Deadwood the movie interview

If you watch television with any regularity, you’ve seen Molly Parker. She’s been on House of Cards, the new Lost in Space, Goliath, Dexter, Shattered, and so much more, vanishing into her characters with a chameleon quality that allows someone as talented as her to be called underrated. But like so many other veterans of HBO’s greatest show, she’s probably best known for her work on Deadwood.

Parker’s Alma Ellsworth is back in Deadwood: The Movie, which finally gives the abruptly cancelled series the conclusion it deserves. The movie is streaming on HBO Go right now and it’s required viewing, giving every character a moment in the spotlight to remind you why you loved them so much to begin with. And naturally, Parker had a lot to say about returning to the part when we spoke with her.

I recently rewatched the whole series with my wife and some female friends, and they were really struck by how Alma operates in this male-driven world. What kind of conversations and research went into building a character like Alma, who is trying to carve out her own place in a world where she’s seen as second class?

That’s the crux of her…(pause)…everything. The Victorian era was particularly repressive on women, and Alma is the only woman in Deadwood – certainly in the TV show – who is of the upper class. The costumes were the most instructive element, at the beginning when we started shooting, that really taught me about what it must have been like to live in that time. Because they’re so restrictive and repressive. This was a time when there was furniture built – they had fainting couches, which existed in the event that you would become emotional and therefore not be able to breathe because you were wearing a corset. I mean, I don’t know one woman in my life these days who faints on a regular basis. So just that, putting on those clothes, right away there is this physical impediment that you have to fight through in order to just live as a full human being.

One of the things that I loved and really connected to with Alma in Deadwood is that she came to Deadwood as a wife and addict and many, many women of that time were addicted to opioids because they were given them as teenagers. If you had menstrual cramps, you were given laudanum, which is a morphine-based tincture in alcohol. Or if you had to go to a dance, or if anything particularly exciting was happening in your life, young women were given opioids. So most of the women of her class were addicts. It was a way of surviving. Living with no power, essentially. When Alma comes to Deadwood, her husband quickly dies, and she inherits this money from him, this claim that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and more than anything, she’s sort of seen by the other people in the camp and given this opportunity to be reborn. In a way, I think of it as her place of self-hood. It’s the place where she discovers herself.

It’s fascinating to rewatch it, because in those early episodes, Alma never leaves her hotel room. When the show was happening, when you first got the job, did you know where this character was going to go? I know [creator/showrunner] David Milch is famous for flying whichever way the wind blows, but did you know her trajectory going in?

All of these characters are a part of David. As has been reported on, David was an addict in his life and worked through a lot of those things. So he had a really deep understanding of that part of her character. But Deadwood was really the first real TV show that I did, and it was unlike anything that had been made before and sort of created a new way of storytelling in which that longform storytelling allows characters to develop over a period of time.

So one of his incredible strengths that I’ve never run into again is his ability to hold the story in his mind, but really be able to write to the actor who is playing the character. He wasn’t a last minute writer because he couldn’t figure out what to do; he would wait, and watch you shoot a scene, and go away and write the next scene. It was a collaboration in that sense. Not so much that there was a discussion and we talked about where she would go. He would write something, he would see what I did, and then he would write the next thing. So in that way, all of us co-created these characters. It’s quite unusual. That’s really not how TV is made. It makes people nervous.

That’s one of the things I heard about the movie production, which you can hopefully confirm here, which is that HBO made him had a locked down script for the movie and he wasn’t allowed to run around like he used to. Did the movie feel different in that way, or did it feel like still the same show?

No, it definitely felt different, partly because the form – we were making a movie, not a show. So it just had to be different. David’s in a different place, and it had to be different for those reasons as well. But it contained all the same heart.

Molly Parker Deadwood the Movie

David was in a different place, and so was everybody else. Some of these actors have gone on to have amazing careers post-Deadwood. Now that you’ve acted more and you’ve had more life experience, when you returned to Alma after thirteen years, did you approach her differently?

Sometimes, I think when you’ve played a character for a long time, they just live in you in a certain way, so it really wasn’t difficult to re-inhabit her. I know her so well. Part of it is just using your imagination as to what may have happened to her in the meantime. Also, because Alma has been away from Deadwood, and I have been away from Deadwood, and the audience has been away from Deadwood, her return – the beginning of the movie is this train coming toward the town and she’s in it – her return to the town is all of us returning. In that way, I was lucky. I didn’t have to make up a life that I’d had in Deadwood. She was returning in the same way that I was.

As little as two years ago, Timothy Olyphant was convinced this movie was never going to happen. Can you share with me the moment when you learned, “There’s a finished script. We’re filming”? It was exciting for fans, but was what was it like for you? Was there anxiety, joy, or a sense of challenge knowing you had to go back?

I can only speak for myself, and I had known for a couple of years. I was in touch with David and knew he was writing it. So I didn’t have that moment. I probably didn’t completely believe it until I stepped onto set, because it’s just been such a long time. I was thrilled to do it and absolutely am so grateful that they were able to put it together, but there’s always some sort of wariness in our lives to go backwards. I realized quite quickly as soon as I got there, that you don’t go back. You can’t go back. There’s no going back. So it was about creating something new.

One of the things David did really well in terms of writing this movie was that, you find all of these characters contending with core wounds that they’ve always had. Even though time has passed and they’ve moved into new areas of their lives, we all in our lives end up circling back around to the essence of what creates us in the first place. Whether they are certain traumas, or they are successes, or losses, or joys. There are those fundamental, essential struggles that we all have, that throughout life, every once in a while you circle back around it. “Oh wow, I’m here again, dealing with this set of fears, this set of feelings.” He wrote all of these characters to be sort of circling those core wounds at this time. Because of that, we are immediately able to understand and connect with them, because we know the essences of the characters regardless of the time that’s passed. We get to see them struggle and bring whatever new information and tools they have to bear to the same old pain.

What’s your definitive David Milch story? The one that defines him on that set in a way you’ll never forget?

There’s so many. I really do have a memory of him laying on the floor of the set of Alma’s hotel bedroom and reciting – I can’t remember what it was now. We’d rehearsed a scene, and he watched, and he had this ability to tell you what the scene was about without ever saying, “This is what the scene is about.” On this particular day, he was laying on the floor, his back probably hurt, and he recited a poem, and I knew exactly how he wanted me to play the scene. He didn’t have to tell me, he told me in that way. That was one of many, many instances where he…he’s a storyteller. He’s not a director, but he could direct actors in these sort of backdoor ways, and I always just loved that about him.

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