Longmire’s Katee Sackhoff on finally playing a character who has her shit together
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Katee Sackhoff first came to the attention of TV audiences with a role as Richard Dreyfuss’ wayward daughter on The Education Of Max Bickford, but her major claim to fame is for a little-watched but highly acclaimed and influential cable series. Her work as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace on Battlestar Galactica is one of the best performances the TV science-fiction genre has seen, and her portrayal of the character as a live wire whose psychological issues are only gradually peeled back was a high-wire walk between bravado and utter despair. From there, she worked on several series, including 24 and the Bionic Woman remake, and she’s starred in a handful of films as well. Now, she’s playing the largest female role on Longmire, A&E’s promising new cop drama about police officers working cases in the wilds of Wyoming. Shot in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, the series has a look and terse feel unlike anything else on the air right now, and Sackhoff’s Vic brings an unusual energy to a show that could feel too dour without her. Sackhoff talked to The A.V. Club about changing up the energy on set, driving miles upon miles to get to work, and working with Dreyfuss as a 20-year-old.
The A.V. Club: The typical production day for Longmire involves running all over the Santa Fe area. What’s a typical day look like on this show?
Katee Sackhoff: It’s been a lot of work. It’s fun, because it’s exciting, and you’re in a different place every day, but I’ve never had to drive an hour and a half to work and drive myself. It kind of feels like an independent film, to be honest. You get up in the morning, and you look where you are and you realize it’s 65 miles away. And you get in your car with your coffee and start memorizing your dialogue on the way there. [Laughs.]
It’s just one of those really, really interesting, fun things, because you’re in a different place every day. But it’s exhausting. It’s so different. That’s the problem, it’s so different. Like today, we don’t even start until 11, so we’re going to work until 12 tonight. I think last Monday we started at 6:30, and I had to get up at 5? So it’s all over the place. There’s no consistency to the times and the places, so a typical day could have three or four different moves in it. Huge company moves, which is insane. Most shows have one or two moves per episode. We have one or two moves per day. So yeah, it’s interesting. Our poor transpo guys are ready to… I don’t even know what they’re ready to do. Drink, probably, is what they’re ready to do.
AVC: What’s been the most remote location you guys have had to get to?
KS: The mountains of Pecos, probably? The freeway exit from where we’re at is probably 24 miles away, but then you’ve got to drive an extra 15 miles up into the mountains, where there’s zero phone reception. So it’s not the most miles we’ve driven, it’s just the most remote, because you nobody can get a hold of you for 24 hours. Especially if you’re doing night shoots. You’re driving into the mountains at 5 o’clock at night, making all your last phone calls, because you know damn well you’re not going to talk to anyone until noon the next day, if not later. Then the worst, the worst part of it is driving home between midnight and 4 in the morning when you’re exhausted, in the dark. That’s the worst part.
AVC: Do you have experience with those extreme rural areas? And are you enjoying it?
KS: As far as experience goes, not really. As far as shooting, Battlestar [Galactica], probably the most remote that we got we always had cell-phone reception. [Laughs.] But I grew up in a rural area, so I get it. But that was before the time where you even needed cell phones, so I don’t think we would have even noticed it. I am enjoying it. It’s fun. It’s tiring. You know, I’m glad it’s only three months and 10 episodes. I, personally—can’t speak for anyone else—there’s no way I could do this for 22 episodes. It’s too hard. The good news is that everybody’s positive. The crew’s great. The producers are great. The cast is positive. Everyone is happy. I just think that if you rounded that corner into the back nine on a 22-episode order, people would be like, “Er, are you kidding?” [Laughs.]
AVC: The main character, Walt, is a guy who’s pulling himself back together, while Vic is this woman who has herself together. What’s that study of contrasts been like for you as an actress?
KS: It’s nice to finally play a character that actually has their shit together. [Laughs.] It’s so odd for me! It’s been great. The one thing that’s difficult is having to keep energy up. There’s this very specific and purposeful pace to this show, and when you’re the character that comes in full of energy, it’s hard to maintain that when you seem to, at times, be the only one. And energy is a very different thing. I mean, Robert [Taylor, who plays Walt] comes in with energy, too. It’s just a very different thing. Especially because we’re so tired, generally, that’s been the hardest part of it, to keep energy up during scenes. Especially scenes onstage, because we’re so used to shooting on location, that when we get into the stage for, like, our one day per episode, it’s hard to keep the energy up, for the crew, too, just because we’re not used to it.
I like playing her. I think she’s really fun, and it’s nice to be, in a sense, the comic relief and the energy that comes, like, busting into a scene. It’s fun for me.
AVC: You do have a tendency to play these live wires who enter fraught situations and change things up. Is that at all similar to your persona in real life?
KS: Not really. That’s funny. I’ve actually had people disappointed when they meet me. [Laughs.] I had a little girl tell me one time that she felt misled because she literally modeled her entire persona after the character I played and who she thought I was, and when she met me, she was very disappointed because I’m just not like my characters. I’m a lot more shy. I’m kind of a wallflower. I tend to retreat a lot more. I have to remind myself constantly to not be antisocial, because I stay to myself a lot. I’m a lot more introspective than my characters.
AVC: Have you looked at all at the novels that Longmire is based on?
KS: I have! I’ve read a couple of the novels, and I love them. It was one of the reasons that I took the job to begin with.
AVC: What did you respond to in them?
