The final season of AMC’s Better Call Saul sees Julie Ann Emery returning to the role she originated — Betsy Kettleman. Here, an interview with Awards Daily, Emery talks about both the scariness and intrigue of getting inside Betsy’s head again. She also elaborate on what her process was the first time she played the character and how that has changed in the final season. She also shares her worry that Betsy may have been a precursor for the “Karen” phenomenon we are experiencing. Finally, Emery describes the passion she feels about a new limited series coming out later this year that shows the horror of health officials being left in the middle of disasters.
Awards Daily: I read that bringing the Kettlemans back has been talked about for a while. Did you think it would ever happen? And what was it like to be back?
Julie Ann Emery: So, it had been talked about since season one ended. I’ve been in the writers room and we’ve talked about it for a really long time. It just needed to make sense in the story, we really wanted Mr. Kettleman to be out of jail before that happened. And the timeline of the story Better Call Saul was pretty slow overall. Someone asked me last week what it was like to say goodbye to Betsy and the Kettlemans since Jeremy (Shamos) and I did it four different times. Because we did season one, then we did season one episode seven DVD commentary in character as the Kettlemans, where we just improvised for 45 minutes straight. So we thought then we were saying goodbye to the Kettlemans.
But we came back for “No Picnic,” written by Ariel Levine and directed by Jen Carroll, who produced episode two of season six, and who are both wildly talented. So then we thought we were saying goodbye to the Kettlemans again, but we came back for season six happily. It was a thrill, and Betsy is always a little terrifying for me. Finding her headspace again is a little scary because it is so narrow. But once I’m with Jeremy everything kind of clicks into place.
AD: I was curious. Did you ever create, or were you given a backstory to give Betsy a reason for her entitlement?
Julie Ann Emery: No, that’s my job as an actress and I work from a character place. I build a full character from very early childhood on up to where we need them on the screen. Then I watch where my work meets the writers. That is my job. That entitlement in general we were seeing in the world seven years ago when we filmed the first episode of season one. We saw that a little bit back then but we’re seeing so much of that now that I am alarmed by it. I hope we didn’t kick something off. That level of unearned entitlement is shocking for me but it works so well for the character.
AD: Oh, definitely. I always assumed she was the one forcing her husband to embezzle because he doesn’t seem like he would have the guts to do it.
Julie Ann Emery: Vince Gilligan directed the pilot episode and this was the first time I’d ever experienced this spending time on set exploring the characters, figuring out who they were. Jeremy and I had done quite a lot of rehearsing together and we had rehearsed with Bob (Odenkirk). But at one point Vince came in and said to Jeremy, “I don’t think he could put on his socks before he met her.” I think that’s really apt and accurate about him and I think they need each other. If Betsy has any soul left it’s because of him, and if he just functions in life it’s because of her. They’re very cohesive as the Kettlemans.
AD: Yes, even if it’s detrimental to everyone else around them.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, Jeremy and I also decided that whatever he said in those meetings was something we had practiced together at home or in the car before we got there. Which is kind of where the dual dialogue came from where we’re finishing each other’s sentences. That, I think, was the real key for us into who they are and how they function together. Then he gets in trouble if he varies from the script that we practiced together that Betsy made up.
AD: There’s a lot of humor in the back and forth in your interactions — his unflappable kindness to Betsy’s anger and dominance. How did you two find that rhythm?
Julie Ann Emery: I think it’s a product of what we just talked about — of deciding that we had practiced what we were going to say in front of fancy people, lawyer people, out in the world. Part of it is Jeremy is a famous Broadway actor so his understanding of the process is to rehearse, and not all on camera actors like to rehearse together but we did. And Bob likes to rehearse. That started when I worked with Bob on Fargo. So I think there is something that happens when it’s not all in the line and cameras are rolling. There’s something that can happen in that rehearsal where you can find a rhythm like that and make discoveries about subtext, about what’s going on underneath what’s happening. We all got really lucky that we were people who wanted to invest in that way ahead of shoot day. I don’t think that happens without that.
AD: When you got back together with Jeremy did anything change to get back into those rules? It sounds like you guys already had a pretty good system kind of in place.
Julie Ann Emery: We had a system in place and we didn’t have to do quite as much but my process changed a little bit. When we first created them together in season one we spent quite a bit of time together in Albuquerque. We landed in Albuquerque, we went to the store together, we were staying in a hotel that had kitchens so we made our meals together. We just sort of interacted together to sort of find them. Which was insanely helpful. But this time there was a wealth of material already so I went back and watched all of our stuff in season one, I listened to that commentary. The improv in that commentary really is the subtext to who they are. Then before season six started shooting we did an “Inside The Gilliverse,” which is this podcast that Tom Schnauz, one of our writers, was co-host of. We did it in character as the Kettlemans and Tom and his co-host asked us questions so we improvised for a little over an hour for that. So those things ended up being very helpful for me as tools to kind of slide back into Betsy’s head.
AD: Speaking of being in Betsy’s head, do you think she will ever get her life “back?”
