A dynamic and laser-focused actress, Julie Ann Emery has spent the past few years creating a truly unique resume for herself with a plethora of wonderfully diverse roles. No stranger to the small screen, many fans will recognize her as Ida Thurman from the Emmy and Golden Globe winning mini-series “Fargo,” where she starred alongside Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Oliver Platt and Bob Odenkirk. Her other notable small screen roles include recurring on TNT’s ‘Major Crimes,’ USA’s ‘Suits,’ DirecTV’s ‘Damages,’ FX’s ‘The Riches,’ Showtime’s Emmy®-nominated drama ‘Dexter’ and Rod Lurie’s critically acclaimed ‘Line of Fire’ and ‘Commander in Chief.’ However, Emery certainly made her biggest splash within the “Breaking Bad” universe with her role as Betsy Kettleman on AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” As one of the most mysterious and haunting characters on the critically acclaimed series, Julie Ann Emery shined in every scene and proved to be a formidable match for Bob Odenkirk’s iconic Saul Goodman. In 2017, fans will be blown away by Emery’s most powerful and complex character to date! On AMC’s hit series, ‘Preacher,’ she plays the cunning Lara Featherstone, who is one of the Grail’s best operatives. She’s smart, calculating and isn’t afraid to use any means, including her sexuality, to complete her assigned mission. Featherstone has committed her life to the Grail and will stop at nothing to protect their objectives. For Emery, it’s a character rich with possibility and the true culmination of her hard work both on and off screen. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Julie Ann Emery to discuss her journey as an actress, the challenges she has faced along the way, her breakout role as Mrs.Kettleman on ‘Better Call Saul’ and the process of bringing Lara Featherstone to from script to screen!
You are becoming a familiar face on some of the most exciting shows on television. How did you get involved with the arts early on?
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee. It was mostly farms and factories. When I was 16 years old, the local theater, there is only one theater for 100 miles, got an educational grant to provide a part-time drama teacher for the high school. That drama teacher heard me sing in the choir and recruited me to try out for her play. Her name is Mel Michel and she teaches at Clarion College in Pennsylvania. She absolutely changed my life! The musical that spring was “Grease” and she cast me as Rizzo instead of Sandy, who was so unlike me! I was such a good girl and not in anyway like Rizzio, so I didn’t understand her or know what to do with the role. I didn’t even know how to smoke cigarettes and, of course, she smokes cigarettes and drinks wine the whole show! [laughs] It really forced me to try and understand someone who was very different from myself. There was a moment when I was standing on stage in front of our first audience where I was singing Rizzo’s big song; I was playing a character completely different from myself but I knew the audience was with me on that journey. It was a singular moment and that was the moment I was hooked.
It’s no small step to go from a small town to Los Angeles. What can you tell us about the moments in between?
It didn’t happen overnight. From my experience early on, I knew I really loved to sing and creating characters, so I knew I wanted to do theater. I got a scholarship and got into the Webster Conservatory for The Arts in St. Louis. It was a four-year college and I got my BA there. After that, I went to Chicago to do theater and I did a lot of it there. My then boyfriend wound up in New York and from there we came to LA. I married my college boyfriend and my husband has now been on Broadway several times. It was a very gradual process. Even in theater school I never thought, “Oh, I could be on Broadway!” I just thought, “I wonder if I could make a living as a theater actor? Is that something that could happen?” It all just kind of laid out from there. I was always better on camera than I was on stage; my instincts are smaller and more internal. It wasn’t like I thought, “Oh, I want to be a movie star.” It didn’t happen for me that way. It happened for me more gradually. The odds of me ending up where I am right now are so minuscule that I laugh about it a lot! I am still surprised to be where I am!
You’ve been involved with amazing projects through the years. Which of them had the biggest impact on you and your craft?
