Betty Buckley, who plays Gran’ma on AMC’s Preacher, discusses Gran’ma’s cruel sense of justice, why she is so chummy with Satan and how she became a Preacher superfan before she even joined the show.
Q: How much did you know about the comic or the show itself prior to being cast?
A: I found it in Season 1 just channel surfing and I became addicted and looked forward to it each week. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing at first and then I was like, “This is so cool! This is the most outrageous TV show I’ve ever seen.” My agent called and said there was a role of Gran’ma Marie L’Angelle on Preacher and I was like, “Preacher? That’s my favorite show!” I was so excited. I did a video audition for it and they sent me the graphic novel art work so I could get a sense of who this character was and that told me a lot right away. When my agent called and said [the role] was mine, I was just screaming with delight. I’m a total fan of Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Joseph Gilgun, the writing on this show and everything about it. I loved the iconoclastic nature of the show. It really busts all of your belief systems wide open and makes you rethink it all.
Q: How did you approach creating the role of Gran’ma? How, if at all, did you want to make her different from the character in the comic?
A: Once I got the role, they sent me all of the novels that I was able to study. I had a real sense of the style of the show. That was very familiar to me. Right after I got the part, I had about a two-and-a-half-hour long conversation with Sam Catlin, our showrunner, and another hour and a half with Michael Slovis, who directed the first two episodes and is our producing director. I talked to Sam Catlin about the background of the character, who she was, what his plan for her story in Season 3 was and how to set that up, and who she is to each one of the characters. I always work with a psychologist, especially when I play some of these aberrated characters that I’ve had the good fortune to play over the past many years. It’s my favorite kind of character. I love delving into dark psyches. It’s very fascinating for me.
Q: How would you describe Marie’s worldview? How does she reconcile the fact that she claims to love her family yet has done so many terrible things to them?
A: She was raised on this plantation with a very cruel father who set the tone for what punishment was. She was severely punished and she has learned to punish. She learned by example. She has these skills which she learned from one of the slaves on this plantation, who had these voodoo skills and was trained to be a voodoo sorceress. She’s capable of healing people and, in the case of Tulip, bringing a person back to life even – for a price. And that’s her business. She exacts a very severe revenge if people don’t pay the bill. She’s basically like anybody else. She wants to be honored and respected and appreciated and when people don’t respect her or honor their barter, she hurts them and takes their soul. Some people don’t live up to their word, so she punishes them.
Q: Marie was obviously smart enough to link her life with Tulip. Did she always assume Tulip would do her harm?
A: [Jesse] comes back wanting this huge favor to bring Tulip back to life, so she sets it up to protect herself because she knows he’s a clever boy and she doesn’t trust that he’ll fulfill his bargain. She requires the blood oath so she can control him. When she brings Tulip back, she ties her life to Tulip’s by consuming the skin, the hair, the fingernails. If she gets killed, Tulip dies. She knows that when they figure that out, they won’t kill her. It all makes sense. [Laughs] She’s pretty clear. She knows she killed [Jesse’s] parents. She knows he ran away because of that. If they were to offer the respect and gratitude that they should, in her mind, she could see them all as one big happy family and working together, but Tulip is very rebellious, disrespectful and unappreciative.
Q: And Tulip does, in fact, kill Gran’ma! Is that a breaking point for Marie?
A: She realizes her instincts were right. In Episode 7, she doesn’t know that Jesse has Genesis. She suspects something, but she doesn’t quite know what that is. T.C. comes in and says, “What’s a Genesis?” Her intuition is telling her something’s up. It’s why she’s so upset when they’re about to go to Japan. She doesn’t trust that Herr Starr guy at all and she feels “he better come back.” If he doesn’t, she’s going to make holy hell on them, but she’s not sure what the nature of the betrayal is or how it’s going to go down.
Q: Marie is obviously weak/contemplating her mortality, even having the nightmare in Episode 8. Why do you think she’s so afraid of Hell?
