In Gemma Teller-Morrow, the matriarch of the titular biker club, Sons of Anarchy (FX, Tuesdays, 10/9C), Katey Sagal is tackling a complex, dynamic character who will do anything she can to protect her families – biological and surrogate.
Recently Sagal spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers on her character and her character’s place in the world of SOA – as well as her music.
Gemma seems to have some pretty complex relationships with a number of the characters on the show, but the ones that I’ve always been most intrigued by are her relationships with Tig and with Uncer. Kim Coates recently told us that he felt that there was definitely some history there between Tig and Gemma but it could never be acted upon because of Tig’s always being loyal to Clay. So what do you think the relationship is like between both Gemma and Tig and with Gemma and Uncer?
Katey Sagal: Well, I think they’re a very close knit group. They are their own family members. I think her and Tig, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a sexual tension amongst all of them, really, because they are a very bonded group, and not by blood. I definitely think Tig has eyed her as she has him. In that culture there is sort of the unspoken – some of the guys, when they’re out of town, they do what they want with other women. I think that there’s a loose approach to all of that, but out of respect to his best friend he would never do anything like that. I think she feels the same way towards him. She feels really close to all those guys, which I think there may be a blurry line. That’s what I would say about that.
Uncer, she grew up with him. To me, I’ve always imagined that he’s like an older brother to her. He also was from Charming, which is where Gemma is from. They’ve known each other since she was a kid. She had a very strained relationship with her parents, she wasn’t close to her own family necessarily, so he’s like a family member to her. Then he has that unrequited crush on her, which he’s always had.
Katey, I wanted to know what some of your reaction was to some of the notices and announcements we saw last week from the PTC about the season debut of Sons.
Sagal: Well, this is what I’ll say: I have pretty strong views about censorship and that I don’t like it. I think that I believe that we should be able to monitor our own families, our own children. I tend to agree with my husband, that to continue the conversation about something that is an important topic, particularly now, which is that of gun control, I think that to continue that conversation through his narrative, which is actually what’s happened – I don’t think it was conscious “that’s what we’re going to do,” but that’s what seems to have happened – that’s not a bad thing.
It’s a conversation that nobody really likes to have and it seems that we never can get to a solution with it and something horrific happens. We all stand back and say, “How could we let that happen?” and then it goes away and we move on.
So I also agree with what Kurt had said, which to his story is about a guy who runs guns and has a son, he’s a father, and I think that for him not to tell that story didn’t seem true to the world and to the story that he’s telling. How could he not tell that story? I don’t know if I’m making clear sense to you.
I find Gemma one of the most fascinating and boundary busting characters on television, male or female, who’s just filled with surprises, but I would love to hear how she balances or manages her feelings for Nero and Clay and what you see for her coming ahead in this next season.
Sagal: I think like all the relationships in the show it’s a lot of duality. I think that Clay crossed some lines with her that she can’t get back from. At the time when he tried to kill Tara, it wasn’t even so much the beat down that he laid on her, but it was the things that he did to other people. Gemma’s very family-oriented.
I think that what Jax asked her to do, which then ultimately landed him in jail, she had conflict about it but she made somewhat of a peace about it, that that’s what was going to happen. At the same time she had this new relationship with a very different kind of outlaw. He’s an outlaw, too, but he may not be quite the ruthless, cold-blooded type that Clay is.
One of the things I really like about the show is how real it feels. Every character has to make a lot of tough choices and they have to live with the choices they make. Thinking of all the tough decisions that Gemma had to make through the course of the show, what action was the hardest to wrap your head around and justify and do on camera?
Sagal: Well, at the time, sending Clay to prison last season was a tough choice because she knew that that it was a setup. That was tough for her. I can’t specifically think of – there have been so many. She kind of comes out of the situation and she has to think on her feet right at the moment, so I think at the time she never thinks there’s that tough a decision; they’re really what she has to do, if that makes sense. I don’t know if that makes sense. In other words, there are people that live – it’s high stakes all the time. If you think about it, our show takes place in about a week. What you see in a season, a week or two weeks. So there are high stakes going on all the time. They pretty much react instinctively and there’s not a lot of time to think “Is this a hard thing to do,” you know what I’m saying?