I don’t think it has been one particular project, although I have been so lucky to have wound up in such quality television. I feel so very fortunate about that and I have just sort of found my way there. I think the biggest impact on me has been that I have somehow been able to move through the business without being pigeon-holed in one kind of role. I have been able to play a wide range of things and that doesn’t happen all that often for actors. I think I have always been very lucky to find representatives along the way that would push me in that way. I feel like Featherstone on AMC’s “Preacher” is all of that converging into one role. Everything I have done in my career has been to prepare for this role. There is transformational aspect to the character. I did some singing very early in my career and this character incorporates some of that as well. It’s as if all of my skill set is utilized and pushed to the limits as an actor in this role. It’s very challenging and very exciting for me to play!
How did “Preacher” come onto your radar and how did you get involved with the series?
I did a couple of readings with Anatol Yusef, who plays one of the angels in Season 1. I watched Season 1 of “Preacher” and I was a big fan of the series. It was a very natural fit for me because I am a sci-fi/fantasy fan and I watch almost everything on AMC. As a fan, I really loved the genre mashup on “Preacher.” It encompasses all of these different elements that shouldn’t actually work together in one show, particularly on TV, but it does somehow work really beautifully. When the audition came across my desk, frankly I would have auditioned for anything in “Preacher” because I think it is so well done, the role was so delicious, I went after it very hard.
As you said, “Preacher” features great writing and is one of the most exciting shows on television. When it comes to this character, what did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the original written page?
I think I brought the full transformational aspect of her to the role. I thought what they needed to see in the audition room was someone transform before their eyes without the aid of costumes, hair or makeup. I thought if I could pull that off, I might have a shot at booking this thing! The two scenes from the audition were from episode three, which was already aired, and one was the first scene in the nightclub and starts right after the song. The other was an extended version of the scene in the van when I take off the wig and I’m talking to Hoover. This is heavy with spoilers but the episode has already aired! [laughs] I think I pushed the edges of that. Instead of bringing them both together, I really pushed the edges of how badass Featherstone could be and how opposite of that could Lara the jazz singer could be.
How do you prepare for a role and flesh out the characters in your mind before you hit the set?
This role was a little different for me and yet the same, all at once. I like to build out my character’s history as far back as I can go. Some of that is made up and some of it comes from source material. By building her history, I mean everything that has happened that has an impact on the person they have become since childhood. There is a psychological bit in how I go about it. By the time I get on set, I like to be thinking the thoughts of the character instead of my own. I’m very, very character based and it’s very important for me to go to the character instead of bringing the character to me. Obviously, it has to work on me and specific things resonate with every actor but I like to go to the character. With Featherstone, we decided to make her a really brilliant actress and really brilliant in these personas when she is laying traps for people like Jesse. I built out those characters completely, just as I would any character. I built a full character for Featherstone and, in episode three, I built a full character for Lara the jazz singer, with Featherstone’s motivation underneath it. It was an odd process. Building the character of Lara the jazz singer is all about Jesse. It’s about appealing to his hero complex, appealing to him as a man and finding out what he likes. It’s almost as if Featherstone was building that character out for herself, if that makes sense. It sounds weird but that is sort of what wound up happening! It’s not like the persona is built totally from Julie’s point of view, it has to be Featherstone’s point of view building out this character with the proper motivation. It all sounds very strange! [laughs]
“Preacher” has a great cast and tremendous people working behind the scenes. What’s the biggest challenge you faced with this role and what have you taken away from working with this unique group of people?
The biggest challenge has been the tone mashup on the show. It has come down to knowing and trusting when to go for that really dark humor and when to really ground something. One of the things that really works for the show is that there are these crazy characters and circumstances but the acting is always very grounded, motivated and real. Sometimes it’s difficult to find exactly where it should fit because there is such a wide tone on the show. With that said, there is guidance all around you! Sam Catlin is from the “Breaking Bad” world and you also have Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on the creative end. The editors do such amazing work for “Preacher” and, I think, the tone of the show is really set in post production. Michael Slovis directed my first episode and he comes from the “Breaking Bad” world, as well. There is such a high level of work going on across the board! The cast is very high level as is everyone behind the scenes. It’s a pleasure to be there! There is also pressure! You want to show up to “Preacher” with your homework done and having ideas on how to make the scenes work!
