Check our interview with an acting chameleon, Emily Nelson (“Shameless,” “Superstore,” “Glow,” and MADE OF HONOR), who stars as the ominous, working class neighbor ‘Margaret’ opposite Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT) in the 8-Episode third season of HBO’s critically acclaimed anthology crime drama “True Detective,” (airs on Sunday’s at 9:00pm on HBO) created by Nic Pizzolatto. Season three marks Pizzolatto’s directorial debut and takes place in the Ozarks over three separate time periods, as partner detectives ‘Wayne Hays’ (Mahershala Ali) and ‘Roland West’ (Stephen Dorff) investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children, a brother and sister named Will and Julie Purcell.
Describe yourself in 3 words.
Curious. Connected. Caring. They all just happened to start with the letter C.
Name one of your strengths?
I tend to be empathic. I think I am a good listener. It’s the skill I use in acting to connect to a character and to other actors. My empathic nature also helps me as an acting teacher. I can feel along with a student to help them understand the process they are going through and how it might affect their performances.
How’s a typical day in your life?
My days usually start early. I head off to teach an acting class at the AMDA Conservatory, which I really enjoy. Then my afternoons are open for auditions, coaching, hot yoga, running errands, and taking my dogs to the dog park. I know that part of my day sounds leisurely, but it really isn’t. There is always more to do! In the evening, I usually teach a class at my studio, ACEN Studio for Actors, or catch a show in town. Some nights, I just stay in and watch the news or TV.
Who is your biggest supporter?
I’m lucky. I have quite a few people in my life who have always had lots of love and support for me. While my parents are some of my biggest supporters, I would say my boyfriend probably provides the most support these days. He is amazing and is there to lend a hand in every thing I do. I was on my own for much of my young adult life, and now I feel downright spoiled by his love and kindness.
How did you get started in the industry?
Like many people, I found performing and my love of the theatre in high school. I got very lucky with the public school I attended in Oak Park, Illinois. It had three theatres which provided many opportunities to grow my passion. I followed that passion straight through college and ended up in NYC as a young 21 year old. I had some interest from a great agent at William Morris who told me, “You are great. You are the next Kathy Bates. You won’t work until you are 40.” It was the best and worst thing I could have heard at the time. She was only partly right. No one knew what to do with a very young looking chubby girl back then, but I did start working way before 40! I spent some years in NYC and Chicago doing theatre mostly, and then when I moved to Los Angeles, film and television became my focus. It has been a lot of work and sacrifice, but I’m proud of what I have accomplished and what still lies ahead. In some ways, I’m just getting started.
What was your first acting role?
My very first play was in French class at my Pittsburgh Public School’s 2nd grade. The teacher said we would be doing the play Blanche Neige Et Les Sept Nains, or as it might be better known, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It turns out there were enough students in the class to do 2 versions of the play, but one side would be short an actor. After class, I suggested to the teacher that since Snow White had the most lines to learn, it would makes sense that one actor play her role in both productions. I volunteered to take on the big workload, and the teacher gave it to me. I think I brought in half the costumes for the class, and I know I made a magic mirror out of foil. My whole family got involved. My mother was a quilter at the time and made me a perfect little dress which I still have hanging in my closet. My grandmother took a picture of me that I still look at to reminisce on the play the helped me get my start in acting. She spoke French, and this play was a way of bonding with her.
Do you have or have had acting classes?
Yes! I seriously cannot name all the classes I have taken over the years. I love to learn and study from new teachers and new partners. Even now, I will jump into a class once a year just to scare myself a little and work on something I don’t know how to do. I have studied improvisation since I was 15 starting at The Second City, and continuing with The Groundlings and UCB. I have taken classes with amazing teachers like Paul Sills and Augusto Boal. I trained with teachers from the Moscow National Art Theatre when I was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University. While I love being on set or on stage the most, a great classroom can be an extraordinary experience as well. My love of it and belief in what is possible in that space is what eventually pushed me to become a teacher.
What is the best and worst part of being an actress?
The best part of being an actress is learning about different parts of life through characters. I love approaching someone’s life like a mystery and, with curiosity and compassion, figuring out how they survived, how they lived, and what their experience might have been like. The hardest thing is the constant insecurity of work and money. This is a very competitive and unforgiving career. It is not for the faint of heart. One has to have either a lot of drive or a lot of family money to make this work! Everyone hears about the big bucks celebrity actors are paid, but most actors are being squeezed, like the majority of workers in the US, into tighter and tighter spots. Most people have no idea how expensive it is to be an actor and how little help we have.
How do you balance your personal life with your acting life?
At this point, it is all one. One supports the other and vice versa. I work a lot, but I’m still at a point in my career where I have too. I try to get to bed at a reasonable hour, and I focus on this being MY LIFE, not my career. That was a tough lesson I had to learn as a younger actress. Now, my focus is on my quality of life and acting is a big part of that. I love it!
Best advice ever given?
Although self-doubt and self-questioning are often part of an artist’s approach to life, it gives us humility and compassion. Those qualities are not welcome in the audition process at all. In this business, people want to feel like you are confident and know what you doing.
How do you prepare for a role?
