Killer Joe isn’t your typical “horror” film, but it sure is horrific: Chris (played by Emile Hirsch) hires a dirty cop/hitman (the eponymous Joe, played by Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother so that he can pay off gambling debts before the mob kills him. Joining him in this endeavor are his father (Thomas Hayden Church), his stepmother (Gina Gershon), and his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a sheltered free-spirit who desperately holds onto her childlike innocence amidst the trailer park mess she lives in. The ladies sat down to chat about dealing with the black-as-pitch subject matter and working with legendary director William Friedkin.
What was your reaction when you first read the script?
Juno Temple: I wanted to be part of it the moment I read it. As a young actress, being sent a role like Dottie, for that specific age group, is so rare and so extraordinary. She’s got so many levels of emotions. There is so much she is not saying, and I think that is so interesting. Then you add on top of that that this is a Tracy Letts play and he is a master of his craft. Then you’ve got William Friedkin directing, and he is a genius and a man who has been doing this a really long time and really knows what he is doing. Then there is a fantastic cast to go along with that. For me, it was a challenge I really wanted to be a part of. There was something very daring about it. I want to be part of things that are really making a difference and I think this film will, in some way, make a difference.
Gina Gershon: I thought it was time I did a nice family movie [Laughs]. You watch this movie, and they are so dysfunctional, you can feel good about your own family. As Juno said, Tracy is such an amazing writer. He writes incredibly complex, yet complete characters. Their motivations are very clear, but nothing is obvious. If Joe Schmo were directing this, I probably would have been worried about some of the scenes, but with William Friedkin directing, and this cast, it was really a no-brainer.
How old is Dottie in the film?
JT: She’s 20. In the original script she actually says it. It was cut from the film, but there is a scene where Matthew asks me how old I am, then I continue to ask if he wants to know how old Chris is. But yes, she is completely of-age.
How did you prepare to get into Dottie’s mind?
JT: Originally, the way I thought about it was that there is something completely childish about her. People might say she is simple, but I don’t think she is simple; I think she is holding on to her childhood desperately, because she is living in her fantasy world, with the fairies and her dolls. She doesn’t want to be in the living room of that trailer. When I sent in my video from London, I got my 10-year-old brother to read my sides with me. It is a very interesting thing to watch, especially where she gives that speech about her mother trying to suffocate her. He said it like it was a fairy tale; there was no judgement there and I think that is such an important thing. Actually, with all the characters, there is a lack of judgement going on. You can’t judge those people and they can’t judge each other.
But then I also spent a lot of time talking with Billy about this rage that she’s been developing her whole life. She is bottling up an extreme amount of rage, and she is hiding it. So before every take, he would tell me, “Remember the rage.” It was always there, but it had to be hidden - it was just something to be aware of. Then you have the level of innocence and an angelic quality that she should have in this trailer full of madness and toxins and whatever. But she is more aware than all of them because she is listening to everything. She is digesting it, she is swallowing it, and she is bottling it up. You get a sense of that at the beginning, when she is listening to their conversation [about killing her mother] and she comes out and says, “I think it’s a great idea.” So she is aware, but it is her choice as to when she is going to tap into that. They treat her like a child, then Killer Joe comes along, and for the first time, she is treated like a woman. And it’s magical. The way he looks at her, the way he speaks to her, the way he respects her... to her, he is her Prince Charming.
Do you think that is why she falls for Joe?
Gina, in that scene where Joe is, for a lack of a better word, abusing you, do you need a few hours to get yourself together, or can you just slap on some fake blood and say, “Let’s do this?”
GG: I wish it were so simple. Sharla is so in control - secretly - of everything that is going on. As an actress, I am a preparation junkie. But for that particular scene, I didn’t want to over-analyze it and, frankly, I didn’t want to think about it. It is the one time when she is really out of control, so I just said, “I don’t want to rehearse it, I don’t want to talk about it, just tell me where you want me and what the movement is, and let’s just do it.” Because if I thought about it too much... I don’t know. As it was happening, I just wanted it to happen, how it all just plays out.
Too much contemplation might make you balk?
GG: Well, it did. This was presented to me years before, as a play. As much as I loved it, how well-written it was, the characters... when I got to that last scene I thought, “Oh my god. There is no way I am going to do this scene eight shows a week for six months straight.” These characters... you have to play them so truthfully, and they are so layered. The psychology behind them is deep. At that moment, I just couldn’t go for it for that many days in a row.
But on set, when it is a day or two of shooting...?
GG: When it presented itself, it was a no-brainer. Especially with Billy.
JT: Second time around - it’s meant to be!
GG: Sharla came back! No, but with Billy, we prepare, and we are lucky if we get two takes. You come ready, and you have great players around you, and you just go for it. That scene, I really didn’t want to think about it too much... for a lot of reasons.
Did you carry a lot of the characters with you off set? Did they resonate with you?
GG: It was a very intense shoot - we shot for 28 or 29 days. It was very short. But since we didn’t have a lot of takes or a lot of time, you kind of have to “stay there.” I’m a big believer in, at the end of the day, “wiping your feet,” have a drink, eat something, then go to bed to get ready for the next day. Especially after certain scenes. It was difficult - it definitely gets under your skin.
Did you need to shower after that one scene?
GG: I took the longest bath ever after that day. I can’t say I was sad to let Sharla go at the end of the movie.
Since these are already established characters within the theater world, did William let you bring your own touches to the characters, or is everything we see pretty much what is in the script?
GG: I never went to see the play.
JT: Yeah, I’ve never seen it, either. I thought it was better to approach it like that. It needs to be your own take.
GG: Yeah. I was so happy I hadn’t seen the play. I believe Amanda Plummer played my part originally, and she is a terrific actress. Then I didn’t have to spend any time erasing what I had seen because you want it to be--
JT: --fresh, and yours.
GG: These are fantastic characters. When you do Chekov plays or Shakespeare plays, everyone has their own take on it. For me, it’s better not to have seen someone else’s performance.
JT: Yeah, definitely for me too. I wanted it to be fresh. But also, working with Billy, he told us not to change the dialogue. And why would you? It’s flawless. So I really stuck to the dialogue, but I totally got to say it and use it in the way I wanted to.
GG: It was so refreshing to be on a movie set and not be thinking, “This isn’t working, what should we do? Should we change this?” There was one day where someone wanted to say something like “oh” instead of “ah” - something very simple like that. Billy would say, “Hey, he’s just a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but go ahead and change it.” Just being very sarcastic, but he was right: you didn’t need to change a word.
Did you find it easier to let yourself go, knowing that you only had one or two takes to do it in?
JT: I think you are torn between that. What an incredible experience to work with a director who has that much trust in you as an actor that you can get it in one take. [Billy] didn’t move on unless he was happy with a take, but he had such belief in you, if you did do it in one take, he’d say, “Well, it’s not going to get better than that.” But then sometimes you would question yourself. Honestly, when it came down to it for me, I had such trust in him that if he said it was time to move on, then I was ready to move on.
GG: Sometimes when you don’t have such a talented and competent director and DP - Caleb Deschanel is no slouch, it is nice to kind of warm into a scene and you are finding it as you are going in, so you get a couple takes here and there, and maybe it is the fifth take before everyone is on the same page. But Billy was so clear with what he wanted, Caleb is so talented, you had to come ready and prepared that you were getting just that one take. We were all super-prepared before we actually shot.
JT: It becomes life-like. You’ve only got one take of something, so you have to be so prepared for it that it becomes a second part of you.