Merritt Wever has been in many, many fan favorite shows and films—The Good Wife, New Girl, Birdman, The Walking Dead, and Nurse Jackie, for which she won an Emmy—but it perhaps wasn’t until Scott Frank’s Netflix Western Godless that we’ve seen a different side to her work; one that allowed her to really show a new side to her multi-faceted acting chops.
The Godless action centers around the town of La Belle, which is mostly governed by women, following a massacre that killed the majority of men. As Mary Agnes, Wever brings a ballsy, outspoken ‘cool’ to the cast of characters, as she refuses to conform to gender norms, nor carry around her dead husband’s last name “like a bucket of water”. She quite literally wears his pants as she and her co-star Michelle Dockery team up against notorious outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels).
While no second season of the limited series is yet planned, Wever is already busy with multiple projects, including a new Noah Baumbach film (she previously starred in Greenberg). Wever greatly appreciates Baumbach’s previous films, at least in part because they’ve “told the story of a young woman whose primary goal or challenge or concern is a form of self-actualization that doesn’t have to do with only finding a partner.”
Am I the only person that thinks this was a bit of a different choice?
It’s interesting. I know I think that Ellen Lewis would be an interesting person to talk to, to pick her brain about casting in general, but specifically casting this because you’re right. It isn’t the kind of thing that usually comes my way. I was surprised to get it as well, just because you can start to get used to seeing the same kind of things, or almost internalize and believe that the only things you can do are the few things that you’ve been asked to do for the last five years or so. I have to do some mental gymnastics as an actor sometimes, to remember not to let certain things in.
In Nurse Jackie and The Walking Dead, you’re nice, not passive exactly, but sweet people. And it’s really fantastic to see you being Mary Agnes, who takes no prisoners.
I think my first response to that is that even though I was just talking about the way that I was seen or things that I tend to go up for, I’ve tried to not think too much about the way other people see me. Especially in, for lack of a better word, a business or industry sense, it just seems like a bad idea. I certainly didn’t take the part thinking, “Oh, this will do this for me,” or “This will get people…” I actually wasn’t thinking that way. In some ways, I wonder if there’s a version of Mary Agnes that is a lot tougher, I think, than I played her. I sometimes wonder if I did her a disservice, or if there’s another version of her out there that was tougher. I think she’s complicated and full of contradictions, too. I think she’s not as tough as she wants to be or pretends to be on the surface.
Seeing nonconformist people in stories is really important for the public consciousness. And those stories haven’t always been told or haven’t been given to lead roles. Was that important to you?
Yeah. I’d say that it mattered to me. I took that part seriously. Scott wrote the script, but then I tried to do my own research and reading. I went to the library and just out of due diligence and just in case, spoke to a historian whose area of expertise was same-sex relationships during that specific time. He was helpful, too. But at the end of the day, I felt like the best way to do it justice was to make her a real person, to make her an honest, real, complicated, well-rounded human being.
Scott originally had thought of this as a film, and of course, it has ended up as a limited series. Do you think it would suit the story to have another season?
I have no idea. He already expanded something that was one feature-length script into what ended up becoming seven episodes but was originally written as six. I think that is probably entirely up to him and his imagination and his interests. I loved working with Scott. Whatever he wanted to do, I would be game for. But that’s above my pay grade. I also think that it lives in a lovely way as one seven-part series. I like the idea of limited series. I liked doing it, and I like doing them. I think it’s a nice thing that people want to see more of these characters and this story, and I also think it’s true to life that it’s not wrapped up neatly, and it’s still painful and complicated at the end. I think it lives really well as just what it is. Sometimes, I don’t know, going back to a good thing … sometimes things should be left as they are.
What were some of the high points for you on the shoot?
My favorite moments were when something felt right because that’s what you’re chasing as an actor. The most difficult moments are when you can’t get something to feel right when you leave a scene and you’re like, “I don’t think I got an honest moment in there.” And I know they’ll cut around it, and hopefully, you won’t notice. Maybe they’ll add some music that’ll help you out. That constant daily moment struggle is the best and the worst part of the job.
Also, I had a lovely time with Michelle Dockery up on the roof during the battle. I still maintain that we had the best gig during the battle of La Belle. We were literally above the fray in this beautiful New Mexico weather, big sky, looking down on this incredibly choreographed sequence, everybody down in the dirt on their horses, doing much harder work. We were just up there laughing our asses off, looking down on it. It was a great view, and it was a really nice couple of weeks. I love that lady. She’s really fantastic. I laughed my ass off with her several times. She’s a wonderful person to have in a cast with you, in many ways.
You’ve been acting since you were really young. Do you remember the moment you realized it was something you wanted?
I grew up in New York, and I grew up with a mother who was an arts lover herself, and I went to these New York City public schools with these great arts education programs, so it was something that I was lucky enough to be able to be exposed to very early. Although, a part of me sometimes has wished that maybe I hadn’t started auditioning so young, because that’s a rough road for anybody, let alone somebody who’s still a kid and still trying to do their schoolwork in addition to going into these rooms and preparing auditions.
I also sometimes wish that I had had to make that decision as an older person, because sometimes I wonder, “Oh, did I just fall into this?” Not that I didn’t want it. There were many times in my life where I made the specific choice to make certain sacrifices and keep going after this and keep doing it. So it’s not like I didn’t choose it over and over again. But I have sometimes wished that I had chosen it later. But I remember being drawn to it, and I also remember, though I’m too embarrassed to admit the movie, watching an actress do something on TV when I was a kid and being like, “Oh, whatever she’s making me feel, whatever’s happening right now, I’m interested in that.” I think it had something to do with emotion, for lack of a better word. Something to do with that experience. And it is still the moment when something comes together, and you do it right, and it’s like being infused with some kind of muse or spirit, and you get to ride this wave of honesty, and you don’t know what’s happening, but you just get to surf it. That sounds horribly corny, I know.
When you won the Emmy for Nurse Jackie, you gave this acceptance speech that charmed the world. I think it was just, “Thank you so much, I gotta go.” How do you look back on that moment now? Was it life-changing?
It’s this really special, lovely, shocking, surprising thing that I keep locked away in a small compartment of myself, and I don’t take out very often. I don’t know … I think at the time, it was really hard to metabolize somehow because it felt so far from what I consider the narrative of my life. It felt so otherworldly. So I think I had to put it away for a little bit. But that was also five years ago, and hopefully, I’m a more mature person now. I think it was this really beautiful, lovely, hugely surprising thing that I’m very grateful for, and that still surprises me. I think sometimes I forget it happened, and then I remember, and then I get surprised all over again. I feel incredibly lucky.
What can you tell us about your upcoming Noah Baumbach project?
No one’s told me explicitly not to talk about it, but just from observing him and the way he rolls things out, I’m going to assume that maybe I shouldn’t talk about it. It’s a really lovely cast, and I liked working with the guy. I don’t want to get disinvited from future parties, so I think I’m going to decline your offer.
OK. How about what you like about his work?
I love his writing. I like all his movies, but he also shoots a lot, and that’s a luxury. There can be pros and cons to that. But that was interesting, too, because for me, sometimes it takes me a while to get comfortable, and so it’s interesting to have the experience of being given the opportunity to get comfortable because you’re going to be doing it a lot.