Julie Ann Emery: You know I think that depends on your definition of Betsy’s life. Because you’re saying will Betsy ever get her life back and I’m saying Betsy thought she could push her husband to be governor of New Mexico. For Betsy they weren’t all the way there, that’s how you justify the taking of the money. They need that money so he can be governor so he could run and they needed that boat in their driveway in season one because these kinds of people–mayors and governors and senators–have boats. There is a logic for her that only exists in Betsy land. So I don’t think she was satisfied with their lives from the jump. I don’t think she’s trying to get back to season one Betsy, she still has this undying persistence to still elevate them in that way. I don’t see that ever happening as Julie, but in an odd way Betsy really believes she can speak to her world. She believes if she says it that it will just happen and people will get on board.
AD: Part of that entitlement thing as well.
Julie Ann Emery: Yes, of course. You know I just thought of this when you said that maybe Betsy is a cautionary tale for all the entitlement happening in the world right now. We are seeing so much of it on social media right now and maybe she is a cautionary tale for every Karen in the world.
AD: Well, let’s hope they’re all watching Better Call Saul, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of show they would be watching.
Julie Ann Emery: It doesn’t but they need it. Season six feels like a tale of morality, all the characters are facing their own morality one way or another.
AD: I’ve been a fan of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul pretty much from the beginning. There’s so much to be curious about the acting, the writers, etc. But I wonder if there is something you can share about being on that set and being in that atmosphere–what it’s like?
Julie Ann Emery: When I stepped onto that set for the first time everyone had been together for Breaking Bad. Not the whole cast but most of the crew; many of the writers were straight from the Breaking Bad writing room. It really restored my faith in what’s possible in the business. It’s a space where every single person from the most important director, cinematographer, and writer down to the last PA is wildly talented, incredibly dedicated, and they’re also the nicest people you will meet. There’s a generosity of spirit there that I think comes from Vince and Peter (Gould) and then trickles on down. I have been in the business for quite some time and that is something to be cherished. We are in a business that many times confuses temperament with talent and Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are proof positive that you can have a beautiful temperament and be brilliantly talented. So it’s a true pleasure to be on that set all the time and to be back on that set even as rageful as Betsy was in season six doing the Karen schtick. It was so beautiful to be back with Bob and Rhea (Seehorn) and Vince directing. Jenn Carroll is producing now and Peter Gould was around because they were working on episode one. I mean it just was a beautiful, beautiful place to be.
AD: In a previous interview I did, someone said in meeting Bryan Cranston that he was the nicest man in Hollywood so that fits with what I’ve heard.
Julie Ann Emery: I think that’s true and it trickles through everywhere like the main on set producer Melissa Bernstein is amazing and a lovely person and calm all the time. You know when you don’t have to deal with so much personality conflict off set all the energy goes on camera. All that conflict goes in front of that camera, and it’s incredibly helpful as an actor for sure, but I think across the board for artists.
AD: You have a limited series coming up–Five Days at Memorial. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Julie Ann Emery: Yes! So Five Days at Memorial started as a Pulitzer prize-winning article by Sheri Fink of the New York Times and then she later wrote a book about it, which is the basis for the series. It is set in a New Orleans hospital during Katrina and it’s about the people trying to survive those five days. Day one was the hurricane, day two the levees broke and everyone was trying to survive in New Orleans in August without being able to escape, and trying to care for patients with no power, no water, no food, and trying to keep them alive. It’s simultaneously heroic and tragic. It was written by the great John Ridley, who won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and Carlton Cuse, who has won a million Emmys, I guess, beginning with Lost. I went from shooting episode two of Better Call Saul this season to going to Toronto to work with this cast and crew and I had the most beautiful year because John is also very generous of spirit and kind. It was a beautiful set–not an easy story to tell, but a necessary one. It’s about how our hospital workers and our healthcare workers get abandoned in these moments. Like the moments of COVID, or the Texas freeze, or the hurricane. I think it’s something that’s really important that we need to take a look at.
AD: No, definitely. I put my hand on my head thinking about the Texas freeze after you said it.
Julie Ann Emery: I was having a meeting with John Ridley and Charlton Cuse for this while the Texas freeze was happening. We were talking about the parallel of just like, good luck, you’re on your own. Suddenly every institution and every level of government that is supposed to be there for you in those moments just vanishes. Because no one wants real responsibility for it. My character runs a long-term care facility on the 7th floor of the hospital so I’m taking care of some of the worst off patients, and my character is also seven months pregnant the entire time but chooses to be there and ride out the storm with her patients.
AD: Wow, this is going to be a tough watch when I get to it.
Julie Ann Emery: Yeah, you have a while before it comes out. They haven’t announced it yet, but it will be later this year. I think it’s something in our society we really need to take a look at. Because if we can drop soldiers–I have a cousin who is a Marine, he’s some of the first boots on the ground in Baghdad– and if we can drop those guys on the ground in Baghdad, we can drop people in a disaster situation in the United States and help people. We just don’t. I would like to see a will politically and as a society to do that. We have the means, we just don’t always have the will.
AD: I have no other questions on my end. Do you have anything you want to leave the readers with?
Julie Ann Emery: I will just say this. It was a thrill to crawl back into Betsy’s head, and I love the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul fan community so much. They have been so overwhelmingly lovely on social media since last week’s episode went up, and I have a lot of love for them. They are so smart and articulate and specific and look at absolutely everything, they catch everything you’re doing, and it’s been really nice to jump back in with them again.