VICTORIA, BC. Two of TV's biggest breakout performances of 2014 have come from Allison Tolman and Carrie Coon, a pair of thirtysomething actresses who seemingly arrived fully formed in “Fargo” and “The Leftovers.” Tolman and Coon were relative unknowns, unless you happened to know your Chicago or New York theater, but it was instantly clear from their opening small screen moments that they were stars.
If “Gracepoint,” FOX's 10-episode remake of “Broadchurch,” is a hit, you can expect Virginia Kull to find herself in conversations with Tolman and Coon. While the Texas-raised actress has had brief and occasionally memorable guest turns on shows including “The Following,” “The Good Wife” and “Boardwalk Empire,” you probably won't know her unless you saw her in stage productions of “The Orphans” Home Cycle” or “The Heiress” or “Dividing The Estate,” among others.
In “Gracepoint,” Kull plays Beth Solano, grieving mother to the young boy whose murder sets the drama in motion. If you've seen “Broadchurch,” it's the Jodie Whittaker role and you know how much emotional heavy-lifting it requires.
Back in May, Kull and her knee-high rubber rain boots braved drizzle and muck to sit down for interviews near the “Gracepoint” set on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
I met Kull without having seen her “Gracepoint” performance, but having heard raves from all of her co-stars. In the conversation, we talked about her detour to acting from a career in medicine and her gifts as an easy crier. We also talked about why her character will inevitably be different from Whittaker's, even if Kull is a big admirer.
I've subsequently seen seven episodes of “Gracepoint” and I can vouch for what her colleagues told me. Kull is very impressive.
Check out the full Q&A to get to know a bit about Virginia Kull before Thursday's “Gracepoint” premiere…
HitFix: Now, several of your castmates, including your on-screen husband and your on-screen daughter, have talked about the relative ease with which you find these sort of big emotional moments with your character. Does it feel easy to you?
Virginia Kull: Everyone's talking about that?
Virginia Kull: [She laughs, embarrassed.] Oh geez.
HitFix: They just say you cry well and that you get to these places fast.
Virginia Kull: Well, I think I can get to the places fast because I've got some really fantastic dialogue and some really fantastic acting partners to get me there. It's much easier to go to those sort of emotionally difficult places when you have Michael Peña to play against. And when gorgeous Nicholas, who's playing my son Danny, is a lying on the beach in front of me with a blanket over his head. That's upsetting. That would upset his mother, who was standing off camera and watching. It's a horrible sight that no one should ever have to see. So I think that they're being very kind, but I will say I've worked in the theater for like ten years now and that's primarily what I do. And so when you have a good script to get you there, it's my job.
HitFix: But Madalyn [Horcher] was saying that sometimes she finds it hard to cry and then she sees you and you hit it and when you hit it she can then get up there herself.
Virginia Kull: Well see, I feel the same way about Madalyn. The other day I saw her and she was completely stricken and upset and that upset me.
HitFix: Do you feel like you've always been a good crier?
Virginia Kull: Yes. [She laughs.] Yeah, my first job out of college, I studied theater at Southern Methodist University at the Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas, Texas. And my first job out of college was playing Celia in “As You Like It,” it's a Shakespeare comedy, and Celia is quite funny. And all of my classmates were shocked. They were like, “You do, do you comedy?” Because I was known as like The Crier, if you had like a victimized woman… I'm the girl for the job! And so I was like, “Yes I can be funny, too!” And so it was very fun to get to kind of stretch the old acting muscles and do something different. But I have been known in the past for being able to do the emotional.
HitFix: How far back does that go?
Virginia Kull: Oh geez, I mean college and now here so a long time. I've been in New York for, I don't know.
HitFix: I just wasn't sure if you've been crying since elementary school or since high school.
Virginia Kull: No, no, no. You know what's funny, I wanted to be a doctor; I wanted to be a neurologist. I was a total science nerd. I won this city wide science fair in my freshman year of high school and thought I would go on to medical school. I was emotional like any teenage girl is, but not ridiculously so and I wasn't terribly dramatic. I wasn't one of those girls putting on plays in her spare time. I didn't really do that, but I actually was such a nerd that we were given extra credit for going to see a play. If we went to a play and brought the ticket stub back to our English teacher she would give us extra credit and I wanted AAA+ so I went to the play. And it was “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder and it completely slayed me and I thought, “Oh my God, I want to see what that's about.” And so I signed up for a drama class the very next year. So that's kind of where it began. My dad was saying this year, he said, “If would have told me when you were ten-years-old that you were going to be an actor I would have said, 'Absolutely not.'” And what I did, poor guy, when I told them my senior year of high school I wanted to go to drama school and major in theater, I think they were both a little flabbergasted and concerned. I think it's just now where they're finally breathing a sigh of relief. They've always been supportive but just being relieved saying, “Oh great, she'll be able to pay her bills. She's not going to wind up in the poorhouse. Hopefully. We'll see.” We'll see what happens with the show. You never know.
HitFix: Had you been looking for a regular TV series role? I know there are people who just like doing theater.
Virginia Kull: Every actor is always looking for a regular sort of job. Unless you're a movie star and then maybe even then. You would have to ask a movie star. I don't know. Sure. Absolutely. I mean I had done plenty of guest starring in a couple of recurring things and they'd all been great experiences, but it's always hard to come into what feels very much like an established family and unit and feel not knowing how to gauge. I want to enter into these conversations and get to know these people because I have to work with them, but not wanting to be invasive and knowing that the story that we're telling is about these regulars, it's not about me the guest star. And that isn't a bad thing, that's just what my job is here. And so it's always been, as someone who's come from the theater, it's so much more satisfying and rewarding to get to play a character with an arc that starts somewhere and ends somewhere else and to be given the permission and the freedom to take your time to tell a story. And so the only way I found to do that on television, thus far, has been this experience, being a regular where I've been able to say, “We don't have to figure Beth out in the first episode, we've got 10 where you're going to see these different levels of grief. I don't have to be completely schizophrenic and show you all 24 of them in one hour of television.”
