Dominic Cooper’s been building a name for himself for years now thanks to productions like Agent Carter, The Devil’s Double and the upcoming film adaptation of Warcraft, just to name a few, but AMC’s Preacher is a milestone for the actor because it marks his very first leading role in a TV series.
The show is based on the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic book franchise of the same name with Cooper leading as Jesse Custer, a West Texas preacher who acquires an unusual power after being fused with a mysterious entity. Along with his ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and a wild Irishman named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), Jesse jumps into a crazy journey packed with a wide range of supernatural characters.
Back in March while celebrating the world premiere screening of the pilot at SXSW, I got the chance to chat with Cooper about his experience working on the show. He ran through how he scored the role, the pressure to meet fan expectations and how the source material changed his opinion on comics in general. Catch all that and a brief round of “Would You Rather” in the interview below. Preacher kicks off on AMC on May 29th.
DOMINIC COOPER: It was a weird one because I think they’d already been seeing lots of people, and I went in there and it wasn’t really an audition so much as me telling them an elaborate story about the night before of something that had just happened. It was absurd, but I won’t go into details.
Is it something that pertains to the material?
COOPER: I think it was the absurdity of it and how I dealt with the situation that unfolded before me the night before. But there was something in that and I don’t know. I’ve never really spoken to them about it since. So they obviously saw a quality in me that was right there. I’d be intrigued to ask actually. The truth is, they offered it to me without them seeing anything. So the first day of rehearsals was one of the most terrifying days I’ve ever had as an actor. I said to myself, ‘Why did you ever do this? Why have you taken this on without at least forcing them to see what you thought you were gonna do to see if it was something that they wanted.’
I remember speaking for the first time in this rehearsal room and thinking – because you do all these things in your head as well – you’re thinking, ‘They’re looking at me now and regretting every moment of this and there’s nothing they can do about it and maybe I should just say I’ll back out. You don’t have to do it. I’ll leave and you’ll be okay.’ I really did have that moment. It takes time, you know? It’s very different from what I’ve done. He’s surrounded by very elaborate, colorful other roles and characters in it and for me it’s very hard to stay composed and dark and strong and silent and still. You want to suddenly be as big as them so that’s what’s been tough.
I can see that in the pilot alone. Cassidy and Tulip have such big, bold presences and you’re more of the dark anchor that pulls it all together.
COOPER: Sometimes you go, ‘Am I just being really boring? Am I just absurdly boring, slow, meandering?’ That’s the worry.
And then you get a bar brawl!
COOPER: Yeah, yeah. And then you get a bar brawl and it’s alright. [Laughs]
Had you read the comics?
COOPER: I read them after I read the script and was just blown away by them. It was the first time I’ve read a comic and gone, ‘Actually, comic are great!’ I missed out on this. I missed this. I’ve gotta say, I thought the kids in my school that read comics were the guys like, ‘Common guys, get outdoors. Do something else. What are you doing under your blanket reading these weird things?’ Now I know! Now I understand it. They’re absolutely brilliant.
Have you had a lead role on a TV show before?
How’s that experience been for you?
COOPER: Exhausting, but brilliant. I’ve only had it really once before in something that I’ve done and really embraced the idea of being – and these guys have been so welcoming in my ideas, in terms of the creative process. It’s just great to feel like that. You saw me on Dracula [Untold], it’s so big, the thing is so vast. You’re just this bloke in a gold suit that they wheel in on a chair, throw into a scene and then wheel back out again, and then you get undressed again.
It was one heck of a gold suit though. The shot that sticks in my mind from that film is when you’re in it and you slash at the coins and they go flying in slow motion.
COOPER: That was very, very cool. But it’s much more rewarding having a creative dialogue between the team and having the time to really get under the skin of this character. I’m so excited to see where he goes. I’m just totally at the beginning of discovering – even now watching [the pilot] again, having done three more since, I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. That’s quite different.’ I’ve already made choices that now are wrong for who that person is. It’s weird. It’s gonna be very interesting seeing by the end of the first season, or however long you can, to see what you were doing at the beginning. It’s a really enjoyable process.
How much creative freedom do you have with this? Especially when you’ve got to meet fans expectations to a degree.
COOPER: Well, creatively not in terms of the things that are in the comic that cannot change in any way at all. For that very reason you can sit there and just be petrified by what the fans will like or hate about your performance. You just have to be instinctive and decide what you want to do. We have three directors essentially on the first one with Sam [Catlin] being so specific with what he wanted and then having Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], so we’ve had a lot of voices in a good way pitching in and telling us and informing you. But you’re never gonna please everyone and I just know that there are gonna be [some] that think it’s the most absurd thing and what a waste of time and Jesse is the worst bit of casting they’ve ever seen, and there are gonna be people who love it.
It’s a good thing you look the part because with adaptations that’s the first thing people go after.
COOPER: It kind of is.
Which is kind of the thing that matters least when you talk about the quality of a show.