We were wondering, are you guys getting … the next season? … how do you plan to celebrate with the finale?
Sagal: This season we all kind of know the end is near. It’s a great vibe on the set this year. There’s something that happens when you realize that everybody really likes your show and the work that you’re doing. It’s really fulfilling. We think the storytelling is great and then people respond as well. It’s an amazing experience. I know from personal experience that it’s really rare, that it doesn’t happen very often. Everybody has a sense of that, that this just does not happen that often with television shows, that you’re able to continue your story, that your audience rises each season and that we’ve all made such close relationships and close friendships and done really, really wonderful work together. It’s very bonding.
So yes, there’s a melancholy that will start to set in. Everybody sort of clings onto every moment because we know that there’s a countdown about to happen. So yes, kind of bittersweet, but what’s really cool about our show is I think that it’s one big story. There’s a big story in mind. So it’s nice to have that … and to be at this part of it. “Nice” is a weird word to use, actually, because I’m sure it’s going to be bloody.
I have to say, the first three episodes of this season are incredible, especially for Gemma. We’re seeing so many different layers of her already that I haven’t seen before. I asked Maggie this last week. She said that Kurt has a real savvy way of drawing upon the accuracies cast … what he’s writing about, which begs the question, how much do you relate to Gemma as a woman? Maybe not in the situation she’s in, but as a woman? How much of her is Katey, or is none of it like you?
Sagal: Well, absolutely there are certain aspects. I’m a real family person. I have three children. It’s of utmost importance to me how my children are raised and I’m really involved, so that’s something, a quality that Gemma also has. She’s all about her family and keeping this lifestyle of hers together and keeping this group together. There’s that similarity. I think that Gemma tends to be vain, as do I in certain ways.
Then it expounds on it. I think what you’re seeing Gemma this season, which has been really interesting to play, is not a softer side but more a Zen-like approach. What’s interesting to play is when people start to have conscience about really where their lives are going and what’s been happening. I think a lot of her viewpoint is being influenced by Nero, who is not as ruthless, you know what I mean? So I think that it shades her. She tends to soften a little bit around him, which I think she likes. It’s nice.
It’s interesting. All these characters have been changing. I really love how Juice is changing and really see the difference in Chibs’ character now that he’s a VP. Over the course of the seven years there’s actual life to all the people. They’re not just one way and this is the way they always are every time you see them on the show.
As an actor, that’s really fun, to rather than say when you get a script, “Oh, that character would never say that,” to be able to say, “Oh, this is a different aspect of that character. This is not who this character was before.” But in life, we’re never the same. We are never the same day-to-day. I mean, we have certain things, certain codes that we live by, but our responses and reactions will change as our circumstances change. I think that these characters do the same thing.
Gemma is just such a great character and you play her so beautifully, obviously echoing what everybody else said, too. She’s been through so much. She manages to sort of justify the acts of vengeance and betrayal as taking care of her family. What do you attribute this to? Is it Gemma being afraid to be alone, a need to control? She’s in such a patriarchal society.
Sagal: Well, I think it’s really this, that you have a group of people that live outside the grid. The whole point of anarchists is that they have their own rules and regulations and responses and this is the little world that they have created. So if you really think what that must feel like, it’s sort of you against everybody else. It brings a certain intensity to protecting and honoring that group. It is her security, it is her survival. She’s a person that left home, left her family, has no roots. These are her roots. Her back story is that she ran away from home when she was a teenager, she hooked up with this group of motorcycle guys that were coming right out of Vietnam and that became her life. She has babies within it, the women she knows are the women that are also with these guys, so it’s their own little society. So yes, she would fiercely, fiercely protect that system. Without it, what is she?
Sometimes I trip about it. These are people that don’t necessarily have retirement funds and 401-K’s, do you know what I mean? That’s not the world they live in. They live literally dollar to dollar. I’m not even going to say paycheck to paycheck. I think it’s all in a mattress under the bed.
So I think there is a certain amount of intensity surrounding the protective quality of all that.
In the early ‘70s you were just getting started with acting and you got to work with your father on Columbo. With his amount of knowledge and experience in show business what are the most important things that you learned from him that still have a strong impact on your creative decisions? Do you have any memories of working with Peter Falk?
