Catching Up With... Joelle Carter of Justified

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On the eve of the finale of Season Three of Justifed, Paste caught up with actress Joelle Carter.

Paste: When you were first considered for the show, did you come in to read?

Joelle Carter: I had about five auditions this one day and that was one of them. (laughs) It was that crazy kind of week where you’re changing in your car and running around and hoping and wishing you could study more, but I just went in put it on tape with the casting director. Then I had to leave town to shoot a feature in Northern California. My manager and agent kept saying “You’re in the running; they really love you,” and then two weeks went by and it was “You’re in the running; they really love you.” It seemed like they just travelled all around the world looking for other people to play Ava, but it came back to me somehow. I don’t know the inner story behind the curtain there what happened, but I got it and that was the only role I went in for.

Paste: You always hear stories about “Oh, I read for such and such and I didn’t get that but then they gave me this other part.” So I didn’t know if maybe you read for Winona and they realized that you would make a great Ava.

Joelle: Oh no, I read for Ava, and I think I brought my own twist to it. I was only supposed to be in the pilot, and potentially maybe recurring. So I guess I did a good job and they held on and I said, “Yes please, more Ava.”

Paste: I think we all said that. Had you read or did you know anything about Ava beforehand? Had you read the short story that the pilot is based on?

Joelle: I had not. Only after they said I got it. I actually got to meet Tim (Olyphant) and Michael Dinner right before we went down to Pittsburgh to shoot the pilot, and he had the short story and he was using it like a Bible. So I said “I’ve really got to get this short story.” It had a little bit of background for me that helped, and of course reading even more Elmore Leonard and just that flavor that he has, the underlying humor. You’re not just saying the words, you’re playing at a lot of other things.

Paste: There’s so little in the story about your character — it just says that she’s wearing a t-shirt over a housedress and her dark hair is a mess and that’s about it. There’s no other physical description to go on, so how did you go about developing who you wanted her to be?

Joelle: Even the words, the way she reacted to someone coming to her house after she just murdered her husband, and thinking who this person must have been, a battered woman. So it was the psychological battle in her own mind of how she ended up staying in that situation, and it had to be that she loved him at some point. And then thinking about being in high school and having a crush on someone and developing that relationship years later with Raylan, she thinks she’s being rescued. And she must be spinning, because she’s just killed her husband. Then it was just going into my roots, being a Southern girl and just knowing the flavor of the South and how people talk and how it’s different down there. I had a lot to draw on, which is why I think Ava was such a gift for me. When I came to Hollywood I had to hide my Southern roots and dialect from other people, which is always fun, but it was nice to back home and settle into something that I have personal experience with.

Paste: I’m from northeast Tennessee originally, only about 60 or 70 miles from Harlan County. So the characters on the show feel very familiar to me. But also, the first thing I ever saw you in was Swimming, and I grew up vacationing at Myrtle Beach. That’s two roles that I know you from where I think you’ve really nailed what it feels like to be a local. Do you think that comes from your research or is that just something you have a knack for or is it just, like you said, that you’re from the South and you have a lot to draw on?

Joelle: I think it’s a combination of things. With that particular project, the director and the woman that wrote it, she actually went down to Myrtle Beach. So they had done a ton of research and wanted to be very authentic to that area. We were living there in the off-season, shooting as if it were in season, and it took me back to living in the South and going to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. It just seemed like that same kind of place. I mean that’s the secret to a part. If it’s written well you can read into it and as long as you’re bringing something with you that makes it come alive and it stays true to the material, I think you’re going to come off looking and feeling like it’s real. The biggest problem with Swimming was that they pulled me out as the only one that they didn’t want to have a Southern accent. (laughs) I had to wake up every morning and listen to the people in the hotel, the people that were serving and say “Please don’t talk to me because I’m having a hard time not having a Southern accent.”

Paste: So who are actresses and even actor for that matter that you really respect?

Joelle: Every time anyone asks me this question I always draw a blank. Tilda Swinton. I love her so much. I love her performances. Of course Meryl Streep. And I love Glenn Close. She’s so good.