COOPER: It’s true! Yeah, I suppose I do. There’s one sort of demented demon looking one, that front cover where he’s in front of the church, actually. You remember that picture of him there? He looks quite like me. Yeah, that is a good thing I suppose.
How is it working with multiple directors? My brain is much more movie-centric so I’m fascinated by the process of working with so many different directors on one thing.
COOPER: It’s new to me, and I find it’s a difficult job for them because who’s normally at the epicenter, who’s normally put on the pedestal, who’s normally the light that every looks towards for every single decision they are then actually fighting for that position because they’re coming into an environment which is already very settled and which knows itself very well and already works as a kind of very well oiled machine. It’s already in place. So for them I find that quite a frightening task to come in and try to be all authoritative and to tell someone that you know better than them on something they’ve already been working on. It’s a tricky job, and it’s been fun watching. They’ve been great. But really interesting seeing how different ones approach it and their different takes on it. And I just want to be supportive to them because I believe in their decision making, I’ve always believed that you have to listen to the director, whoever that is. They’re the ones who are creating it as a whole, that particular episode.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve done something in a previous episode and then a new director comes in, maybe gives you a note, and then you have to say, ‘We did it this way last time?’
COOPER: I haven’t done it, but I’ve overheard it being done and it’s fine. They all go, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Of course. That makes sense. I didn’t realize that.’
What kind of sets are you working on? Mostly on location?
COOPER: No, we’ve built the church out the back of a studio. It’s absurd. I’m not joking. It’s huge! The one in the pilot existed, it’s there. They’ve made a replica of that church behind the studios in Albuquerque and then we’ve got the interiors of the church, the replica, so that was a real church where that was being done and we’ve now built that.
So has a lot changed going from shooting the pilot to shooting future episodes?
COOPER: Oh, it’s different. Because they don’t know if they’re making it at that point. We have a bit more time on that because they want it to look good, but now they’ve gone, ‘Right, we’re doing this. Now we can build the interior of a church in the studio next to another room, next to another room. It’s real now.’
Obviously I don’t want to spoil anything for viewers who don’t know where things are going, but is there anything about your character that you can tease for future episodes?
COOPER: I don’t know what I’m allowed to tease, but every time I read the next one I’m like, ‘God, he’s capable of that?’ He’s not as nice as I think he is at the moment. He does some pretty dark stuff and I reckon it’s probably gonna get worse and worse.
Before we have to wrap up, we’ve been playing a game on the site called Would You Rather, which is basically a movie/tv version of the game, and I wanted to asked you a few of the questions. So, would you rather work with a director who gives too many notes or not enough?
COOPER: Too many. It’s much more fun to deal with a whole bunch of stuff, and you can get rid of the ones you don’t want. But I love having something that I can aim and work towards rather than nothing. Much, much, much rather. Love loads of notes.
Would you rather work with an actor who’s method all the time or someone who improvises all the time?
COOPER: Improv over method. On a film set, it’s collaboration and you’re acting. It’s acting. It’s called acting. We are acting out scenes. Part of the battle and part of the difficulty of that is to be immersed in a situation that’s totally false. There’s a man behind the lights scratching his bum while you’re trying to focus on saying one of the saddest pieces of information you’ve ever had to tell someone. You’re looking in the eyes of another actor and you’re in that world, in that space together for that moment in time. If I’ve got someone who thinks he’s in 18th century Egypt and I can’t discuss anything else with him that’s not Egyptian or from the 18th century – and then they suddenly answer the phone because they’ve got to speak to their wife, I don’t really get how the worlds merge. I don’t mind and I think it’s a very good thing if it helps inform you, [but] I don’t believe it can work – I think it can only make people in that environment uncomfortable, and I think when people are uncomfortable they don’t make their best work. So if everyone’s tip-toeing around someone going, you can only speak to him about 18th century Egyptians, then you’ve got a problem, right?
COOPER: Without knowing anyone who’s working. You can’t sign on to a picture without reading a script.
Is there anything you would sign on for just knowing the property or a filmmaker involved?
COOPER: Yeah, there’s directors. If you’ve got Tarantino you just go, ‘Yeah, alright.’
Would you rather be the one to screw up the most takes or have someone else screw up your best take?
COOPER: These are such good questions! Someone else. I really felt for the actors last year in Birdman. Can you imagine fucking up a scene? Can you imagine screwing up a scene 11 minutes into the take?
Would you rather work on a set with no food or no caffeine?
COOPER: I was thinking this the other day! Both are absolutely essential. Not just for the actors. It’s the crews that are just working solidly. They were working for 14 hours! I’m like, ‘You can’t still be at work.’ You have to keep eating, and we still see it as such a privilege. I worked on a film in England this year and again, the food, it was so funny. You get two digestive cheap, nasty biscuits in a bag, at best. Biscuit and a cookie in a little bag. In America, all of us are like, ‘Wow! Look at this! The abundance of stuff on this table!” And it’s so necessary because the people are lifting and working. You need to keep your energy up. So, coffee for the actors and food for the crew.