Edi Patterson on Tapping Into Her Id for ‘The Righteous Gemstones’
This interview contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of “The Righteous Gemstones.”
It’s nearly impossible to find a Judy Gemstone quote that can be spoken aloud in a real church. When the character isn’t cursing or disparaging her siblings, she is referencing profane sexual acts and organs — all things unfit for a house of worship (and print).
But beneath Judy’s abrasive, hypersexual surface is the decidedly calm and collected Edi Patterson, an actress, writer and producer on HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones.” Trading her straight hair and chill demeanor for a curly wig and an unholy amount of sequins, she transforms into Judy, the rambunctious middle child in a family of Southern megachurch preachers, who craves validation and lacks any semblance of a filter.
Patterson, who first worked with the show’s creator, Danny McBride, on the HBO series “Vice Principals” (which he created with Jody Hill) acts alongside him and Adam DeVine, who play Judy’s older and younger brothers — both of whom are just as stunted by sibling rivalry as she is, maybe more.
Season 2 of the series, which ended Sunday, dove deeper into the Gemstone family drama, making new forays into real estate, motorcycle ninjas and Judy’s relationship with her beta-male husband, BJ (Tim Baltz). After an assassination attempt on the family patriarch, Eli (John Goodman), threatened to tear the Gemstones apart, the season finale brought the whole clan back together for a birth, some death and, of course, one last musical number.
It also revealed a softer side of Judy — even though her dialogue was still largely unprintable.
“It’s fun for people to watch Judy because she’s doing things that they want to do, and saying things they really want to say, and I think it’s fun to watch someone get to play id,” Patterson said. “I’m really grateful that I get to run downfield as fast as I can and let it rip.”
In a recent video call from her hotel room in Winnipeg, Canada, where she was shooting the film “Violent Night” with David Harbour (“Stranger Things”), Patterson discussed BJ’s baptism, Eli’s near-death experience and why we can’t keep our eyes off Judy. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Where do you think Judy falls in the Gemstone hierarchy, being a middle child and the only daughter?
Sadly, the default in those sort of systems is very patriarchy-centric, so she’s got a lot to prove. And she knows that she is equal to and as good as her brothers. But that’s part of the fun — she’s in a system where she’s going to need to prove it, probably over and over again. So that sums up all of her emotions of wanting to prove things; wanting to excel; wanting to be bad; all of it.
How do you think Judy has changed over the course of this season?
Well, she took a big swing with getting married at Disney World without her dad. That was a big, ‘Well, I’ll show them …’ and then she immediately felt bad. She’s got a lot of teenage emotions and angst happening.
This season, she probably gets closer to what she wants, with BJ being more accepted than he was. She also has a bit of an emotional epiphany with Tiffany [Judy’s younger aunt, played by Valyn Hall] — basically going from feeling like Tiffany was a mold growing on something in her fridge to actual care and love. That was a really cool progression. Actual people never have a giant turnaround that you see in movies, like, “Now, I’m a different person, and I’m totally better.” I like the big ups and setbacks that the Gemstones have emotionally.
That plotline where Judy and BJ kind of become Tiffany’s parents is a funny choice. What was that meant to bring out in each of them?
We wanted to show Judy’s depth just a little bit and show she’s complicated, man, and complex. Like, yeah, her bark is loud and intense, and there’s a lot of it coming at you. But there’s also empathy in there, and she can honestly get her feelings hurt, and she can honestly care about whether or not she hurt someone else’s feelings. It was fun to show she’s actually not a full narcissist or a sociopath.
Episode 4 really stood out to me as Judy and BJ’s big moment — how was it to write, shoot and produce that whole baptism?
That episode was such a blast. We got to kind of live on that insane set for a whole week and a half, and that was such a pleasure and a luxury. Because the set where we had BJ’s party felt so real and so … I don’t know … have you been to Vegas?
Vegas has this weird, weird vibe where some hotels can actually be so blown out that they almost feel cozy. Something in you goes: “I’m safe to cut loose and everyone’s taking care of me.” And I don’t know, that room felt like the cozy side of Vegas.
Like the Cheesecake Factory effect? Where you have way too many things going on at once?
Totally! Everywhere my eyes look, there’s something interesting to look at. So it was just heavenly to be there for an extended period. And Danny directed that episode — it’s the only one he directed this season, and he’s just so good. It was really fun because, for instance, in the bathroom scene where I’m threatening BJ’s sister, Danny is clear about when there’s room to play with it and get crazy and find things. And there were a couple of wild things we found as we were doing it, like the smoking in the stall or kicking the stall door like a 1980s bully move.
Do the particularly memorable lines, like “You can’t gobble the pie if you didn’t help bake it,” more often come from the scripts or happen spontaneously in the moment?
A lot of the way they talk is in the crafting. I wrote that “gobble the pie” thing — a lot of times, I know that it’s specifically right for her if it makes me laugh and makes me go, “Oh my God, that’s so stupid.” That’s the highest praise for me. It’s probably right if it made me delightfully disgusted.
In previous interviews, you have mentioned that you watched a lot of horror movies when you were growing up. Where do you think horror fits into “Gemstones”?
What’s interesting is almost all of us who are writers on the show love horror movies. It’s probably a direction thing, too, because David Gordon Green and Jody Hill [who have directed most of the episodes] both like horror movies. They’re really good at making things truly suspenseful, or truly dramatic, or kind of creepy, or truly action-y. The love of horror makes people not pull back and go, “Oh, it’s comedy.” It makes everyone go further into all of it.
You have also said that Judy is wearing ice skater outfits when she performs. If you had to make a mood board of things Judy finds glamorous, what else would be on there?
Oh man, it would be covered with ice skaters. There’d be probably a bunch of stuff from Studio 54. Cher would be all over it. I feel like early Madonna would be all over it: It would be a fair amount of this move: [Patterson pulls one shirtsleeve down to reveal a shoulder.]
So much of it would be from Judy’s kid brain of what was sexy and what was cool and powerful. I think so many of her notions about things are just stunted.
There’s a point in the season where Eli Gemstone almost dies. What was that meant to evoke in the family?
It just shows so quickly that even though they all think, “I can do this,” they’re all immediately like: “Oh God, I don’t want it. I just want him here.” They all adore their dad. Judy is very enmeshed with her dad and what he thinks of her. The second something terrible happens, all she wants is for him to be alive and well. Hence the vomiting. [Laughs.]
You grew up in Texas going to church every week. What do you think your Sunday school teachers would say if they saw this show?
Wow. It depends on which Sunday school teacher. I can think of some people from the church I grew up in that would be very disturbed by what I’m doing and probably not ever watch it — not even because it’s about a televangelist family, but because of the cursing. But a lot of people from the church love it.
The thing about our show is we’re never making fun of religion, or people who are involved in religion, or believers. I think all the Gemstones are believers. They’re just messing up a lot.