The third season of HBO’s True Detective premieres this Sunday, January 13. In doing so, the notoriously twisty, complex series returns to a familiar formula in an effort to overcome a not-so-stellar second season and find its first-season form. Mamie Gummer plays a conflicted mother (and wife to Scoot McNairy’s righteously mustachioed character), who must grapple with an enormous loss that’s central to a horrible, Ozark-based crime. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are the new detectives and make a more charismatic team than the one that missed the mark in an LA-adjacent setting.
For Gummer (who often plays strong women), this was a role unlike any other she’s experienced before but one that she found surprisingly relatable, albeit complicated to portray. As you may be aware, Mamie happens to be the eldest daughter of the legendary Meryl Streep, so she receives a hefty number of questions about mom. Still, she was gracious enough to offer us a new topical tidbit and explain how she was able to lend her “redneck” character authenticity in a variety of ways.
Back in 2016 — almost a lifetime ago — you told a newspaper about being excited to audition for your first “disheveled redneck” role. Can I assume you were auditioning for True Detective?
My memory is so unreliable. Let’s see, 2016. It may well have been a year ago, yeah, we shot this in March 2017. Wow, how bold of me to have mentioned it!
Well, it sounds like it worked out well for you.
Yeah, I’m sure I didn’t expect it to, so I’m thrilled.
Indeed, you’re quite disheveled here. How involved was the makeup and wardrobe process to get you there?
Actually, not much at all. I guess I came in properly, redneck-ready. I had this kind of peroxide, bleach blonde hair, which worked for the character. And all the clothes were primarily from thrift shops near where we were filming around the Ozarks. She kind of took shape quickly and organically. It was so cool there, I can’t think of the last time I filmed something where it filmed where it was set. It’s increasingly rare, normally you’re cheating something, and it’s somewhere else. So we were situated and eating and breathing where these characters lived, creating their reality.
Your character, Lucy Purcell, is a mom, but she’s definitely not the warm and fuzzy type. Even before the events of this season, she wasn’t happy.
Yes, that’s right. I think she grew up in foster care, she didn’t have any model to speak of. So she didn’t have any frame of reference for how to do it properly and was abandoned at a very young age. And it’s interesting, the difference in her relationship with her daughter, as opposed to her son — the kind of projection and fear that can go into raising a little girl. Just the terror of it.
It’s safe to say that Lucy goes through a lot, and she’s angry, something that probably wasn’t well-received from women in 1980s Fayetteville (and even in some places now). Do you think that figured into your portrayal?
I do. It was important to give her …. [the time] was jarring, I think, for her. It was a big time of transition from what I understand, they were pushing the boundaries and the relative freedom from the traditional family upbringing. The way she was living, fast and loose, going out at night, would have been permissible, frankly, for maybe the man, but here, the roles are sort-of reversed. She’s playing with that freedom and what that means when she says, “I have a life.” She’s sort-of misunderstanding what that liberty might entail.
Further into the season, you have an intense scene with Carmen Ejogo’s author character. How did you tackle that one?
That was actually my audition scene. It was so fun. It’s quite rare to just deliver all those words, that opportunity. It’s funny, it’s not explicit, but she’s struggling to articulate what she’s experiencing and feeling, sort of mining the depths of her experience, and I loved playing with it. You know, it’s really open to interpretation, like how to be a woman and a mother at the same time. It was utterly relatable even though she’s so fucked up. It wasn’t a struggle at all, to worm my way into that headspace.
You have never in your career played stereotypical “girlfriend” roles. How do you think you’ve been successful at avoiding those?
Well, it’s not for lack of trying, but those honestly don’t speak to me so much, they feel more remote. I don’t know why I haven’t played them. I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve been grateful for that, to do obviously more with the characters who aren’t just there in service of a relationship. That’s why I love that scene with Carmen — talking like what it is to be a woman and a mother, and she’s talking about her husband and marriage, and to me it felt much more elevated, like they were really talking about more than that.
Speaking of mothers, I know everyone always asks you about your mom, Meryl Streep. What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s ever asked you about her?
Oh, someone once asked about whether and how she does the dishes. (Laughs.) That was like … the [lack of] relevance, you know?
Did you answer that question?
You know, I didn’t! I just had to kind of had to point out that it didn’t have to do with anything [that we were discussing].
You two did Ricki and The Flash together, along with Evening — with a cast that included Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, and Natasha Richardson. Do you think the enormity of that ensemble helped prepare you for this tremendous True Detective cast?
I think there was such a rich array of people and talents here, and I think working in theater prepared me more for this job. There was a real palpable reverence for the work and the task at hand, every day while working in the theater. And that’s where Mahershala [Ali] also comes from, and there was a fair amount of conversation about that. But Evening was such a wonderful experience, very female-focused, and this was a bit more macho environment. Yeah, certainly being in the company of giants, it was really exciting to be counted amongst them, a great privilege.
How are you feeling about season 3 recapturing the season 1 magic?
I’ve only seen the first episode, so I’m really keen and love the show, but what I’ve gathered from the first episode is that it does harken back to the original elements that were so sprawling. It’s a landscape that’s so rich and eerie and sort of mythic. The truth is, too, I’m probably not even at any risk of spoiling anything because I’ll be kind of seeing it for the first time. Also, the way that the scripts were released, I really only laid eyes on what pertained to my character, so there’s a lot that I’ll be learning while watching.
That was probably very maddening but also very cool, so you can fully experience it along with everybody else.
The third season of HBO’s ‘True Detective’ will premiere on January 13.