From writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, the indie drama Them That Follow is set deep in Appalachia, where Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) presides over a Pentecostal sect of serpent handlers. At the same time, his devoted daughter, Mara (Alice Englert), is preparing for her wedding day while also being forced to confront the fact that a dangerous secret could put her directly at odds with the traditions of her family and community.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Walton Goggins about why he wanted to be a part of telling this story, the appeal of playing this character, the mysteries of different types of religion, why people tend to be afraid of snakes, and faith vs. family for his character. He also talked about his role in the outrageous new HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, and why he wanted to play the lead role in the upcoming CBS comedy series The Unicorn.
Collider: Watching this, it seems obvious why you would want to play the character like this and be a part of telling a story like this, but was it apparent, on the page, the first time that you read the script? Were there conversations about who this guy would be?
WALTON GOGGINS: Yeah, that’s how I saw it, when I read it, the first time. What I was so blown away by were the words on the page, and the conflict and struggle that the lead character, Mara, played by Alice Englert, has in this story. It is very of this moment, the decision that she has to make and the journey that she’s on, and yet it’s also, simultaneously, from another time. I suppose what I try to do is to make her decision to ultimately leave this community as difficult as possible, and I try to do that through love. This practice, that they have in this community, is misunderstood and misaligned, on a number of levels, of course, but you should at least understand it to disagree with it. But what is undeniable is the love that this man has for his daughter.
For me and for everyone involved, especially for the writer/directors, Britt and Daniel, it was important not to take sides, and to just show the stakes that are involved with living a life, or making a decision, that runs contrary to what all of these people believe, spiritually. It wouldn’t be a big deal in a lot of other communities. It just wouldn’t be. But for these people, it’s life or death. Humans are incapable of passing judgment. That has to come from God, and the vehicle through which that atonement is made, in this particular circumstance, is through handling deadly snakes. We didn’t make this up. Britt and Daniel didn’t make this up. This practice has been going on for 125 years, in America. The first Pentecostal church in America was here in California, believe it or not, at least as far as I understand, in the 1920s, and it proliferated from here. This is just a way that a very small group of people, in this country, show their devotion and worthiness in God’s eyes. It’s something I’m very proud of. I think it says a lot about a lot.
People find snakes so mysterious, in general, because they don’t quite understand them, and then when you add that to religion, it’s something that’s even more difficult to understand for some people.
GOGGINS: My wife and I found an article about why snakes are so scary, or at the center of fears that people have. For a number of people, snakes are always a part of that list. For me, it’s number one on that list. It’s not sharks, and it’s not spiders. Heights is on there, on some level, but it’s really snakes. And we both found this article that talked about snakes, from the point of view of just their movement. I’m sure there is a survival instinct, with things that can hurt you, and that’s a part of our DNA for thousands of years. We can’t make sense of their movement. There is no way in which to predict what they will do, and things that are unpredictable are anathema to surviving, as a human being, and that’s what this article was all about. It was extraordinary, really, because I had never thought about it in that way. In some ways, you can see other animals movements or the unknown coming, as a threat from a hurricane or tornado, even though that’s a bit unpredictable, too. But snakes, it’s up close and it’s intimate. It’s personal, and you just can’t make sense of what they’re doing. The snake has been cast in the role of the villain, since the very beginning. That is the Christian origin story. So, it represents things that are nefarious and harmful to us, in story, since the very beginning. Why is that the case?
Do you think that this is the guy that puts faith before family, or does he see it as kind of one thing?
GOGGINS: I think he sees it all as one. Faith and family run synonymous. This is a community who don’t have much. They really don’t. But what they do have and the great equalizer is that they have their faith, and that is a very powerful thing to have in one’s life. Me, Walton Goggins, as a secular individual, living in urban America, I envy their conviction. I do. I’ve been all over the world and have read books on a lot of them, and at times in my own life, I struggle to find answers to questions that my child has, that are readily available to people that have a very strict theology. Of course, it can be stifling, but it can also be liberating. I think I’m still just trying to make sense of all of it. But for Lemuel, the character that I play in the story, and for Olivia Colman’s character and everybody in this film, with the exception of Thomas Mann’s character, this makes sense. We’re all looking for order and parameters. We all need them. We want to know the room that we’re sitting in. It becomes easier when we’re able to touch all of those walls and know where the light switches are.