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The actor: Carrie Preston, a veteran of stage and screen who has lately begun to move beyond smaller character parts in movies and on television, tackling directing—with the feature film 29th & Gay and the upcoming That’s What She Said—and larger recurring roles, such as dim-but-sweet waitress Arlene Fowler on True Blood. The fourth season of True Blood is currently airing on HBO; the previous three seasons are all available on DVD and Blu-ray.
True Blood (2008-present)—“Arlene Fowler”
Carrie Preston: The role is designed by the writers to play on the stereotype of Southerners in the media. She’s designed to be ridiculed. [Laughs.] What I like about playing her is being able to ground her in some kind of truth while still honoring that humor and that thing that she represents. I love it that I’m responsible for serving up the humor on the show, but what has been wonderful for me is that the writers have also given me more dramatic things to deal with. They’ve trusted me with some of those more touching themes that I didn’t expect that I was gonna be given the opportunity to play back when we were shooting the pilot. For me, that’s what makes the show work, that balance between the drama and the comedy, and that the show never takes itself so seriously that it becomes sanctimonious. I think that’s part of why the fans like it so much. It trusts that the audience is gonna go with us through all of the tones we hit along the way.
Our responsibility as actors is to not judge these characters, but to empathize with them and to figure out why they’re reacting the way they are. The higher the stakes, the more conflict, the more interesting they are to watch. It’s actually a gift as an actor when you’re given really high stakes to play, because ultimately that’s gonna be more compelling than if you’re just playing a scene where you chatting with someone in the kitchen over coffee. They don’t have scenes like that in True Blood. [Laughs.] It’s very rare that we actually sit down and have a one-on-one with someone. Everybody’s pretty much on the move, dealing with these extraordinary circumstances. There are 50 storylines up in the air at all times. I think the audience has become comfortable with that, and frankly that’s what they expect now. Not just from our show, but I think a lot of television in general. That kind of kinetic speed just keeps people watching.
AVC: How would you compare working in series television, playing the same character for episode after episode, to being onstage and playing the same character night after night?
CP: When you’re doing a play that’s fully produced, you have the benefit of rehearsing for four or five weeks, so you really get to live in the skin of the character for much longer than when you first start doing a character on TV. But you’re only saying the same text. You really get to know that text extremely well and you become very attuned to the nuances of those words and how to connect with them from show to show based on what you’re getting from the other actor and what you’re getting from the audience. Obviously in television you don’t have the audience, unless you’re on a sitcom. But you do have the benefit of creating a character that lives in different circumstances all the time. So you’re dealing with different texts all the time, and that’s what’s been so thrilling about being on True Blood. It’s the first time I’ve been able to live inside a character for this long and have the joys of seeing how she reacts from one circumstance to the next. You never would get that in a play, because it’s the same circumstances night after night. You don’t get to see what your character would be like outside of that one set of circumstances.
Emeril (2001)—“B.D. Benson”
AVC: Have you done any sitcoms in front of a live audience? You were on Emeril. Was that in front of an audience?
CP: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah it was. When I was brought in, they’d already shot a pilot, and I think they were recasting. So I came into a situation where the thing was already off the ground, and I just kind of got plopped down in the middle. Emeril Lagasse could not have been nicer. He’s not an actor, and he never admitted to being one, and so they surrounded him with people who are actors, to help him navigate that crazy minefield of doing a sitcom. He was so gracious about it. He would cook us food. He would come in and say, “I couldn’t sleep last night, I made you guys some gumbo,” and he would just slam down this huge vat of the most delicious gumbo you’ve ever eaten in your life. One time we were taping and he came over and he was like [imitates Emeril], “Girls, girls, you guys like meat?” We’re like, “What?” He goes, “I got some porterhouse.” [Laughs.] So we had the most delicious porterhouse you ever tasted that he just brought over to us. He was, I think, dealing with the stress by doing what he knew how to do best.
For some amazing reason we shot like, 11 episodes of that show. It was certainly a wonderful thing for me financially, and it was also fun to work with Linda Bloodworth and Harry Thomason. You know, the creators of Designing Women. They created some shows that I think are quite fun and certainly live on in TV land. But we were kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time. Emeril came on the air right when a new president of NBC was taking over, and there was just a big shift going on. And then 9/11 happened, and that really pretty much killed it, because the show was already having a hard time finding an audience. I don’t regret it. I had a really good time. I definitely look back on it with fondness, but also with a little bit of a smile on my face. Because it was maybe not the best idea for a TV show.
