Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
It’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to their name than Elizabeth Marvel. She’s been astonishing audiences since the early ’90s, establishing herself as a commanding presence in New York’s theater scene before making her way to television and film roles like House Of Cards and True Grit, often giving them a boost of gravitas just by showing up. But Elizabeth Marvel never just “shows up.” Trained at Juilliard and Interlochen, Marvel has the uncanny ability to disappear completely into her characters. It’s almost hard to believe that Homeland’s imposing, headstrong President Keane and The Meyerowitz Stories’ meek, soft-spoken Jean are played by the same person. But that’s the power of Elizabeth Marvel; she’s a superhero.
Speaking of superheroes, it took over a decade, but a Marvel comics adaptation finally got wise and nabbed her for a role—a move Marvel herself jokes was “about time.” This October, she can be seen in Hulu’s Helstrom, a television adaptation of one of the darker stories to come out of the house that Stan Lee built. She’ll star as Victoria Helstrom—also known ominously as Mother—one of her meatiest roles yet that has her (literally) climbing the walls. Of course, Marvel relishes the opportunity to show audiences a new side of herself and, from the sound of it, she’s just getting started. In anticipation of Helstrom’s premiere, The A.V. Club chatted with the actor about her marvelous career. She tells us why her move to Marvel felt like an inevitability, shares the best thing about working with the Coens, recounts her harrowing run in Julius Caesar in Central Park, and gushes about working alongside her husband—and fellow character actor—Bill Camp. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.
Helstrom (2020)—“Victoria Helstrom/Mother”
The A.V. Club: So Marvel finally got Marvel! Was there a sense of inevitability when you first met with them for the role?
Elizabeth Marvel: Right! I know, it was so funny when I got the call. They were like—um, wait, how did they phrase it? It was something like, “Marvel you’re coming to Marvel!” And it was like, “Yeah, great, about time—thank you very much!” [Laughs.]
AVC: But it does feel like destiny in a way. And you’ve previously talked about [joining the MCU] being something you’d be interested in because your son is such a superhero fan. What was it like breaking the news to him?
EM: Well, you know, he’s just been beside himself. It was either the Marvel Universe or the Star Wars Universe—it was just required for him. Having two parents as actors, one of us had to get in one of those worlds. So, yeah, he’s been thrilled. Of course this was going to be his first big year at Comic-Con with Mom, and that was virtual, so it wasn’t quite the same. But I promised him that the good people at Marvel will hook him up next year.
AVC: But to talk more specifically about the role—you are really delivering in this. And it’s easy to see how much you relished the part because of how excited you are to talk about it.
EM: I had a great time. I had such a great time. It’s funny, especially as an actress—as a woman—it’s rare that we get invited to the party to really pull out all the stops, you know? And being able to embody the creature of Mother! It was fascinating because I assumed wrongly that going to work on a Marvel project, I would be very confined, that they would be like, “You do this and we need you to look like this, and this is what it’s going to be.” And my experience was not that at all—it was the complete opposite. I was given full freedom. My son gave me the backstory of the Helstrom comic and that whole universe—as did everybody at work—they really brought me up to speed on where they were going with our version, which is pretty true to the comic.
My character, Victoria, is sort of two different characters. I’m the mother, Victoria [Helstrom], and then I’m Mother, which is a whole other phenomenon. So when it came to creating Mother, it was really a blank slate. They just gave me free rein, which was like being set loose in a candy shop, really. I watched a lot of films, like The Possessed with Isabelle Huppert—oh man! I mean, it’s so fascinating because what [the horror genre] affords an actor is thrilling. It’s such an awesome genre to work in, and I have longed to do it my whole career, but this is the first time that I’ve really been engaged in horror. And I look forward to doing more because there is so much freedom. The stakes are so high that it really is Shakespearian. And it’s cosmic and it’s... the imagination—just as an artist—you get to just call on all kinds of things that are wildly fun. And to take all of these archetypes and then domesticate it and make it real and palpable for people is the real trick of it.
