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'The Following,' 'Justified' star Natalie Zea ready for laughs


Natalie Zea says she prefers doing comedies, but her characters in two high-profile dramas find themselves in peril this week.

"Oh, God, I know. I gotta get away from this," she said Friday with a chuckle. "I've got to go do some sort of slapstick comedy!"

The laughs will have to wait, at least on the small screen. In Fox's "The Following," she plays Claire Matthews, the former wife of serial killer and cult creator Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and former lover of the man who put him away, FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon). Last week Joe started killing off women sharing Claire's name in the hopes of guilting her into joining him and their son, whom he has kidnapped. Joe's plan may just pay off in the appropriately titled "Guilt," airing at 8 p.m. March 25.

At 9 p.m. March 26, Zea reprises her role as Winona Hawkins, ex-wife of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in FX's "Justified." Winona hasn't been seen much this season, but in the episode, titled "Peace of Mind," we learn more about her and Raylan's unborn child. And if you watch Zea's final scene in the episode carefully, you may notice something else.

"Things get hairy," the actress teased. (And that's all we can say about that. Check back here for more after Tuesday's episode.)

Below is an edited transcript of my phone chat with Zea from her home in L.A. on Friday, just a day after she wrapped production on Season 1 of "The Following" in New York City. After that I've added excerpts from our conversation earlier in the season when we talked about her preference for comedy and the indie film she's written, a dark comedy she hopes to film soon.

This is a big week for Claire.
Is it? Is it? [Laughs.] ... Honestly, I feel like this is the beginning of Claire's storyline. But I think for me, after this episode is when the ball really gets rolling. So yeah, this is the sort of precursor to "new Claire."

Last week Joe started killing off Claire Matthewses. And she doesn't know about it, but I suspect she finds out about it this week and she's probably not feeling so good about it?
I think she's got so much going on that ... she probably forgets about it in a few minutes. [Laughs.]

When last we talked you mentioned the guilt she feels about not realizing Joe was a killer while they were married. (See "Guilt" heading below for more.) Does learning of these killings pile on to that guilt?
Of course, yeah. That is not necessarily explored in the episode, but toward the end it's a huge moment. There's a really, really big kind of revelation for her about that. So yes, it's been building and we do see a payoff eventually, but it's later on.

A friend of mine has a theory that Claire is actually part of Joe's plan--
Everybody has that theory! You know what my favorite theory was? That Claire was Roderick. That was dope. [Laughs.] Whoever started that rumor, you're hired.

So any truth to her being with Joe?
Why would you ask that? It's so ridiculous when you guys ask me that. [Laughs.] Like you're going to be the one I tell.

One must try Natalie. You also talked last time about how your backstory about her didn't end up jibing with Kevin's and you didn't really know Claire yet. (See "Knowing Claire" heading below.) Have you gotten to know her better?
I have and I think a lot of that is that she was so difficult for me because of what I perceived as her lack of edge. She seemed so sort of pure, and I had never really played that before. What we're getting to now is that she's had it [but] it's just been hidden.

I think that's a combination of things. It's a combination of the circumstances she's about to be put in and also [show creator] Kevin Williamson getting to know how I work a little better and how that strength is going to come out whether it's supposed to or not. So he might as well use it, I guess. It's been sort of easier to find her that way.

Did you discover her around the time these episodes were being filmed?
Actually toward the end of Episode 10 [Monday's episode].

I'm going to assume she decides to go with Joe. Do you think she has much fear about that, considering she knows Joe will do nothing to harm her?
Yeah, as I've said in the past, she has an advantage over everyone else because he's kind of played his cards in terms of him wanting no harm to come to her. So she can be a little more brave than some [others].

Now, he has surrounded himself with caraazy people, so obviously there's no guarantee that any number of those [acolytes] will go off and do their deals. But I don't even think she's thinking about that right now. She knows that [Joe] the puppet master is pretty safe, so she's going to use that to her advantage.

She's still just all about her son and getting him back.
Yep, that's it.

Any kind of tease you can give for the upcoming episodes that you are allowed to give?
Ummm, nooo, no. [Laughs.] Oh, yes I can. There is a really nice moment between Claire and Ryan where they sort of get things out in the open a little bit. There's so much pressure and tension building between the two of them; there's so much that's not been said. They take the most inopportune time to very quickly and very quietly get to the bottom of stuff.

