Joelle Carter of Justified Talks Heroes, Heartache, and Harlan County

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For six seasons on Justified, Joelle Carter has played Ava Crowder, the female third of the show’s “Big Three.” That’s no small order when the other two slots are filled by Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. But, much like the character she plays, you underestimate her at your peril. Paste caught up with the actor to discuss saying goodbye to heroes, heartaches, and Harlan County.

Paste Magazine: Let’s start with the painful stuff. I’ve been one of those people who has been pretty critical of Season Five.
Joelle Carter: Are you happy with Season Six so far?
Paste: I’m thrilled with Season Six so far.
Carter: Everything hurts a little before you get to the good stuff.

Paste: That’s a good life lesson in general. If things continue the way they’ve been going, this has the potential to be the best season of the show overall. I think it could surpass Season Two for the best one you guys have had.
Carter: Wow!

Paste: Looking back to last season, when the prison storyline was planned out, how much did you know about how long that arc was going to last? Did you know it was going to be pretty much the whole season?
Carter: I knew very little going into that season. I think midway through that maybe Graham [Yost] and Tim [Olyphant] had already started talking about how long the show was meant to go. I’m not positive. But somewhere down the line they decided that six was going to be it. Five became a vehicle to get to six, and what they wanted to do in six.

Paste: So, at some point they basically decided that as much as servicing the current plot was important, that there was also a need to go ahead and plant the seeds of what would need to happen in a final season?
Carter: Yes, and this put Ava in a position—the only position—where she would probably be willing to take the deal that Raylan offered, to save her own skin.
Paste: Well, since Boyd obviously wasn’t going to do it.
Carter: Right, and Raylan wasn’t either.

Paste: That’s actually a very interesting point. Was there a sense when you guys were making Season Five that maybe things weren’t quite gelling the way they always had?
Carter: I honestly can’t speak for everyone else, because I was so removed that season from the actual show. I really felt like I was in prison. Where I shot, I never saw anyone except for the few times Boyd would come to visit, and then only at the end when Timothy came to visit as Raylan.

Paste: So basically it was method acting the whole way?
Carter: Right. No acting required. I felt like I was in prison. Like, “Get me out! I need back on the show!” In that realm I only knew that they valued me enough to take a risk by putting me in such a nice position, and giving me my own storyline. Unfortunately I guess it didn’t work as well that season for some people, but it did serve me to set up an amazing, final sixth season. This season we really collaborated a lot. We’ve been wearing the skin of these characters for so long, everybody wanted to end strong. We had such a great platform to start from. Sometimes shows just have to have an ouchy season to get through.

Paste: I always have these visions in my head of an FX executive in an office somewhere watching Orange is the New Black, and saying, “We have to have a women’s prison show. Women’s prison shows are huge right now.”
Carter: (laughs) No, that screwed us! They had already planned to get me in prison, and then that damned show came out during our hiatus. We were like, “What do we do now?” They wanted to backpedal, but it was too late. We had already formulated the storyline. I couldn’t believe it.

So think about all that and then watch it again and maybe you think, “Hey, maybe they did okay.”

Paste: It was only really a bad season by Justified standards, which means it was still better than 98 percent of the stuff that’s on television. Obviously, all the best stuff is really just paying off now. A lot of it came out in the episode when Ava and Boyd went to Bulletville, and she finally got to unload on him about leaving her in jail. It was never clear how much Ava knew while she is in prison about what was going on outside, like the decisions Boyd had made. What did you think that she knew?
Carter: Coming out of prison the only thing I knew was that Raylan told me that Boyd chose to make a deal with the Marshals, and it had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to do with saving me. All that he asked for was that they give him a clean slate, and he gets left alone. That felt like a huge abandonment for Ava.

Still, coming out and seeing him, having to react with him, and being put in this position of an informant, I’m not sure she really had any idea of how she was going to handle it. Then when she was out, she had to figure it out day by day, step by step.

Paste: You guys really played up her tendency toward alcoholism for the first part of the season. It seemed like it took her a little time to adjust, so she just turned toward the bottle, which a lot of the characters on this show do, in order to cope.
Carter: Yeah, down there they’re hard on their livers. They drink and they smoke, and they live hard. They love hard and they hate hard. I don’t think drinking was foreign for Ava. It just wasn’t in as many scenes, but they wanted to show her really wearing down until the point where she had to build herself back up and start playing the game.

Paste: It’s interesting that that we stopped seeing that about the time she and Boyd started actually communicating again, even if it wasn’t entirely forthright and truthful. Once that started up again, maybe she didn’t need the booze quite so much.
Carter: Well, it’s also that she had to kick herself in the pants and say, “Obviously me just walking into this situation, depressed and denying that I’m in it, is not going to get me through it—so I have to pick myself up, stop drinking, and work out a plan.” She had to get into the game. Raylan wasn’t going to let her stay out there, and not give him information. She had no choice, once again.

Paste: And once she started playing, that’s when things really started getting fun, because from week to week it’s never really clear whose playing who, and when they’re playing them.
Carter: I know, isn’t it awesome?

