True Blood’s Carrie Preston on Broadway, Her Career and How She Got the Role of “Arlene”
Even if you haven’t watched True Blood, you’ve seen Carrie Preston before.
Carrie has the remarkable ability to transform herself – her looks and mannerisms – in each role she does. She’s been in Duplicity and My Best Friends Wedding with Julia Roberts. Doubt, Vicky Christina Barcelona and even an episode of Sex and the City that I totally remember her in. She even played Ben Linus’ (her husband, the great Michael Emerson) mother on an episode of Lost! I could go on but my fingers will get tired from all the typing.
She’s currently filming season 3 of True Blood and she took some time out to talk to me about Broadway, how she prepares for a role and yes, True Blood.
So, you’re from Georgia and you got started doing plays as a kid?
Yeah, I’m one of those, like I like to say I’m a “lifer.” I’m in it for life. My brothers also an actor, and we started doing plays in Macon, Georgia community theater when we were pretty young. My brother, John, his name’s John Preston, he got the first play. He’s older than me by two years, so I watched him, and I was like, “I want to do what John’s doing.” And then before we knew it, we were completely ensconced in doing plays growing up.
And then I even started my own street theater company when I was in the 7th grade with all the neighborhood kids, and I would charge 25 cents. We would make up skits and sing songs and do it in the front yard. I mean, that was pretty much… it was very clear that that was what I wanted to do with my life. I just didn’t know that you could make a living at it.
Was there any one show or one specific moment that you were like, this is it?
I definitely got bitten by the bug, immediately, you know, when I was in the 4th grade. Just doing the school, the community theater production of some play, it was called, The Lion Who Wouldn’t. You know how they write those plays for kids and stuff?
The director who was running the community theater, he pulled my mom aside and he said, “Your child’s an actor”, and my mom said, “Oh thank you, she’s having a good time.” And he said, “No, no, no, no. You’re not hearing me. Your children are actors. That’s what they are.” So he encouraged us at a young age and sort of brought it up to my parents in a way that they had to kind of sit up and listen. And thankfully my parents were very supportive and never tried to talk us into becoming accountants or anything like that.
Yeah, my mom said that to me more than once. And I said, mom I can’t even count.
Exactly! There’s no back up here. This is it. This is what we’re doing.
You went to Julliard. How was that? I heard it can be tough.
Yeah, you know what, it’s funny. Whenever I run into people that I was in school with, and I’m still very close to, like James Vasquez, who is in my production company with me, we were at Julliard together. And it’s just like we went through Vietnam. We say, “Yeah were in ‘Nam together and we were in acting boot camp.” But you know what, it was a great program. I went there after I’d already gone to undergrad. So, I was very, very focused there and if you are, you can get a lot out of that place.
I mean, I probably could’ve left after a year or two and been fine, but if I hadn’t had those four years in New York City to acclimatize myself to that town and the business, I think it would’ve taken me that long to get a Broadway show anyway. You know what I mean? And so I may as well be there learning and being around some of the best teachers in the country. I kind of felt a little bit lucky, like I was in a little bit of a cocoon and was able to hatch out of that and into the industry in a less painful way than if I just moved to New York from Macon, Georgia.
After leaving Julliard, you were on Broadway with Patrick Stewart doing the Tempest. That has to be thrilling and nerve-wracking.
It was a pretty exciting way to make my Broadway debut. Luckily, we had done the play at Shakespeare in the Park first, and it was a big hit in Central Park. And they hadn’t had a hit like that in a long time, so it was very exciting. We would finish a show and there would be people camping out for the next day to get the tickets for the next night, so it was like that. It was kind of magical, you know? To be doing that play in the open sky. A play about a tempest. Sometimes it would rain and then we would be talking about a storm and it would be there and the audiences were just loving it.
It was really cool to be able to take the show that was so big and transfer it indoors and make it work in there. And of course we had George Wolf, who is a genius director. And we had a limited run, so the houses were always full, and I made a great friend in Patrick Stewart.
