On True Blood, Arlene Fowler is unlucky in love. The mother of two has been married four times and found out last season that her fiancée Rene Lenier was not the man she thought he was. Fortunately for Carrie Preston, who plays Arlene on HBO’s hit show, she’s done better in the love department. Preston has been married to fellow actor Michael Emerson, who plays Benjamin Linus on ABC’s Lost, since 1998.
We recently got the chance to talk with Preston about her work on True Blood, her love of Lost and how she came to play Emerson’s mother.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I’ve pretty much known it all my life. I grew up in Macon, GA and probably when I was in the fourth grade my brother was doing a community theatre play in my hometown. I went and saw it and he was up there and I was fascinated and I thought, “I want to do that too.” So I auditioned for the next play and then my brother and I, and my brother is still an actor, were doing a lot of plays in the community theatre. Then I started my own street theatre company when I was in seventh grade, with all the neighborhood kids – directing and acting. I was definitely bitten by the bug.
So you were just focused at that point? You knew that’s what you wanted to do?
Yeah. I didn’t know at that time that you could do that for a living, but I knew that that was what I wanted to do with my energy. Other kids wanted to do sports, I wanted to go and rehearse plays. I would sit backstage and I would memorize the entire play – not just my part, but the entire play. So if anyone was ever absent, I would jump in; a character actor from the beginning.
And I was lucky because I had parents who were very supportive and never questioned that. Then one day I said to my mom, “Hey, do you think you could do this for a living?”
And she was like, “Well honey, somebody’s got to do it, I don’t know why it can’t be you.”
Once you decided to make a living acting, how did you pursue it?
Well, of course, I was in Macon and nobody really knew that. There were no actors that anybody knew that were doing it professionally; so we were kind of at sea. It took me a little while. I went to a handful of schools. I started out at this little college in Charleston, SC because I knew a girl who had gone there. And I got there and pretty quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be serious enough for me as far as a theatre department.
Then there was a teacher there who said, “You should go to this little school in Southern Indiana.”
And I was like, “What? No, I don’t want to go there. I want to go to New York.”
So I auditioned for Julliard and didn’t get in. And he was like, “I’m telling you, go check this school out.”
So I went to this school called the University of Evansville and this teacher there told me, “You come to my school, I’ll get you into Julliard.” And I went to his school for two years and got into Julliard. So he wasn’t lying. A very bold statement since they take about seven women a year, but Julliard does take a high number of students from University of Evansville. Like in my class of 20 people, there were two of us from the University of Evansville. And actually one of my costars on True Blood, Rutina Wesley, who plays Tara, she went to the University of Evansville.
I trained a lot. I liked school. I went to Julliard and from there I got hooked up into the industry.
Did you work fairly steadily from there? We would imagine Julliard is a pretty good thing to have on your resume when you are starting out.
It does help. You do have the advantage of agents seeing you before you get out of school and if you’re lucky you get hooked up with one; most people do. I was very lucky. I started working almost immediately doing plays. One of the first things I did out of Julliard was go down to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to do a production of Hamlet with my brother and that’s how I met Michael [Emerson].
Shortly after that, I made my New York debut in a production of The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. I was playing Miranda. We did that at Shakespeare in the Park and then it moved to Broadway, so I was lucky, I got to make my Broadway debut doing Shakespeare.
After that, I thought, “All right, I guess I better go see about this film and TV thing.” So I made the trek out here to LA and started doing the whole back and forth bicoastal thing, which I still do now. Actually, we’re tricoastal now with Hawaii in there.
You had guest roles on a variety of shows like Sex and the City, Numb3rs, Arrested Development and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. What were those experiences like for you? Were you someone who enjoyed the variety of the work and getting to visit all of these different shows?
Oh yeah yeah yeah. Even when I was like a little ingénue, I always considered myself a character actor. You can see on True Blood, I don’t look anything like that. I haven’t, thankfully, been pigeonholed or typecast really. So to do the guest spots is where you really get to have your variety and do your different kind of parts. It’s a little nerve-racking when you walk in to an established family of actors and crew and you’ve got a very slim margin of error as far as you’ve got to be able to get in there and nail it immediately. I like that kind of challenge though. I’m someone who really does like to have a lot of things coming at me. I’m a multi-tasker to the nth degree.
So I do enjoy those things and have been able to do some really fun ones like – many years ago, do you remember that show Spin City? One day I happened to be in my manager’s office. I never go over there, but I happened to be there and she gets this call and she’s like, “Yes, she’s standing right here. Okay, let me talk to her about it. Let me call you back.” She hangs up and she goes, “Spin City just called. Jennifer Esposito has been fired and they rewrote her part as a temp/secretary. It’s shooting in three hours and they want you to come down and do it.”