Paste: Yes, it is. Take for instance, the kiss with her and Raylan. Is she playing him? Does she really still have feelings for him? Is he playing her? Does he still have feelings for her? When you’re working on those scenes, what do you think is in her mind?
Carter: I felt like it was more of an honest moment than people are making that out to be. I feel like they have a history, and they’ve just been through a traumatic incident. He almost lost his informant. That’s his job and I believe that Raylan still cares for Ava, so he’s also slightly concerned about what might be going on with her, and if she’s going to survive this or not. He’s constantly telling her it’s going to be okay, so it’s in his hands whether that actually comes true.

Ava, on the other hand, is starting to get really tired at that moment. She’s exhausted, beyond exhausted, and she’s been through the whole ordeal of the hunt and her potential demise, and she’s face to face with this man that she constantly argues with—and he’s telling her, “I can give you a place to start over, I can make this happen.” It’s kind of the gold nugget for Ava. She needs to believe him in that moment and wants for a second to believe that he can save her from this and it’s all going to be okay. She’s not thinking about what she has to do to get there in that moment.

Paste: Right. And that leads nicely into what we see the following week—the big scene where Ava and Raylan just completely argue. At the end of it, you both sort of get quiet and he looks at Ava and says, “Why does it always come down to arguing with us?” She says, “ Because I think we’re just too similar.” To me, that was really the moment where he finally saw that this is real—that they really do still have some level of concern and feelings for each other, even if the other stuff constantly gets in the way.
Carter: Yes, and don’t get me wrong, they might be playing at something in there.

Paste: Well, they’re always playing at something. Everyone on the show is. Particularly in the recent episode in Bulletsville, you had some scenes that you knocked out of the park. I’m thinking specifically about the scene in the cabin, where you came clean about Bowman. We’ve always gotten snippets about life with Bowman, but have never gotten that much detail before. What was that like to be given that much material, with all that background that we’ve always wanted, but have never been given before?
Carter: They’re really giving a lot more backstory on Ava this season. It’s been wonderful. That scene that I had earlier on the porch with Zachariah—it was written and I went back to Ben Cavell and I said, “Can this be more just about Ava’s history, can we dig into this?” And he said, “Absolutely,” and wrote me this beautiful piece with Zachariah. The stuff in the cabin in the woods was just a delight to be able to receive, and especially to act and with Walton. It’s like doing a play. She knows by the time she gets to that cabin—and he starts playing mind games with her—what is going on, and she tries to throw it back at him. It’s just a pure example of how these two people love and hate and live—that world that they exist in. And it’s always right on the verge of their demise in a way.

By the time they get to the woods, I feel like, when you are having to carry that load and live that lie, to be able to finally say it aloud is such a relief in itself that there’s almost an acceptance of the moment. That was so beautiful for her that she’s like, “Okay, I don’t’ have to live this anymore. I said it, and whatever happens, happens.”

Paste: And she was so afraid of his reaction to her being a snitch when, in reality, the thing that he was actually upset by was the idea that she and Raylan might be carrying on some sort of romantic tryst.
Carter: Exactly. It’s all so powerfully romantic and heartbreaking. Also, I don’t believe he completely believes her after that moment. He wants to, I think he really wants to. He holds some kind of desire and hope that he might be able to get them out of all of this.

Paste: Absolutely. That’s always been Boyd’s problem, that he never can completely trust anyone else, even Ava. And it’s interesting that it’s only been recently pointed out that Ava, except for the fact that she didn’t dig coal with them, has the same upbringing as Boyd and Raylan. She has the same history. Was that something that you’d always felt about the character, or was it a revelation for you?
Carter: It’s interesting because I also came into this show as a guest star, with the possibility of recurring. I didn’t die in the pilot but I think that they didn’t know until they saw the cut footage that she was a very important character to tell the story of this area and these people. The fact that I ended up between these two men put me in a very good position because it is what this show is about—this friendship between these two men that dug coal together and how things like that define them. And what defines men better than the women, the company that they keep? I actually had John Landgraf from FX come to me when he was on set during our last week and he said, “We didn’t have any idea, and I know you didn’t, how valuable Ava would be to us, especially this last season.” So, I felt very honored and grateful at that moment, that someone I respect so much for what he’s done for this industry really respected my work, especially this season.

Paste: Something that I’ve talked about a lot in my reviews this season is that if you look at their behavior on paper, Boyd actually reads like the good guy and Raylan would read like the bad guy. How do you think Ava sees them? Do you think she even makes that distinction?
Carter: No, I’ve always said the three of them are very similar. They’re cut from the same cloth in the way that they’re all kind of loners. They all can’t find someone to trust. They’re all a little bit like sharks; they can’t really stay still or they’ll die. Boyd does have those wonderful qualities and I think that Ava sees them in him. But, he’s also unpredictable, as they all are. I mean, they’re all psychopaths. They’ve killed people and moved on very easily. The show does a wonderful job of making you root for three characters that don’t have traditional morals—that don’t really function in the world that you and I know. They function in a world that we probably could never exist in and they survive.

Paste: I think you basically just described Seinfield. One last question—I joke all the time in my reviews about possible spin-offs. If there was going to be a spin-off of the show, which character would you actually like to see?
Carter: Can you bring people back from the dead?
Paste: Of course. It’s television!

Carter: Maybe Margo and Ava ruling Harland. Actually, I think having a show that was just about Margo running her convenience store would be fantastic.
Paste: I would tune into that every week.

Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.

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