Hailing from a small town in Tennessee, actor Julie Ann Emery talks about her character, Betsy Kettleman, in “Better Call Saul”, as well as an acting journey that began with her roots in theatre. From unique fan mails to hiking, and her popularity on Twitter and Instagram, Julie Ann talks to Composure about how life has shaped her for the roles she has played and gives the latest about her upcoming project as Johnny Knoxville’s mother in ABC’s untitled Johnny Knoxville pilot.
CM: You started your career on the theatrical stage. Did you always have film and TV on your mind?
JE: I’m shocked to be where I am today! Growing up, the only theatre for just about 100 miles was in my hometown on top of a small mountain in Tennessee. It was a community theatre when I was growing up. My drama teacher found me singing in the choir and it absolutely changed my life. When I started doing theatre, that was such a leap – I didn’t even think of going further than that. But my instincts on stage when I was in school were always small and internal and so my instincts were probably geared for the camera. I’m always interested in what the character is thinking so having a film and TV career was eventually going to happen – but that’s not where it started at all.
CM: At what point do you think that switch started happening?
JE: I took an on-camera class hoping to do some commercial work, and something in me just sang in that environment. And suddenly, all of my instincts were an asset, and my obsession with what a character was thinking became an asset.
CM: Those instincts brought you an amazing 2014. Coming into 2015 with “Better Call Saul”, how is that going for you?
JE: I spent the last year working with the best directors, writers and actors in television. Everybody was happy and everyone showed up to work every day trying their best to elevate the material and that’s a great circumstance -everyone was just trying to make it better all day long. It’s a creative dream come true. People trust you, and they trust your instincts. I think the best directors are people who are not trying to control the situation but trying to explore where it can go. That’s Vince Gilligan, that’s Adam Bernstein, and Colin Bucksey – he won an Emmy last year for “Fargo”. It has been a good and lucky year.
I’ve worked incredibly hard and my career, like most careers, is a roller coaster in a lot of aspects, but when your work comes into contact with people who are like-minded and with people who see your work in a similar way, that’s lucky. And both shows challenge me in different ways. With Fargo, Ida Thurman is so grounded and real and there’s no pretense to her whatsoever. So, to be able to sit in a real Midwestern place all day long is not always something you get to do on camera. And Betsy Kettleman on “Better Call Saul” has kind of blown-up and very specific and unlike anyone I’ve ever played. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get into her headspace.
CM: Right now “Better Call Saul” is in its first season and they’re slated for a second season. Can we expect Betsy to come back?
JE: That would be a spoiler! I think it’s safe to say that if you’re a “Breaking Bad” fan you would know that if a person wasn’t dead they could come back. And no one cut off my head and put it on a tortoise – which happened on “Breaking Bad”, so the possibilities are endless and I will hold out hope that Betsy lives on!
CM: On your Twitter account, Betsy fans want you to have an Xbox and play Halo. Can you make the connection for us?
JE: Okay, so in real life I’m a bit of a gamer. Not hardcore, but my husband and I love nothing more on date night than to make nachos and popcorn and play a campaign on Halo for 6 hours. We love it. When we saw a commercial for Halo 5, I tweeted something about it and I wouldn’t have connected the “Better Call Saul” fans to the gaming world but they jumped on it really fast and now they’re making up scenarios of Betsy playing Halo with Jimmy and what their screen names would be. Someone even sent me some fan art of Betsy playing with Jimmy. She’s wearing a hat with two cans of mountain dew [on the hat] and a straw. It’s hilarious. That’s sort of like Julie Ann meeting Betsy – a mash-up.
CM: Would you say you like to geek out on things?
JE: I love geeking out on things! I’m definitely a sci-fi geek and a giant football fan. I’m a produce junkie and a bit of a gamer. It runs the gamut. I’m a total musical theatre nerd. My husband [Kevin Earley] is a brilliant musical theatre performer. I think I nerded out earlier this week on musical theatre and that surprised the “Better call Saul” fans too.
CM: When you and your husband are not shooting your enemies together in a game, you’ve done collaborations with him such as the web series, “Then We Got HELP!” Can you tell me more about your collaborations?
JE: We actually just co-directed for first time, a solo piece in New York for the United Solo Theatre Festival Off-Broadway and we won the festival. We collaborate well – not all married couples do but we tend to go into some kind of a hive mind together. With “Then We Got HELP!” my husband produced the series and it was such a pleasure. He knows me so well – he would always know where he needed to step in and fill in the blanks and where my head was. We would break for lunch and talk about the shots for the afternoon and where we needed to adjust things. He instinctually knows my priorities and that’s a lovely thing to have. I’m a lucky girl. We’ve been together since college and he’s my best friend.
CM: We’re in the midst of pilot season now. Can you tell us some of the projects you’re working on?
JE: I’m working on an untitled Johnny Knoxville pilot for ABC. It’s about Johnny Knoxville’s life as a kid growing up in the late 70’s early 80’s in Tennessee. It’s set a little less than 90 miles from where I grew up in Tennessee and it’s about his father being a big prankster in real life, always playing jokes on his family, and his mother, who, much like my mother, wanted to get her kids out and wanted big things for them. I play his mother, Genevieve, a woman with such a good heart. Johnny’s 10 years old in this series – it’s sort of a “Wonder Years” meets “My name is Earl”. It’s a really sweet and fun project.
CM: What can we expect of this character, Genevieve?
They’re calling her a really sweet narcissist, which is true and I think it’s her parenting technique- she’s trying to teach her children through her own experience. And she’s a bit of an over-sharer when it comes to her kids. So there’s some inappropriate conversations going on but at the heart of it all she’s really good so there’s some opposites to play here. I’m really excited about her. And I have a Loretta Lynn look going on for her so it’s great to be able to transform physically for her as well.
It’s great to go back to my [Tennessean] roots. It’s nice to really understand the character to that degree and I have always loved the idea of transformation as an actor. That’s a really sweet spot for me.
CM: In some of your profiles you mentioned climber of mountains, purple belt, and produce junkie. What do those things mean to you?
JE: Because my husband’s a Broadway singer, we spend a lot of time in New York and my favorite thing about coming back to LA is invading the farmer’s market every week.
Climber of mountains – we’re big hikers we’ve hiked the Grand Canyon twice. We did a 20-mile hike in the Tetons. We visited some friends in Aspen and instead of hanging out in Aspen we hiked over to the next town. The wildflowers had just come into bloom and it was like the sound of music. It was unbelievable. I like exploring places and when you’re a hardcore hiker you go where not many people go. I like how everything boils down to the basics and usually, your cellphone doesn’t work. I love being in places where I can unplug, focus and reconnect.
Purple Belt in Tae Kwon Do – I can still be on that journey but I’m small and I get hit in the face sometimes when sparring so I have to be careful that doesn’t happen when I’m shooting but I love it in my off-time. I love the focus. I love that you go in and that’s what you’re doing for an hour – again, unplugging and focusing on one thing. There’s something about the physical exhaustion, much like hiking. Physical exhaustion quiets something in me.
CM: Are you one of the quiet kids?
JE: Oh no, when you get tired you kiai louder. When you think you can’t do anymore you yell louder!