Pip Torrens, who plays Herr Starr on Preacher, talks about the surreal nature of the show, his character’s vanity and the joys of acting with Julie Ann Emery.
Q: What’s it been like shooting in/inhabiting Masada? Does the place hold any significance for Starr?
A: It was great because the environment in Masada was so interesting and so beautifully designed. They even had their own Lazarus coffee, which was kind of like a Grail version of Starbucks. It’s very, very funny and everywhere you looked there were lovely design touches. Also, it was considerably more atmospheric, I would say, than the Grail office last year, although there was a reason we had to be there, we were doing the experiments with Humperdoo and everything. It’s a beautifully designed environment and it was exciting, the whole siege mentality of the place. I loved the design of the show. I think they did a fantastic job this season.
Masada is very significant for Starr because it’s the sort of Vatican City for the Grail, if you like. That’s where you get to be top dog, when you get to be Allfather. Of course, for Starr, he’s finally made it. He’s managed to engineer the death of his predecessor, and now he’s sort of ensconced. He’s pleased with himself, and he thinks he can just get Jesse to come to him and sit it out. He’s decided now he just wants vengeance. He doesn’t really have an agenda for Jesse as the Messiah. Jesse’s disappointed him, as practically everyone in his life has at one time or another. So he’s ready, and he’s got Frankie Toscani there down in the basement working on Cassidy. So he thinks he holds all the cards. But then of course there’s God, and the relationship between Starr and God is fascinating, that Starr is sort of tiptoeing around. Because he finally realizes that even though he’s become Allfather, what he’d really like is to get his so-called beauty back so that starts to motivate him more and more in those early episodes. That’s a lot of fun, a lot of fun to work through.
Q: Herr Starr can’t quite get his hands on Jesse, even when he walks right into Masada with Starr’s troops all around. Is Jesse getting better at fighting Starr or is Starr getting worse at fighting Jesse?
A: I think both things are true. I am getting worse. But then why am I getting worse? I’m pretty good at double-crossing him and catching him out, and I think this season what’s happening is, even as Starr’s got the top job, he’s starting to unravel. Now that God has come into Masada, he wants to dispose of Jesse and get on with the Doomsday agenda. But with his understanding and what his feelings are about Humperdoo and the relationship between Humperdoo and God — because God of course has this very soft spot for Humperdoo and I have to pretend that I do too — I think the whole situation by now is a disaster and it’s been driving me to distraction. So because of that, I think Starr, he’s a bit more fallible. He’s always been fallible. He’s always made mistakes. He’s always had catastrophic things happen to him. But I think his eye’s slightly off the ball when it comes to Jesse, and I think that’s why Jesse and Cass and Tulip are running rings around us. Certainly Tulip runs rings around Featherstone. There’s something quite ridiculous about the Grail at times, so we are a fallible organization, I’m afraid.
Q: Did Herr Starr ever imagine that Humperdoo would become such an issue?
A: It’s interesting how that was revealed. You have to go back to Season 2. When I get Jesse and I introduce him to Humperdoo, Jesse thinks he’s meeting the real deal. He falls to his knees and then he realizes we’ve got this guy, that it’s going to be impossible for him to do anything — and then of course the God character absolutely favors Humperdoo and there’s Jesus returning to discover that he’s the black sheep of the family, ironically for having sinned and created Humperdoo.
All these contradictions just drive Starr to distraction, and I think he’s clear at the beginning of the show that Humperdoo is not part of his agenda, but he’s got to stay on the right side of God. Of course, he knows Humperdoo’s missing. Humperdoo’s out and about. He’s gone over the wire. It’s interesting that Starr is so deluded that he thinks that God isn’t one step ahead of him a lot of the time, whereas we see early on that God is manipulating absolutely everything. You see God in his caravan working on his little tricks and treats, and you realize this has got to be part of a very elaborate trap for almost everybody involved and that’s kind of what happened. But it plays out in such an interesting and surprising way.
And then of course Starr has to sort of chair these negotiations between Jesus and Hitler, which are actually some of my favorite scenes — scenes where we came in and said, “Wait a minute, guys, let’s take a moment just to remark on the fact that we’re doing a scene where these two figures are negotiating with each other.” I can’t imagine — if you told me I was doing this, I’d say there’s no way you could even write this stuff, let alone perform it. But it’s fantastic. And Tyson Ritter and Noah Taylor are such brilliant performers and they’re so funny together. They absolutely play it so straight. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and say this is insane, this is so surreal. It’s fantastic. So, yeah, I love all that.