HitFix: But when you're doing a play you sort of know what the destination of your character is at the end of two hours. In this everyone is being intentionally very vague and coy and obviously that's because, at least many of you don't know.
Virginia Kull: A big reason why we're being coy is because we're just as much in the dark as the audience is.
HitFix: But what's that like for you not knowing the destination? Because if you're doing a play, you sort of know where the emotional beats are, but here you don't know where she's going.
Virginia Kull: I mean it's frustrating sometimes if I'm completely honest. If I did it, I would have liked to have known that back doing episode one when I was shooting those scenes. But I do think that there's something very true to life about being a little bit in the dark and everybody being a suspect, and even in those scenes where I'm confiding in someone or I'm seeking someone out for advice or I'm opening up or making myself vulnerable, the idea that any one of those could be lying to me or responsible in someway for Danny's death is really interesting and kind of keeps us on our toes and brings in a certain level of tension, which I think is interesting.
HitFix: But how about the possibility that she could be lying to you? That everything she told you in the script, your character, that the next script you get could turn out that, you know…
Virginia Kull: I can't even tell you how I would respond in that situation because it hasn't happened to me. Yeah, that would be a very big reveal.
HitFix: If it turns out to be the case, would you be able to look at the choices you've made in the last however many episodes and would you be able to see sort of points at which those choices could justify it?
Virginia Kull: Absolutely. Absolutely. I do trust On Anya Epstein and Danny Futterman implicitly and I do think that once all is revealed and we watch things back, there will absolutely be signposts and reveals and things that wouldn't have stuck out to me initially in the playing of them or in the first reading of the scene or when we shot it, but seeing it with all the hindsight I think that you go, “Oh wow I never would have guessed that.” And I trust that they're laying in the clues, even when we're not aware of them.
HitFix: But a couple of the other actors we're talking about doing alternate takes an alternate reading of things just so that there's…
Virginia Kull: Yeah. We've definitely done ones, I mean it's become pretty common to get one where I'm completely emotionally wrecked and then a bit more numb and then a bit completely so numb that it's almost humorous take. So, who knows which one they'll choose. It's going to be really interesting to… I'm kind of a wimp. It's very difficult for me to watch myself so I think I'll probably fast-forward or put a pillow over my face during my bits, but there's so many scenes that I'm dying to see that other actors are in so I'll probably skip to those bits.
HitFix: But you talked earlier about scenes being sort of capable of being the emotional girl, but are you capable of going back-and-forth in that way? Between takes? You don't get stuck in the emotion?
Virginia Kull: Oh yeah. Yeah. In fact I think some of the crew thought I was a bit crazy at first because they kind of gave me a wide berth because they just thought that I'd just be really sad and sitting in a dark corner all day long, and in between takes I'd be being playful and laughing. I can't live in that dark emotional place all day long or else I'll just get so depressed or just go crazy I think. So there's something that probably people on the outside, it looks crazy to them but it's the way I work where when you're in the scene and you're shooting it you're weeping your eyes out, and then when they call cut it's not happening anymore. You take a deep breath and you breathe and you laugh and you do what you need to do to reminder yourself that this is not real. This is a story that we are telling.
HitFix: Now, is that one a skill that you've sort of developed over the years, the checking in and out?
Virginia Kull: Yeah. I think that's something that I've been able to do. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing the other way, where you have to stay in it all day long. I absolutely understand that and respect it and admire people that can do that. But I think in the theater I've had to do roles where I'd go to a very raw emotional place every night and I have to do that eight times a week for four months. And you cannot possibly… I cannot possibly live in that emotional state for that amount of time. I mean those sorts of scenes in this TV show, you'll spend 24 hours shooting it and you never have to do it again. And so I think as a coping mechanism in the theater you just learn how to enter into that world every night and then at the end, the curtain call you bow, you acknowledge what just happened, the audience is there; you take them in for the first time in the evening and you say, “This was a play; this was fictional and now I'm going to go home and be a wife and be a friend and be a daughter and be a sister and acknowledge that is my job not my…” What am I trying to say?
HitFix: Long term mental state?
Virginia Kull: Yes. There we go. Not my identity. It's not who I am. It's not my emotional reality. It's my job.
HitFix: And did you watch the original series?
Virginia Kull: I did and I loved it.
HitFix: When did you do it?
Virginia Kull: I was auditioning. It was my very first audition and I read the pilot and I loved it and then they gave me a few scenes from later on in the season, but I hadn't seen any of the other scripts so I had no idea what was going on. So I thought, “I need to watch this sucker so I can figure out what the heck my character is talking about.” So I watched it and I loved it. Jodie Whittaker is phenomenal. Olivia Colman, extraordinary. David Bradley, everybody. Everybody. I just thought it was implacably done.
HitFix: Did you choose to want to do anything different from what Jodie did, specifically for the purpose of differentiation?
Virginia Kull: Honestly I watched it very, very quickly. I binge-watched it in one evening because my audition was the next day, so I didn't really have time to contemplate and watch for all of the nuances. So I haven't actively thought, “How can I make it different from what Jodie's done?” And we're two completely different human beings. So even if I copied every single moment, which I'd be dumb not to — I mean the girl is fantastic and she blazed the trail, so of course I want to be influenced by her performance. Absolutely — but we're two completely different human beings so it's going to be different whether I like it or not.
“Broadchurch” premieres on FOX at 9 p.m. on Thursday, October 2.