In the new AMC series Preacher, based on the cult classic comic book written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon, British actor Dominic Cooper plays Jesse Custer, a small-town Texas minister who is accidentally fused with an entity called Genesis that gives him bizarre supernatural powers. As the series opens, Jesse believes he can save the people of his dying town of Annville, but he’ll eventually go on a surreal, often shocking journey in search of God Himself.
Also starring Ruth Negga as Jesse’s former girlfriend Tulip and Joe Gilgun as the Irish vampire Cassidy, Preacher was developed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin, who are all executive producers. It might seem strange to see the name of a comedian like Rogen attached to something as dark and macabre as this, but there’s almost nothing about Preacher that isn’t strange. Den of Geek got a chance to participate in a roundtable discussion about the show with Cooper, whose previous forays into comic book material – Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter – found him playing Iron Man’s dad, Howard Stark.
Had you heard of the comics before when they came to you with this?
Dominic Cooper: I don’t think I had. During the pilot season, which I hadn’t been exposed to, I didn’t know a great deal about, there’s often, I think, two, maybe three scripts that everyone is talking about. This was one everyone was mentioning. So I was just looking for something really good. I said, “Is there any worth tapping into?” And this was mentioned. I think Ruth had a copy of it. I stole it from her. I did. I whisked it away. I went, “What is this? This is absolutely incredible! I’ve not read anything like this.” I then read the comics as a result of that and thought, “I have to have something to do with this.” But the audacity to think that I could possibly play that…I wasn’t sure, but I just said, “Please just try and get me in to go meet them, the guys, the three of them.” I think it was Seth, Evan, and Sam in a room. And this was one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever had in my life.
I can’t really explain what it was like. But they were all talking at the same time. They were all so animated and all so excited. And the things they were coming out with, because I hadn’t read all of the comic at that point. And they were saying, you know, so many episodes will be in this small town, and then we’ll be in heaven, like just for a whole potato, or something absurd like that. And I wasn’t sure what kind of room I’d entered or what was going on.
I loved it. That made me even more excited about the project. At that point, I think they must have seen something in me that they thought could be Jesse, which was exciting. And then I met them again. At that point I really read the comics and went, “Wow. I’ve really missed out as an adult.”
But it made me realize how great comics…I was never a big comic book person. I don’t know why. They’re just great, because you are using your imagination at the same time…you are turning it into a film. That’s why we have such an important job and I have to make this into something for everyone, but also for the people who wrote them and created the film in their head already from reading them. They are so visual and brilliantly written.
Was there any adjustment going from the Marvel world to the Preacher world?
Certainly not hesitation. They are very different worlds. They are very, very different. The way I approached it at Marvel…I don’t know. I play a particularly fun character in those. He’s an inventor. It’s just good, good fun. But he’s very, very different. The responsibility of that is that you are Iron Man’s dad. The responsibility of this is, it’s just a tricky character. This is the hardest character I’ve ever had to play.
Is it even a completely different character after the pilot?
Yes. I only really sort of assimilated this in my mind as we’ve been in here today. But yeah, the pilot…Well, I mean at the end there’s Genesis. So he’s in his worst state, really. He’s trying his hardest to be this thing he is never capable of being. He’s depressed. He’s a drunk. He’s regretful. He’s trying to change. And he’s, by the end, pretty much given up. So there’s a weight to him.
My worry was always being surrounded by these extraordinary, vibrant, colorful, amazing characters. You have these dynamic, wonderful scenes and they are fun and funny and there’s this morbid, depressing kind of bloke in the middle.
But I kept reading the comic going, “There has to be this stillness. There has to be a center to this whirlwind. And I have to embrace it and take it on and be confident in the stillness and the weight of it,” which will change. And it goes on a very varied journey. But that is what it needed to be to start. And yeah, it does change. It changes huge. I’m suddenly going, “I’m feeling a bit lost while I’m doing this,” because that first one, that was the dynamic of him, and it changes hugely.
Sam mentioned seeing you in Devil’s Double and how well you played two characters in that film. Does Jesse have the potential to almost be two characters here in a sense?
I think he always has it in him. I think that’s why Genesis chooses him. He has this love. He’s desperate to save his town. Really, he’s desperate for forgiveness. He has huge regret about his father. He has a lot of love but then he’s extraordinarily dark. That’s what his constant battle is.
I haven’t related anything I did in Devil’s Double to that. There’s obviously something that they saw, that Sam saw, that I was capable of doing. But I think that is what attracts Genesis to him.
I’ve just read…I can’t remember what number it is, but wow, does it change, because it goes from this guy who thinks he’s found this Godly presence within him and he can save everyone and everything for good. And then, we suddenly see, boom, the devil in it. And he does some nasty stuff. That has been so enjoyable. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I’m sort of trying my best to be this preacher. He’s getting better at it. He has this congregation and he’s started becoming good at his job. And then it all turns, and then there’s the real dark side to what he has in him.