AVC: With the two sides of this character—Victoria and Mother—did it feel like you needed to get a grasp on who Victoria was, as a person, and then build off of that for Mother? Or did you approach them as two separate entities?
EM: So the template I used, which made it very simple was—and this does not hold water 100% of the time—but I navigated this from a place of addiction, of someone being an addict who, in their non-toxic state, is receptive and available. And then when they’re sort of taken over by their addiction or in it, they are almost possessed—they’re transformed into somebody else. That was sort of the template that I used to kind of figure out how to move. So it wasn’t like, “This is Mother, and this is Victoria”—they’re holistic.
AVC: And the voice of Mother—can you talk about finding that? I’ve heard you did a lot of yelling into pillows.
EM: That’s what I did, literally! Because there was no direction on how to [play this] physically or vocally. The only thing they told me was that they needed to age me up. I mean, I’m 50, so I’ve let go of age vanity, but they wanted me to age up. But then I also reflected—do you know how old Max von Sydow was when he shot The Exorcist? Forty-four years old. So I just held him in front of me, like, “Okay, if Mr. von Sydow did it, I will do it. Vanity be damned!”
But as far as the voice: I’m trained, and I have a big old bellowing voice, but I wanted to find something that was otherworldly that I could produce. You know, they were like, “Oh, we can just play with it [in audio editing].” And I wanted it to come from me, because I think that’s going to be so weird if there’s a little lag, which you can sometimes pick up on when effects are being done on a voice. But it’s very easy to turn on the news these days and get apoplectic. And so I found myself in this hotel room in Vancouver, just raging out. I started screaming into this pillow, and my voice started getting hoarser and hoarser, and then it got weird—like, it’s so gone and it’s so down in the basement. And I don’t recommend anyone ever doing it because it can really mess up your cords. It’s not a good idea. But I was so excited about this crazy sound I was able to produce. So whenever I had to be Mother, I would just say, “Okay, you’ve got to give me a night. You got to tell me when we’re shooting a night ahead so I can go and damage my voice.” And I can only imagine what the poor people—because I was living in a hotel—what they thought was going on in my room. It must’ve been bananas.
AVC: That’s dedication! The MCU is very lucky to have you.
EM: I think it’s a cool thing for Marvel to be opening the door to horror—I think that’s really smart. I think it’s a little late, but I think there are a few things coming out that are more in that vein. Even beyond the Marvel world, I think because it’s a time of paradigm shifts and a time of cataclysmic change, the stakes of the horror genre really speak to the moment we’re in. And you have filmmakers like Ari Aster, who I think is making movies like no one in America is making. To me, they’re like what [Ingmar] Bergman was making—they’re not “just horror movies.” They’re incredible films. And that is very exciting.
AVC: Last year you were in Unbelievable, which—in my opinion—should’ve received even more Emmy’s recognition than it did.
EM: I agree, I think all of those women should have been nominated for everything because they were amazing.
AVC: How did you come to be involved with the project?
EM: Laura Rosenthal—who did casting on it—is a friend, and she of course called my people, but she also mentioned it to me. She was like, “You should listen to this podcast from ProPublica.” And I was immediately like, “Yes, I will do anything in it—whatever—you just tell me what you need me to do and when I need to be there, and I’m there.” So that’s sort of how that happened. And then Kaitlyn Dever, who is like—oh god, she’s a great actress. So good! She’s just lovely, an absolutely lovely woman. So that was awesome too because, when you get to work with wonderful people—which is how it should always be —it’s awesome. And I had the good fortune that most of my stuff was with her, and she was just fabulous.
AVC: Judith’s in about half of the episodes, but it’s an important role because she underlines how someone with the best intentions can still work against the very person they’re trying to protect.
EM: That’s right. I mean, it is beautiful, and it is so nuanced. You know, there was just a pile of incredibly smart, capable women making this show. And it showed—you know, you got the result from that kind of braintrust and talent. I mean, also Toni Collette is just one of my favorite actresses. She’s the greatest, she’s just so awesome. And she’s so beautiful on that show. As is Merritt Wever. They’re both magnificent.
