Carrie Preston ought to be a bigger star than she is, but perhaps she’s like Rachel Griffiths, her co-star in My Best Friend’s Wedding (they played the slutty Newhouse sisters). She disappears into each role so effortlessly; sometimes it’s hard to recognize what a great talent it takes to play the lonely travel agent in Duplicity, the confused mother in Ready? OK! or Felicity Huffman’s sister in Transamerica.
The actress is married to her Ready? OK! co-star, Michael Emerson (Ben Linus on Lost), and in a fun bit of casting, appeared in Lost as his mother (in flashback, of course!). I was excited to ask the multi-talented Preston about her scene-stealing work in Duplicity, and how she’s become such a popular performer in gay-friendly fare:
NC: I am so impressed by your résumé, not only for your acting work, but also in the way you've directed and produced pieces that really mean a lot to the GLBT community. What draws you to work like 29th & Gay, Straight-Jacket and Ready? OK!?
CP: I am interested in telling stories from communities or parts of society that haven't fully been explored. I think the gay and lesbian world hasn't been mined for all the intricate and varied stories that exist there. I consider myself a part of queer culture because I travel in those circles and I'm comfortable there. I'm straight, but certainly not narrow. And frankly, those stories are just interesting to me. And with all three of the movies you mentioned, I got to flesh the woman's roles out in ways that don't generally happen in movies that are predominantly about gay men.
29th & Gay, although I wasn't in it, tells the story of a gay man coming of age for the second time, searching for meaning in his life. And I think being a woman directing that, I was able to put a feminine touch to it. With Ready? OK!, we wanted to concentrate on gender identity, but through the eyes of the mom who is witnessing it. That's a story we haven't seen much of. The mom in those kinds of stories is generally a small role, oftentimes the villain.
And since Straight-Jacket is a comedy, it could have veered into territory where the wife is ridiculed; or worse, is made to be unattractive and repulsive to not just the main character, but the audience as well — the whole "girls are icky" thing that gay boy cinema is sometimes guilty of. But instead, (writer/director) Richard Day and I tried to give her depth and make her intentions clear and her pain even clearer. It complicated a story that could have been cut and dry, which I think is a good thing. And of course, the higher the stakes, the funnier it is. Or at least that's what I think.
NC: Your scenes in Duplicity are fantastic — your interrogation scene with Julia Roberts is a classic. And, trust me, a lot of guys and girls were very jealous of your getting to pose for those “surveillance photos” with Clive Owen. How did you enjoy working on that film? Were there any funny stories from the set?
CP: I was, of course, thrilled to be cast in that film. I was a little nervous, too. I mean, high-powered people there! But Tony Gilroy was completely dreamy to work with. He really set a relaxed and professional tone on the set. The first scene I did was the scene after the bar scene, where we go back to my office. So yes, my first day of work I had to pose for those photos! And yes, I was a little embarrassed. But Tony made sure it was all very comfortable for me, and Clive was of course a sweetheart.
The scene with Julia came a few days later. I had worked with her on My Best Friend's Wedding all those years ago, and she and I had crossed paths a few times over the years. So she was very welcoming when I got on set. Then she said "OK, this is the only time I'm going to be nice to you all day." And sure enough, she was in character the whole time, which helped since I had to cry my eyes out. After we finished the scene, she made the whole crew clap for me, which was the kindest thing and made me feel so relieved! Then the scene with Clive in the bar was a few weeks after that, and it was icing on the cake at that point. I was just so relieved to have had the crying scene go so smoothly that being picked up in a bar was delicious fun.
NC: Ready? OK! is such a big-hearted, funny and warm movie, I think it will touch a lot of people who recognize themselves in Joshua. How did you approach playing his mother and her struggle to understand and accept him?
CP: James Vasquez wrote the role for me, and we worked on the script for several months before going into preproduction. We were able to find the delicate balance of Andrea (my character) being the protagonist as well as the antagonist, with Joshua being the hero. We wanted to make sure people wanted to go on the journey with Andrea, but still have her create enough conflict for Joshua to overcome. It was tricky, but I feel like the key was always making my intention: "to do the right thing for my son." That's not always going to work, and there will be failures and wrong steps along the way, of course. But it's always coming from a positive place.
Since I was also the executive producer, I had to do all of my homework and discussions with James before we started shooting. Once we were in production, I was literally going from acting in a scene to making a phone call to make sure we had crew for the next day to talking with the caterer about lunch. So, in a way, that got me into character just as much as anything!
NC: Your theater work is also really impressive, which is not surprising given your Juilliard pedigree. Do you get more of a charge working in front of an audience or in front of a camera?
CP: For the last three years or so, I have pretty much solely been doing camera work, mostly in front of the camera, and sometimes behind it. Once Michael became a series regular on Lost, I knew LA would have to figure prominently in my life if I was ever going to see him. Plus, I wanted to concentrate on film and TV more, anyway. So it worked out. I directed a play in LA a couple of years ago, and that was really rewarding.
NC: You and your husband, Michael Emerson, have worked together a number of times. You even played his mother on Lost, and now he plays your gay neighbor (and voice of reason) in Ready? OK! What is the best and worst part of working with your spouse?
CP: There is no worst part. I adore working with Michael. With Ready? OK!, it was comforting to be able to have the history and trust already present when we did scenes together. I just had to be in the moment and look in his eyes and listen to what he was saying, and it was enough. For him, I think it was a little alarming and disconcerting to have me running around producing and acting at the same time. He took on stresses that he thought I had, but didn't. I think he was more concerned about me than I was for myself. It was pretty cute, actually.
NC: Since a lot of your work appeals to gay audiences, including True Blood and Ready? OK!, what kind of responses do you get from GLBT fans?
CP: Well, most of them don't realize that the same woman with the long red wig in True Blood is the mom in Ready? OK! and the ’50s housewife with the platinum wig in Straight-Jacket, not to mention the caustic and sarcastic sister to Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. No one at all recognizes me from True Blood. But the audiences who have seen Ready? OK! have been very supportive and moved by the movie, which is really rewarding. I guess I'm pretty different role to role, so it's not like I stick out to any one audience. Honestly, the GLBT audience recognizes me for Sex and the City or My Best Friend's Wedding more than the others.
NC: What are you passionate about in your life? What gives you the most satisfaction?
CP: I'm passionate about my nephews, Mac and Milo, and my family — my brother John (who plays my brother in Ready? OK!), my sister Leslie, my Mom, my Dad. I'm passionate about being creative and making things happen out of nothing. I'm passionate about writers. I'm on the board of the New Harmony Project, a new play development workshop that takes place in southern Indiana two weeks each summer. I spend a great deal of time working on making that happen, which makes me happy.
NC: What are your feelings on Proposition 8? Has it affected any of your friends personally?
CP: I think it is shocking that the same state that voted for Obama also voted yes on Prop 8. I have friends who were going to get married before the election but thought, "Why rush it. It won't pass." But I honestly feel that it won't be long before we figure out a way to amend the Constitution again. Since the vote was pretty narrow, I think the combination of people passing away and other people being persuaded to change their minds will hopefully bring a different vote next time.
NC: What is your dream role? Are there any characters you just wouldn't play?
CP: In my career, the roles that I have relished have come out of left field — ones I could have never dreamed of. I always try to find a way to make them all feel dreamy.
UPDATE: Duplicity is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.