Give me a quick update on your pilot script and the indie comedy you wrote, "Imaginary Place of East?" (See "On Writing" heading below.)
I'm about to turn in my second draft to the network of the pilot. And now that we're officially on hiatus I have more time to do that. So it's moving right along.

"Imaginary" is at a bit of a standstill; I mean I got home last night. So all of this stuff is going to get taken care of in the next few weeks. But yeah, we're still hoping for Spring. We think we can do principal photography in a month over the period of four weeks. So if that's the case I think it's a go.

My lovely friend David Duchovny recently sat down with me and gave me a lot of pointers about independent filmmaking and some tricks of the trade. That was really great.


Are you having a good time on "The Following?"
When people ask me that I sort of liken it to running a marathon. People who run marathons, they're really passionate about it and they're really fulfilled by it and they're challenged by it. I don't think anybody's like, "Running marathons is fun. I'm enjoying running this marathon." I mean, it's not supposed to be fun. I'm crying all the time. So if I was having fun there would be something psychologically kind of fucked up about me. [Laughs.] So of course I'm enjoying it, but in a more challenging kind of way. I enjoy doing "Californication." I enjoy doing comedies. Dramas? It's more about the challenge than about, you know, having a good time.

What drew you to "The Following"?
The script. A lot of people ask me, well, what drew me to the character. And honestly, the first time I read the script I don't remember the character [laughs]. I was so enthralled in the overall scope of what was going on because it felt so filmic. Obviously this is a story about Ryan Hardy, not Claire's story. So this fact that it was so confusing in terms of what am I reading. Am I reading a film script or am I reading Episode 2 of Season 5? It just felt so established already and it didn't [have] those traps that are often set for pilot scripts where there's the setup of the story and a setup of the world and the characters, and you often feel like the pilot is to serve that purpose only. It's just about set up. And this just felt like you were dropped in to the middle of the story but you weren't lost and you were in from page one. I've read so many pilot scripts and that was something that I had never encountered before.

Claire's stuck between these two guys, sort of. How does she feel about that and how is she not totally screwed up?
I think she is totally screwed up. [Laughs.] I don't know how you couldn't be. There's a lot of guilt on her part that there's this great monologue that actually got cut for time in I think Episode 4 where I answer a lot of questions that I think the audience will probably be asking right around then, which is, "OK, how do you marry somebody like this and genuinely not know?" And she addresses that; again, you won't see it, but somewhere down the line you may. But for me, as the actress, it certainly helped to put it out there and to say, you know, I realize that there's some onus on [her] and she questioned herself over and over and over again.

Did I know? Was there something that I didn't see? Was I in denial? All the questions that women ask, and at the end of the monologue the answer is no. I truly didn't know. I did not know. I don't know that she, first of all, totally believes that and, secondly, that she has really forgiven herself for not seeing it and not being more aware of it.

So I think the betrayal is one thing. The betrayal that she feels from Joe, but I think more so it's what was her part in all of this. And that is unbearable for her.

Does Claire think that he played her like he plays everybody else? Like worked his sort of guru magic?
I don't know. I think she feels really stupid, you know. So I think, yes, I think she feels duped. She feels like a sucker. And that sort of feeds in to all the guilt because she's a smart woman. Her archetype doesn't exist in the world. Nobody with her education and her socioeconomic background has ever been in this position, on record at least. So, there's a lot of conflict there, you know? Smart women don't marry serial killers. They just don't. And yet she's this highly educated woman who seems to have a good head on her shoulders. I think she's as confused as anyone else how this could happen. So yeah, I think it goes back to that's where a lot of this guilt comes in because she's too smart to have fallen for this.

Yet she did. What do you like about her?
What do I like about her? I don't know yet; and I say that because she's from this one very specific--I wouldn't say beat but objective and it's "find my son, find my son, find my son."