It was funny shooting it because, of course, it’s very heavy stuff. But when I started making [Judith], I remember that they gave me this purple tank top and these sort of high-waisted, tight jeans. And then they started doing my hair very neatly, and I went to the director and I was like, “I think she sort of peaked in, like, ’85, so could I have that hair, because I think she’s just never left it?” So there was something just a little desperate and stuck about her. And it was also the phenomena of a foster parent who had always had a dream of being a mother who has signed up for a foster child, for a baby, right? And then a teenager with issues shows up on her doorstep. And that is a fascinating story—the expectations, the resentments that would grow out of a situation like that. It was very interesting to me. And I also loved that series because no one was worried about being sympathetic or unsympathetic. It wasn’t an issue. And that’s always a relief, because I find that that can really dominate projects—that need for everyone to be likable, you know? Or, if they’re not likable, then they’re the villain, and it’s easily identified. That’s not how it works in the world!
AVC: And I have to ask about Bridget Everett, because she’s hysterical, and it was great to see her in a role like this—sharing scenes with you.
EM: Another one! I mean, dammit, an awesome, awesome woman, performer—all of it. We got a couple of days together, and it was like, “Can we please now go make our buddy movie? Please? Can we please have our series now?” Because she’s just awesome.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)
EM: Probably my favorite job I’ve ever had.
AVC: That’s not hard to imagine because Jean is a one-of-a-kind character. What was most exciting to you about this film?
EM: You know, it’s always, it’s so wonderful when someone asks you to do something you don’t know how to do. That’s why I do this work—I love when people ask me to do something that I have no idea how to do. That fascinates me. I think I credit Scott Rudin a lot for that casting as well. I think he steered Noah [Baumbach] to me, and I’m very grateful for that. Although, I think Noah had seen me on stage a lot or, you know, whether he’d admit it or not probably on TV. [Laughs.] I definitely play a lot of people often in extremis, or people with an intense sort of gravitas. Jean was so different in all ways, so I really appreciated that Noah took a chance on me and brought me into that.
It was so wise because we rehearsed. Dustin Hoffman—who played our dad—and then Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and I were the family, and Noah brought us together, like, a month before we started shooting. We would meet at his apartment and read through scenes, but mainly just hang out because it was just to create a dynamic and get some second-nature behavior happening amongst us. And that happened very, very quickly. We fell into it fast.
It was so interesting because it was a group of people that—I did not know any of those gentlemen. And I think the first time I met them—because in the wintertime I wear this big Carhartt suit. It’s a look! I’ve worn it for, like, 20 years. It’s one of those big insulated, like overall things, you know? And I don’t really wear makeup. I’m just an old hippie. So I was in this giant Carhartt suit, I came to Noah’s apartment, and I walked in, and I think they all thought I was either Noah’s groundskeeper or the cook. It was a few minutes before they realized I was one of actors in the movie.
But it was a group that either could have been, like, a nightmare or wonderful. And it was wonderful. Everyone was wonderful. It was fascinating because I didn’t know Adam Sandler—you know, I knew him from SNL—but he’s amazing. I mean, he’s such a gorgeous actor. And so is Ben Stiller, like they’re just beautiful actors, and their talent stunned me. And Noah is such a magnificent director. You know, he’s chasing something when he’s filming—he hears the music in his head. It’s incredible. It seems so spontaneous, so improvisational, but it’s not. It is so specific and technical and repeated. You do a lot of takes with Noah because he wants something, and he won’t stop until he gets it, and it’s not aggressive, it’s not arbitrary. It’s incredibly specific and gentle, you know, but clear and persistent.