Paste: Watching this season, particularly the last couple of episodes, it really seemed like the first season provided a version of Ava that was not exactly who Ava really was. It was an Ava that was created by that moment when she opened her door and Raylan was standing there. It never occurred to me to wonder what she was like 10 seconds before Raylan walked up to her door until recently. It seems like now that she’s moved on and is with Boyd that we’re getting back to who Ava really was before. Whereas at the beginning she was nostalgic and optimistic, she seems more pragmatic and grounded now that she’s with Boyd. Do you think that’s accurate?

Joelle: I think it absolutely is. I think she’s really becoming aware of her identity, which was lost when you met her in the first season. And you were seeing a version of Ava that was more desperate, and she acted out of fear. Even for her just to get free of her husband, she acted out of fear and she acted out of fear when she wanted to run with Raylan. She just wanted to get away, and I think she also realized that by coming back home and accepting who she really is, the person that she lost, that she’s just kind of indigenous to that area. I mean, where else could Ava survive? She’s really where she needs to be. I’m glad it ended up justifying itself because when they first told me that she wanted to stay I was like “Wait a minute, the whole first season she wanted to go!” But it makes a lot of sense to me now that I see that she’s found love and strength, and I can see the strength and identity that she’s come back to that helps her make these decisions that she makes. She’s just dealing with a clearer more focused mind.

Paste: It seems like strong women is a real undercurrent not just on the show but in Elmore Leonard’s writing in general. It’s not always obvious because you do have these women that are abused, and it would be easy to look at it say that he’s objectifying women or he’s misogynistic about women, but that never seems to end up being the case. From where Ava has gone to Mags Bennett last season and even Loretta and her plotline and then Carla Gugino’s character that may or may not be Karen Sisco, is that something you talk about? Is it overtly discussed or do you just accept that it’s there?

Joelle: It’s not overtly discussed. I saw it from the pilot. I know you’re introduced to her (Ava) in that place and what I love about Southern women is that they have this sweet, sugary exterior, but they are tough. They’re bold women and they’re survivors. It’s not just Southern women. Whoever the greater power is that created men and women, they chose the right one to give birth. (laughs) Men are physically stronger, but women, I think, have that mental strength that they need to survive and to protect. I am so happy that we get so see that, her loyalty and her strength in this season. Boyd has those same qualities, that fierce loyalty and I think they’ve never met anyone else in their lives that they can bond with the way they can with each other. The way it’s unfolding is beautiful, these two little damaged souls falling in love onscreen.

Paste: I think that’s the exact right way to put it, that they are perfect for each other in the way that they are damaged. I think it’s fascinating that many characters on the show don’t bow down to women in a worship sort of way, but defer to women. Certainly the Bennett boys did with Mags and Loretta, despite being a teenager is the one woman that can always…

Joelle: Raylan.

Paste: Exactly. She can always boss Raylan around.

Joelle: When he needs to be straightened out a little bit.

Paste: Then Boyd actually punished Devil because Devil is the only person who is really rude to Ava, and it’s interesting that they show that there are consequences to that.

Joelle: I don’t know if it has something to do with how boys love their Mamas or if they’re raised right then they end up loving their lovers (laughs) in that same way or what. But Elmore Leonard, I think, sees strength in women and he likes to write them in a way that we don’t often get parts written for us, so it’s fun to bring all the different layers to her and watch her grow.

Paste: The bulk of your scenes are either you with Timothy Olyphant or you with Walter Goggins.

Joelle: The first season I begged them, “Please get me out of this hotel room and get me a scene with somebody else!” Then they gave me a scene with Winona and I was like, “A girl, yes!”

Paste: It was the first time you’d seen another female in months.

Joelle: I know.

Paste: Obviously they are both not only tremendous actors but they both have a lot of charisma. Is that stressful? I think a lot of people would be afraid that they’re going to get blown off the screen by them. Is that something you think about?

Joelle: It’s a little intimidating, but it’s good to know that they work very differently and once you realize how they work you come prepared for that scenario. Walter is very thought through, and he knows what he’s bringing to a scene. He has a big idea for it and is always open to suggestions and he’s always giving so much energy that it’s exciting and I love it. I love to catch it and not know what’s going to happen take to take. Tim comes with a lighter kind of aspect to the whole thing but he’s always got a ton of ideas too, and he’s always throwing me stuff. He’s tossing me lines and you have to just kind of play catcher in this game of baseball that they play. I guess I like being a little nervous but I don’t feel like I can’t handle it. I do feel like I have to be on my game though, definitely.

