Interview with Emily Nelson of "True Detective" on HBO - Primetime TV Show Articles From The TV MegaSite

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By Krista

Emily Nelson

Interview with Emily Nelson of "True Detective" on HBO 2/21/19

This was my first one-on-one interview, so I was very nervous. It turned out fine, much to my relief. She was a pleasure to talk to.  I really enjoyed it.

You can listen to the interview here if you prefer audio.

Here is the transcript of our call:

Krista: How are you doing today?

Emily: Iím good. I mean, this is going to sound absurd, but Iím cold even though Iím in Los Angeles. (both laugh) I know I got no right to say that.

Krista: Well, itís cold and rainy here.

Emily: Is it? Where are you at?

Krista: Iím in Alabama.

Emily: Oh, boy. Oh yeah.

Krista: Itís done nothing but rain for the past three days.

Emily: Say it one more time, sorry.

Krista: I said, itís done nothing but rain for past three days.

Emily: Oh man, yeah, weíve had a lot of rain, too. I mean, we needed it, so nobody is really complaining. Iím like bailing out the side of the foundation of my house because thereís so much water.

Krista: Right, well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Emily: Ditto! Thank you for talking to me.

Krista: Well, my name is Krista, and Iím with The TV MegaSite. I have a few questions Iíd like to ask.

Emily: Ok.

Krista: First of all, I saw that you started by making your way through the Chicago theatre circuit and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue TV and movie roles. Did you enjoy working in the theatre circuit, and did you always plan to continue to pursue TV and movie roles?

Emily: I sure did love it. I grew up right outside Chicago, so I started going down to Second City when I was fifteen. I started taking classes there and trying to perform. I got caught up in the Chicago theatre scene pretty early. I left to go to college and actually went to New York for four years. I did theatre in New York for 4 years, and then I came back to Chicago. I had actually planned to make Chicago a two-year sort of stopping point, until I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to kind of get my ducks in a row to pursue film and television acting. I knew a lot of people in Los Angeles who were very talented but couldnít get work. It was very hard to get into the business. I learned a lot from different people out here, and so I made sure I was in the union. I had credits; I had good reviews in the newspaper, so I used Chicago theatre to do all that. Chicago theatre is some of the best theatre in the country. People are highly intelligent. Thereís a great audience year round, even when thereís a snow storm - itís incredible. But for me, there was a bit of a glass ceiling back then. Now thereís more production there, so I think people are making a better living as actors in Chicago. Yes, so my two years turned into four years because I got a bit seduced by the fantastic theatre in Chicago. I wasnít quite ready to leave.

Krista: I can understand that. Well, what are some of the similarities and differences between theatre and TV/movie roles?

Emily: Thatís a really good question. OK, this may, I donít know, so you tell me if this translates. I also talk about it that acting is like a sock, in one direction its theatre; you turn it inside out and now its film and television. The impulse is the same. The impulse to communicate and connect as a character, to fight for something, to need something, thatís all the same. But whatís different is that in theatre I have time and space. I have the actual space of the theatre. I have to project my voice out front to connect with people who are there. I can hear them, they have a sort of feedback that is happening, but in film and television I donít have any time. Things move very quickly, you get no rehearsal almost, 99% of the time. Youíre shooting the rehearsal. There is no feedback because everybody is very quiet on set. If youíre doing comedy, you donít know if itís funny till much later, and itís much more intimate. Now I have a microphone on, and Iím just talking to the person in front of me, and now I donít have to use my body or gestures to communicate. All that effort kind of has to drain out of my body. I have to come down to a very simple (person to person) kind of conversation, and so thatís how Iíd explain the difference, if that makes sense.

Krista: Ok, that sounds, I mean, I can kind of see that, especially if youíre on stage and having to project your voice, and the differences there.

Emily: Yeah, and I mean, like, in the theatre, you get the whole script. You know, you get rehearsal time and you can collaborate. You spend weeks and weeks rehearsing something, and some films do that, but most television shows donít. Television and film are very lonely for most actors. You get sent part of a script for an audition, you prepare it by yourself, you have no idea what the people youíre working with are looking for, you prepare it, you go into an audition, and you say, "Hello, how are you," maybe thereís a tiny bit of conversation about what youíre doing, but almost always, no. You do the audition, you leave, and then you find out whether or not you got the part. Then you show up for a table read, which is not a rehearsal. You can get fired at a table read. Itís a kind of performance, and then you start filming the show. Sometimes film and television actors like to rehearse, and sometimes they donít because they want to keep everything fresh and alive because they donít know how many takes theyíre going to have to do of something. So, thereís different approaches. Film and television acting is very quick and is very singular; and (with) theatre, usually you have much more space, and much more community. So I think those are the big differences.

