Interview: Julie Ann Emery Talks ‘Better Call Saul’, Starting Her Career in a Smaller Market and Her Acting “Cheat Sheet”
“Take care of your craft, the business is gonna do whatever it’s gonna do with you.” – Julie Ann Emery
If you’re a fan of great television, then it’s a sure bet you’ve seen Julie Ann Emery on your screen recently; she played Betsy Kettleman on Better Call Saul and Ida Thurman on FX’s Fargo and most recently booked a couple episodes on the new season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex. She’s a terrific actress and I have to say that I absolutely loved chatting with her.
She got her start in Chicago working in theatre before moving to New York and she told me that it turned out to be a smart move. “I think there’s something to be said early on for just working and being able to figure out where you fit in everything in the real world, instead of in a college setting or in a training setting,” she told me. Plus, she got her union cards while working there.
If you’re looking to make a career as an actor, this is an absolute must read interview. She talks about the benefits of moving to a small market to start your career, how actors should get training and of course, working on Better Call Saul. She also talks about a “cheat sheet” she makes for every role she does. She takes her characters scenes and breaks them down in a really interesting way that I’d never heard of. I’ve actually tried it out since talking with her and it’s absolutely brilliant!
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Thanks for talking to me this morning or this afternoon depending where you are.
Julie Ann Emery: I’m currently in New York.
Doing anything fun there?
Julie Ann Emery: I did a couple of play readings, new works that are still in development for some playwright pals.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah. I go back and forth a lot. My husband is a Broadway singer so I don’t know that we call either one point our home. We travel back and forth a lot.
I love New York. That’s a good place to visit.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, it is for sure. It’s pricey if you’re an actor but creatively it’s an amazing place to be. I mean, you’re surrounded by much more real life than you are in Los Angeles. It’s great.
I talk to a lot of Broadway actors and they always say that doing play readings and getting in on the ground floor is like the best way to get involved in a show.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, it is. My husband does a ton of them. It is the best way to get in sort of on the ground floor.
I started writing in the last two years and it’s really interesting to be part of that process early on. Just to be part of development I think is good for us as actors. To see how things evolve and characters evolve. That there is no perfect or right, there’s just evolving to the next place. It’s interesting. I like it a lot.
You’ve had a terrific year.
Julie Ann Emery: [laughs] Yeah, I had a really lucky year, didn’t I?
I don’t even know if it’s luck. Just looking at your resume and IMDB, it’s like you’ve been building to this point.
Julie Ann Emery: It’s interesting, I think from the outside most careers look like they’re building to whatever moment you’re in. From the inside of it, it feels like a roller-coaster of work and no work. Or moments when you’re very busy or moments where you feel like you can’t beg for a job. So, from my perspective it’s been quite a roller-coaster to this point.
There’s a photo that goes around Facebook that is the arrow that says where you are and success. And one of them is a straight arrow and one of them is a big squiggly mess. And one of them says what you think it is and one says reality? I think that’s what it always feels like, right?
Right. True. So, how are you trying to keep this momentum or this hot streak going?
Julie Ann Emery: You know, we always wonder that, right? How do we keep a hot streak going or how do you keep momentum going? I don’t think there’s any guaranteed way to do that. I think you have to just continue do the best work you can do in every room that you’re in or every set that you’re on or every theatre you’re in and you have to continue to try and make your work better and different and transformative.
I’m a big believer in craft and in letting career sort of work itself out. So, I think if you continue to tend to your craft and continue to try and knock it out of the park every time, I think that’s the most you can do to keep it going. Then the business is gonna do whatever it’s gonna do, right?
Yeah, totally. Speaking of craft, you went to a conservatory. Did you get a degree there?
Julie Ann Emery: I did, yeah. I got a BFA in Musical Theatre actually. I went to Webster Conservatory for the Performing Arts in St. Louis. And I went there because of the… I didn’t know anything when I went there but I thought it had a really good range of skill. Like I did two years of Shakespeare training, we did Restoration work, I did 2 ½ years of dialect training. You leave Webster with a great process for sure.
When you’re talking to younger actors, do recommend them to get some sort of education?
Julie Ann Emery: Oh yeah. I think it’s not imperative it be college, although college was great for me. It was a great middle ground between a little small town in Tennessee and New York or LA or where I had to go to do my work. And I do like college because it can be all consuming. You can throw yourself fully into the conservatory program you’re in.
But there are also training programs in New York. They are training programs in LA. I highly recommend training. I don’t recommend winging it. I recommend some kind of program where you get vocal work and movement work, where you learn more about the history of what we do and where you learn about theatre and plays and developing character. Otherwise, you’re chasing celebrity instead of chasing art. You need someone to teach your art form and what it is.
I find that out more in LA than in New York.