Sagal: Years later I did a movie with Peter Falk. I did a movie with him about eight years ago, a CBS Christmas movie. It was interesting. He was charming and grumpy all at the same time.
My father was a director in the early years of episodic television. He worked very long hours. My household was not filled with movie stars and TV stars. It wasn’t glamorous. He had a passion for what he did and he felt very fortunate that he was able to do it. He worked really hard.
So I like to think that I had sort of a grounding experience from him in terms of knowing that this is a hard job just like any other job. I mean, it certainly has its perks, but it requires a certain amount of work ethic that I think I modeled from him. I don’t take it for granted. I feel that since I grew up here in Hollywood, I grew up in Los Angeles and around all this I have seen people come here thinking that this is really easy, to get into show business, and they think that it’s just this light, airy job. To me, the business of what we do is to make people think that it’s that, that it’s easy and entertaining – the service we do is to entertain. So you don’t want that to seem like it’s laborious. This is kind of a long answer to your question, but it’s sort of how I look at what it is I do, which is it’s a hard job. I’m blessed to be able to do it. It’s nice to make it look easy, but it’s not always easy.
I think I got a lot of that from my dad. He loved what he did. As hard as the job was and was long, 15-hour days, he loved his work. I feel the same way.
We asked our readers to submit a few questions for this call. One of them said that obviously, all the characters on the show have made some morally questionable decisions, and a lot of that is the product of the world that they live in. One of our readers said that he feels that Gemma is the most evil and least redeemable character on the show. He wanted to know if you saw her in the same light, and if not, what your opinion of Gemma was.
Sagal: I don’t see her as evil at all. I rather like her. I think she has conscience about some of the things that have happened along the way, but I think a lot of what she thinks is she’s protecting herself and protecting her family. It sort of echoes the answer I gave before. They’re a crime syndicate. They’re outlaws. From my perspective, from Katey Sagal’s perspective, yes, I see the heinous things they’re doing. From someone who lives within that, and that’s what they do in their world, I really do believe that these are kind and loving people to those that they’re kind and loving to within their inner circle.
There’s code that they all live by. There’s honor to what they all live by. I think that’s where she keeps it. In other words, there’s justification. I’m not saying from where I’m sitting in my house right now that I necessarily agree with all that, but playing the character, I think they’re very honorable and have a code and I think she has justification for everything she does. I don’t think she’s evil. So I can see where someone from the outside looking in might think that, but I don’t think that.
I was just wondering how far Gemma will go to protect her life. Does that mean that if Tara goes through with the divorce and wanting to skip out if she finds out that she’d take Tara out in a heartbeat?
Sagal: I don’t know. It’s really interesting where we are right now because I’m not sure how that whole thing is going to unfold. We’re filming episode nine right now, or maybe ten, and I can’t give away what I know right now, but I’m not quite sure. I know that the loyalty to the club is paramount. I mean, I’m not sure how far any of them will go to protect that considering that there are kids involved, considering this is the wife of her son who she loves more than anything, but I can’t rule out anything.
In the name of protection and loyalty, they really have no bounds, so I’m not quite sure. That’s the answer to that.
I’m wondering, when you’re not busy shooting this show, what do you like to watch on TV?
Sagal: I love TV. Right now I just caught up on Ray Donovan. I think that’s great. I think Jon Voight is unbelievably great. I like that one. I’m in the Breaking Bad club. I’m behind this season. I haven’t been watching it. I really do love Boardwalk Empire. I just caught up on that, too. I don’t have tons of time to watch TV, but I love the whole DVR/Netflix thing. I watched all of Orange is the New Black in like a day or two days. So I like all those shows.
Kurt and I love to watch – our favorite show is Home Hunters International on HGTV. That’s one of our favorites. That’s it. I really love those dramas that are similar to Sons in that they are complex and have intricate storylines and I never quite know what’s going to happen next and I’m screaming at my TV like, “Are you kidding?” I like all that involvement. That’s what I watch when I get a chance.
What I really want to know is up to this point Nero has made it really clear that he’s not so much a fan of guns, but for Gemma it’s just so engrained in her and so much of her life as part of the club. Up to this point we haven’t really seen that cause any major tension in their relationship. Is that something that will play out at some point this season?