So I was like, “Great.” I go down there. I walk onto the set with a full rehearsal having never looked at the script and I had the first line of the thing. I was in the first scene and in several scenes in this thing and I had to memorize it and get hair and makeup and costume, that whole thing, in three hours. Then seven o’clock, live audience and I’m shot out of a cannon.
I love that kind of thing. Michael didn’t even know where I was. I called him at the end of the night and said, “Guess what I just did?”
He was like, “I could have never done that.” And it’s true, he needs a lot more time and focus on only one thing. I like to have about six balls in the air, then I’m happy.
You were in two Oscar-nominated films last year – Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Doubt. What was it like working on those films and at the time you were making them, did you have a sense that you were working on something special that could end up winning awards?
Well, in the case of Doubt, it was based on a great play. I knew the play, so I knew there was potential for it to be brilliant, especially with that cast. I really thought that one was going to turn out well and it did. Unfortunately, I had a much bigger part in that and they had to cut it out for time or they found out they didn’t really need the story.
You know, it’s based on a play with four characters and then he opened it up and he added these other little storylines and tributaries and things that were contributing to it and then he realized once he got in the editing room – oh no, the story with the four people works just fine. Then he kind of culled it away. That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot. But when I saw the final product, I completely understood. Nonetheless, I’m still in it and was very, very proud to be a part of it and once again I get to sport another hair color – brunette in that one.
As far as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I mean Woody Allen, come on. Chances are it’s going to be interesting, if not fantastic. I had not auditioned, so I just got this call: “Woody Allen wants you to do a couple of scenes in the movie and it’s in Barcelona.”
And I was like, “What?” That’s like a dream. I just woke up and that happened. That’s incredible. But it was really nerve-racking too having to go, fly all that distance to Barcelona and go on a Woody Allen set having never met him. In my mind, I’m like, “What if he sees me and goes, ‘That’s not what I cast. Who’s that? What am I thinking?’” Of course, he wasn’t like that at all. He was very kind and very matter of fact and on that movie, our first scene was like the Fifth Avenue of Barcelona, packed, and there were what felt like a couple of hundred people just watching the shoot because they were obsessed with the stars and whatnot and they were looking for Scarlet and screaming “Woody! Woody! Woody!”
Then you walk on set and they wire you and pictures up, there’s no rehearsal. It was the quickest day of shooting I’ve ever had on a feature film except for the super indie ones where you have to shoot like 13 pages in a day. I mean, he was so fast and just really clear and his crew clearly has been working with him. It was a really cool experience and I’m standing there and he came over and said, “Okay, just say whatever you want.”
I was like, “What?”
“Just don’t worry about the script. Just say whatever you want and it will be great and we’ll do a master and then that will be that.”
So suddenly you are standing there in Barcelona improving with three other actors and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m in a Woody Allen movie. That’s awesome.”
Are you someone who enjoys improv? Is that one of your strong suits?
I wouldn’t say it’s my strong suit. I don’t like seek it out. I don’t do those improv troupes or anything like that, but I’m comfortable with it. I like doing it. If someone says it’s okay to do that, it’s always a little fun to kind of go off text and sometimes some really fun things happen. Sometimes they let us do that on True Blood and it’s fun to kind of add your own kind of spice to it.
You play Arlene Fowler on the HBO show True Blood. How did you land that role and how was the character described to you originally?
Well, I worked with Alan Ball on Towelhead, his feature film that came out this past year. I played Aaron Eckhart’s wife in that and she’s Texan, so southern. And Alan’s from Georgia and I’m from Georgia, so when I met him in that audition, we kind of hit it off. While I was working on Towelhead, I said, “What’s next?”
And he said, “Well, I’m doing this pilot for HBO about vampires.”
And I thought, “Wow, that’s quite a departure from Six Feet Under.” I guess they’re both about dead people, but different kinds of dead people.
He was like, “Yeah, I might have something for you in there.” So they sent the script to my agents and we read it and I didn’t know what part he was talking about. I had no idea. I can’t be the buxom redheaded waitress, I can’t do that. So I don’t know, maybe he thinks it’s a guest spot. I mean, I really didn’t know. And they were like, “No, it’s Arlene.”
I was like, “Okay.”
So I went in and, I mean, I know that kind of woman. Like I said, I grew up in Georgia; I totally know what that woman is. I just don’t particularly look like that woman. So I went in and did my thing and Alan went to HBO and said, “This is the girl that I want to do this.”