And I love that. I love being asked to do something and going after it until it is right. It was a group that was willing to work, and we worked very hard for Noah because you want to please him because he’s right. You know, his ear is right. When we were making Jean, we sort of started pulling from [The New Yorker cartoonist] Roz Chast, who has a [impersonates Chast] really great voice that’s kind of over here. And John Cazale! Those were the two people I kind of based Jean on. So I watched a lot of John Cazale movies because there was just something about him that felt right about the displacement of Jean.
AVC: And how about Jean’s run? Where’d that come from?
EM: Well, we crafted the run mainly by watching Dustin. If you watch Dustin do his wacky run, I tried to mimic it, but because I’m much leggier and lankier, it sort of comes out as that. [Laughs.]
(2016-18)—“President Elizabeth Keane”
AVC: You mentioned playing characters with “gravitas,” and one that certainly comes to mind is Homeland’s President Keane, which was great to see after your thwarted presidential bid on House Of Cards.
EM: That was such a funny run! It was like, “And now I’m the political lady for five years. Cool.”
AVC: Do you see yourself as presidential?
EM: Oh my gosh, no, no, no. I am a very silly, goofy person. I’m a bit of a ridiculous person, so it’s hilarious to me—and I know to my child—that people take me seriously. I mean, politicians are really just a collection of our projections, right? So that was something that I constantly tried to keep in mind, especially with Elizabeth Keane, just, “I am a screen that people are projecting onto,” as a politician, especially as a woman. Thinking of the intense scrutiny that female politicians are under, and the need to just breathe deeply and move slowly. Really, don’t do anything to draw too much attention, which is a strength [Elizabeth Keane] had. I also constantly kept in my mind, “Keep your hands in your lap! Don’t get too loud!” Like, all of those things that I’m sure women have constantly going through their minds when they’re in that position as a female politician. I do think that’s beginning to shift a little bit—I think “The Squad” has kind of changed the dynamic a little bit, which is awesome. But when I was walking around in that TV territory, that’s exactly what I was thinking about.
AVC: And the timing of President Keane was such a—well, your Homeland arc began in season six at the beginning of 2017.
EM: It was so crazy. I mean, it was all [filmed] during the fricking 2016 “experience” that we all had. On Homeland, there’s a scene where the reporter Martha Raddatz is interviewing my character, President Keane, on a 60 Minutes kind of show, and I’m wearing all white. We shot that scene the day after the election, and our eyes were just in wheels. We were like, “What does this mean? What is happening?” It was so bananas! Absolutely fascinating to be making that show that year. I am personally not on social media—never have been—and I’m very glad because the things that I received, just on the street, that were said to me were very intense. To be, at that moment, playing a female president was, uh, weird.
AVC: And of course the show wasn’t trying to make any guesses as to what a Clinton presidency would be like—this is a fully different creation.
EM: A fully different creature. I mean, yes, there was a little bit of Hillary, there was also a little bit of George [W.] Bush. You know, there was a little bit of Lyndon Johnson, there was a little bit of Bobby Kennedy. So it wasn’t her. I mean, when I went to read for producers, it was me and—I think—it was two other male actors. So it wasn’t even gender-specific. They were just looking for the person, they weren’t looking for the gender when they cast it.
AVC: And, that same year, you also were in Julius Caesar at Shakespeare In The Park, which made headlines for the way it spoke to the current moment.
EM: It was crazy. I mean, the women that I shared the dressing room with—who were amazing actresses—were all on social media, and they were telling me that we were all getting death threats. The stuff that was being said to us was awful. We had security. I had a bodyguard walk me to the theater and out every day. We had security all around the stage, we had dogs at the—and it was because Breitbart offered a thousand dollars for anyone that could stop the play, tackle us, or take us down during [the show]. So people would run out of the audience and tackle us! And you never knew what was going to happen because it was Shakespeare In The Park—it’s wide open, and there are no metal detectors there, and we are a weaponized society—so it was really nerve-wracking. But the thing that’s so crazy-making is that, if you understand the play of Julius Caesar, the whole point of the play is, if you kill the tyrant, democracy dies. That’s the whole point that we’re illustrating! That’s the story. So that was what was most frustrating to me.