But I don't know her very well. So I don't know what I like. I think I'm going to find out what I like about her very soon but I'm still very much in the dark as to who she is, to be honest. I wrote a character's tree for her and it's all wrong, because we use flashbacks in the show and none of it lines up. So I don't know her. I know the character that I kind of created in the beginning but all of that has sort of fallen apart. So she's kind of a stranger to me right now, so I don't know.

So the backstory you wrote you don't feel is very accurate?
Kevin and James wrote history for the characters and I was like, "I guess I should do it, too." And none of it coincides with what they would have for me. Mine was very dark and sort of moody and not so rosy. I think that the powers that be want her to be this sort of light or the lighter part of the show. If Joe is the darkness then Claire is the lightness. So I don't know that my history necessary works for that concept. I always tend to go darker, always gravitate toward the darkness.

Seems kind of hard for her to be lighter when all this is happening to her.
Well they put her in oatmeal sweaters. So maybe that helps.

Tell me about working with James and Kevin.
I've had a few scenes with James, most of which we've been physical. So I always really love doing scenes with him because they're going to be intense and we get to like chew on the scenery and be very dramatic and soapy and tense. It's just everything's heightened.

I like working with Kevin for no other reason than I get to spend the day with him. He's not a bad person to spend the day with, I got to tell you that. He's just a great friend. He's a great guy to hang out with. So the bonus is that I also get to act opposite this iconic person that you never really expect to be with. I'll be taken out of the scene because I be like, "Dude, I'm doing a scene with Kevin Bacon!"

And then you got to reel yourself back in. And then you realize he's more normal than me. And what does that say about me? I mean, he's great. What's to say that hasn't been said? I can say that he's the one actor in Hollywood that I have never heard a single bad thing said about. Not one.

How do you think Raylan Givens would handle Joe Carroll?
Oh, goodness. Oh, we're doing crossovers. OK. I lost touch with my dear friend Raylan. I don't know where he's at right now emotionally or psychologically. How would he handle Joe? Well that would be a hell of a scene, certainly. The two of them standing across from each other--I don't know. I don't know who would win that like game of wits. I think it might be a tossup.

I do think Ryan Hardy and Raylan Givens have a lot in common. I think on the surface they're very different but in terms of being a hero; at the end of the day, they're both heroes. They're the good guys. And I think that there's a sort of quietness to both of them. There's a sort of stillness to both of them. Until they erupt and then all hell breaks loose. But yeah, I think their essence is very similar.

Raylan seems to find a lot more humor in life, but...
Well, "Justified," yeah. [Laughs.] Something Kevin Bacon say about--I think they were shooting the pilot--we were talking about how it's always nice to infuse some humor into anything you work on. He was like, "Well, good luck with that." ... I think Agent Weston gets some good one-liners and Annie Parisse's character has a bit of a sharp tongue, but we're pretty bogged down in our own problems. So there's not a lot of room for humor.

I want to give credit to Tim Olyphant for a lot the humor that gets incorporated in to the individual scenes on "Justified" because we're really fast and loose with the script and it's just become the way the show is shot. It's now just how it goes. And he would find little things to tweak and change and add and sometimes it worked and sometimes it doesn't.

I went and shot an episode recently--what did he want to do? He wanted to add something that was so strange and most of the time it works. I'm like, "That's ridiculous and I'm not doing it. It's not funny." He's like, "It's not?" I'm like, "No, it's not funny. Usually you're batting a thousand, but that is just not funny and we're not going to do it." He'll back down, but he footballs like crazy and sometimes things don't land. But he deserves a lot of the credit for that because it's important for him to keep the humor infused in to even the most dramatic scenes.

And you're back at season's end.
Yeah. That was always the plan. It's funny, I read something the other day--just to clarify, my mom sent me the stuff. I refuse to look at anything on the Internet, but she'll send me some stuff. I don't remember where this is from but just to clarify why I got the job on "The Following" after they decided to reduce her role on "Justified." Well that's not true. Not that it matters, but that's not true. I had decided that, you know, she was not going to go anywhere and as much as we all would have liked for her to go somewhere, there wasn't room for it on the show. Again, this is a show about Raylan. Not Winona. And Boyd, of course. So I get that and I completely understand. So I needed to not take myself off the market for something that wasn't going to blossom in to something a little bit more substantial.