And they were like, “Okay, we’ll just put a wig on her.” Because it’s based on these books so the characters are described pretty fully in these books and Arlene is definitely this redheaded buxom ballsy woman. And he just does that. When you read about Sookie Stackhouse, you don’t think Anna Paquin, but they made her into Sookie Stackhouse. He’s really big on casting actors and just having them create the character and having them just find it. He just wants to use the actors. So that was a big compliment.
Did it take a while to get the right look for Arlene? Did they have to do a lot of tests?
Yeah, they did, they did. We had a whole other wig that just wasn’t working. It looked like I was wearing a wig, so therefore it looked like Arlene wears a wig. And that just wasn’t quite right. I mean, it was an interesting idea, but it just didn’t quite work. So then we’re scrambling, you know, because you do all this stuff a day or two days before you shoot. It all comes together really quickly, but luckily they found this other wig and they rented it and it was a lace front wig with European hair. It’s a really excellent wig and we just put it on and it just came to life.
And then you have the makeup artist who’s creating this – I mean, really I wear a ton of makeup, fake eyelashes and really, I almost feel like a drag queen. And then I have the crazy clothes that are all a little bit too small and a little bit too tight. Then you put the spray tan on and the fake nails and the fake boobs and there it is.
We would imagine that it’s got to be a great feeling to get out of the Arlene look once you are done shooting for the day.
(Laughs.) Yeah, it is. And it’s so funny though because we’ve been working on the show for two seasons, still when I come to work no one knows who I am, most people just look at me like, “Who are you?” And then I’m Arlene and everyone’s like, “Hey Carrie.” Then I take it all off and I say goodbye and they look at me like, “I don’t know who you are.” So it’s really weird. I feel like Clark Kent or something. I go into the phone booth all day and then I come out completely different. But yeah, it is a relief, especially to get out of the wig if you’ve been wearing it for like 14 hours.
Obviously, you can’t say much, but can you give any indication of what’s coming up in the show or what people can look out for with Arlene?
Well, I’ll just say this – Arlene is not really a person who goes very long without a man. You know, she’s one of those women who’s just always going to have one. And then the show I think is getting ready to go to some really wild places. We’ve shot some crazy, crazy scenes where some other supernatural phenomenon are at work. So that’s about all I guess I can say. It is departing from the second book in a lot of ways.
Let’s talk a little bit about Lost. Your husband Michael Emerson plays Benjamin Linus on the show, but we know that you’ve been a fan of Lost before he even joined the cast.
I watched it from the very first airing of the pilot – live airing. I kept seeing the trailers for it and I thought, “Well, this one is going to be good.” So I literally put it in my datebook so I could watch it. And then I was hooked. That was the most genius pilot, one of the most amazing pilots I’ve ever seen, and I was just completely hooked.
And Michael wasn’t watching it at all. He would come in and say, “Oh, is this that show on the island? It seems cheesy.”
And I would say, “You’ve got to sit down and watch it. It’s not.” And sometimes he’d sit down and watch it and he wouldn’t say anything and I could tell he liked it.
Then, when he got the offer, he came in and told me, “I just got an offer for one of your favorite shows.” I’m a TV junkie. I watch a lot of TV, I like it. I put it on my iPod, take it to the gym. I like to watch TV, sometimes even more than movies. I like the whole kind of serial – you get attached to characters and you get to watch them every week. Then we he told me he got this role on one of my favorite TV shows and it was Lost, I was screaming. I couldn’t believe it, I was so excited. So I had to fill him in. And he got completely engrossed in it. They gave him like the first season and he watched it and he got even more excited about being on it.
And how funny is it that he’s now become such a big part of the show?
I know, I know. It was only supposed to be like three episodes or something. It’s kind of a big thing to accidently happen, where suddenly there’s this seven months out of the year where you’re on the other end of the universe on this island. Hawaii’s a long way away from New York, where we live. So once he became a regular, I said, “Okay, I’m going to have to park it in LA more so we can get to each other easier.” And that has worked much better because the first season he was on, I was in New York doing a show, so we hardly saw each other. It was pretty brutal. And it was up to him to do the traveling because I was in a play, so he was constantly having to come back on that 12-hour flight with the six hour time change, but these are good problems to have.
What is it like to watch the show and see your husband be so disturbing and manipulative all the time. Some of the lines he delivers are rather creepy and chilling. Is that ever strange to watch?
Well, the thing that’s hard for me is when they beat him up.
Which they do a lot.
Yeah, that’s when I kind of step away from it and it always takes my breath away because they do such a brilliant job with the makeup and he’s got the big black eyes and bloody face. I can’t stand it. I gasp sometimes. But as far as the creepy stuff, I look at him as a craftsman. As a fellow actor, I look at what he does and I picture the line on the page and I say, “Honey, that was a great line reading” or “Oh my god, what a great scene.”