Can you talk more about that relationship with the Word of God (the voice Jesse uses to make people do his bidding)? It’s such an interesting power and the consequences that we see just in the pilot alone make it pretty literal. I was just wondering if you could talk about that.
He learns how to harness it. It’s going to change, I think, from the pilot in the way in which we deal with it cinematically. I don’t know whether it’s still going to be…I think there’s going to be much more simplicity to it. So it’s him learning how to control it. He mistreats it quite badly and causes some severe damage with it. But, ultimately, he thinks he can save the town. It’s exciting to see how it’s going to evolve. And we’re all still learning what it is. But I think already we’ve decided that it’s not that roaring kind of voice of God.
He obviously has much greater ambitions than to save the town, as we know from the comics. How long does it take to hit the stride of the main narrative of the comics where he, Cassidy, and Tulip…
On the road? Yeah. I think that’s going to happen later on. I think we are going to stay in the town for a majority of the (first season) because there are such great characters in the town. I’m still loving doing all the scenes with them. There’s this desperate attempt to save these people who are flawed and finished. There’s almost sort of no saving them. And then I imagine we will…
It’s like they said in that room the first time I met them. It can just go anywhere. No one knows where they’re going to take this. I mean they’re all insane, the people who developed this, and rightly so, as they should be. But that will be fun, because the dynamic between the three of us is extraordinary. But it’s really fun. It’s so clever how Garth created these characters, how he put them up against each other. And we’re learning more and more about the backstory of Tulip and me. The more we learn about that, the more it informs our scenes. And it’s really sad. It’s tragic. But, my god, is it a bond, and a bond that can never be broken, which holds so much weight with regards to how Cassidy lets him down in the future. But he saved him on numerous occasions. It’s a really clever and heartfelt love triangle between the three of them, and they care for each other hugely and let each other down hugely.
Were you nervous about meeting Garth?
Yeah, of course, but not as nervous as I was, actually, working with the guys, first of all. Because we talked, and talked, and talked, and they hadn’t really seen…I mean they’d seen stuff I’d done. They hadn’t seen me be a Texan preacher, really, properly. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened, actually.
The responsibilities of that… you just see the look on their faces going, “Oh, fuck. We’ve made a huge mistake.” I was like, “That could happen. That potentially could happen.” And you kind of, as an actor, just send yourself mad.
But by the time we had done enough, I was already quite proud of what we were creating for the show already. I’d seen what the guys were doing and how they wanted it to look. I’d seen the actors they’d gotten. I’d seen the performances they were giving. And I knew.
Then you meet Garth and he’s the nicest man you can imagine, and very clever, and very giving. They had given me this thing I felt so responsible for. And it was a big ask. It was hard. It’s a man from a world which is a million miles from the world in which I grew up in terms of observation. And I lot of my work I’ve done through whatever way, by being very close to the things in which I’ve been able to observe. Even something like Devil’s Double…not that I’ve been a killer. But that world I kind of knew more than Texas. I spent a lot more time in the Middle East than I have in Texas. So it was a lot of work, and I have a responsibility to the people of Texas and the lovers of the comic. And that I needed to get right.
I’m curious as to whether or not there was a discussion about long hair or growing out your hair?
Yeah. You know what? We did a scene, some of the flashback stuff the other day. And I chose the hair. I said, “Let’s make it long.” And it’s much more suited for him. But they just make a joke out of my shit haircut. So we might go back to that. But yeah, “It’s too ‘90s.” I kinda wanted it. I kinda wanted the tight white jeans as well.
The show has a wicked sense of humor. Do you get to be funny?
I try to be. He’s not particularly funny…He kind of is. He’s got a really good sense of humor, I think. I don’t know whether he’s got particularly great comic timing. He’s a bit off…I mean there are maniacs and they are hilarious all the time. I think he smiles at everything. He finds them very humorous. He tries to be funny.
How much do you use the comics as a resource? How often would you look through something or talk to Garth and ask him a question?
I always ask Sam or always go back to the comics and look at them. They are so well written. They have been so well-formulated…they’ve got such a good writing team that It’s quite clear. What I love is there are a number of ways to play all the scenes, which always suggests that the writing is brilliant. More often than not, I start in a place at the beginning of the day when we’re shooting and the scene ends in a completely unexpected place, which is so fulfilling, because you’ve challenged yourself. You’ve discovered so much about the person you are playing in a short space of time. I love that.
Will we get to meet the Custer family?
I can’t wait to see them. I mean they are just grotesque. They are just the most vile people. Well, did Sam say – well, we’re going to recast Dad.
Oh, really? OK.
I’m fired. [laughs] No, it’s great, and we were probably going to do originally. Again, it’s just time. Just making this pilot, you are throwing in ideas and trying to get as much done as you can. So that’s going to be obviously reshot, because he will probably feature quite heavily, which is really exciting. I can’t wait to see some of those uncles.
Preacher airs on Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. on AMC.