But it was incredible to do a production of a Shakespeare play that so spoke to the moment, that we were doing something that shook people. That it got them to react like that. I mean, it was a three-ring circus around that, even just with all the people out in front of the theater giving speeches. It was fascinating—I mean, it was democracy in action.
AVC: You were Marc Antony in that play, and that’s not the first or last time you took on one of these traditionally male roles—I’ve heard that’s been something of a goal of yours.
EM: Yeah, yes! And it’s long overdue. It’s interesting because I do feel, you know, that I want to play Willy Loman. I want to play Hickey, I want to play everybody. And the theater is a magic space, so whatever you say you are on the stage is what you are. You can be anything, because it’s a theater—it’s magic. So we don’t have to conform to anything in the theater. Film and television is a little different. Although, I mean, I’m playing a demon now, so whatever. You know what I mean? That’s what we are, we’re transformers—that’s what interests me. I’m not an actor of personality, that’s not what I do. I’m not there selling my personality—I like to transform. That’s what’s fun for me. I like to create different people and experiment.
30 Rock, “Jackie Jormp-Jomp (2009)—“Emily”
AVC: You’ve mentioned your love of comedy and an interest in doing more with the genre, so, in that spirit, I wanted to talk 30 Rock. Were you familiar with the show when you took this guest role?
EM: Yes. I mean, sort of. I’ve never been a big TV watcher and, at that time, I was on Broadway doing Top Girls. I was playing the lead in Top Girls, which is a very difficult play. My son was, like, 2 or 3 at the time, so I was stretched thin, and I was tired. And so I wasn’t watching TV. I knew of 30 Rock, but not really. But Tina Fey—who is another amazing, brilliant woman—is a huge [Top Girls playwright] Caryl Churchill fan, and she had come to see Top Girls, loved it, and hired me for her show.
So I got a call saying, “We’ll shoot you out during the day, so you can make curtain.” And I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m so tired. How do I... Okay, yes, it’s Tina Fey. Yes, I will—I will do that.” So I’m glad the episode turned out as well as it did. I think some of the suppressed anger that you may see is because I’m tired. [Laughs.] That’s real. But it was super. The cool thing about working with other mothers is there’s no time wasted. We do not have time—not to say that that’s exclusive to mothers—it’s just something that I’ve experienced when I work with other mothers. You know, we come in prepared to do what we’re there to do because we only have this much time to do it. So we’ve gotten all of the preparation done before we arrive. When we arrive, we’re there to do the thing that needs to be done. And then we need to move on to the next thing that we need to do that day. There isn’t a lot of extraneous, like, “Let’s hang out and see how we feel about the scene.” We get the job done. And, Tina’s set was very much like that, but in an incredibly friendly, fun way.
Burn After Reading (2008)—“Sandy Pfarrer”
Fargo, Season Two (2015)—“Constance Heck”
AVC: You’ve been in involved with the Coen brothers’ projects a few times now. What can you tell me about working in their world?
EM: It’s awesome. I’ve had the good fortune to call Ethan a good friend. I love to talk to him as a creative person in the world, and working with them on their movies—I did a couple of their movies, and then I did a couple of Ethan’s plays, so I got to know Ethan much more than Joel. But it’s so wonderful, because the way they work is, they have storyboarded their whole movie before they shoot it. And when you go to work, everybody—the caterer, the makeup people, all of the actors—gets the sides for the day and the storyboard. So everybody knows exactly what shots you’re making, and that’s what you shoot. And then you’re done by dinner, and everybody goes home. So, like, they vet people really thoroughly before they hire you—I know people that I know were called to ask about me—because they don’t want assholes. And they don’t need to hire assholes, so they don’t. So when you go to work there, it’s awesome and it’s efficient and it’s fun. And the best thing—the thing that you live for—is, after you’ve done a take, if you see behind the monitor their shoulders going [shakes shoulders up and down]. [Laughs.] If they’re laughing, then it’s awesome.