Krista: So how did you get the role of Margaret on "True Detective," and what drew you to this role?

Emily: Um, I got, it was a regular audition through my manager and my agent. I was very excited because Vicki Thomas was the casting director, and if you ever look up her credits, she is, she has cast an incredible amount of fantastic actors; so to be included in her roster is really just a thrill. They did not give us the script. I only had a very tiny section of one scene for my audition, so I really didnít know that much about it, but I knew that Season 1, and then the creative writer is so fantastic and attracts such great talent. I donít know anybody who doesnít want to work on this show, so I was very excited, although I had no idea what I was getting into. And I did like the character. The character of Margaret... I am drawn to characters who are very broken but have a shred of hope inside.

Krista: Just to build from that, what has been your biggest challenge in playing the part of Margaret, and what has been your favorite moment?

Emily: The biggest challenge, um, I think the biggest challenge was sort of not knowing the larger story of how Margaret is involved. That just required a lot of sort of faith and creating things in my own imagination to fill in what was happening, which you always have to do as an actor, but um, honestly, there wasnít that much challenging about it. And my favorite moment, gosh, oh, it was so great, hard to pin down. I think it was working with Carmen (Ejogo, Amelia). Carmen and I had a really great long scene and she is such a fantastic actress. She is (inaudible), she invited me to come and rehearse, and so the two of us had a fantastic rehearsal process before we did the scene, and I think it really shows in the final work. So I think working with Carmen was my favorite.

Krista: Oh ok, alright, and for those who havenít watched the show yet, can you tell them a little bit about Season 3 and what to expect?

Emily: Sure, Season 3 revolves around the disappearance of two kids and the community that is eventually torn apart over this tragedy. It takes place over the course of three, maybe more, different decades. There are different timelines happening. The detectives in this case are played by Stephen Dorff and Mehershala Ali. In it are questions about memory, about aging, about self protection... itís such a deeply-layered mystery on so many levels that itís gonna hold anyoneís attention.

Krista: Ok, What is it like to work with Mahershala Ali?

Emily: Ah, the best. He is magnanimous. When he comes on set, he takes time to come over and say hello to everyone heís working with... he shakes your hand. He gives you all of his focus and attention, and it just makes you feel ten feet tall. He and I didnít have any direct lines together, but we have some pretty powerful looks in the scenes we were in together, and you know, a lot of times thatís more than anything. And heís just-- he is just a smooth operator. Watching him work was just fantastic. Heís really kind.

Krista: Itís always good when you can work with somebody and have that kind of, um, that kind of camaraderie with the people youíre working with.

Emily: It is. Everybody that Iíve worked with made the whole--  made acting easy. I mean, we were on location. The costumes were fantastic, the set decoration and design was fantastic. The script flowed, and so there was just, I donít know, it just wasnít that difficult to be able to step into this world and kind of let it grow around us.

Krista: Right. And for the other cast members, do you get along well with them, and do you ever hang out with them off set?

Emily: (Laugh) We did get along very well, but no, I donít hang out. I worked with Mamie Gummer (Lucy) and Scoot (McNairy, Tom). I saw them at the premiere, which was a really fun, to get together again... but no, I donít even think Scoot lives in town, and Mamieís about to have a baby, so sheís been pretty busy.

Krista: I can imagine. What actor or actress would you most like to work with that you havenít been able to work with yet?

Emily: Kathy Bates.

Krista: Yeah, I think, I think that would be a good one, too.

Emily: Right. (Laughs)

Krista: That sounds likeÖ

Emily: Iíve got a long list. Donít get me wrong, but she teeters there at the top.

Krista: Right, I can understand that. What are your plans once "True Detective" wraps up? Do you have anything else in the works you can tell us about?

Emily: Um, not at the moment, that I think-- I donít think I can announce anything just yet, but you know, Iím an actor. Iím auditioning all the time; actors are constantly out of work, so Iím forever looking for the next project. Even when I have one going on, Iím looking for the next one. Itís just a constant job interview, one after another.