Spin City (1999)—“Gayle”
CP: Speaking of live audiences. One day, I was minding my own business, and I got a call. It was in the afternoon and it was my agent, who said, “Jennifer Esposito has left Spin City. They rewrote her role in the next episode as a temp secretary. The episode shoots in three hours, can you come down to the studio and go into a full rehearsal in front of an audience and then shoot it?” And I said, “Yes.” [Laughs.] So I had to go down and learn an entire role in, like, a matter of a couple of hours, and then perform in front of a live audience, literally three hours after I got the job. That was totally the most thrilling moment I’ve ever had in front of an audience on TV because I was shot out of a cannon. Luckily, I can learn lines pretty quickly. And there were a number of them. Even though it’s a 22-minute show, it wasn’t like I just had a couple of lines. I had several scenes. But the warm-up comedian told the audience about two scenes in that I had just gotten the part an hour or two before. And then the audience… I mean, they were so on my side. I had never felt more like a rock star in my life. I would finish a scene and they would be screaming and chanting my name. So I was like, “This is the way you need to do it!” [Laughs.] The role at the last minute. Everybody thinks you’re a superhero.
So, anyway, I don’t know how I got on that tangent, but my point is that on those sitcoms, you do have the benefit of playing in front of an audience, but you also have the five days of rehearsal prior to that where you have the studio executives pretty much micromanaging everything that you do. So it’s a relief, actually, when taping night comes, because to some extent they have to step out of the way and let you do your business. That was always fun for me, because I’m a theater baby. That’s when my performing skills come into play, and I’m able to kind of fly and take the reins a little bit. But I prefer single-camera stuff like the dramas, or the digital camera half-hours. I just think it’s more fun.
Arrested Development (2006)—“Jan Eagleman”
CP: I shot all my stuff on Arrested Development in one day, and was brought into a really well-oiled machine. ’Cause it was the last season, and they were wrapping up a lot of stuff because they knew at that point that they weren’t coming back. There seemed to be kind of a freedom, and certainly the cast had a great amount of camaraderie. They were still cracking each other up, which was fun to see. To just step in as a guest star on an established show can be a little daunting, but they were all fun and funny and it was a really funny premise, how I was playing the lawyer for the Bluth family, and then Michael Bluth became his own lawyer, and then there was Judge Reinhold, who was playing a judge, so then they were riffing on that. It was silly and fun and I kind of knew that I was in the hands of, y’know, television pioneers. I felt lucky to be there.
Lost (2007)—“Emily Linus”
CP: Well, I am married to Benjamin Linus. [Laughs.] Some Lost fans still don’t know that, which is always surprising to me. So yeah, Michael [Emerson] and I obviously spent a lot of time in Hawaii, though because I’m an actor too, I wasn’t able to be there full-time, because there was not much for me to do there, career-wise. Lots of hiking, which I enjoy. Lots of swimming in the ocean. But not so much business. But the producers of the show had mentioned to Michael many times that they wanted to find something for me, and I said to Michael, “It would be so fun to play a character that is connected to your character. Not just some random flight attendant or something, but somebody who actually had something to do with your character. Wouldn’t it be funny if when they do your flashback, I play your mother?" And he laughed and I laughed, and he jokingly mentioned it to the producers as this funny thing that Carrie came up with. And then two weeks later, I was giving birth to him. [Laughs.]
Just A Friend (1985)—“Emily Mint”
CP: That is a real thing. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was I guess technically my first movie, although it was shot on video. It was shot in Atlanta, and I was from Macon. I had somehow seen the casting call, and I got my mother to let me go up there and audition, or maybe she drove me up there. The room was packed with all these teenagers. Somehow I was able to get the part. I remember the director was a super nice guy. He had already done a feature that went straight to the gas station on VHS. But I learned a lot doing that, because I had never acted in front of a camera before. The movie is obviously something that never had much of a life beyond Georgia, but I think I got paid a whopping $400 to do it. That to me, at the time, was huge. I thought I’d won the lottery. That I got to be paid to be in a movie was something that I never dreamt would ever happen.
That Evening Sun (2009)—“Ludie Choat”
CP: Scott Teems, the director and writer, is a Georgia boy. And Emily Schweber, who was the casting director on it, reached out to my agent in the traditional way, asking if I would put myself on tape. Because I was not in L.A. at the time. I read the material and I just thought, “Wow, this is a stunning piece of writing.” And knowing that Hal Holbrook was going to be playing that role, I just thought I’d really, really love to be a part of this. So I put myself on tape reading scenes from the movie. My brother, John Preston, who is also an actor, he read with me off-camera. I felt really comfortable with the role. It was one of those roles I felt that I understood implicitly. Sometimes you have to work harder for an audition, to connect with a role, but this one felt like an easy fit for me. I posted it on one of the sites, because that’s the way it works now, and within an hour the director and producers had seen the video. And they all thought that I was not an actor; that I was actually from the South. They hadn’t really had the time to actually read through my credits and stuff, so they thought I was just some woman that Emily Schweber had found. I just thought that was a great compliment.