They’re lovely, they’re amazing. And then, weirdly, I did Noah Hawley’s TV show Fargo [season two]. I think my character [Constance Heck] was very funny. Until she was tragically killed. But that was a really fun foray into a whole other realm of comedy. For better for worse, my husband [Bill Camp] and I are both sort of character actors. We’re journeymen, you know? We have a skillset, and we’re kind of guns for hire. We like doing all kinds of things. We don’t really have a commodity, like, “This is what we do,” and so we just wait to be hired to do that thing. Like, I did [The Bourne Legacy], I was an assassin. I got to train with Special Ops people and go to a gun range for two months, you know? But I love that about my profession—that I can, uh, wander into any building.
AVC: And, speaking of your husband, the two of you have appeared in a handful of projects together. What’s that like working side-by-side? Does it become more comfortable over the years?
EM: Yeah, 100%. You know, we’ve known each other for 35 years. I met him when I was 15 years old. And it is so incredible to walk alongside someone—I mean, just to have that privilege, period, is incredible—but, as an artist, to walk alongside someone that like... I revere him. I think he’s amazing. And we are so different, how we work is so different, but, you know, I’m his biggest fan. I just think he’s astonishing—to be able to watch someone’s entire life’s work, and have them watch your entire life’s work—and to be in constant conversation. I mean, not constant because we don’t talk about work that much, but when we do, it’s awesome. It’s such a privilege and it’s such a luxury that we have because we completely understand all of it. Because it’s such a weird life. It’s a very odd life! It’s wonderful and ridiculously fun most of the time, but it’s weird and asks weird things of people. And, especially for people trying to have a family, it can get complicated, you know? So I am fortunate to be married to him for so many reasons, but having him be such a great artist is definitely at the top of the list.
AVC: That being said, I’m sure it’s been nice to have something of a break right now for just quality family time.
EM: We have not had this much time in, like—my god—I really can’t remember. Our son is loving it. I mean, so are we. We have dinner together every night. We never get to do that. So it’s amazing. We’re really trying to just stay in the day, and find the pleasure of being here and now.
AVC: And you did all work together on a short for an anthology film called With/In, correct? How was that?
EM: We made a movie. On the farm [where the family has been staying]. It was awesome. It was really hard. It was sort of like when friends talk about getting married and ask me what it’s like, I always say, “Here’s what you do: You pick out three large, complicated pieces of furniture from IKEA with your partner, and you build them. And then you talk to me about how that went.” [Laughs.] And making a movie together with your partner and your child is sort of like that test—to see if you can come out the other side loving and kind and, you know, out of jail, then you’re doing okay. And we ticked all those boxes. We did not go to jail.
It was really eye-opening. You really do need all of those people on the crew to make a movie. They’re really, really necessary. Of course, we were so ambitious because we wanted to shoot it all outside. So, Maven Pictures—which is Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray—came to a bunch of different artists who were in quarantine together and proposed making 10-minute films. They would provide all of the equipment and provide a DP for us to work with on Skype if we would write a treatment that they liked. So we wanted to do a piece about all of this cacophony—being locked inside in this extreme state with the news blaring, the family screaming, the dogs barking, and every pressure—and then what it’s like to walk away and be in silence. There’s basically no dialogue in our film—it’s all outside. So we had to constantly “Sherpa” all of the equipment—all of the sound stuff, and the boom and, you know, all of it. So it was a fascinating experiment and really satisfying.
AVC: And your son is acting in it alongside you and Bill as well?
EM: Yes, it was so cool. I mean, he gets asked to act a lot, which I think just happens to kids that grow up on sets. And we’ve been just ferocious, like, “No. No. No. No.” [Laughs.] He does a lot of Shakespeare plays, which is awesome, and he’s a beautiful actor, but he’s not interested, really. I mean, he enjoys it, but he doesn’t have career ambitions at 14, thank god. But he acted a lot in the movie, and he’s beautiful. And he also was the main DP of the film, and he was excellent. So it was cool.