Krista: Yeah, I can imagine. I guess that would get pretty stressful sometimes, having to interview for jobs and all that kind of stuff... but at the same time, I know itís got to be rewarding too.

Emily: Yeah, well, you know, I think itís like a new normal. I think, like, if you had to jump in and just do it, and it is stressful sometimes, but I think actors are funny because if we donít have auditions, then weíre REALLY stressed. And if we do have a lot of auditions, itís difficult, but we do our best to get it done and hope that the work weíre putting in is, you know, of high quality; and the truth is, itís a subjective industry. Somebody might like your take one day and not like it the next day. Like, you know, at the level Iím at, everybody is talented. Itís just a matter of what kind of story theyíre telling, or what strikes the producers or the directors any which way, any particular day. So you just do your work, cross your fingers, hope for the best, and hope that the audience connects to what youíre doing. But actors donít have a ton of control (laugh) of our careers. (Inaudible) that goes on.

Krista: Right. Well, I just have a couple more questions. What was your favorite role youíve played so far?

Emily: Um, I did an episode of "Cold Case" years ago that was written by Liz Garcia, and I played a character named Martha Potts. She was a cold case, and in the course of that hour, it was like, her life began, and her life ended, all at once. It was almost like an opera.  She just went through so many crazy things. She killed some people, she got killed.... like, all this crazy stuff happened. She falls in love, she turns to a life of crime, she gets out of a life of crime, (uh, spoiler alert, uh, so, maybe cut that part out, donít print everything that happens in the episode -- lauughs).  It was just really exciting to live such a full life in just one episode of television, it doesnít happen that often.

Krista: Yeah, thatís one thing that is amazing to me sometimes in television shows -- how they can show so much that happens all in one episode.

Emily: Yeah, it is. Itís really amazing.

Krista: Well, the last question I have is: when youíre not on set, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Emily: Uh, well, Iím also an acting teacher, and I have a studio where I teach private students at in Los Angeles. I have two siberian huskies who take up a lot of my time, and Iím thoroughly obsessed with them. They have their own Instagram, of course, um, side-hobby these days. I spend a lot of time at the dog park because they require a ton of exercise. I love to garden. I volunteer for different things. I swear, I always feel like these are the kind of questions (that) as soon as I hang up the phone, Iím like, ďWait, no, I do this and this.Ē What do I do? I donít know, I sell skin care (products); I do just a thousand different things. I live in Los Angeles, I get to go outside a lot, I get to go hiking (which is great). I love libraries; I canít get enough of the library.

Krista: I can understand that. I love to read.

Emily: Do you? Me, too... I just canít get enough, and oddly enough, I do like to hang out at cemeteries which people think Iím crazy. Cemeteries in LA are the only... Iím from the Midwest, as you mentioned, and cemeteries are the only place that has, you know, lawns... itís quiet there. You can have a quiet afternoon among big trees and it feels like the Midwest, you know?

Krista: Yeah, and what kinds of books do you like to read?

Emily: Oooh, I like to read... non-fiction. I like to read about physics. I love books about witches. I donít know why, but Iíll read pretty much any book you bring me about a witch. I love fiction. I just finished reading "Lincoln in the Bardo," which I was late getting to, but boy, was that a good book. Have you read that?

Krista: I havenít.

Emily: Oh, check it out. It is unlike anything Iíve ever read. You know, I like to kind of keep my ears peeled, like, if someone recommends a book. I have, like, a local bookstore thatís an independent chain, and theyíre really great.... and you can wander around and say, "Hey what should I read?" and they always turn me on to something I would not have found myself.

Krista: Sometimes those can be the best ones.

Emily: Right. Thatís what I think.

Krista: I also love that you love dogs. I have a poodle.

Emily: Oh, you do? A standard poodle, a big one?

Krista: No, heís actually... on his papers, heís registered as a toy, but he is a little bit bigger than a toy. He weighs about 16 pounds, so heís more like the size of a miniature.

Emily: Oh, thatís so cute. What color is he?

Krista: Heís cream.

Emily: Ohhh. Oh, my goodness, thatís so cute. One of my best friends has a brown standard poodle. And he is just such a good dog. Heís all about the ball, though, man. That dog could chase a ball 24/7 given the opportunity.

Krista: Well, mine, he is pretty laid back. Heís actually cream, but his dad was red, and his mom was black.

Emily: Cool!

Krista: So he has the tint of red from his mom, but he also has some black hairs in there, if you look really close.