Julie Ann Emery: There are classes and training programs in LA too but that’s the draw of LA. I don’t know, the road to chasing celebrity is not interesting to me and it seems the worst gamble you could ever make, you know? So I think if you have something to say, go somewhere that can help you say it. Get yourself some training, learn your craft. I always say that to young actors, learn your craft. The business is gonna do whatever it’s gonna do with you. But if you continue to invest in your craft then the right writers and directors, filmmakers who are like minded who also invest in their craft will find you.
So, after you graduated, did you move to New York?
Julie Ann Emery: I didn’t. My husband, who is originally from Chicago, he talked me into going to Chicago with him for a couple of years after college and it was the best thing I ever did.
I got all of my union cards in Chicago – SAG, AFTRA, Equity – because it’s a smaller market. And Chicago has an amazing theatre community, I did a ton of theatre. I understudied every leading lady in town and learned from them. Nobody is getting famous there, everybody needs to work at that theatre again so there’s a dedication to the play at hand and to the ensemble and to the project and the story you’re telling that I think can get lost in LA and New York.
That’s still where my focus lie in my work and that definitely started in Chicago. You really learn how to service the story and to serve the whole instead of serving a bigger career track. Not that a career track’s not important but it’s important when you’re working to focus in and serve the story at hand.
I would imagine working in Chicago, there are so many actors and actresses there who are probably so phenomenal. I’ve never heard of them, no one outside of that area has and you just learn so much from them.
Julie Ann Emery: You know, when I moved to New York, I was disappointed at times when I would go see a Broadway show because I knew someone in Chicago who I thought would be better in a role. I don’t mean that in a snotty way, I just mean there is true talent there who choses’ to stay there because they work at a very high level. And because they do a different show every three or four months, they’re very versed in building character and their craft and what they do and how they do what they do.
I highly, highly recommend a place like Chicago, some kind of smaller market where you can really get involved in the community itself. Also, somewhere where you can figure out where you fit in the art form before going somewhere more cut throat. I think there’s something to be said early on for just working and being able to figure out where you fit in everything in the real world, instead of in a college setting or in a training setting.
I grew up in Maryland and I got all my cards in DC and Baltimore.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah. I always say, don’t go to LA without your SAG card and don’t go to New York without your Equity card. It just makes things harder. I mean, I know brilliant actors who went to LA without their SAG card and they spent three, four, five years trying to get their SAG card. So, go to a smaller market get your union cards but while you’re doing that, work. Get your ducks in a row. There’s a path to Broadway or to television and film. Do summer stock. Do regional theatre. Do independent film. The first thing I ever shot on camera, I went to an audition in Backstage for an independent pilot in New York. It didn’t pay much money and it was non-union but I got my feet wet. Get your feet wet. It’s OK for it to be a process.
You did a couple National tours too, right?
Julie Ann Emery: I did. I did the National tour of Annie, I understudied Grace. And A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, I played Philia with a blond wig. I used that weird soapy, waxy stuff to make my eyebrows blond with every performance. It was great.
Theatre training is great. You learn to tell a story. You learn that that story is yours to tell for your character from beginning to end every night. So, when I sit down to do an episode of television or to do a film, I make a little timeline and arc out my story for myself. Just like I would if I were in a rehearsal process on stage, so I understand what that journey is. I think theatre is really important for us as actors.
So, when you book a part, if you have one scene or twenty scenes, you make an arc and timeline for your character.
Julie Ann Emery: I do. This is gonna sound strange. I take a piece of paper or several pieces of paper depending on how many scenes I have, right? And I make a little grid on them. I draw a line down the middle and I make little hash marks for every scene. And then I name every name scene for myself, like what that scene is to me; the phone call, the breakup, the whatever.
And above that line, I track my characters emotional journey. So I make a little grid, like how hot it is, where my high points are, where things kind of level off.
And below that line, I make a little cheat sheet for myself. If it’s the first scene, I write in a little bit of my backstory or my moment before. Not my full backstory but my moment before so I know where I’m coming from.
And then, between scenes, I jot in what I think has happened between scenes. Between scenes where we’ve seen me.
It’s literally just a shooting tool. I use it to have a quick cheat sheet to go back to as we go through the shoot day so I always have it with me in my trailer. And if we juggle the scenes around, I always have a reference point to go back to.
I think it’s important to arc out your own character, not to just play everything in sort of an even tone. I think it’s important to take the audience on a ride with you if you’re given the opportunity. And that’s just a little cheat sheet to help me do that.
That’s brilliant. I’m in rehearsals for Singin’ in the Rain right now.
Julie Ann Emery: On nice! I love that musical so much.
Yeah, I’m having the best time. I play Rod, the PR press agent. So, I’m going to totally do that.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, so Rod is one of those characters. I spent the last year doing recurring work, right? So playing Ida [on Fargo], playing Betsy [on Better Call Saul], my characters not in every scene so a lot happens to my character between times that we see me. So, I like to know what that is. Rod, that’s one of those characters where stuff happens in between.
