Julie Ann Emery Talks ‘Masters of Sex,’ Playing Betsy Kettleman in ‘Better Call Saul,’ and Growing Up In Tennessee
With a resume that includes Casey Sedgewick in Hitch, Fiona Camp in Dexter, and most recently Betsy Kettleman in Better Call Saul, it might seem like Julie Ann Emery is that actress whose face you recognize, but can’t pinpoint just where exactly you know her from (though that’s bound to change as she feverishly takes on project after project). Getting her start in theater back home in Tennessee, this L.A. transplant has worked her way from small-town drama to some of the biggest shows on television today.
Her next project is a short stint on Showtime’s Masters of Sex (the third season premieres this Sunday, July 12), where she comes to William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) with an “unusual” problem. While Emery was unable to divulge much about her character or what awaits her in the period drama given the network’s request to keep things strictly under wraps, the down-to-earth brunette did say that one of the episodes was directed by Adam Arkin, making his appearance on set a “brilliant addition” to the filming process as well as the final outcome.
But despite the industry’s secretive nature, rumors are swirling, especially surrounding the second season of Better Call Saul, a show that Emery landed soon after her success in Fargo as Ida Thurman. In fact, according to Variety, the Breaking Bad spin-off could very well see the return of the Kettlemans in Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) life. Of course, we’ll have to wait till early 2016 when the second season is said to air to see who in fact has been cast. Still, we can’t help but hope that the self-righteous Betsy will make a reappearance on our television screens.
Recently, we caught up with Emery to talk about the evolution of her characters, her experience behind-the-camera, and what show she wishes she could be a part of (even if only for a brief moment).
GALO: I’m excited to get a chance to talk with you, not only because I love Better Call Saul, but because you were born in Tennessee and that’s where I’m from as well!
Julie Ann Emery: Oh, yeah! I was [in Crossville] till I was 18, which is when I went to college.
GALO: That’s great. I’m originally from Chattanooga, so I know the area.
JAE: Oh, yeah. Sure, sure. My dad was in Atlanta till I was about 16 because then I could drive, but we would drive straight through Chattanooga and take backroads down the mountain, and then get on the I-75 from Chattanooga to Atlanta.
GALO: Yep, that’s it.
JAE: Oh, yeah. Lookout Mountain, Chickamauga Lake — we used to go to all of those places when I was a kid.
GALO: So what was it like growing up in the South and then moving to pursue acting?
JAE: I was about to say, you tell me! Go Vols, am I right?
There is no one in my family in the business, and when I was growing up, the only theater that was close was not in Crossville, you had to go to Knoxville to get to the next closest theater. And if that had not existed, I wouldn’t have known that it was possible [to be in the business]. It wasn’t that I didn’t go to the movies, but it wasn’t in my frame of reference to think that someone could actually [act] for a living. My drama teacher at high school (starting my sophomore year), she heard me singing in the choir and asked me to audition in a play — and I did. She took me to my first professional theater audition and helped me with my college auditions. I didn’t even know what a monologue was. I owe a lot to her. Her name is Mel Michelle.
I don’t know what she saw in me, but she saw a lot in me and it really sparked her. We did Grease in high school, and I was a walking Sandy since I was such a good girl, and she cast me as Rizzo because she thought Sandy [would be] too easy for me. It forced me to really walk around in someone else’s shoes and to not play myself on stage. There was a moment with our first audience for that show where I was singing and I thought, ‘the audience is with me!’ I realized that I was walking in someone’s shoes and taking the audience on that ride with me, and that was the moment that I was hooked forever. That was all due to Mel Michelle.
GALO: I actually went to college in Knoxville, and I’ve seen that the area is growing a lot in their film and television community. They have festivals and stuff year round now.
JAE: Yeah, they also have a lot of commercial work there now. It is really interesting. [The University of Tennessee, Knoxville] actually had a decent theater program when I was coming up. They have the Clarence Brown Theatre and it’s a nice theatre. If I hadn’t gone into theater, I would’ve tried to get into the Pride of the Southland Band. I totally would’ve been a marching volunteer.