Sagal: Well, this whole season really gets set up by that school shooting, which involves everybody’s ideas about guns. Clearly, the guns got into the hands of the wrong people. Nero is somewhat connected to that. We will see how he feels about that. It’s a big statement about the misuse and handling of guns from a show that’s about gun runners. I think that everybody’s going to have their opinion and Nero clearly will have his opinion about that as well. I think you saw some in last night’s episode. Have you seen episode two? I assume everybody did. When he has that speech with Jax and he says, “We don’t do this. We can’t do this.”
So I sort of have the sense that Nero is in a little bit further than he’s really comfortable with, but he’s kind of in. He’s conflicted by that.
When an actor plays a doctor they can go talk to a doctor. When an actor plays a lawyer they can go talk to a lawyer. When an actor plays the president of an outfit or the wife of one, who do you go talk to to kind of study and check that authenticity?
Sagal: That’s a good question. I tried to do research on the women in the motorcycle culture when I got the job. There’s very little written about them. There’s really a lot written about the presidents of very famous motorcycle clubs. We actually have TA’s on our show and Kurt has relationships with some of those people since beginning the show, so it was kind of easy to find out that.
The women and what I did with Gemma is she’s quite a bit of creative license in that she’s the matriarch of any little society. Definitely her wardrobe and her saunter and all of that is an easy thing to find from even observing the women in the culture. Her attitude and “stand by her man” is reminiscent of any high political or regal figure that you could really name. She’s the queen bee of that society. I don’t know if that really answers your question, but I guess the answer was that it was very difficult to find actual people to talk to.
So I did just hear that you were in the Breaking Bad club and so am I. One of my questions was that Brian Cranston has said that Walter White has been the role of a lifetime for him. I was wondering if you felt the same way about Gemma.
Sagal: Yes, I would absolutely. I relate to Brian only because we both were so well known as comedians on funny FOX sitcoms. I don’t know if he bumped up against it like I did, but it was hard for me to move past that, which I was really grateful for that job and I loved playing on Married…with Children all those years, but it was hard to, as an actor, say, “No, I really want to do a drama” and, “Let me do that.”
I don’t know if he had that experience, but for me it was a minute before I could find something like this. Luckily, my husband wrote it, which was awesome. But yes, it had been definitely career changing and career opening. Yes, I’d say it’s the part of a lifetime for me, absolutely.
How did you congratulate Charlie on his Fifty Shades casting role? Have things changed on set since he was cast?
Sagal: There’s a lot more paparazzi there. We’re inundated now with taking pictures of our movie star. I love Charlie. I know that he thought long and hard about taking that role because he would not take it lightly. I don’t know the director but he really likes the director. I’ve watched Charlie work for the last six years. This is a kid that is like 100% committed to what he gets committed to.
So he’s somewhat methody, he embodies what it is he’s done on our show and I’m sure he’s going to be just awesome and will bring all of it, whatever it is he needs to bring, if you know what I mean. It’ll be great.
I just wanted to change direction a little bit to ask about your music. I put the questions out to fans and so many of them wanted to know more about your music and whether you’re going to be releasing a solo album or whether you’re going to be doing maybe another one with the Forest Rangers. My brother-in-law really wants you to tour in Toronto.
Sagal: I’d love to come to Toronto. I actually do. I finished my solo record. It’s coming out October 22nd, I want to say. It’s either the 22nd or the 29th. I did another song for the show; it’s going to be on episode ten. That’s on my record, my solo record, which I feel really great about. It’s going to come out then.
Music has always been – I call it my unrequited career because I have done it longer than anything. This will be my third solo record. I made records all through my 20s and it was always the career that was like the one that got away. To kind of have it at this time in my life – and we just sold out at a big place in Los Angeles, we played at the … – it’s amazing for me. It’s sort of like I pinch myself, like wow, as a kid this is what I dreamed of doing, being able to sing and entertain people.
So it’s been very self-fulfilling. I kind of make these records with the idea of as long as a few people hear them I’ll be happy. If I can get some gigs booked off of them I’ll be happy. To have more and more people like it, it’s kind of amazing. So yes, I hope that people will buy the record, like it and it was really fun to make it.