I spend time with the script. I write a lot as the character in diary form. I spend a lot of time imagining everything in the characters world, so it’s all very specific and real for me. I’ll often do research or try to find clothing to work in before I perform to help me transition into the character’s experience. If I get a chance to work with the other actors beforehand, which rarely happens in film and television, I love to rehearse and discuss. It is not necessarily discussing how we will do the scene but looking for a deeper understanding of the scene and the world we are creating together. The joy is letting it play out however it plays out. You always want to invite a bit of chaos into your performance to keep it alive.
Now tell us about your work on HBO’s hit crime drama “True Detective.”
I feel so lucky to be a part of this epic show and all the amazing creators involved in it. We filmed in Arkansas, and I traveled back and forth more than a few times over six months. I loved working on location. It adds so much to the experience. I have an odd role in this production. I can’t say too much about it partly because we want to maintain the mystery of the show and partly because there are a lot of things I don’t know. I never saw the whole script. I only know what my character knows and that is just one small portion of this awesome mystery.
And about your role as Margaret?
I play Margaret. She is best friends with Lucy Purcell played by Mamie Gummer. I am present for much of the tragedy that happens to the family, and I feel like I am part of their family too. I can’t really say too much about the show because of the way the mystery is unfolded. My character is a witness to the tragedy of the kids disappearing, and it affects her very deeply. There are themes of loss all throughout the show, and Margaret has her own fair share of loss.
How is working with talented Oscar winner Mahershala Ali?
Amazing. I describe him as magnanimous. He is so full of energy, so kind, and so focused. He takes time to connect with everyone on set, look you in the eyes, and get acquainted. While working with him, he makes acting feel very easy. All the actors I worked with were like that. It was an awesome set to be on.
What other projects have you been a part of?
I feel very lucky as an actress because I have gotten to do all kinds of projects. Just this past year I showed up in a few comedies like Shameless, Glow, and Superstore, but I love the dark, broken characters as well. I played a great character named Martha Puck on an episode of “Cold Case” written by Liz Garcia, which was amazing. More happened to this girl in that hour than happens in most movies. I was also blessed to be in MADE OF HONOR with Patrick Dempsey and Michele Monaghan. Busy Phillips and Whitney Cummings were bridesmaids with me, and we all got to shoot in Scotland and all over the English countryside. That was a bit of magic.
What kind of roles do you like or would like to play and why?
I want to play characters who are really fighting for something, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else but them. It would be great to be in the Marvel or DC world. There are some great Fantasy/Sci Fi projects. I love to play characters who have been beaten down by life but still stoke the small spark of hope that everything will work out one day. Ultimately, I’m a character actress, so I get excited when each of my characters looks and sounds a bit different.
Which role has been the most challenging, and which one your favorite?
I did a play in Chicago many years ago called “Cooking with Elvis”. I played the daughter of a loose woman and cationic father. My character narrated the play and actually cooked during the show, which was so fun. It was crass, disturbing, and epic. And there was a real turtle on stage with us! I loved that play. As far as the most difficult thing I have had to do, I think a role I had on “Boston Legal”. I played a young woman who was kicked out of her sorority for her annoying personality and donkey-like laugh. It was so fun to do but technically demanding. I’m like a mother to my characters. I love them all, but they all give me a hard time at some point.
What is next for Emily Nelson in 2019?
Like most actors, I am auditioning, meeting directors, and looking at projects. Nothing I can announce just yet. It’s a very exciting time. There is so much great material and so many great directors getting green lit, who knows how the next year will unfold!
Who is your favorite Actor/Actress? And why?
This is tough. There are so many greats, but I have to give it up to Kathy Bates. She has had such an incredible career. She does it all, and it’s always good. Kathy is always putting herself in new roles and new situations. She is my role model 100%.
3 things you can’t leave your house without?
My phone, my reusable straw and silverware, and my metal coffee & water cups.
What music do you like?
When I think music, I think Nina Simone. I love jazz, blues, Phish, and Fado.
Your idea of a perfect Sunday is?
A quiet Sunday with good food, some reading, a run with my dogs, and a beautiful sunset.
What do you like to watch on Tv?
This is truly the golden age of television. I love mysteries like “True Detective” on HBO and “Elementary” on CBS. I watch funny, obscure show like “Ms. Fisher’s Mysteries” or “Rosemary and Thyme”. I’d watch movies all day if I could. I am also a bit of a news junky.
What is your favorite healthy food?
A great homemade veggie soup! Or going out for Pho.
And your favorite cheat food?
Freshly baked cookies or brownies.
How do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself having a lot more roles and incredible experiences as an actress under my belt. I have projects I am producing and plan on directing that I will be able to share. My acting school will have expanded, and I will have published my book on my experiences as an actress and my approach to training actors.
Do you support any charities?
I do! I support Doctor’s Without Borders with donations. I am a big fan of The Wolf Connection which does rescue work with wolves. They are an amazing group. Also, I have spent many years working with Young Storytellers Foundation here in Los Angeles. YSF goes into schools and group homes and works with kids to bring their original stories into script form. Then those scripts are performed by professional actors at “The Big Show”. It is such an honor to be part of their process.
Where we can follow you on social media?
Favorite Quote: “Follow your bliss.’ -Joseph Campbell
Favorite Holiday Destination: Traveling to somewhere new!
Favorite Drink: Homemade Meyer Lemon lemonade.
Celebrity Crush: Vince D’onofrio and Idris Elba
Favorite Song: The Rainbow Connection
Favorite Sports Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Favorite Movie: Harold and Maude
Photo Credit: Anna Azarov