We were all on the same page. And FX has been so great and everybody at "Justified" has been so great, and the fact that I'm able to do both of these [shows] has been just beyond cool because it doesn't happen like that often. And it works out. I mean, I want Winona to continue to be a part of that story but I know as well as anyone that she's a good like two- or three-episode gal. It was lovely to have her on a couple times ... so I think it's sort of perfect.

And you can't just be the good wife at home because that takes the edge off the show anyway.
Absolutely. And I know that Tim was always very concerned about always maintaining the conflict between these two and I get it. But the problem is that eventually the getting back together and breaking up, and getting back together and breaking up that's going to have to end. They're going to have to do one or the other. I think where they're at right now is makes the most sense.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder anyway.
I think so, too. Oh, please. I know. When I went back to work when I went back over there I was treated like Miss America. It was beautiful. I was like, "I'm going to go away more often."

So despite what Tim says about "Justified" being a comedy, I have only known you mostly for the dramas that you've done.
It's funny. Most people have, which is so strange for me because I've got almost an equal amount of comedy as I have drama. It's just that I'm kind of a go-to drama girl at least in the industry and regardless of how much comedy I've done I'm just not quite breaking through in people's minds.

But I did see some of your Funny Or Die stuff.
Oh, that was so silly. That was very fun on the other guys.

And "Sexy Dark Ages," too.
Oh, that was fun. That was silly.

So do people just call you up and say, hey, want to be in this?
Yeah. I've got a call just out of the blue saying, you know, we're doing this thing and I didn't even read the script. I was like, yes, I'll do it. I don't care. As long as I don't have to get naked I will do it. I showed up and we shot for a day and it was just real loosey goosey. It was fun.

You just have to kiss everybody.
Yeah. Well, you know, it happens.

Which was funny. But so, you like doing comedies, obviously.
I prefer doing comedies. I feel like drama is my day job and comedy is what I do to fulfill my creative urges because I tend to make more interesting choices in comedy. I tend to take more chances in comedy, and I tend to focus way more on detail.

Just 'cause I haven't really seen you in comedies that much.
Well, "Dirty Sexy Money" I consider a comedy. At least my role. I was part of the comedic relief. "Californication." I've done little things here and there as well. So maybe I haven't done as much comedy as I have drama, but in my mind I feel like I've done an equal amount and I try to incorporate, again, like what I had to Kevin. I try to incorporate humor into everything I do. I mean, again, "The Following" is impossible. It's just not going to happen.

Have you always been interested in writing?
I feel like at this point you can't just be an actor. I started writing about 10 years ago and just now getting to the point where I feel confident enough to sort of put out there. As an actor one has an expiration date. Not all of us are going to be Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. I mean, hopefully, that would be great. But you can't really count on it. I shadowed Jon Avnet as a director on an episode of "Justified" last year because I felt it was something that I think is essential for all of us to learn how to do. There are just too many people who get to a certain age and the work dries up and they're sort of lost. So the more I can learn about the behind-the-scenes stuff I think the better off I'm going to be later on when I'll have more choices instead of less.

You also wrote this Indie film, "Imaginary Place of East." Are you excited to start working on that?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I am. It's been 10 years in the making. It went from "this is going to be so fulfilling and so exciting. It's going to be a dream come true" to "I just want to get it made. I want to get the fucker made." [Laughs.]

Is that a comedy, too?
Well it's a very, very, very dark, dark, dark comedy. The first half of it is really light and kind of raunchy and sort of witty and funny, I think, and then it takes a very dark turn at the end, yeah.

All right. Well, I'm looking forward to that. Anything else you got going on?
Yeah, my life is pretty full. I've got the pilot and the film. They're sort of weighing heavily on my shoulders right now. And so my day job is kind of a piece of cake. [Laughs.] So no, I think that's it.

Is it difficult to jump from acting in the show to, oh, I got to get this script done?
It's a different mode. It's a definitely a gear shift. I'm not a procrastinator, but it's strange when it comes to writing because I sometimes get that way because my mind has to be in a very specific place. I have to have a candle lit; the house has to be clean. Like certain things have to be happening before I can even sit down at the computer. So yeah, whereas acting I can jump in on a moment's notice. Writing I really need to like be in it.

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