The new Netflix western Godless begins after a mining accident wipes out nearly the entire male population of La Belle, New Mexico, sparing, it seems, just a couple shop owners and the sheriff, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) and his deputy, Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Its women residents have taken over the town’s economic and social affairs. The prostitute, Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer), becomes the schoolteacher; Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever), the widow of the late mayor and sister of the sheriff, becomes the de facto governor herself. This would be enough drama in itself for another series, but it's all background in Godless, which opens with a pack of roving bandits pillaging the towns dotting the southwest frontierland, an enigmatic young man fleeing that same gang, and, back in La Belle, a conniving contingent of executives from a mining corporation who seem poised to take advantage of its residents and upset the town’s precarious equilibrium. Over the course of the show’s seven-episode arc, the limited series, which premiered last week, both toys with and upsets the conventions of the western—particularly gender conventions—right up until its final, genre-mandated shootout scene.
Created by Scott Frank and executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh, and featuring Downton Abbey alum Michelle Dockery and Jack O’Connell of Skins, Godless was released just in time to binge-watch over Thanksgiving weekend. (Never mind, of course, that each episode clocks in at more than an hour in length and plays like a short feature film.) Since its premiere, it has been actress Merritt Wever's performance as the defiant, trouser-wearing, queer Mary Agnes, who has made the biggest impression. But Wever, previously best known for her work on The Walking Dead and Nurse Jackie (for which she won an Emmy), was not quite confident she had nailed the performance by the end of its shoot. A couple days after the premiere of Godless, we caught up with Wever over the phone to discuss audience reactions to the show, why she’s not reading the comments, and why, despite the critical acclaim, Mary Agnes is the one role she wishes she could do over.
Hey Merritt, how’s it going?
I’m okay, how are you? I’m alright. I’m nervous to do this interview, for some reason.
Listen, I’m nervous a lot, but I’m still getting the hang of these interview things and I think, with this one, there’s a part of me, there’s a very childish kickback I’ve experienced where it’s like, well, I don’t want to tell you this and that. I’ve been able to get away with being pretty private about myself and so I didn’t realize it until I was looking at some of this stuff that, oh, for some reason, I’m wanting to hoard the information for myself. It’s very weird. I don’t know where it comes from. Sorry. We can move on.
Well, let’s see where it goes. I read that you were brought in to read specifically for Mary Agnes, right? So I’m wondering what made you interested in the part once the casting director for the series reached out to you.
Yeah. I read the feature that Scott [Frank, the show's creator] had written many years ago and had been trying to get made for a while. Mary Agnes was definitely in there, but it wasn’t until I got the script for the rest of the series a few months later that her part was fleshed out and stuff, and I think, like most actors, the first thing that attracts you to a job is a job, is work. [Laughs] But I have to admit, I didn’t know why Ellen Lewis, the casting director, thought of me for this. It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited or grateful, but I did wonder. I don’t think it was until the job was over that I realized maybe there are similarities between Mary Agnes and myself, and I keep wondering what it was that Ellen Lewis saw in me that made her think of me for this. Casting directors are like these fairy godmother witches. They bring together this alchemy.
So what were those things that you saw as similarities by the end of it?
I think her interior life, I related to more. Scoot and I were doing one of those press days last month, and somebody had asked, ‘Do you take the character home with you?’ He said the longer he did a series, the longer he worked on a part, it was less that he became like the character and more that the character became like him. I’ve been chewing on that for a while. But on the page and at the time that we were shooting the project, I did not feel like Mary Agnes at all. I did not feel tough or confident or strong, and I worried about being able to pull that off, and at times, I think it was almost like physically and emotionally painful to have to pretend to be that strong. I just kept thinking that everybody must be thinking, whoof, feel bad for that girl. She’s really dumping it.
That seems like maybe it’s something that Mary Agnes really grapples with, too—having to be this strong figure.
It ended up that way, certainly. On the inside, she’s not as tough and strong as she pretends to be. I think that she’s struggling as much with the external circumstances of her life as she is with some internal demons.
So Mary Agnes goes by her maiden name; she wears trousers; she’s attracted to women—and these things all seem to set her apart, even in a town that is run by women, which is already sort of a distinction. Did you interpret her as something of an outsider?
Yeah. I don’t think I was thinking of the word “outsider,” but I think she’s certainly defensive. I think she’s certainly different from the other women in the town. That causes a lot of emotional static and friction—she feels different; she knows she’s different; and she’s a bit of an emotional porcupine.
How do you mean?
When it comes to Callie, I think she wants love and wants to be in relationships with other people but isn’t very good at it. I mean, everybody in town is suffering from some major PTSD. Everyone’s lost all their male loved ones, pretty much, so this is a town in dire financial and emotional straits. But I also want to be clear, I don’t think her being with a woman is some kind of effect of PTSD or she’s been emotionally damaged and therefore she’s in love with Callie. I don’t want to give that impression at all.
No, of course. But some of her independence does seem, rightly or wrongly, to stem from the fact that she, unlike some of the other women in the town, doesn’t necessarily cue her behavior to the men who pass through. I’m curious how much you think the male gaze informs how the women of La Belle do business and go about their personal lives, and how that relates to Mary Agnes.
I think that probably every actor made their own choice. Some of that is definitely in there—that some of the women in the town are excited to have men back around. If they think that men are going to come and solve their problems or fix their situation, by the end of the show, they learn that is not the case. That’s never the case. That’s a fairy tale. But Mary Agnes definitely feels disappointed in and betrayed by some of the women in the town, that they don’t see that this chance for economic stability is also a chance at economic independence and what a big deal that would be for them as a town, as women.
What, to you, makes her so independent?