Speaking of “Breaking Bad,” people may recognize you as Mrs. Kettleman on the spinoff series, “Better Call Saul.” I loved your work with that character and you held your own alongside a seasoned veteran like Bob Odenkirk. What was it like playing opposite him?
Thank you so much for that! I love Betsy Kettleman and she holds a very special place in my heart! She is one of those characters that I didn’t understand when I read her on the page and those are my favorite characters to play. I had worked with Bob on season one of “Fargo” and we became friendly there. That helped a lot that I knew him. My first day on set, I was sitting across from this man who played an iconic character on “Breaking Bad” but Bob is such a nice person and the fact that I knew him really helped me jump off that Kettleman cliff! That character was definitely the equivalent of jumping off a cliff for me! Vince Gilligan directed our first episode and he spent a lot of time that they could have spent on other things developing character with us on the day of the shoot. That never happens on television and I am so grateful to have had that opportunity. Jeremy Shamos, who plays Mr. Kettleman, is a famous theater actor in New York. I don’t think I have ever created a character so closely with another person. In theater, you can create relationships together as the rehearsal process goes along but on TV and film, you do most of your work on your own and then show up on the day and hope that it somehow works off of what everyone else is doing. Jeremy and I really got the opportunity to explore our characters together. I don’t think I would have landed where I did with Betsy had I not had that influence of Jeremy’s side of it during development.
In talking with you today, I can tell you are focused on your craft and bringing these elements together to make the best project. What will you gravitate towards in the near future? Is there ground you are anxious to tackle as an actor?
You’re right, I’m very much a nerdy actor! [laughs] I am very focused in that direction. I guess I just hope for interesting female roles to play. That’s a pretty tall order and we don’t necessarily have an abundance of that all the time. I feel like it’s getting better, I hope it continues to go that way and I hope that some of those continue to fall in my lap! I never thought I would book Betsy Kettleman on “Better Call Saul.” I didn’t think I was right for it. I didn’t think they would buy it on me. I just thought, “Oh, I’m just going to try and do a really good job and hopefully they’ll see me for something else down the line!” I guess I just hope for the challenging work to continue!
That’s a great outlook to have. Building on that, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
That anything is possible! [laughs] I was born on a dairy farm! [laughs] My dad was a dairy farmer and no one else in my family is in the business. I got lucky and got a scholarship to theater school. I got lucky that somehow there was a drama teacher at my school for the very first time when I was a sophomore. I was lucky that she came and found me and saw something valuable in me and pushed me! So, I guess you can take away that anything is possible and the importance of being a mentor. You can truly change someone’s life as a mentor, so always reach back. A lot of times, you can be on set for 14 hours and everything can be stressful but sometimes I still just smile and think, “I’m not even supposed to be here! This is great! The likelihood of me being here right here, right now seems impossible, yet here I am!” Anything is possible so you might as well go for your dreams!
Are there causes you support we can help shine a light on?
I was involved with Habitat For Humanity when I was a teenager in Tennessee. I have recently got involved with them again. I think they do great work and if you can give someone a home, suddenly it opens a world of possibilities for them. There is also a lot of diabetes in my family, so I support the American Diabetes Association. In addition, my husband’s family is very involved with the American Cancer Society. They are all great causes and worth supporting!
That’s terrific! Is there anything else we should be on the lookout for in the near future?
I’m pretty Preacher-centric at the moment. However, if people don’t know, there is a new Kettleman short on the AMC website. It’s additional content; a little update on where the Kettleman’s are right now! It’s called “No Picnic.” [View the shore – click here] If folks haven’t seen that, it’s directed by Jenn Carroll, who started out as Vince Gilligan’s assistant, and Ariel Levine is the writer. They both have come up through the “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” world. I’m really proud of it and it was truly a pleasure to jump back into it!
Awesome! Thank you for your time today, Julie! I wish you continued success! Your work has been inspiring!
Thank you so much! I’m a lucky girl!