I got on the phone with Scott, we had a wonderful conversation where we talked about the character, and I expressed to him my thoughts and how I would approach her, and luckily it jived with what he was looking for. I immediately got along with Scott, and am friends with him to this day. And then Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins, who were also producers on the film and acted in the film, they’re Georgia boys too. So as it turned out, it was very much old-homey. We owe each other. Pretty much everyone on the film was Southern except for Hal, and he’s kind of an honorary Southerner. Scott and Ray and Walt feel this responsibility, actually, as producers, the three of them, to create projects about the South that are more authentic and less stereotypical than what you usually see come out of Hollywood. I think that’s a really noble effort, and I felt really lucky to be a part of it. I knew the film was going to be beautiful when I was shooting it. I mean, just looking at what Hal was doing, and Ray and Walt, and everybody. I knew it was going to be something special. But then when I saw it edited together, I was just blown away with the talent of Scott and the cinematographer. I just felt I was part of something really rare, more so than almost anything else I’ve done.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)—“Sally”
AVC: Working on a Woody Allen projects is a prestigious thing, but his reputation is that he’s not necessarily the most giving director in terms of guiding actors. Did you find that to be true?
CP: For me, my experience was really extraordinary for that. He didn’t audition anyone for that role. So Juliet Taylor, the casting director, just showed him a bunch of reels and he watched mine, and thought I would be right for it. I was pretty terrified, because I had not met the man. As you can see, I’ve done a lot of different roles, and I look different in every one, so I had this fear that I was going to show up in Barcelona, and he was going to go, “Who’s that? That isn’t the girl.” Because my hair color changes. I try to be a bit of an illusionist. So I was afraid that I wasn’t going to fit the bill with him. But what was I going to say: “No, I’m not going to Barcelona?” So I went, I got the free trip to Barcelona, and when I showed up on set that was the first day I met him. I was ushered onto a street in the middle of Barcelona that was full of about a hundred people who were watching the shoot. There was no rehearsal. Picture was up, I walked on set, they put a mic on me, and Woody Allen came over and shook my hand. Everyone had told me: “He will not look in your eyes, he will not shake your hand, don’t expect him to talk to you.” But he came over, he looked in my eyes, he shook my hand, he welcomed me to the set.
He said, “Okay, you’re going to stand over here, and then just come out of the store and make the scene happen. Say whatever you want.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “Just say whatever you want, just make the event happen. You’re running into them on the street, you make dinner plans.” And he said that to the four of us. Literally there was no rehearsal. We did the first take, and all four of us started talking on top of each other, because if you tell four actors to say whatever they want, they’re all going to talk at once. So he came over and said, “Okay, you still have to listen to each other.” [Laughs.] “We’re going to do it again.” We did it maybe four more times, and that was it. And then he said, “Okay, that’s it, I’m probably going to use the last take. Then we’re going to move on to the next location.” So we moved on to the next location, which was a restaurant scene.
Again, we barely had any rehearsal. It was wonderful, because he knew exactly what he was going to do. This time he came over and said, “You can’t improv here, because I’m going to shoot a master, and then I’m going to have a two shot that moves into a two shot, so I’m going to need to edit right here.” He told us exactly how he was going to shoot the scene, and how he was going to cut it. That’s rare. A lot of directors just don’t tell you, you just do the scene over and over again until they tell you it’s done. But he told us exactly what he was going to do. He was very easy with people. He was joking with us. And we were in and out of the scene in record time. My experience was actually not one of those that you hear, so I was pleasantly surprised. And there I was in the middle of Barcelona. I had never been there before, and so it was a real gift.
That’s What She Said (2011)—Director
CP: We’re all done with it, and we’re submitting it to film festivals right now, and sales reps, and we’re excited to see what the next step is going to be. It stars Anne Heche and Marcia DeBonis and Alia Shawkat, who was on Arrested Development. I did not actually meet her that day that I worked, but we did talk about that. I like to call it a chick flick that’s not for pussies. [Laughs.] It takes the chick-flick genre and mashes it with the balls-to-the-wall outrageousness of a bromance. The girls come out on top. I like to call it an East Village cousin of the Bridesmaids genre, which I’m very happy now exists. Even though we shot our movie obviously before that movie came out, I was following that movie very closely, because I was so hoping it would do well. I just think we have similar audience—a more independent, obviously, audience—for That’s What She Said. I am really excited about it. My friend Kellie Overbey wrote it, and she’s one of my best friends. We’ve been trying to shepherd this project into the world for a good seven years, off and on. So to finally see it all the way through, and have the movie in my hands to get out to the world—I have a great amount of respect for filmmaking, and how hard it is. It’s really extraordinary to have finally achieved that particular dream.
AVC: What kind of a director would you say that you are, compared to some of the people you’ve worked with?
CP: Well, if there’s one thing that I know how to do it’s talk to actors. From what I have experienced working with so many different directors in so many different things, a lot of them don’t really know how to talk to us. You have to kind of interpret what they’re saying, and say, “Okay, they’re telling me to go faster. But I have to backtrack and justify all that. Why I would be going faster here?” Whereas it was fun for me to be able to talk to the actors in the actor’s vocabulary, and I think that they enjoyed that too. There was a shorthand that we had, and I think I have with actors. What I still need to learn about is obviously the technical side of things, but I’m getting stronger with that, surrounding myself with people who are helping me. I like being able to marry the actor and the technician inside of me. It’s really fulfilling. It exercises all of my creative muscles.