And then ended up many years later doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf with him at the Guthrie playing Honey. So I got to do two plays with him, which was great. And we already had built this relationship. But that’s what you do, you build relationships with people, and if you’re lucky you get to work with them again.
What do you like better, Broadway or film and television?
You know, I really am very happy taking a break from the theater right now. I mean, I love it, and I certainly have been doing it my whole life. But it’s fun to be in the television and film mediums now and learning the ropes there, you know? Because, it was something that I started doing later, after all the theater training. So I’m really happy doing that right now. Really, really happy with that, yeah. And then of course the directing and producing of films, too, is very exciting for me.
Looking at your resume and your work, you’ve been in a ton of TV shows and films that I’ve seen, and you are almost completely unrecognizable in each role. You look totally different from part to part. That’s just amazing.
I appreciate you noticing that. A lot of times I kind of feel like I’m starting over for each part because people don’t realize that I was also the one that was in 10 other things that they’ve seen. So a couple years ago, I finally hired a publicist and that has been great because they’ve been able to sort of connect the dots for people and say she’s the redhead on True Blood, but you watch Duplicity and she’s the blond worker, kind of conservative and then on True Blood she’s the crazy buxom, sassy waitress. And its definitely been interesting for me especially since I’m pretty much incognito when I’m out in the world. But that can be fun because people get… they’re always they’re always a little bit surprised.
You’ve worked with some fantastic actors. Do you ever sit back and watch the work and find out later that you’re stealing some little bit of technique from them?
Sure, I think everybody sort of rubs off on you if you’re smart enough to let it happen. I mean, I think that’s how we grow is you know watching other people. If you’re really present in the scene, you’re gonna start doing things that you didn’t even plan. If you’re really there and reacting to what they’re doing and before it you’re like wow I’ve never done anything like that before because of the other person that I was working with. If you make it about the other person, I think you’re kind of better off.
What actor do you think has most influenced you?
Um… gosh, well certainly my husband, Michael Emerson. Just watching him and watching his work. He’s sort of similar in that he really does transform from role to role. And he happens to be playing one role right now that he’s most recognizable for. But he played Oscar Wilde off Broadway in one of the biggest New York hits in the 90s and couldn’t be more different than Benjamin Linus.
I guess it’s more people that I’ve actually worked with than watching people I don’t know. Of course I admire many actors on screen, Meryl Streep has always been a hero of mine. Holly Hunter, she’s from Georgia. I got to work with her and being on set and working with her on this little movie called Woman Wanted was more than thrilling because I kind of had her as a role model because she came from where I came from. Even Julia Roberts, I’ve worked with her twice and she’s from Georgia. I feel this connection with people I feel like come from a similar background. Even in the most recent film that’s out that I’m in called That Evening Sun, Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins who are actors in the movie, but they’re also producers and directors, I just learned a lot being around them and being on set with them. And again they’re both from Georgia. And I do like to find the common ground.
Now you said that you’re married to Michael Emerson, do you guys ever consult each other on roles you’re considering or help each other work on scenes?
We try to keep it separate. We sort of task each other in the roles of being supportive and so we really don’t do that. I mean, every once in a while if I have an audition and I feel like I need another eye, I’ll work on it with him. And he’ll give me a few suggestions and vice versa, but for the most part we kind of stay out of each other’s way. Because, so much of this business is about having to overcome obstacles and so we don’t even want to bring that into the house.
But a lot of times, because I’m traveling a lot I will put myself on tape for auditions and he reads with me off camera. And that’s always helpful because he’s much more relaxed than if you go into a casting director’s office and you’re reading with a casting director.
How do you prepare for a role?
I guess it’s different for each part depending on the demands of the part. I mean, True Blood… now I really know Arlene and it’s very fun to have a character that you know and you know how to embody that you actually get to have different scenes every day as opposed to a play where you learn the entire play and then you do it over and over again. You get on the same train every night. It’s kind of fun doing a TV show where it’s a little – you have to bring different tools to the table.
