthy adversary whereas other people are not.
Q: Has the New Orleans humidity made it difficult to constantly be covered in so many layers of leather?
A: I was okay with it. My coat was lighter this season and they did something to the back of my vest so that it breathes more easily, but at the end of the day, I’m wearing a woolen costume, a leather coat, a hat, a big wig, boots, and carrying ten pounds of metal strapped to my waist. So, you’re going to get hot. The heat wasn’t necessarily the hardest thing. It was the sword. [Laughs] Even sitting down is a problem – not that the Saint really needs to sit down much because he’s not getting tired or going to have naps – but from a practical point of view, that was a bit of a pain in the ass.
Q: How have you enjoyed working with the cast regularly this season and seeing your character in the modern world?
A: It’s been less lonely! [Laughs] The Saint really was the Billy No Mates of the world of Preacher and now I get to interact more with Dominic [Cooper] and Ruth [Negga] particularly. That human interaction opens up all sorts of possibilities because up until that point, any guest star that came onto the show always had a short experience with me. I just killed them. In terms of him arriving in the modern world, he’s not particularly distracted by the modern world. He’s got such a singular purpose so he’s not going to be taking time to be like, “Oh, what are these things called ‘cars?’” He’s just going to be hunting down that bastard that has Genesis. He does look at the TV, but he’s more interested in the person on the TV than the invention of television. At no point would he turn to Jesse and say, “How does this work? There’s a little man in the television!” He’s just like, “Who’s this dick that’s talking?” And the smashing of the television was very satisfying!
Read a Q&A with Ruth Negga, who plays Tulip O’Hare.
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