GALO: Now, you have a few film roles under your belt already, but it seems like you’ve stuck mainly to TV. Is that a choice you make or is it about what will pay the rent at the end of the day?
JAE: I think it is a couple of things. I’m a working class actor. I don’t have a lot of freedom in my life to pass on things. If someone does feel strongly, then I’ll pass, but I need to make rent. Part of what you’re talking about is that a lot of what I’m drawn to is very interesting or odd characters and good writing. And a lot of that is happening in television now. I mean, if you look at last summer at the box office, it was all giant action movies, and there’s not really anyone like me walking around in that. They are 22 or a model or already an A-list movie star, so part of it is that there are a lot more interesting roles for women on television. I hope that changes sometime soon, but frankly, they have a lot of good stuff happening, so I just happen to migrate toward television.
I’m really pleased. People ask me all the time if I prefer a certain medium — and I don’t. I’ve done theater, and done a lot of it and want to do more. I’ve done some features, some indie films, and I’ve done a lot of television. Good writing is good writing and an interesting character is an interesting character, it doesn’t matter what platform it is on. I even did a Web series where I wrote and directed it [on my] own. I think, at the end of the day, most artists are drawn to good writing and interesting characters wherever they can find them.
GALO: You mentioned that you wrote, directed, and starred in a Web series. Did you enjoy being behind the camera and running the show?
JAE: Yeah, I mean, the Web series was an experiment for me. I wanted to know if I could write my own [thing]. I had written something with a partner and my husband said, “This is great, we should shoot this.” And I was like, “this is a Web series. Why shoot a pilot? Let’s do the whole season.” So we scrapped our pennies together and shot it on $152 camcorders from Best Buy, because that is all we could afford. We had no budget. We called it home video style and my character ran the camera.
Whenever we came up against a wall, we tried to find creative fixes for it. A lot of it was an experiment to see if I could [do it], and some of it became film school for me. At the end of the day, I really got hooked on filmmaking. Directorially, I love climbing inside that moment with an actor and helping them find where it is going. So, really, I won’t stop doing that, and I’m writing some other stuff for production companies and I hope to continue as a filmmaker in whatever venue I can make that happen.
GALO: That’s awesome. Now, I most recently saw you in Better Call Saul, which is a pretty insane world to join, this Breaking Bad universe — not to mention the fan base that comes along with it. What was that like?
JAE: It actually started for me with Fargo, and I thought, ‘how am I ever going to follow this up?’ And then I got the audition for the Breaking Bad spin-off and this kind of really interesting character, and so I thought, ‘this is a great follow-up for Fargo. How did I get this lucky?’ And then Vince Gilligan directed our first episode, and it really changed what they were doing with the characters. The Kettlemans were never supposed to be that prominent in the show, and AMC was really nice to be able to give us extra time to find the tone and everything, so we get a lot of character exploration with Vince in that first episode. He and Peter [Gould] helped to find really interesting things and we ran with it in a gorgeous way.
But it was such a weird thing. With Breaking Bad, it feels like we put it on a pedestal at this point, and I was really nervous when I went [to audition]. But Vince, he is from Virginia and the South, and so he walks around like a wonderful, lovely Southern man. He is so welcoming and he really builds a community of nice people that are wildly talented. If you were gonna jump off a cliff like Betsy Kettleman, it was definitely the perfect environment to do that in. You [just] know that the editing is going to be great and that [the show] has such a high taste factor. It really is a great place to take risks.
Bob Odenkirk and I worked together a lot on Fargo. I think that helped a lot as well. We had a rapport with each other. He is such a lovely guy. We really loved our sparring scenes together. I don’t know if you could follow [Breaking Bad] up, [but] I guess you spend a lot of time trying. It was such a wonderful experience itself, and the fans are very active and very hardcore. That was a new experience for me because they have that built-in Breaking Bad fan base already. It got very intense, very quickly when the show started, but they are great, I love that fan base. They’re intellectual, they pay a lot of attention to detail, and they’re not looking for popcorn movies. They want to really get deep into the show, the characters and the visuals. They want to get into a deep discussion about it, and I so much respect and love that. They expect a show that does not talk down to them. They want a show that challenges them. I’m honored to be a part of anything that has that kind of fan base.