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Edi Patterson thinks The Righteous Gemstones will “break people’s brains”

Edi Patterson
Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

The Righteous Gemstones reteams Danny McBride with frequent collaborator Jody Hill and increasingly frequent collaborator Edi Patterson, whose live-wire performance in Vice Principals threatened to steal the show right from under the leads’ noses. A Groundlings Main Company member, Patterson has been writing and performing her own material for much of her career, a habit that continued through The Underground sketch show and now The Righteous Gemstones, in which she plays the only slightly less self-aggrandizing member of a preaching dynasty. As Judy Gemstone, Patterson is a font of barely suppressed rage and resentment, outfitted in designer suits and painfully crimped hair. Judy might not have as big a personality as her brothers, Jesse (McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine, as the younger Gemstone), but she won’t be edged out of the family business, even if that family business is selling people on a gospel of wealth.

While at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour, The A.V. Club had the chance to talk to Patterson about megachurches, playing a middle child, clicking with Danny McBride, and just how far The Righteous Gemstones will take its commentary.

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The A.V. Club: The Righteous Gemstones is the second show you’ve worked on with Danny McBride in as many years, and he’s described your collaboration as having an instant chemistry. How would you describe working together?

Edi Patterson: I couldn’t agree more that it was instant. The very first day that I shot on Vice Principals, which was our other show, I didn’t know him before I had auditioned, and the very first day I just could tell, “Oh, I get him and he gets me.” It was some sort of weird feeling of like, “Oh, I know you, I get this.” I think there was a point where it was a scene where he was getting on a bus and at one point I said, “Do you want us to ever throw something different at you when you walk up?” We had gotten it how it was scripted, and he was like, “Say whatever you want.” So from then on we were off to the races, because he’s a really good improviser and we always found little pockets in scenes that were new or it didn’t exist before.

Then we found after Vice Principals that we wrote really well together. We wrote a couple of movies together after doing that show, and that’s when he came up with the idea for Righteous Gemstones and said he had in mind for me to play his sister. Of course, I wanted to do it immediately. We didn’t even know when it was happening at that point when I was like, “Whenever it’s happening, yes, I’m in.” Then he asked me to come write for it. Yeah, I think we just get each other’s brains and he really, really makes me laugh.

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AVC: You’ve been pulling double duty as a writer and cast member for a while now, on the sketch show, The Underground, and now The Righteous Gemstones. Were you always interested in being involved behind the scenes as well as on the screen?

EP: I really started writing at the Groundlings. We all have to write all our own sketches and stuff. But it’s been super organic with Danny and these guys. Really, from the second I started working, I was a huge fan of Danny and [Jody Hill’s] previous work. But when we started working together, it was such a weirdly immediate connection. I really feel like they were my psychic brothers or something.

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AVC: Even with all the peacocking among all the male Gemstones, your character, Judy Gemstone, stands out in the premiere. She’s a part of the family but also kind of an outsider. You get the sense that she has her own agenda. How does Judy fit into this preaching dynasty?

EP: Well, she’s the middle kid, which I think comes with its own bag of tricks. I think that she is frustrated a lot in her family. I would say that’s a big word for her, and it’s interesting because she, I think, is not opposed to grabbing onto certain things, like saying, “Y’all keep me down because I’m a woman.” But the fact of the matter is their mother was a huge part of the church, and no one was keeping her in the shadows. Judy’s kind of a wild cat and can’t totally be trusted to act right, and that’s more the reason she’s not in the spotlight with her brothers, but it really helps her brain to go, “You guys are doing this to me.” So her whole thing is very middle child in a lot of ways.

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AVC: The Gemstones’ denomination is never really named, but their brand of televangelism feels familiar nonetheless. It’s got to be tricky to get specific enough so that people recognize the megachurches you guys are sending up, because you run the risk of pissing off some pretty big groups.

EP: The thing I feel like we’re lucky in is that the megachurch and all of that is a backdrop more for this flawed family. So I think that’s super lucky. If our whole thing was, we’re going to lampoon megachurches, I don’t know, it would be a different show. If you’ve seen the first couple or the first three [episodes], there’s tons of specificity for church stuff. But that’s not really what we’re focusing on for the comedy or the pathos or even really the feelings. Our relationships are about the people within it. They just happened to be in this crazy, opulent world.

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AVC: There’s definitely a lot of family drama mixed in with this idea of a dynasty. There’s also a lot of scheming and intrigue—did you ever watch The Borgias? As I watched the first few episodes, I had the feeling of this being “The Borgias in the Southeastern United States.”