You’ve mentioned your husband a couple of times. I’m wondering how you feel. He’s very, very outspoken about the lack of Emmy love, which I also disagree with, for the show overall, although I know you’ve been recognized. I wonder how you feel about some of the comments he’s made about the Emmy voters.
Sagal: You know, my husband –
Well, I don’t know him. That’s why I’m asking.
Sagal: He’ll have a bad day and say something. I don’t know, exactly. I think underneath it all he probably would love to be nominated for an Emmy. Not that I disagree. I think sometimes the Emmy’s play it safe a little bit. I think, though, they’re making some pretty great choices right now.
I don’t have quite the same visceral response as he does. I don’t know that I can be in agreement. I think that underneath it all he would really like to be recognized. That’s what I think. But that’s how we all are when we don’t. You just sort of turn the other cheek, I suppose. I think our show is great. I don’t understand the whole awards process. I was really grateful that I won anything and I’m not sure exactly how much it all means or doesn’t mean. Television right now, there are so many great things going on. It’s probably really hard to narrow it down. That sounds nice and humble, doesn’t it?
When you played Peg Bundy on Married…with Children you were able to have creative input in Peg’s wardrobe and made a statement on the ‘60s American housewife. What other creative ideas were you able to use with that character and how much creative involvement are you allowed to have on Sons of Anarchy?
Sagal: Well, it is that sort of thing that happens when you’re on a show for a long time between the writer and actor. They kind of pick up from you and you give them stuff they can use. I mean, certainly with Peg Bundy a lot of it was her physicality. Certainly with Gemma a lot of it is the physicality. To me, they’re both very extreme characters coming from their look. I don’t look that way. I like the whole costume, wardrobe and hair. I like all that. I think in creating who somebody is, particularly in these two different worlds, Gemma, it’s part of the entire character of what it is.
So, Peg Bundy, that was just the housewife that she was, which was that she didn’t want to be a housewife. She wanted to be dolled up. That was my choice about her. I thought no, no, no, she doesn’t want to cook and clean. She wants to wear high heels and tight clothes. That was a choice. Those were contributions that I made.
I have a general question for you. I wanted to find out – did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have another profession in mind?
Sagal: No, no, I really just wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I started writing music when I was like 14-years-old. I taught myself music. No, there was a certain point in my career when I was in my late 20s when nothing was happening, when I was like, “Man, I wish I knew how to do something else,” but I couldn’t figure out what else to do. Really, I had no skills. I was clearly just an arty kid and that was all I knew how to do. This was either going to work out or I don’t know what I was going to do.
So it was either music or acting. Those were my choices. I probably would have figured something out, but I was lucky that things started to happen.
It’s such a testosterone-fueled show, Sons of Anarchy. Kurt has this really great insight into the female character, especially your and Maggie’s characters, and even in The Shield he did it. What does Kurt know about women that a lot of us don’t and can write these great things? Do you inform a lot of those things that he knows?
Sagal: First of all, he loves women. He’s a very sensitive guy. I mean, nobody really wants to realize it, but for him to write the way he writes, there’s a very deep emotional place that he has. I don’t know. He writes women better than anybody I’ve read before. He really has a deep understanding. He would tell you he has a strong feminine side that he is able to tap into. He’s a mush at heart.
If we go all the way back to season one when Tara first came back into Jax and Gemma’s lives, she always kind of held Gemma up as the idea of the person that she did not want to become, but as we’ve seen the show progress she’s becoming more and more like Gemma. Do you think that Gemma is happy with seeing Tara become more like the quintessential old lady or do you think Gemma wants something different for Jax?
Sagal: I think it’s both. At a certain point – I don’t remember which season – I remember having Gemma having the conscious thought like okay, if you’re going to be here, this is what you have to know. She set about schooling her – this is who you need to be, this is what we do as the old ladies in this society we live in here, as they call them, and this is what you need. So she went about it consciously.
I think to see the certain parts of Tara that have become so adept at all that and have possibly been used against her sometimes, I’m not so sure she likes that. Tara’s a smart girl, so I think that as conflicted as she always seems to be, like, “Am I here? Am I there?” when she decides to do something she’s pretty good at it. I think that Gemma has the duality of “I’m proud of you” and “Oh, shit, what are you doing?”