Q: Now Starr is Allfather, answering to God. How does this change the way Starr operates?
A: He becomes more and more obsessed. Because of his vanity, he’s determined to become like a perfect human being, and so he’s desperately running around and trying to do deals. Of course, you have God saying don’t try and string me along anymore because, if you want this deal, you have to be straight up with me and, of course, that’s what I haven’t done. I thought I could deceive God in the way that I deceived the Allfather in the last season, but you can’t do it. So I think he’s slightly more vulnerable, dare I say sympathetic this season. He’s so very, very damaged.
Q: Do you think Starr’s goals have changed as the seasons have gone on? If so, how?
A: Yes, I think they have — but I’m not sure he ever thought that far ahead. When he’s first recruited, he says thank you for giving me this opportunity to his boss, and then immediately kills him and moves up to the next spot, so he’s thinking one step ahead, but I would say not much more than that. I think his goal’s been to survive, to get around Allfather. And then he has new goals as we come into this season, which are more to do with him, what his position is going to be in relation to the apocalypse, whatever form that takes, and what he could ask for in return. And it turns out what he wants to ask for is not supernatural powers but just to be physically good-looking. He just wants to be one of the beautiful people. I think his goals become, if you like, almost narrower and narrower and less and less likely.
Q: Have you enjoyed playing the running joke of all of Starr’s trouble with his appearance?
A: It was a joy to do. It was a joy to see him sort of looking at himself. In fact, I think the first significant shot we see is of him looking at himself in a mirror in this season. The scar that Tulip inflicted on him is utterly humiliating to him and apparently he can’t wear hats now because Jesse’s used the word of God on him. So I think, because of that, he just wanted to be able to turn that around and then I think he just started to dream the impossible dream, you know? And he’s now gone to a slightly different dimension. But in the end it’s about something that’s relatively trivial almost — personal vanity, having a full head of hair, getting his eye back and looking reasonably youthful. You sort of think, wow, it’s amazing how these monsters turn out to have quite simple desires when they’re honest about it and you strip everything else away. But that was such fun to do.
Q: What was it like bringing this series to a close?
A: Well, it was pretty sad and certainly my relationship with Julie Ann Emery, who plays Featherstone, has been one of the joys of doing this show. I think her performance is just extraordinary, in terms of the pace of the humor of Featherstone, who on the face of it seems to be such a deadpan character, this agent who’s utterly faithful to Starr despite the fact that he still can’t get her name right. I just love working with Julie Ann. And we had some really well-written scenes at the end, which were all about betrayal and rejection and misunderstanding. She was really able to spread her wings in those scenes. Their ending was the opposite of what I expected to happen. Sam [Catlin] did some very clever things. He subverted quite a lot of expectations in that last episode.
And we had that thing where actors get, toward the end of a show, where you suddenly realize you’ve got one scene left. You suddenly realize you’re not going to see some of the other characters again. You’ve actually done the bulk of your stuff, and that’s always sad. But, in a way, you just think, well, we should just look back at the stuff we’ve done in the past and the great moments you’ve had and just be happy with that. And Julie Ann’s fantastic because she just plays it so straight, but she absolutely gets the surreal nature of the show and she’s great to play off. Just like Noah is so funny when he’s opposite Tyson, I think the comedy works best when I’m with Julie Ann more than anyone else because she’s so dead straight, but she’s suppressing so much as well, [in terms of] what she wants to say. It’s a great relationship.
It’s sad but at the same time you feel it’s naturally come to an end. We’ve used most of the original material. We get a big, big finish, which I think honors the book to a degree — you can never get everything in. I’m happy to have done it and I think we ended on a really high note. It goes out with a big bang. I’m very happy with how it’s ended.
Q: What’s the wildest scene from this series, in your opinion?
A: Starr has a terrible episode [in Season 4, Episodes 7 and 8] that was really good fun to play. We played that in a kind of deserted gold mine set that was all covered in dust. The prosthetics work for that was extraordinary. The nude lineup in Season 2 was nothing compared to what I had to do in Season 4 in terms of physical exposure and humiliation. I said to Sam, surely [there are] no more ways this character can be humiliated. But of course it’s very funny and great fun to play.
Read an interview with Ruth Negga, who plays Tulip.
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