EP: [Laughs.] I know what you’re talking about. Yeah, and probably because they have, the kids at least, they’ve grown up in this. They’ve never known anything different. And that, I think for Judy, at least—that makes her feel like her agenda is true and right and the will of God in some ways. But I think probably because they’re all so insulated within that wealth and that world, I think that builds a lot of thinking you’re right about things and thinking you’re entitled to things. It can be really fun to explore, and I think we go about it in a very funny way.

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AVC: That sense of entitlement is strong throughout the show in just about every character—they all think they deserve the finest things and maybe some respect, if you’re someone like Judy or Kelvin [Adam Devine]. But that isn’t something that’s unique to the show or this family. For some of its proponents, wealth has become as much a part of the doctrine as any text.

EP: Oh, definitely—their church embraces the prosperity gospel. It’s the new model. You have bands and shows and people telling you that God wants you to be happy and rich. There is a whole mentality that’s about getting what you deserve, but what you deserve just happens to be really big or expensive or impressive.

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People are definitely familiar with that aspect of the whole megachurch thing. I think that’s something that people get right away from the trailer for the show or even just hearing the idea of it. Even if you don’t know the term “prosperity gospel” or how the people involved go about it, you have an idea of what you think a megachurch is and you have an idea of what you think. Everyone does. Everyone’s like, “Oh, right. That.” So whether you go to one and you love it or you’re looking at it from the outside and you think they’re all so greedy, everyone’s got a strong take on it, which is interesting I think. It’s worldwide. I think most people, when they see all the opulence and the big speeches or sermons, they go, “I know what that is,” and even if they don’t, it’s fun to see people in that and see if you’re right.

AVC: Judy spends a lot of the first episode grumbling about being forgotten, but when she’s given the chance to prove herself to her brothers, she really steps up. I mean, she becomes involved in a cover-up! How does that affect Judy’s perceived place in the family? Does she see leverage in Jesse’s [McBride] potential downfall, or is she more concerned with her family?

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EP: It’s interesting because I think that their honest default and real setting is that they’re there for each other and they love each other. Yes, their daily interactions devolve into kids fighting with each other and threatening to tell Dad and very immature stuff. That moment in the pilot of them helping each other is less an anomaly than it is the truth of them. They’re always going to be there for each other because they genuinely love each other. They just make each other nuts. Judy, I think, so desperately wants to be seen and wants to be important, and I think her mother saw her, and now her mother’s gone. So I think she’s very, very frustrated and wants to be important—important like her brothers are and important in the way she knows that she can be. So a lot of this season is about her trajectory in being seen as important to all of these people who are important to her.

AVC: As a writer on the show, I assume you’re responsible for a lot of Judy’s arc?

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EP: Yeah, I’m a writer on this season of the show, and so I wrote a lot of Judy stuff. But we’re all kind of writing for everyone.

AVC: How important is it to have women writing women on shows like these?

EP: It’s significant and it’s invaluable. It was just the greatest to be in the room, figuring out what does she think in this moment, what happens in this moment. Then to even think about it for a different character, be it a man or a woman character. That whole thing in general was just invaluable and awesome. It’s just, to be able to write words I was then going to say is huge, and then to film scenes that I typed into a computer? It’s crazy. And then for a hundred people from the crew to descend on some weird Outback Steakhouse in Charleston and for us to film this crazy scene that I wrote! You know what I mean? It was very cool.

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AVC: I get a real Tammy Faye Bakker vibe from the Gemstones matriarch.

EP: Oh, right, right, yes.

AVC: Is there anyone who Judy is modeled after?

EP: She’s not modeled after anyone in particular, but her frustration is—I’m doing a teeth grinding motion right now. [Laughs.] But that feeling, that resentment, is to me so universal. I don’t think she was really modeled after anyone; it’s more like I find her in me and turn parts up or down. I know what it’s like to be frustrated. So I mess with the frequency on that and dial it up or dial it down. Or mostly with her I just turn everything all the way up and just let all those feelings rip. Whether it’s I’m sad or I feel less than, or I’m frustrated, I’m really feeling myself and really proud. I turn them all up on her.

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AVC: The longer the season goes on, the more ironic the “Righteous” in the show’s title looks. But how pointed a commentary did you and the other writers want to make?

EP: I think there’s commentary there, but I think it’s up to people to find what they want in it. The interesting thing about the show is all of these people are deeply flawed, like all humans are, but they are all believers to whatever degree they can be a believer. So I think it’s going to be confusing for people because yeah, there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy in that the Bible tells you not to do this, and well, they’re doing these things. [Laughs.] But that’s also every human being on Earth. So I think it’s going to confuse people a bit because they may be looking at the show and think, “Oh, this is going to be blasphemous. I’m already mad at it.” I would say it’s never blasphemous. Everyone on the show is a believer. So I think it might break people’s brains a little bit.

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