JULIE ANN EMERY On AMC's Better Call Saul & Working on the Craft.
Photo Credit: Nogen Beck
Unless you’ve been camouflaging yourself in an underground bunker for the past seven years (I’m looking at you Kimmy Schmidt), Breaking Bad has definitely been high on your radar. Growing into somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, it’s only natural that the series eventually produced offspring. What’s not always likely though, is that a “spin-off” show will find its own groove to success. However, AMC’s Better Call Saul seems to be defying the odds.
Julie Ann Emery plays Betsy Kettleman on what’s deemed the Breaking Bad prequel. Prior to landing Betsy, she was a “huge” fan of Breaking Bad stating that it is, “Some of our best film making on television.” Best known for her breakout performance in Hitch and turn as Ida Thurman on the award-winning mini-series Fargo, Julie is no stranger to the limelight. In fact, perhaps the most impressive thing about the Tennessee born actress is her versatility and ability to get into a character’s mind no matter what the medium.
We caught up with Julie to discuss her strong portrayal of Betsy on Better Call Saul, how she prepares for auditions and her best acting tips.
RP: To begin, I’d love to know how you got your start as an actress? Did you always know you’d be one?
JAE: I am from a small town in Tennessee. The only theater for many miles was in my hometown, The Cumberland County Playhouse. They provided a Drama teacher for the High School when I was there. She heard me sing in a choir concert and asked my to audition for her school plays. Soon she cast me against type as Rizzo in GREASE. Rizzo was a character who was so fully unlike me, so fully someone else. The first time I stepped into her shoes in front of an audience, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I was hooked. The teacher’s name was Mel Michel. She is now a professor at Clarion College in Pennsylvania. She changed my life and I am forever grateful.
RP: That’s a great story. I also read that you studied acting at the Webster Conservatory. What is the most valuable lesson you took away from your time there?
JAE: At Webster the ensemble as a whole matters more than any individual actor and the program is all about process over product. For me, process is still everything. When you are an actor who knows their own craft, who understands your process and how to morph it for any given role, genre or project… there is nothing you can not do. You can wrap your mind around any character, even one like Betsy Kettleman.
RP: I know you have a heavy theatre background. Primarily, was it hard for you to transition to being on a set as opposed to being on a stage and having an audience?
JAE: My instincts were always smaller and more internal when doing theatre. In a larger theatre I have to continually remind myself to play to the back of the house and fill it physically. So the transition to TV and Film felt very natural for me. I am obsessed with internal monologue, what the character is thinking, and the camera likes that. I do very much miss theatre and the immediacy of the audience when I am away from it for too long.
RP: Your resume shines with countless incredible projects. What would you say has been the most rewarding role for you and why?
JAE: Interesting question, it is not the role itself. My most satisfying moments as an actor have come from pulling off versatility. Following up a hardcore FBI agent on Rod Lurie’s Line of Fire with the lovelorn and slightly daft Casey in Hitch. Playing a malicious ex-wife and surgeon on October Road while simultaneously playing a sweet and surprisingly smart stripper on The Riches. And going from salt of the earth Ida who takes care of everyone but herself in Fargo; to the hot calculated, yet fun mess that is Betsy Kettleman on Better Call Saul. I like getting into the head of wildly different characters.
RP: Now flashing forward, you are playing Betsy Kettleman on theBetter Call Saul. What has your experience on that set been like?
JAE: I have never played anyone like Betsy Kettleman before. She lives in her own very specific headspace. So Betsy was jumping off a cliff for me. I am here to tell you that there is no better place as an artist to jump off a cliff than the Better Call Saul set. Everyone from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to the cast to the very last crew person is working at the top of their game. And it is a truly welcoming and warm place to work. It is like stepping into an inviting family and being made to feel one of them instantly.
RP: Do you remember your audition? How did you prepare (or do you normally prep for auditions)?
JAE: I am a HUGE believer in preparation, even for auditions. I look at an audition as my opportunity to play the role… even for a short time. I do as much of my work as I am given lead time to do for every audition. Otherwise, it is just no fun to me. I also find that the more fully I am able to do my homework the fewer nerves I have. It becomes about playing the role in a way that works on me. I find that infinitely easier than trying to guess what they want.
RP: Betsy has a very “powerful” mind, to say the least. She is willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to “better” her family. As an actress, how do you relate and find the key to unlock that very colorful brain of hers?
JAE: Finding Betsy was unlike any process I have ever gone through. You put the key in the above question; everything is about the betterment of her and her family. I gave her a history that lent itself to there being a nobility in doing whatever it takes to “make it”. To achieving the dream for her family in her head. She is overcoming her own past. And she will do whatever it takes to make her dreams come true… including hiding in the woods with a duffel bag full of cash.
She also believes she has the most powerful mind in the room. Always. She believes she is moving the chess pieces even when she is not. That is why those scenes with Bob Odenkirk are so much fun. Her undying tenacity coupled with a true belief that she speaks her own world, make Jimmy McGill’s attempts to control her with logic conflict filled, maddening, and I hope, ultimately, entertaining.
RP: What type of work did you do to flesh out the character?
JAE: I work from a character place. So I start with character behaviors evident in the script (and instinctual for me), and then work a character history as far back in their life as I have time to go. Then I work the scenes from an internal monologue place. Secret: once I understand how the character thinks, I do not have to memorize lines. Once I get into their headspace, I know the lines.
With Betsy I became fascinated with law breakers who truly feel they have done nothing wrong. They believe everyone else misunderstands the situation. I spent a lot of time on Youtube and watching documentaries.
RP: While playing Betsy, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced (if there is one) as an actress or hardest scene you’ve had to film?
JAE: Betsy puts one face to the outside world while her mind is working in an entirely different way. I wanted her to be one of those people you see in an interview or on youtube who seem pleasant on the outside but make you wonder who they have buried in their back yard. That was a challenging space to go in and out of between episodes. I think the hardest scene was the confrontation in the house when she realizes the money is gone. That scene went from odd pleasantness to badly controlled rage to defeat in every single take.
RP: What can we expect from Betsy in the future?
JAE: There are no spoilers in the Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould universe.
RP: To end on an inspiring note for our readers, we’d love to know the most valuable piece of advice you have for aspiring actors/ actresses?
JAE: Spend your time and energy working on your craft. The business is going to do whatever it is going to do with you on any given day. The only thing you can control is your craft, your journey as an artist. Invest in your craft, and the right directors and writers will find you sooner or later.
Better Call Saul returns to AMC in 2016.