Emily: Thatís interesting. My dogs are sisters, too, and their dad was red/white, and their mom was all white, and theyíve come out-- they were, like, light gray and white, when they were puppies, but now theyíre getting a lot more gray, and their fur is-- particularly one of them -- her fur is black-tipped, so when you rub your hand through her fur, itís white underneath... but just the tips are black. Itís so pretty.

Krista: Awww.

Emily: I know, Iím obsessed.

Krista: How old are yours?

Emily: Um, theyíre just 11 months.

Krista: Aw, so theyíre still puppies.

Emily: They are. I mean, Iím thinking theyíre full grown... Iím hoping theyíre full grown. I mean, theyíre stronger than I am at this point. We go to the dog park, and theyíre like, good on the walk, 90% of the time, and then every now and then, they decide to go bananas, and Iím like, getting dragged down the street, you know? So weíre working on it.

Krista: Yeah, yeah. Well, mine just turned-- Well, he will be 9 this year.

Emily: Oh, wow, thatís so great. 9... awesome years. I love it!

Krista: Yeah, weíve had him since he was almost a year old.

Emily: Yeah, well because as an actor I moved around so much, and my hours were always so crazy, that I just couldnít get a dog, you know?  And so now Iím a little more settled here in California, and if I leave for a job, my boyfriend can take care of the dog... but it took me a long time to get settled enough to be able to have big dogs, you know.

Krista: Well, Iím glad you finally got to get one 'cause they sure are a lot of company.

Emily: Right, like, I canít believe I went this long. It is amazing the amount of love that comes from them. Like, Iíll just stand in my living room sometimes and listen to the giggles. To hear my mom giggle is the cutest thing. Itís just like, they make everybody laugh and smile, and sometimes I think, "How quiet the house would be if they werenít here."

Krista: Mmmhmm. I can relate to that.

Emily: Right.

Krista: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. Itís been a pleasure to speak with you. I hope you have a good rest of your day, and I look forward to watching the rest of "True Detective."

Emily: Thank you so much. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Krista: Youíre very welcome. And thank you so much.

Emily: Ok, have a great day Krista.

Krista: You too, bye.

Emily: Bye bye.


Photo of Emily
An acting chameleon, Emily Nelson ("Shameless," "Superstore," "Glow," and MADE OF HONOR), stars as the ominous, working class neighbor 'Margaret' opposite Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) in the 8-episdoe third season of HBO's critically acclaimed anthology crime drama "True Detective," (airs on Sunday's at 9:00pm on HBO) created by Nic Pizzolatto. Season three marks Pizzolatto's directorial debut and takes place in the Ozarks over three separate time periods, as partner detectives 'Wayne Hays' (Mahershala Ali) and 'Roland West' (Stephen Dorff) investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children, a brother and sister named Will and Julie Purcell.
HBO's "True Detective" Trailer:
True Detective poster
Nelson is seemingly everywhere and then some right now. In 2018 alone, she starred alongside William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum in Showtime's "Shameless," opposite Alison Brie in the Emmy-nominated Netflix series "Glow," and NBC's critically acclaimed comedy "Superstore" starring America Ferrera. Prior to "True Detective," Nelson was best known for her scene stealing performance opposite Patrick Dempsey as one of Hannah's (Michelle Monaghan) bridesmaids 'Hilary' in the romantic comedy MADE OF HONOR directed by Paul Weiland.
Born in Massachusetts, Nelson became a performer at an early age and graduated with a B.F.A. from the prestigious drama department of Carnegie Mellon University. After graduation, Nelson made her way through the professional Chicago theater circuit before moving to Los Angeles, where she immediately began booking prominent guest-starring roles on major television series including "Superstore," "Cold Case," "Without a Trace," "Boston Legal," "The Mentalist," "Bones," and "Code Black," to name a few. Emily's stage credits include leading roles in plays such as Cooking with Elvis, Home Free! and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, to name a few.
When she's not busy in front of the camera, Nelson teaches and mentors other emerging artists with The David Kagan Studio, International Academy of Film and Television, Young Storytellers, Urban Anthropology Project, Creative Youth Community Learning Experience, The Shanti Foundation for Peace, Society for the Education of the Arts, The National Shakespeare Company, Actor's Creative Experience, Strike Anywhere! Improvisation, The Florida Studio Theatre and The Island Players. She now owns and operates her own acting studio, ACEN.

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