A: That’s her worst fear – to be confronted with thousands of souls she’s consumed. She knows on some level there’ll be payback for that, but as long as she keeps the ball in the air, everything should be okay. Her dream is an intuitive dream about the debt she’ll have to pay. We all fear dying and aging. She’s the symbolic living evidence of that fear gone completely crazy.
Q: Were you surprised to learn Marie had a direct line to Satan? What does it say about Marie that she is so chummy with the devil?
A: Satan was one of her former lovers and she was the most beautiful girl in the county in her youth. She encountered Satan at some point and he was intrigued by her boldness as a young southern girl and they became lovers. Part of his gift to her – or not, depending on how you view it – was to teach her that to retain her youth and beauty and life was to consume souls the way he does. He taught her that aspect of her skill set and she’s been doing that all these years. … The dark realm of pure evil beckoned and bit by bit, she sold herself in that way to have these powers to stay young and alive. While she’s not actively Satan’s lover anymore, she knew enough to get out of that relationship. That she would even have a barter session with Satan himself is pretty ballsy if you ask me. That she thinks she even has leverage is pretty ballsy. She’s counting on the fact that he found her special then and still will.
Q: Marie is willing to sell Jesse out to stay out of Hell. Has she finally found the limit of his usefulness to her?
A: She’s counting on the fact that he will come back and maintain his loyalty. She hopes for that. But she’s hedging her bet. In case it goes wrong, she’s got this up her sleeve. She doesn’t trust Tulip at all. She wanted to. If Tulip had just said, “Thank you so much for my life” and offered respect and gratitude, things might have gone differently. But she’s Tulip! [Laughs]
Q: How does Marie really feel about Jody and T.C.? Does she appreciate that they have given up their lives to her?
A: She thinks of them as functionaries. They’re her minions, in her mind. They take care of her and do everything for her, but they’re two down-and-out guys and she’s provided them sanctuary and a home. They were probably homeless with no real other associates or relationships and she gave them purpose. They have that soldier loyalty to her and they’re also terrified of her.
Q: You’re a Tony-winning legend who has done so much. How did Preacher compare to your vast experience?
A: Honestly, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. [Laughs] I love the whole team and the actors are just out of this world and the crew in New Orleans were just lovely people. What they shoot in eight days is full-on cinematic quality. It goes way beyond a television show. The cinematography, the set design, every aspect of what goes into making great film – the Preacher team has it. It was such a pleasure to go to work every day with these incredibly gifted people who care so much about telling good stories and making good film. In this day and age of Hollywood and us seeing the manifestations of how cruel so many people in the business of making movies and television can be to actresses, I’ve never felt so appreciated and respected and honored as an artist. They were very collaborative. They wanted my input. It was wonderful. I can’t even explain it. It was four perfect months in New Orleans and I was really sad when it was over. Right now, I’m in New York rehearsing for the national tour of Hello, Dolly! It’s just hilarious to go from playing Gran’ma Marie to playing this icon of musical theater who’s the epitome of love. I’m feeling a bit schizophrenic these days, but I’m having a great time.
Q: It’s too bad we didn’t get to see you sing on Preacher!
A: [Laughs] I did learn that Cajun prayer, when I’m bringing Tulip back to life, which has a certain singsong cadence.
Q: Any favorite memory or moment you recall from the set?
A: I loved working with Dominic Cooper. We had a really special connection as actors and he’s a lovely man. I’m an adoring fan of Ruth Negga. That fight scene I got to do with her, I felt like an action hero. Everybody was being so careful with me because I’m a lady of a certain age and I finally just said, “Hey guys, I live on a ranch and I ride cutting horses, so you guys don’t have to treat me so tenderly.” And they were like, “Oh, right. She’s a cowgirl!” I saw these stills of me leaping across the space with a knife in my hand. It was my first real fight scene and I really had fun that day. I also love that hot pepper scene with Joseph [Gilgun]. I loved our scenes together. The whole thing was a blessing.
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