Paste: There have been a lot of guest actors from previous shows that various people have been involved with. There’s been people from Deadwood, and you guys have pulled a lot of people from Lost. Graham Yost has brought people in like Mykelti Williamson from Boomtown and Neil McDonough from Band of Brothers and several other people. Are there people that you have worked with on different projects in the past that you’ve thought about trying to suggest for a role on the show or that you’re just dying to work with again?

Joelle: There is. Sometimes I pitch ideas to Graham and he’s always willing to listen. The best thing about Graham is that he’s really loyal to actors so he always brings people back, and it’s more about writing a part and then going, “Oh yeah, that part would be great for Neil or Mykelti.” Ted Levine, I pitched. I worked with Ted Levine on a series called Wonderland that Peter Berg created. I kept pitching that we didn’t know enough about Ava or her background or her family, and we needed this perfect father or brother figure to come back into her life. Mostly I just really want to work with him again. He’s just such a dynamic, strong actor and I think he would bring so much to the show so I’m constantly pitching him unbeknownst to him to the writers (laughs).

Paste: It seemed like Ava got a little lost in the shuffle in Season Two. There were so many characters that there wasn’t a whole lot of time to spread around. You’ve certainly been back front and center this season and it seems like your screen time is increasing every week. Was that part of the plan? Was that something you knew going into this season, that you were going to be a major cog in the machinery?

Joelle: I really asked for more for this season. I think sometimes you have ideas for a season as far as the writers and the producers go, and things get carried away in one direction or the other and you end up, unfortunately, not paying as much attention to some of the other characters. I can’t imagine how they juggle it all, but everyone feels the same way. You’ve created these great characters, can’t we just see more and more and more of them? I believe that they wanted the relationship between Boyd and Ava to slow burn, and they might not have spent enough time showing that onscreen as much as all of sudden things had changed with them, and you had to kind of piece it together. It’s a little disappointing when that happens but they’ve tried to come back this season and give me more, so I’m very grateful for that.

Paste: There’s a lot of social commentary in show, like the drug problem in Appalachia or race issues or battered spouses, but it always puts characters first. It comments on these things, but only through the characters and whatever else is going on. Again, is that something that you guys talk about and are made aware of?

Joelle: That’s a good question. I talk to the writers sometimes when they’re on set and I’ve heard that they’ve all gone down to Kentucky and they all searched for material that way, and they’ve squeezed Elmore Leonard dry getting stuff from him. Like I said, it’s a balancing act between keeping these characters strong and alive and telling the story of the area that has to somehow work through the characters. When you read the scripts and you see these characters like Limehouse or Mags Bennett, they’re based on true characters that they either read about or heard about by going down there. Then they come in with an idea for a season and just try and run with it depending on who the actor is and what they bring. Then it becomes kind of a runaway train that moves off from the original starting point.

Paste: I don’t know how much you’re allowed to talk about, but I know there’s a big episode coming up for Ava in episode nine, is that right?

Joelle: Yes, there is! It was my most enjoyable episode this season. I realized I was about to say too much right there and I’m trying not to. The direction and writing were amazing and we were all female and it was such a different dynamic to be on the set with everyone.

Paste: That seems like quite a commentary right there, that you have an episode written and directed by women.

Joelle: Yes, it was our first female director in all three seasons. It was great and they really wrote for me that episode. Gwyneth Horder-Payton was the director and she’s done some other shows for FX, and the writer was Ingrid Escajeda. Ingrid and Gwyneth and Joelle, episode nine, mark your calendars now.

Paste: With Margo Martindale being honored with some awards last year and some of the other cast getting nominations, is that something you think about? Obviously it can’t be the primary goal, but knowing that you’re on such a high quality show is there a feeling that you’re hoping it all gets recognized in some way?

Joelle: I think you want for the show and for everyone for it to be seen again in the same light that it was seen in the second season. I don’t know if I personally thought that they would write enough for me (laughs) to be considered for an award, but you never know. I’m sure Walton and Tim probably think about it more because they were right there knocking on the door. I actually feel like you just have to stay in the moment of every scene and not think about the rest, or you’ll get caught up in the wrong ideas about why you’re doing it. But it would be nice to be recognized again by the fans and to get some critical acclaim.

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