Pip Torrens, who plays Herr Starr on AMC’s Preacher, discusses the responsibility of taking on a fan-favorite character, whether Starr’s depravity is all for show, and why he sees potential in Jesse.
Q: How familiar were you with the Preacher comics before you got the role of Herr Starr?
A: I was not familiar with them at all. In fact, the world of graphic novels was one that I was virtually ignorant of. I was aware that there’d been great advances in the stories that they deal with … but I certainly didn’t know about Garth [Ennis] and Steve [Dillon] writing Preacher. After I met Garth, it was very interesting to realize the amount of dedication and the depth of the themes that they are trying to address. I read the volume that Starr first appears in and I subsequently read all six of them, and they completely blew my mind.
Q: It’s pretty uncanny how much you look like the character. Is that a happy coincidence?
A: [Laughs] Sam Catlin told me the story of how they were, at the beginning of the year, wondering about Starr and what qualities they wanted him to have. Everyone at that point had seen The Crown, which I was involved in playing Tommy Lascelles, who’s this behind-the-scenes guy who pulls a lot of strings without being seen. Someone said, “You know what? We need someone smart like that Tommy guy in The Crown. Who’s that?” They looked me up and found a picture of me with the wig and mustache on, and one of the writers said they’d have to shave my mustache, but didn’t realize I was in complete makeup. They Googled me again and saw a picture of me with a shaved head, which is how I normally have it, and they all did a double-take. When I went to meet Sam and Evan [Goldberg], I could see they were being polite, but they were also looking me up and down. It was quite funny.
Q: Herr Starr is a character beloved by fans of the comics, particularly by the show’s creative team. Do you feel pressure or responsibility in the way you bring the character to life?
A: I’m trying not to feel pressure because I do feel a huge responsibility. With meeting Garth and talking to this very erudite man about a series he started 20 years ago, you’ve got to be aware that you’re accountable to a huge pre-existing fanbase out there. My experience of meeting fans at conventions has been a really pleasant education in how well-informed people are who follow long-running shows. But I think people who follow long-running shows based on graphic novels are a separate department. They will know – if not more – about the history of the character than I do.
Q: Was it hard to keep your casting a secret?
A: The basic rule of thumb was that I initially could say absolutely nothing and then we got to a point where it was officially announced. Some of the fan sites had speculated as to who they might be seeing. My rule that I stuck by was, “Don’t say who you are, even though it’s pretty blinding obvious.” And certainly, don’t say what plot developments there might be because the writers are so selective about the storylines they take from the original material and what they hold back. That’s a really fascinating thing – seeing what they choose to prioritize and what they’ve got in their back pocket.
Q: How would you describe Herr Starr?
A: In some ways, he’s a monster in terms of how he behaves with other people and his cohorts, but in moments where he opens up as much as he ever does, he admits he’s dissatisfied with the world. He’s a pragmatist, if you will, and it tends to express itself in psychopathy and megalomaniac behavior, but he himself is accountable to other forces. He certainly feels his universe isn’t quite as it should be and it makes him angry and decisive. He certainly doesn’t have regrets, but he acts in a violent way and that’s how we’re introduced to him. That makes him fun as well. Fun to watch and fun to play.
Q: From the flashbacks, we can see that Starr is initially less than enthused about the Grail’s work, but has that changed over time?
A: I think from the moment of his first interview with Saltonstall, he had reservations about the Grail’s mission and it seemed to be underwhelming. He was thinking along the lines of nuclear warfare and he tends to think in very destructive and all-conquering terms. So, the idea that the Grail could have a mission to nurture something and bring something to fruition is probably something he’s never been comfortable with.
Q: Do you think Starr actually cares about rooting out false gods or does he view the Grail as a means to an end to act out his darker desires?
A: He’s the right man for the job. He’s the head of Samson Unit and doesn’t have ultimate authority. That’s the point. That’s quite clearly made in the books when it’s time to sketch out the hierarchy in the Grail and you see paramilitary aspects in the Samson unit. I think he has absolutely no compunction about tidying up. He’s a hit man in a way. He’s ridding the world of false messiahs.
Q: When Starr kills Saltonstall, it’s clear he’s nobody’s right-hand man. Are there levels of power he hopes to rise to beyond the Samson unit?
A: He is biding his time and he has perhaps found that increasingly difficult to do. We’re not shown many episodes from the 20 years of his recruitment to the time he becomes aware of Jesse. I think his skepticism has grown and he’s gone on committing these atrocious crimes in the name of the Grail, but he’s looking for something and didn’t quite know what it was until he meets Jesse. He’s intrigued by Genesis and of course, you would be because that seems like a genuinely biblical event. He doesn’t know as much as Jesse knows about where it’s come from but he’s keen on finding out.
Q: We get multiple looks at Herr Starr’s depravity in the training montage. How fun was that to shoot? Do you think he’s actually twisted, or just being smart in using those methods to his advantage?
A: I think he doesn’t know himself, perhaps. Dissatisfaction is his key thing and he’s quite happy to tell people as long as they have something to supply him with in return, but most people don’t. It was enormous fun to do that day. It was all one day and it was my very first day on the show. The first shot I did was the mass nude scene where we’re all standing there completely naked and I’d been in special effects for an hour, getting those prosthetic nipples put on and the chain put through them. That was a real “in the deep end” moment. This is such a crazy show that, in a way, I’m glad we start with the craziest moment so far in the script. It was great to do.
Q: By the end of the episode, Jesse is on Herr Starr’s radar. What can you tease about the dynamic between those two men this season?
A: I think Starr feels attracted to Jesse because of his power, but also because he senses depths in Jesse that Jesse doesn’t want to admit to. We know, even as viewers, that sometimes Jesse shocks himself with the things he can do in terms of physical violence. He has depths of anger and rage and therefore, potential in Starr’s eyes. Starr isn’t just a straightforward foot soldier. He does have connections to dimensions that we might not expect.
Q: Many actors enjoy playing villains instead of the hero. What about Herr Starr do you find most enjoyable?
A: [Laughs] It’s just so therapeutic to play bad guys. He says appalling things. Just being allowed to say dreadful things out loud and to behave in an appalling way – and that’s your day job – you feel cleansed. It’s sort of like a spiritual sauna to sweat out all this stuff you had in your system. It’s a joy. And the writing has just been fantastic and more than I could have hoped for. Especially in Episode 7, I was just giggling inside over everything I had to say. They give him such good dialogue in terms of undercutting what other people say. He doesn’t do regular conversations. He’s pragmatic and ruthless in conversation as well. That’s enormous fun because you don’t often get that in evil characters because they need people most of the time, even if only to manipulate them. Starr just deals with people before he can just tell them to shove off.
Read a Q&A with Graham McTavish, who plays the Saint of Killers.
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