In William Friedkin’s dark comedy Killer Joe, Gina Gershon is a struggling stepmom and wife who gets mixed up in her family’s plot to hire hitman “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill her husband Ansel’s (Thomas Hayden Church) ex-wife in order to claim the insurance money.
However, plans go awry when not everything is as it seems with the insurance money, and soon everyone caught within the murderous plot find themselves at odds in the Southern Gothic tale, whose NC-17 was just upheld by the MPAA due to the film’s “graphic aberrant content involving violence and sexuality and a scene of brutality” (per Deadline).
During the SXSW Film Festival, Dread Central had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the always dynamic Gershon about her performance as Sharla and heard more from the actress about working with Friedkin as well as her thoughts on her “villainous” roles throughout her career (including Killer Joe) and more on her latest project which took her out of Hollywood and into the literary world.
Read on for the highlights of our conversation with Gershon, and make sure to look for more on Killer Joe closer to the flick’s release this summer.
Dread Central: So how much fun was the US premiere of Killer Joe last night for you?
Gina Gershon: I thought it was great to see this movie with this kind of audience here in Austin. I’ve seen it on the big screen before – with a crowd in Toronto – and I mean, they laughed, but I think this movie is very much American humor. This whole ‘white trash’ living in Texas sort of aspect to the story is maybe something that audiences in other countries don’t necessarily appreciate as much as the audience here did last night. I’ll be curious to see how it continues to do- although I heard they loved it in Venice so maybe they ‘get’ us over there (laughs).
DC: Yeah, this is definitely one of those movies where you find yourself laughing, but then you immediately feel bad that you’re laughing at these incredibly dark situation these characters are all mixed up in.
Gina Gershon: Oh, definitely! The interesting thing about this movie is that it is funny – in a seriously messed up way kind of funny – but you’re still laughing even though maybe you really shouldn’t be. Tracy’s (writer Letts) material is suited for that, and I think the way Friedkin interpreted that material on camera is pure genius. William loves extreme behavior- he’s never been scared of it or going too far with it.
Honestly, I’ve never been in a movie where I’m confused emotionally as to how I should be responding to the story- one minute I’m laughing and then I’m horrified and then I’m kind of both of those things. Your nervous system gets confused when you have all these kinds of responses all at once, which, again, proves just how much of a genius William is.
It’s just a visceral movie. It’s a visceral story, and that’s what Friedkin does best. So when you’ve got a great group of actors like we did on Killer Joe who weren’t afraid to ‘go there,’ that’s when you know you’ve got something special.
DC: Can you talk a bit about how you got involved in Killer Joe– I mean, it had to be amazing to hear that a filmmaker like William wanted you to take this role on.
Gina Gershon: Yeah, I had gotten a call that Billy Friedkin wanted to meet with me about a project because he really liked me as an actress, which is incredibly flattering, and when I heard about the project, I realized it was based on Tracy’s play. See, around ten years ago Tracy asked me to come and be a part of the stage play, and I remember reading it at the time and I literally wussed out after reading it. I just couldn’t be in that place eight times a week on stage in front of a live audience; I loved it, but it just wasn’t the right time for me to do this kind of story back then.
But it always bugged me that I didn’t do the play back then. Usually I don’t scare away from parts too easily- the weirder, the darker, the more confusing, the better for me. So I was really happy to hear that Tracy had told William that he should contact me for this, and after a half an hour meeting with him, William told me Tracy was absolutely right ten years ago and that this part was always going to be perfect for me, whether in a theater or on the big screen.
DC: What I think is interesting is that Sharla isn’t necessarily the “bad guy” here, but she’s not necessarily a victim either. She’s just kind of wallowing in this horrible place. Is that something you saw in the character as well?