This is awesome. Thanks for that! So, in Better Call Saul, which I loved, you were only scheduled for one or two episodes?
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, I was originally just hired as a guest star and then Vince Gilligan directed our first episode. Sony and AMC gave us extra time to shoot the first episode so that we had extra days to shoot it, so we could sort of find what the tone was and everything.
Vince gave us extra time on set to really explore characters and who they were and what their dynamic was. We discovered a lot that day on the fly, which is both exhilarating and frightening as an actor, right? The overlapping thing, the finishing each other’s thoughts thing, that’s something we found on set with Vince. The sort of Altman-like dialogue that sort of lent itself to the relationship without having to have exposition about it. We discovered a lot and we discussed a lot as the day went on. And out of that, the writers got inspired and changed the way our story went in a significant way. We got really lucky that A) AMC and Sony let that happen and that B) Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould run the kind of set and writers room where that’s allowed. Where they were willing and able and excited to go back and restructure where things were going. So, we wound up a much bigger part of the story then we were ever supposed to and I’m so, so very grateful for it. They really ran with the characters in a gorgeous and fun way.
Plus, you were working with Jeremy Shamos. I’ve talked to him once and I’ve seen him in I think two Broadway shows. I love the guy.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, he’s amazing. And because he’s a theatre actor he really values rehearsal and working on things together. So, we always rehearsed everything. We’d improvise. We really got into these deep, dorky conversations about who our charters were. We were sending each other documentaries and YouTube videos. I’m used to going through that process in a solitary way on camera but because Jeremy is such a brilliant theatre actor, I didn’t have to go through it on my own, we went through it together. Our process became very symbiotic and it was both a relief and really exciting.
You two worked so well together. You could just see that on screen.
Julie Ann Emery: Well, that is because we marry our process to each other, it does affect things. Because we took the journey of figuring out who the characters were together instead of singly alone and then showing up on set, it affected our chemistry, it affected how we played off of each other, it affected everything straight down the road.
What do you have coming up?
Julie Ann Emery: Well, I just found out my pilot is not gonna become a series for ABC so I just went back on the market again.
Julie Ann Emery: I know! That happened in the last 24 hours. It’s totally cool. I did a show for ABC and they only picked up 3 pilots out of 15 so it’s not personal. But I just went back on the market so I don’t know what’s next, which I’m kind of excited about.
When you do a pilot your time is taken up, you can’t sign on to anything else for a while. Because you sign on and they have first rights on your time, so if the show had gone, that would mean you would be shooting from the end of July to the end of the year. So, you have to kind of wait until now, until you find whether your show goes and then sort of start all over again. Which is the story of being an actor, right? I’m not complaining about it. The pilot was a great experience, I wouldn’t change it but I’m back to square one.
I tell people that all the time. When I say to young actors, take care of your craft, the business is gonna do whatever it’s gonna do with you. Tom Cruise is looking for his next movie. I think that’s true across the board and that continues to be true throughout your career. So, I’m excited and hopeful for whatever will come next. I hope that it’s something half as exciting as Fargo and Better Call Saul.
Right. Even though I have this show I’m in, I was just on some audition boards seeing what I could audition for theatre-wise.
Julie Ann Emery: We are gypsies, no matter what. Even if you’re on a series, you don’t know that you’re picked up next year. You’re always looking for your next job and I don’t necessarily think that that’s a bad thing. I think part of our job as actors is transformation and if we stay on one place too long we can get stale. And I like putting on different people, I like stepping into the characters shoes and walking around in them. So, I’m excited to see what might come next.
What’s one of the worst auditions you’ve ever been on?
Julie Ann Emery: This is going to sound completely cliché but I was at an audition once where they asked me to take off my clothes. It was interesting because it was not… I mean, it was a film. It wasn’t like a porno, you know? It was just a regular audition and there was a sex scene. And they were like, “Well, we really need to see you. We need to see what you look like.” At that point, it sort of becomes an out-of-body experience.
I remember saying, “I’ll come back in a bathing suit.” But they really wanted me to take off my clothes and I said “no” and I walked out.
Good for you.
Julie Ann Emery: Well, it was before I ever had my SAG card. It was before had any union card. It was really early on. And I left, I didn’t get mad. I was just kind of flustered. And I left.
You have to give yourself so fully to a character when you’re auditioning to have a shot at it. It’s hard not to do whatever it takes. It was very empowering to say, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” And to leave and the next week to get a job.
It’s good to know your boundaries and preserve them and know that tomorrow will come no matter what. Nothing is the end of your career.
Well, holy crap, I loved talking to you! And I’m totally going to do your timeline.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, do a timeline. If it’s like a regular sheet of paper, turn it sideways and make a mark right down the middle of it, going horizontally. And then, just make your little scene marks and run those lines to the bottom of the page. And then nickname all of your scenes and go to work. It’s one of my favorite tools.