I don’t know. I don’t know. You know, it’s hard. I find doing the work is one thing, and then talking about the work is another, and I’m not always so good in the moment at talking about the work, at analyzing it, at looking at it structurally or from the outside.
Have you seen the final thing yet?
I saw an early cut that wasn’t finished. But I kind of saw it with half-closed eyes. Sometimes I would get nervous or uncomfortable and have to just listen, so I guess the answer is both yes and no. I don’t know if I would have seen it if I didn’t have to do interviews about it. We shot it a year ago and I figured I needed to at least have some sort of refresher.
What was the most challenging part of the shoot for you?
The most challenging part was playing somebody so tough and strong and confident, on the outside, at least, when I wasn’t feeling that way personally at all.
Did you ever end up feeling like maybe you got this?
I’ve never wanted to re-do a part so badly as I did with this one.
Why is that?
We were shooting hundreds and hundreds of pages, hours and hours of show out of sequence, and that’s just the nature of the beast. Even though you try to prepare as much as possible and you try to do the work as much as you can before you get to set, you don’t really know. You learn as you go. You learn as you do each scene. So I would find myself learning something about her two months in that I wish I had known for, say, this one specific scene that we shot the first week, but that’s maybe at the end of the show. But that’s a logistical problem that actors have to work with, and I think that I am not used to. So I got to the end of the show and I realized, this is a really great character, I wish I could go back and play her again now and get it closer to right. I’m not used to being given a lot to do, yet, in something that’s not a play, where you rehearse and you learn about it that way first, or something like Nurse Jackie, where you’re really only shooting one or two episodes at a time. So it’s bite-sized, the arc, the terrain, the territory you’re covering. It’s a lot more manageable.
Yeah. Even if you’re shooting half an hour of television out of order, it’s just a lot different than shooting a seven-episode series out of order. So I’m still learning.
What sort of research did you do to get into the part?
I went to the library. I didn’t know that I had an accent until I showed up on set and I heard that Scoot had an accent and was like, ‘Well, I guess I should get on that.’ I wish that I’d been able to prepare that a little more, even though we had a wonderful dialect coach on set with us. But I went to the library; I spoke to an historian about that time. But I think that at the end of the day, like I said, there’s really only so much you can do until you get into the scene and you’re actually doing it with the other person. So in a way, I was trying to cover all my bases by doing research: reading books, looking at pictures. But the scene isn’t happening until you’re actually doing the scene, so you learn things viscerally, experientially, by actually doing the work, so that’s why sometimes you’ll keep hitting a scene and you’ll be like, Oh, and wish that you knew that two months ago.
Were there any other westerns that you turned to or had in mind?
Scott did direct us towards some. We all watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller and High Plains Drifter, the one where Clint Eastwood plays the guy who comes back as the reincarnation of the sheriff who was killed or something. But I don’t know how much that actually ended up informing what I did on the day.
Good context, I suppose. Since the show premiered last week, what has surprised you the most about the audience response?
I’m not sure what the audience response is.
Have you kept up with it at all?
You mean like reading reviews and stuff?
Yeah, reading reviews, Twitter responses, things like that.
I know. It’s a first for me, realizing that I’m in something that could be reviewed and that people could have, on social media, a much more instant, immediate, vocal reaction, and that I have access to that information. It used to be, if you didn’t go out and get the paper with the review of the play you were doing in it that day, you weren’t in danger of coming across something. That little monster that lives inside of your head or your heart that wants approval or, masochistically, condemnation, can’t get awakened at 3 a.m. and start typing and looking for what people say about you, so the world feels a little more dangerous right now if you’re trying to avoid that. It actually takes a lot more self-control and I think most actors have complicated relationships to reviews. I have not gone on Twitter looking for responses, stuff like that. I don’t want to waken that monster. But like I said, one day at 3 a.m., I won’t be able to keep it quiet and I might go searching, and that’ll hurt. It’s never a good idea, even if it’s good.
I will say, it’s definitely not bad.
Oy. Well, that’s nice. My fear was being laughed at.
No, oh, my god, no. Most of the criticism has been great—that your character in particular is really captivating.
Aw, well that’s lovely.
There is one thing that I wanted to ask you about, because it seems like it’s been equal parts celebrated and criticized for its focus on this town of only women—because this matriarchy is not something you might typically associate with a western, and it’s amazing to see, and despite that, it seems like a lot of the action in the beginning centers on this old rivalry between men and on this band of guys moving across New Mexico sort of burning it all down, in spite of the premise that it’s this town of women. I’m curious what your response to that particular feedback is?
I never saw the premise as Godless is the story of a town full of women. I always saw Godless as being made up of a lot of intersecting, related stories that literally meet in the final episode. But I think my takeaway from that, then, is that people are thirsty to see certain things. That there’s a desire and room and space, and that if you build it, they will come. So you’re saying the criticism is that it was billed as one thing and then delivered as another, or people just want to see more of something else?
I think the latter—that there was maybe an expectation that it was going to focus so much on this town of women, which it does, but then also it takes a little bit to develop.
It does take a while to arrive there. Netflix released more than one trailer, and one trailer is definitely La Belle specific. If you had seen that trailer only, then you might come expecting the show to be as La Belle-centric as that one trailer was, so that’s understandable. Then, again, my thought is, maybe there’s a thirst for something there that people should take advantage of.
People are already talking about a second season for this; would you come back?
This was always pitched to me as a limited series, as a closed thing, so I had not heard anything about that. I hadn’t even thought about whether I’d want to revisit her. I think it was pretty one-and-done.
What’s coming up next?
I just finished a movie written and directed by Robert Zemeckis with Steve Carrell and Lesley Mann and Gwendoline Christie and some wonderful women, and that’s about it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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