Note: This interview discusses plot points from the Claws episode, “Til Death.”
As the second season of Claws winds down—or rather, ramps up—the cast remains the TNT drama’s greatest asset. Showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois has taken creator Eliot Laurence’s idea for a “Florida noir” and expanded it into an exciting, engrossing series that has elevated summer TV programming. But this fierce, feminist drama wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without an ensemble that includes Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, Judy Reyes, Jenn Lyon, and Karrueche Tran.
They’re all adroit actors and more than capable of handling the hair-trigger shifts in tone, but as the story has unfolded, Preston has emerged as the MVP. Her grifter character, Polly, could easily have been comic foil to Nash’s ambitious Desna or Reyes’ Quiet (badass) Ann, often changing accents or life stories to defuse a situation. But Preston’s performance has always hinted at how much of a coping mechanism the “persona a minute” strategy has been for Polly. The Southern belle has pretended to be so many different people that we’ve lost track, but the penultimate episode, “Til Death,” introduces us to Polly’s twin sister, Lillian, whose tragic life remains intertwined with her drug-running, stripper-teaching sibling. In this frenetic yet emotional episode, Polly faces her biggest fear—coming clean about her past. The A.V. Club spoke with Preston about playing doubles, curating your life, and why Tatiana Maslany is one of the most impressive actors on TV.
The A.V. Club: What were your thoughts when you first saw the script or the breakdown for this episode, in which you play your own twin?
Carrie Preston: Janine Sherman Barrois, who wrote the episode, and Eliot Laurence, the creator of the show, had already given me a heads up that it was coming and to prepare for Polly’s twin. But when I first got the script, I was so excited. And of course, understandably nervous, because I had never acted opposite myself before. Luckily, they hired a wonderful actress to come in and play opposite me the whole time, so I did get to have scenes with her, and that was so important. It just made me have such respect for all of the actors that have gone before me, and so much more respect than I thought I could ever have for [Orphan Black’s] Tatiana Maslany. I already think she’s a genius, but doing that made me respect her even more, if that’s possible. So yeah, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to delve into the character and illuminate Polly by playing Lillian.
AVC: Throughout the show, your character has adopted these personas at the drop of a hat. It feels like that was laying the groundwork for the idea that there really is this other Polly in a sense.
CP: Exactly. We can see now what was the inciting incident that made Polly start to split apart and find ways to be anything other than herself—because being herself was too painful. And we just reached a fever pitch where she split for real in this episode, and had to face what she had done and what had happened in the past.
AVC: Now we learn that Polly caused her twin sister’s death, which is such a terrible secret to carry around with her all this time. And it really leans into the thriller element of the show.
CP: Yeah, it becomes an integration, or an acceptance, or an ingestion of the shadow guide, if you will, the dark side of a person, coming together. So it’s very psychological, and a little bit Hitchcockian.
AVC: Yeah, Hitchcock’s use of doubles seems to have informed the story, and [director] Jamie Travis plays up the thriller here where it appears that Lillian is stalking Polly, but she’s just kinda there in her head.
CP: And Polly knows that—to have that self-awareness, that she knows that this person is not real. Obviously she knows this person is dead. The audience doesn’t know that yet, but Polly knows it. And yet the person really is so fully fleshed out and really in herself, and has such a deep need, and that’s the way I was playing it. Lillian has this deep, deep psychological need to be seen, to be acknowledged. And she’s not gonna let up until that happens.
AVC: What went into that gorgeous scene at the end, where you’re pirouetting down the hallway? Did you get any visual references ahead of time?
CP: Well, it was interesting because when I found out at the very beginning of the season that there was going to be a twin for me, I already started cooking up this idea. Because like I said, we have these surreal moments where the characters are taken to a heightened place. So I pitched to the writers, “Why don’t we in that episode, why doesn’t the surreal moment be some kind of a dance between myself and my twin?” And in my mind it was going to be on, well, we would do it on a green screen and they would make it look like an ice rink. Of course, there’s a budget to consider and everything.
Then the script came in and there was no dance in there at all. And I was disappointed and I mentioned it to the director. I was like, “You know I had brought this up with the writers and I was disappointed it wasn’t there.” And he was like, “Oh my god, that’s such a cool thing.” So then the conversation got back to them, and they decided to give it a try. But it was a later addition to the script. And then there was getting the clearance for the song, picking out the song, all that. So they also scheduled us to shoot it the first day of shooting the episode. So the night before, I’m learning the dance, and Valerie Jane Parker—who’s playing opposite me—she has to learn the whole dance, and we just all came together knowing that we were going to be creating this really special moment, this kind of catharsis not only for Polly but for Lillian, too. That went into the choreography, the intention, and then Jamie, the director, worked really closely with the director of photography, and we had the special effects in there. There was so much that went into the creation of this moment, because everybody really cared for it and wanted it to be this big, weird moment.
AVC: This is one of strongest episodes this season, in part because of how it dovetails with the wider arc, that these women are embracing their pasts, which means accepting their flaws. Every time Desna says it, she seems to believe it more. And now it’s Polly’s turn.
CP: Yes, and then building on it and saying, “Yes, there’s been hurt, and there’s been damage, and we’re all even trying to pretend to be somebody we’re not. Let’s just be who we are. Flaws and all.” That scene between Polly and Desna, which was written by Janine [Sherman Barrois], is just this great moment for both of them. Polly revealing the stories about herself she’s never shared with anybody in her life, and she shares it with her sister/mother/best friend. Desna embodies all that for Polly. And Desna takes that and builds upon it and comes to her own self-realization. And then I think that they’re gonna build on that for the finale and also for season three.
AVC: You’re expected to change personality, accent, voice, facial expressions, at a moment’s notice. But how do you hang onto Polly in all of that? And who is she at her core?
CP: Polly herself is a curated person. When I first started playing the role, I knew, or at least I hoped, that I was going to be able to build a character that not only steals people’s identities, but she steals people’s personalities, and that there’s some reason that she needs to do that. So in order to have a baseline from which to branch out, I had to curate who this Polly is. Who she wants to be, who she wants the world to see her as. So that is like the North Star for me as an actor. This woman who wants to be perceived as very sweet, loving, kind, kind of a stereotypical suburban housewife. All those curated things that we see people come up with on their Facebook pages.
Polly’s trying to do that all the time, and then she flips, when things threaten that or things threaten people she loves. And then we see the persona that she must have had in prison come up. And we see the persona that she must have had as a child, or whatever. We see these other things pop out from that. And it’s just so much fun as an actor, to be given that opportunity to be playing what is on the outside a very weak and mild and high-voiced suburban housewife. And then underneath all that is a real fighter, and somebody who is covering up a chasm of pain and disappointment and heartache.
AVC: That curation idea is one that people, especially women, can relate to in this age of social media and constant self-documentation.
CP: It’s one of the many ways that Claws shows women finding their power. I think this episode just illuminates that in a very specific way.