This interview contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of ‘The Righteous Gemstones’.
It is nearly impossible to find a Judy Gemstone quote that can be spoken aloud in a real church. When the character isn’t cursing or belittling her siblings, she’s referring to profane sexual acts and organs — all things unfit for a house of worship (and printed text).
But beneath Judy’s abrasive, hypersexual surface is the decidedly calm and collected Edi Patterson, an actress, writer, and producer on HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones.” Swapping her straight hair and chilly demeanor for a curly wig and an unholy amount of sequins, she transforms into Judy, the rambunctious middle child in a family of Southern megachurch preachers who crave confirmation and lack any semblance of a filter.
Patterson, who first worked with Danny McBride, the show’s creator, on the HBO series “Vice Principals” (which he co-created with Jody Hill), performs alongside him and Adam DeVine, who portrays the older and younger brothers of Judy – who are both as hampered by sibling rivalry as she is, perhaps more.
Season 2 of the series, which ended Sunday, delved deeper into the Gemstone family drama, making new forays into real estate, motorcycle ninjas, and Judy’s relationship with her beta male husband, BJ (Tim Baltz). After an assassination attempt on the family’s patriarch, Eli (John Goodman), threatened to tear the gems apart, the season finale brought the entire clan back together for a birth, some death, and of course one last musical number.
It also revealed a softer side to Judy – though her dialogue was still largely unprintable.
“It’s fun for people to watch Judy because she’s doing things they want to do and saying things they really want to say, and I think it’s fun to watch someone play id,” Patterson said. “I’m really grateful that I can run as fast as I can to the field and let it rip.”
In a recent video call from her hotel room in Winnipeg, Canada, where she was shooting the movie “Violent Night” with David Harbor (“Stranger Things”), Patterson discussed BJ’s baptism, Eli’s near-death experience, and why we can’t keep our eyes from Judy. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Where do you think Judy falls in the gemstone hierarchy, as the middle child and the only daughter?
Unfortunately, the standard in those kinds of systems is very patriarchy, so she has a lot to prove. And she knows that she is equal to and as good as her brothers. But that’s part of the fun – she’s in a system where she has to prove it, probably over and over again. So that sums up all her emotions of wanting to prove things; want to excel; wanting to be bad; everything.
How do you think Judy has changed over the course of this season?
Well, she took a big leap by getting married at Disney World without her father. That was a big, ‘Well, I’ll show them…’ and then she immediately felt bad. She has a lot of teenage emotions and fears.
This season, she’s probably getting closer to what she wants, with BJ becoming more accepted than him. She also has a bit of an emotional epiphany with Tiffany [Judy’s younger aunt, played by Valyn Hall] – basically from feeling like Tiffany was a fungus growing on something in her fridge, to genuine care and love. That was a really cool progression. Real people never have a huge turnaround that you see in movies, like, “Now I’m a different person, and I’m totally better.” I like the big ups and downs that the gems have emotionally.
That storyline where Judy and BJ become Tiffany’s parents is a funny choice. What was that supposed to bring out in each of them?
We wanted to show Judy’s depth just a little bit and show that she’s complicated, manly and complex. Like, yes, her bark is loud and intense, and there’s a lot coming at you. But there’s also empathy in it, and she can genuinely hurt her feelings, and she can genuinely care whether she’s hurting someone else’s feelings or not. It was nice to show that she is not actually a full-blown narcissist or sociopath.
Episode 4 really stood out to me as Judy and BJ’s big moment – what was it like writing, filming and producing that whole christening?
That episode was such a hit. We had to live on that crazy set for a week and a half, and it was such a pleasure and a luxury. Because the set where we had BJ’s party felt so real and so… I don’t know… have you been to Vegas?
Vegas has a weird, weird vibe where some hotels can be so blown out that they almost feel cozy. Something in you says, ‘I’m safe to let go and everyone takes care of me.† And I don’t know, that room felt like the cozy side of Vegas.
Like the Cheesecake Factory effect† Where do you have way too many things going on at once?
all the way! Everywhere my eyes look, there is something interesting to look at. So it was just heavenly to be there for an extended period of time. And Danny directed that episode — it’s the only one he’s directed this season, and he’s just that good. It was really fun because in the bathroom scene where I threaten BJ’s sister, Danny is clear about when there’s room to play with it and go crazy and find things. And there were some wild things that we discovered while doing it, like smoking in the barn or kicking the barn door like an 80s bully.
Do the particularly memorable lines, such as “You can’t eat the cake if you didn’t help bake it,” come more often from the scripts or do they arise spontaneously in the moment?
Much of the way they talk is in tinkering. I wrote that “swallow the pie” thing – often I know it’s specifically good for her if it makes me laugh and say, “Oh my god, that’s so stupid.” That is the highest praise for me. It’s probably right if I was wonderfully disgusted by it.
In previous interviews, you said that you watched a lot of horror movies growing up. Where do you think horror fits in “Gemstones”?
What’s interesting is that almost all of the show’s writers love horror movies. It’s probably a directional thing too, because David Gordon Green and Jody Hill [who have directed most of the episodes] both like horror movies. They’re really good at making it really exciting, or really dramatic, or a little creepy, or really action-y. The love of horror keeps people from retreating and saying, “Oh, it’s comedy.” It ensures that everyone goes deeper into it.
You also mentioned that Judy wears skater outfits when she performs. If you had to make a mood board of things Judy finds glamorous, what else would it say?
Oh man, it would be covered in skaters. There would probably be a lot of stuff coming out of Studio 54. Cher would be all over it. I have a feeling the early Madonna would be all over it: it would be a fair amount of this movement: [Patterson pulls one shirtsleeve down to reveal a shoulder.]
So much of it would come from Judy’s childhood brain about what was sexy and what was cool and powerful. I think so many of her views on things are just outdated.
There is a point in the season when Eli Gemstone almost dies. What was that supposed to evoke in the family?
It’s just so obvious that even though they’re all thinking, “I can do this,” they all immediately think, “Oh God, I don’t want it. I just want him here.” They all love their father. Judy is very caught up in her father and what he thinks of her. The second something terrible happens, she just wants him to be alive. Hence the vomiting. [Laughs.]
You grew up in Texas and went to church every week. What do you think your Sunday school teachers would say if they saw this show?
Wow. It depends on which Sunday school teacher. I can think of some people from the church I grew up in who would be very disturbed by what I’m doing and would probably never watch it – not even because it’s about a televangelist family, but because of the curses. But many people in the church love it.
The point of our show is that we never joke about religion, or people involved in religion, or believers. I think all gems are believers. They are just screwing up a lot.