But most of the time, I just get caught up with the characters. I know all those actors now, but I still watch it as if I’m watching the characters. I’m pretty easy as far as suspending my disbelief. But yeah, there are a couple of times where he has a creepy look on his face and I say, “Don’t you ever, ever look at me like that.”
You played Ben Linus’ mother in a flashback, a role that you had expressed an interest in playing before they had even written Ben’s mother into the show. What made you want to play Mrs. Linus and what was it like filming that scene?
Well, I knew that the producers were looking for something for me to do on the show and I didn’t want to just show up as some random person. I wanted to be somehow connected to his character. Then, I thought, “I know they’re going to do his backstory at some point. They’re going to have to do his flashback.” What a creepy, cool kind of Freudian thing would it be to have me be the mother and have me do something that maybe only the fans would pick up on? Most people don’t know that I’m his wife. I guess they do know now.
But it kind of fit in to the whole mythology of Lost where they plant these secret, twisted little things in the show that only fans would know. They call them Easter eggs. I thought that would be a cool little Easter egg. We were sort of joking about it and Michael jokingly mentioned it to the producers and they totally did it, so it was really cool. I’m lying in the jungle giving birth to my husband.
One of the things your husband mentioned when we interviewed him was that you are a “Lost purist” who doesn’t want the show spoiled for you, so you don’t let him talk about the things he does on set. Is that true?
Yes, I don’t want him to tell me things. Like I’ve been on the set visiting him and I don’t do that very much, but a few times I’ve been there and he’ll come over and go, “If you don’t want a spoiler, you should go.” And I go. “Bye, I’ll see you at home.”
And he watches True Blood that way too. I don’t tell him much about what goes on with True Blood. When Michael found out who the killer was at the end of last season, he was completely shocked because I hadn’t told him. I think it’s just more fun that way.
That’s got to be good for you to have it reversed where you get to be the one who knows what’s going to happen.
It has been interesting because now I’m getting a little glimpse into what it feels like to be on a show that people get obsessed with. Because I’ve been watching that from Michael’s point of view for three years now or whatever and now there are a lot of people who are really, really into True Blood. And no one recognized me, but when they find out that I’m on the show, they’re just like at me. And they want to talk about all of the characters. The vampire obsession is not a small one.
You have executive produced three films – Ready? OK!, Feet of Clay and 29th and Gay (the latter two you also directed). How did you get into executive producing and what is it that appealed to you about it?
That’s my production company, Daisy 3 Pictures, and it’s me and James Vasquez, who I went to Julliard with, and his partner, Mark Holmes. Yeah, about five years ago, James wrote this script called 29th and Gay about a guy who’s turning 30 and he’s trying to find love and life and career. It’s sort of a coming of age part two movie. And he asked if I wanted to direct it. And no one would give us any money for it, of course, so we just did it ourselves and ended up doing great. We sold it and you can get it and rent it.
We got kind of excited about that. Then we made a short that I directed and then James wrote Ready? OK! and he directed that and I starred in it and produced it and put my entire family in it. Michael’s a next-door neighbor and my brother plays my brother. James wrote it for the two of us. And that was really exciting to be able to work with my brother on screen in such a cool way, not to mention Michael.
It had a really wonderful message that is delivered very subtly and with a lot of heart. I mean, it’s a very positive film. Subject matter like that a lot of times is about a kid struggling and everyone hates him because he might be gay. This wasn’t like that at all. The kid in the movie who likes to wear dresses and likes girls’ cheerleading, he’s very comfortable with that. He doesn’t have a problem with that. It’s everyone around him that’s sort of struggling to come to terms with that and what that means.
But the movie takes great pains to never say, “Oh, my child is gay,” because one of the things we wanted to say was don’t sexualize a 10-year-old. Don’t do it. They’ve got to find their own way in the world. And it’s a wonderful movie because everyone’s coming from a really positive place, everybody’s trying to do the best that they know how. A lot of times in these movies, the mom is evil and oppressive and that’s not the case here.
All three of the films you have produced deal with homosexuality or gender roles. Is that a topic you specifically set out to tackle or were you just drawn to those particular screenplays?
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
Wow, I kind of feel like I would be doing something around the profession, even if it’s producing or directing or writing. If I hadn’t found the acting, I would have found some other way in because that’s why I really like doing the Daisy 3 Pictures things because I get to exercise all my passions. Like I said, I do like to do a lot of things at once.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of secrets or anything.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. True Blood airs Sunday nights on HBO. For more information on Daisy 3 Pictures, visit the official website.