I play a lead in a film called Lovely by Surprise and it was a very…. not such a linear way of telling a story, and so the character had a lot of psychological things that was going on so I prepared for that role in a different way than I would have for say Duplicity. I actually learned the entire role. I was completely off book before I got to set just because I felt like I needed to understand the entire arc of it before I even went into it so that I would have the freedom to play with whatever was being thrown my way. I’m glad I did it that way because it was an indie and they had a short shooting schedule. So, I felt prepared but not you know set.
Let’s talk about True Blood for a second. When you first read the part, did the character immediately jump out at you? Because you’re perfect at it.
Well, I appreciate that, but you’ve seen what I look like. You don’t immediately read True Blood and think, oh Carrie Preston for Arlene, the 40-something, red-headed, buxom – it just doesn’t happen.
The only reason that I got that part was because I had worked with Alan Ball already on a film that he directed call Towelhead, and so I met him on that film and I was playing a completely different character, albeit a Southern one. Completely different than Arlene, but Alan is one of those people that is perfectly okay with casting an actor that he likes and letting the actor find the role. You know, instead of casting somebody who is perfect. I mean, he cast Anna Paquin as Sookie and she’s not the first person you would think of for that part either.
And actually he kind of did that with everybody on that show. He just picks actors that he likes and he lets us find the role. So when I was doing Towelhead with him, I asked him what he was doing next, and he told me he was doing a vampire show, and I was like “what?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I might have something for you in there,” and when I read the script I didn’t know what he was talking about. I called my agent, I was like “I don’t know which part he’s talking about. There’s nothing for me in here.” And he was like oh it’s Arlene. And I was like okay. Alright, I can try that. So, I went in and I know that woman. I grew up with that woman. And I brought an audition in that and he was very interested in how I interpreted it and he told HBO that’s who I want and they said great, and we’ll get her a wig. So that’s what they did. It was nice. Once again, you know, work that gets work.
Does Alan Ball or does somebody call you and tell you your storyline before the season starts?
Well, our show is based on these books, so we do have a blueprint of the series but they’ve really departed from that quite a bit. And so I did read the books and just kind of got a general idea of it. But I trust our writers. Our writers are pretty great.
And we’re lucky in that we get scripts pretty far in advance whereas some shows like Lost they get them a couple of days before they start shooting. Like for example, we just started shooting the 5th episode of season 3, but we’ve gotten scripts through the 6th already. So it is nice to have sort of the sense of where your character is going. But you know we’ve got some great writers that we can trust are gonna take someplace. And Alan has told me a little bit about what is gonna happen with my character for the rest of the season so I kind of know a little bit about where we’re going.
So you said earlier you started your own production company. Is that more to take control of your career, create roles you might not ultimately be considered for?
You know, we started it back in 2004 when James and I were both not working a lot and I had been taking some classes, some filmmaking classes and was starting to mess around with it a little bit. And rather naively, we just said well let’s make a movie. And we kind of self-taught ourselves how to do that. And before we knew it we’re shooting on weekends and we’re getting this footage and before we knew it we had enough to cut the film together. And then it ended up doing well. We learned a lot and we were able to kind of take what we learned on the first one and improve it on the next one. And sort of the goal is to kind of keep building and these are no-budget movies, you know. Now I’m hopefully directing in the fall a movie that a friend of mine wrote and we’re hoping we’ll be able to take it to the next level and we have investors that are interested in actually giving us a budget. Whereas before we were pretty much self-budgeted. It’s been exciting to kind of keep taking these little baby steps.
What’s your advice to actors?
My advice to actors is don’t wait around for somebody to tell you what you can do because there are so many ways now to be creative and to create your own work whether it be doing a showcase of a play or getting a camera and shooting a short or shooting a feature or whatever. We’re much more empowered now that technology has advanced so much. Where people can create their own work. Because as soon as you start putting your power in somebody else’s hands, then your creativity, I think, is gonna be stifled.