So I think it’s both. There’s a lot of duality with all of these people, which is really, really interesting. The relationships are love and hate, a lot of them. I love Clay, I hate ‘Clay.’ I love Tara, I hate Tara. I love my son. I think she always loves Jax. She gets mad at him, but I think she always loves Jax.
I just wanted to ask that … this season and then with the last season wrapping up and knowing that you can’t give away anything, I was curious if there was anything you wanted to see as a performer and even as a viewer, any emotional territory that you would like to see Gemma tackle, even narrative territory, anything you’d love to see happen with the show slowly coming to an end.
Sagal: No, I’m fully convinced that I will hit all those notes and be required to go to places that will stretch me even further, I’m sure. I’m pretty content. Every week I get the script and I’m like asked to kind of explore different pieces of her, which ultimately means different pieces of myself. It’s been a good stretch, these last six years. So I couldn’t ask for what I’m sure will already come, you know what I mean? Yes, I’m sure it’ll be there.
I have some questions on memorable moments. I’d like to know what your most memorable moment is so far as Gemma, your most memorable moment on Futurama, your most memorable moment on stage and your most memorable moment as Peggy Bundy.
Sagal: That’s a lot of questions. That’s four questions in one. Memorable moments are hard for me to remember. I can tell you overall …. Certainly, I’m in season six right now and I can’t give away a lot of stuff, but I did some really cool stuff coming up in season six. Certainly, my stuff …with the entire arc of Gemma being raped and then holding that secret so that it wouldn’t get the club in danger, I thought that was more than a moment but a fantastic arc to play.
Peg Bundy, I laughed my ass off for 11 years. I mean, every day I would go to work and Ed O’Neill is one funny guy. The entire environment was loving and hysterically funny.
Futurama, I’d never done voice-over acting before. This was my first experience with it. Those guys and girls on that show were just amazing to watch as they would do ten voices apiece. That’s been a great experience.
There was some other question. That’s as many moments as I can remember.
Clearly on the show there’s a lot of violence, a lot of death, a lot of mayhem. I’m thinking specifically of established characters like Ryan Hurst, Opie, and William Lucking, Piney, Johnny Lewis, Half Sack, when they died. When it’s a character that’s established like that and such a member of the family, does that affect you personally, not just as an actor? Is there a period of grieving for you or is it just another day at the office?
Sagal: No, none of it’s just another day at the office. It’s different. When you’re creating the make-believe world that we create, those relationships have intensity and have life to them. Not only do you love the actor, I love Ryan Hurst, I love William Lucking. Those guys are great. I love Johnny Lewis. I am so sorry what happened to Johnny Lewis.
So no, it never feels just like that, but it’s also in a world of what we do as actors. Characters come, characters go. Jobs come, jobs go. So I say that, but also, there’s a certain amount of detachment that is natural to what is we do. Who knows? That character that dies, next week they’re wearing a suit and walking into a lawyer show. Who knows?
So you kind of have to separate that. The people that have been on this show and involved with this, this was a show that at the beginning nobody was sure was even going to see the light of day. There wasn’t a lot of support at the beginning. There was always support from John Landgraf and FX, but there were other people that were just not so sure about this. It was a similar experience that I had with Married…with Children. That was like a network that nobody even heard of. When you get into those situations and week after week it’s getting bigger and more people like it, you sort of are all rooting for each other. It’s a wonderful experience that only those involved really understand.
So certainly, when anybody goes it’s very sad. We have celebration, we have a party for everybody that dies, all our major people. Then when we all get together everybody comes. It doesn’t just stop at the job. It definitely has an impact. I’m sure coming into season seven we’re all going to be dropping like flies. That’s what I think. So we’ll see. There may be a lot of parties.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. That’s just my assumption.
I got some screeners and just couldn’t resist watching the third episode. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we do see the return of Wendy. I was just wondering if there’s anything you can tease about her return? I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her and I think if she’s back in the picture she’s probably going to cause some trouble. What can you say about Wendy’s return?
Sagal: Yes, she’s up to some stuff. What I will say is as we found out before, Wendy’s clean and sober now. She was around last year, too. She’s up to some stuff, but that’s all I’ll say. That’s all I can say.
Photos by Allen J. Schaben, James Minchin and Prashant Gupta/Courtesy of FX