Gina Gershon: You know, it’s interesting- everyone always says to me that I always play these bad characters, these evil characters, but I don’t really see anyone as bad. First of all, you can’t ever judge your character. You shouldn’t judge people,; why would you judge a fictional character? The worst person – whether they’re a serial killer or whatever – it comes from somewhere. I don’t think people outwardly wake up one day and just say, ‘That’s it; I’m a bad person.’ There’s usually a deep psychological reason that ‘bad’ people do the things they do, and in their own minds they generally have their own reasoning behind their motivations.
So I don’t see Sharla as a bad guy in this at all. I see her character and all the other characters in this movie as just feral people; they’re animalistic survivalists, and that’s who Sharla is. She’s just stuck in a situation but sees a way out of it so her survival mode kicks in and she takes that risk because she wants to survive. This world is not a healthy environment; it’s so toxic and I think Sharla is just doing what she knows how to do. I always say to people I feel like there’s a bit of a morality tale in this because if you do bad things, bad things WILL happen to you; it’s just cause and effect. I think it’s true for Emile’s (co-star Hirsch) character, it’s true for my character and everyone in this movie kind of gets the equivalent of what they’ve done. I feel like Killer Joe is incredibly interesting even just on that level alone.
But I don’t know how to play ‘bad’ people like that. Sharla just wasn’t all about deceit. She’s a tragic figure in some ways- she sees all her hopes of a better life get dashed by the third act when suddenly her savior, this guy she’s going to run off with, isn’t around anymore to save her. So it’s like she’s now stuck in this purgatory with no hope of ever getting out. And I don’t necessarily think all this happened because her and Ansel don’t love each other- there’s still a love there; it’s just that they kind of hate each other at this point. And the concern Sharla has for Dottie throughout the movie, I think, was always genuine- I think she knew this poor girl had been through enough and Sharla struggles with doing right by Dottie, too.
And yet, despite all that tragedy, there’s still this weird little love story between Matthew and Juno’s (Temple) characters so they actually both come out of this perfectly happy, in a twisted sort of way. I think for Sharla, she saw that Dottie needed to get out of this situation so a part of her is glad in a way that this girl is going to get out of this life and get a fresh start with Joe. But I do think there’s a real genuine love between their characters even if it is kind of weird and unusual.
And as gnarly and dark as his character Joe is in the movie, I think there’s a lightness that Dottie brings into his life that almost gives you hope that they can both move on and be happy despite everything that has happened in this movie.
DC: Clearly this wasn’t easy material to just dive into- was there ever any hesitation on your part on doing a movie with this kind of dark story, especially with what happens to Sharla in the last act of Killer Joe?
Gina Gershon: If some director that I didn’t trust or didn’t have a huge respect for were directing this movie, I wouldn’t have done it. Let me just put it that way. And I think Matthew has got a lot of dignity; he’s an incredibly classy and respectable guy so I felt completely safe with him during the last scene. When you have scenes like this, you just have to kind of go for it and you have to trust in your director and your co-star that everything will work out. But had I not loved the script and not loved Friedkin, or if a sleazy director was involved, I wouldn’t have gone near this movie.
DC: I know you mentioned the “white trash” sort of aspect to the story here, but there’s something universal about what these characters go through – no matter how disturbing – that I think we can all relate to.
Gina Gershon: Yeah, I definitely think Killer Joe also explores this idea of dysfunctional families- not necessarily with just lower income people because every family in every tax bracket has issues. That’s nothing exclusive to people who live in trailer parks.
DC: Now that Killer Joe is making the festival rounds, what’s up next for you then?
Gina Gershon: You know, I’m not sure what’s up next for me in terms of acting. I just wrote a book actually and finished up a few weeks ago. It’s mainly non-fiction with a touch of fiction in there. It sounds strange to say it, but the book is about when my cat went missing a while back and sort of an almost-true account of that. It’s called “How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind.” It’s a very crazy story, but a book company asked me to write this so I did. But I am definitely now ready to go back to acting now that the book is done. It’s so much easier (laughs).
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