KS: I loved the way that he wrote. I don’t even know how to explain this, but so many times, you read authors, and they don’t really give the audience the credit that they deserve. And I think that Craig Johnson writes for an intelligent audience. I think that you have to pay attention, because he doesn’t give you those transitions between dialogue for people. He has a very specific way that people speak. He doesn’t say he said, she said, Walt said, Vic said; he just keeps going. So if you’re not paying attention, you need to pay attention. And I actually really enjoyed it. It was the first time I’d ever really seen somebody never write the words “He said.” I just enjoyed the way that he wrote and the world that he created.
AVC: All of the early episodes feature the characters examining a minority culture within a majority culture, including a reservation and the Mennonites. How have you approached that in your storytelling or performance?
KS: I don’t know. I don’t really know what the experience has been like. I think that any time you write those little subcultures it’s hard not to be judgmental and to be non-stereotypical. I think that has been the biggest thing with me is I just wanted to make sure every time that we did this that it was grounded in some sort of truth.
It’s been interesting. I actually knew what rumspringa was before we shot the episode, so I was like, “I know what this is.” I don’t know why I knew what it was, but I knew exactly what it was. It was kind of funny. And I had said that I kind of had my own rumspringa with my poor mom dropping me off in Los Angeles when I was 18 years old and leaving me there to be an actor, and she was sobbing her eyes out. I had my own little time where I did my year of craziness and then I finally settled down. So I think that everyone has it to some extent; I just don’t think that it’s completely unsupervised. Like mine was. [Laughs.]
I do like the subcultures. I think it’s a really fun thing to tap into, but at the same time, I always want to make sure that we don’t do it wrong, or that we do it justice. That we don’t continue to feed this false truth of what this subculture is. That you actually find what is real and focus on that. That was the main thing for all the subcultures with me. Just trying to make sure there’s no attitude going in that we’re better than this. It’s just, this is what it is.
AVC: The reservation plays such a prominent part on this series, and that’s something that we haven’t seen a lot on American television. How does the production approach that particular aspect of the show?
KS: It’s so funny, because it hasn’t been represented for so long, and all of a sudden now it’s all over the place with The Killing and our show. Again, it’s very similar to my last answer. You just want to make sure that you are not feeding a false truth, and that you’re not turning a whole people into “the bad guy” in every episode just to feed your stories. They have to be grounded in truth.
I grew up in Oregon so I grew up around reservations, so I’ve always kind of had this knowledge. Not a tremendous amount of knowledge, but an outsider’s knowledge of what reservation life was like. I came in wanting to do this, and part of it was because I found reservation life to be very interesting to me. My best friend and I had done a motorcycle ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans two years ago, and she and I, we drove through Arizona and New Mexico, and there were parts of the reservation that were heartbreaking. And then there were parts of the reservation that were uplifting. So that was something that I had just experienced with her, and when I read the script it brought back those memories of the ride that I did with her.
AVC: This show has its serialized elements, but it’s not nearly as serialized as something like Battlestar or 24. How do you feel about that more procedural aspect of the show?
KS: It’s been hard. It’s been an adjustment for me. I think that I’ve grown up on TV in serialized television. I’ve never done procedural work, so it has been difficult for me. I try to wrap my brain around how we could possibly wrap up a story every episode. How is it possible to be so good that we know who the killer is immediately? It’s been difficult, but the writers are great with giving us a little bit of the serialized content to keep the actors and the audience interested, and hopefully, it will just continue.
AVC: One of your first big jobs was on The Education Of Max Bickford with Richard Dreyfuss. You were really young at the time, and that had an all-star cast. How did you handle that?
KS: Actually, my first series [The Fearing Mind] was right before that, and even though we only made it for nine episodes, and it was on Fox Family, it was really nice to know how things worked before I ended up on The Education Of Max Bickford. When I got the role for Max Bickford, I was 20 years old. I had done a series for a year when I was 19, but I’d never been to New York before. I mean, I’d never even visited New York before, and all of a sudden I was moving there, and it was just a complete shock for me and my senses. My best girlfriend was from there, though, so I had family there if I needed them, but it was amazing. I learned so much, and I wish that I could go back and say to my little 20-year-old self, “You’re working with Peter O’Toole and Eli Wallach and Marcia Gay Harden and Ann Jackson and Richard Dreyfuss. You’re working with these people. Wake the fuck up!” [Laughs.] But I was 20. I was like, “Whatever. It’s fine.”
You know what’s so funny about that though, is that Patrick Fabian played my father, Max Bickford’s, best friend in it, and he was just on Longmire. And then the guy who plays my husband on Longmire, Michael Mosley, who was in Pan Am, his first job ever was in Max Bickford. So it’s kind of interesting.
I think that after you work with that caliber of actor, everything seems easy after that. I got broken in and didn’t realize what I had in front of me, but at the same time I took all the lessons from them and took it into my next job, which was with Eddie [Edward James Olmos] and Mary [McDonnell], and thank God I had the experience I had from Max Bickford to go into Battlestar. When I took Battlestar, I was the youngest one, but I felt coming out of Max Bickford, “I can do anything. [Laughs.] I just worked with probably the heaviest hitters I’m ever going to work with in my entire life.” So it was pretty cool. It was great.
It’s been weird though. I’ve grown up on television. People still call me the little chubby girl from Max Bickford. [Laughs.] I’m like, “I was 20 years old! Give me a goddamn break!” [Laughs.]