Interview With Tess Frazer of Netflix’s “Godless”

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Have you seen Netflix’s Western miniseries “Godless” yet? If Westerns are your thing, this show is for you. If not, then find the edited footage that shows just Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer) and Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever). It’s worth it. Tentative, at times insecure, their relationship is one of the most honest and realistic things in the whole series. Given Callie, the unabashed former prostitute turned schoolteacher, is one of the most interesting characters on the show, AfterEllen was excited to get the chance to ask Frazer more about Callie and what she sees as Callie’s backstory.

photo via IMDB

 

AfterEllen: One of the notable characteristics of “Godless” is that we just drop into the middle of the story. It’s like a paint-by-numbers where we only got half the paint. In the case of Callie Dunne, we know that Callie moved from Virginia with her husband Warren and that he died of appendicitis, which is what led her to turn to prostitution to survive. What is the full backstory that you’ve made up for her?

Tess Frazer: Before we started shooting, I wrote down some backstory questions and ideas for myself to think about from notes on research I did, from what I knew from the script, and a time-line several of the actors worked on together. The South was trying to recover from severe destruction and economic ruin after losing the Civil War, and in the script Callie was from Virginia. She obviously had at some point received a good education. I went with the choice that her parents had died. The West held a lot of promise, and perhaps Callie saw it as a chance to make a new life. I figured Callie made the journey out west, hopeful for a fresh start with her husband Warren. Her brother made a journey out to Texas first, and they’d continue to correspond through letters for years. Callie and her husband Warren might have been headed to LaBelle specifically, or any other mining towns for Warren to find work in a mine. I think Callie did love him. And then he dies of appendicitis on the trail ride over, leaving her completely on her own. I felt she might have been pregnant and had a miscarriage at some point along the journey, and years later she still has a strong maternal instinct that draws her to teaching after the mining accident. By the time “Godless” begins I think her brother is the only family Callie has left. She made it to LaBelle somehow, Madam Magdalena took her in, gave her a place to stay, and soon coerced her into earning her keep by prostituting. Callie probably hoped to save enough money to go find her brother when she could, but didn’t want to have to tell him what she had been doing for a living.

Some things that were helpful to me were PBS’ “The West” documentary, which covers everything about the Old West, and another documentary called “Tricked” on Netflix about human trafficking and prostitution in America. I read a biography called Madam Millie by Max Evans about a prostitute and madam in the 1920s in and around New Mexico. I also read “Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West,” by Chris Enss. I also re-read a memoir I had picked up years ago at the library called “Runaway Girl” by Carissa Phelps about her life in California and Florida in recent years, falling into prostitution and working for a pimp starting at 12 years old. I was, and still am, in awe of the resilience and backbone that people can develop out of extreme adversity. I felt Callie had these qualities. I also watched great classic western films to get in the mood. Scott recommended to us “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “High Plains Drifter,” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was particularly influential for me. I already had loved other classics of the genre like “High Noon,” “Django,” “Magnificent Seven,” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and so many others in the genre!

Photo via IMDB

AE: The mining accident ends up being a boon for Callie, because it allows her to get out of prostitution and become a schoolteacher instead. Nevertheless, the other women of La Belle—even Mary Agnes, when hurt—stigmatize her for her past. Given her expansive financial reserves, why didn’t she leave well before the series starts? What kept her in La Belle?

TF: I will admit that’s one question I never asked Scott because if Callie had left town I wouldn’t be in the series!!! But seriously, it would probably be hard for Callie to answer that if asked herself. Madam Millie’s biography offered a lot of insights. Like Callie, Millie resorted to prostitution in order to survive. Years later Millie became the most famous and rich madam in the West. I think becoming financially independent was something that empowered Callie. She brags to Alice that she “bank rolled half the businesses in this town,” and later she buys Alice’s horses for her friends. It might have been addictive to keep making as much money as possible for a time. Callie tries to not let others’ judgments get her down. She says to Mary Agnes, about her love for her: “I don’t care who knows it, or what anyone thinks. I never did.” With a turn of fate, Callie gets to become the school teacher. She gets a chance at a new life, and with Mary Agnes by her side, the old societal norms out the window after the accident, the residents of LaBelle must finally accept her. After all she’s been through, Callie still has an immense capacity for kindness and forgiveness. She even has an admirable sense of humor.

AE: I love the idea that Callie “sidled up” to Mary Agnes in the town saloon as a way of starting the relationship, because I can totally picture it. I also imagine Mary Agnes being a lot like a skittish bird that Callie constantly had to reassure and be patient with. So in short, Callie’s relationship with Mary Agnes has a very interesting dynamic. When she’s around Callie, Mary Agnes seems very insecure and shy, which is the opposite of how she is with the other women of La Belle. How do you see this relationship between Callie and Mary Agnes?

photo via IMDB

TF: The way their romance was written felt very truthful to me. Yes, it is an interesting dynamic and very endearing! Callie is a free spirit, very affectionate, and Mary Agnes is more reticent and shy in the relationship. I think Mary Agnes is afraid of getting hurt, and Callie slowly helps her open up, and truly wants to “take care of her.” They’ve both been through tragic events and it’s beautiful that they found each other, and can be there for each other.

AE: I love the scene in which Callie asks Mary Agnes why she’s mad at her and Mary Agnes replies, “I’m not mad…” because that is exactly how 100% of the fights with my girlfriend start. However, in that scene we see the vulnerability and insecurity of Mary Agnes, matched by Callie’s hurt. There’s a trust deficit that suggests the relationship is still nascent. How long do you think they had been in some sort of a relationship at that point?

TF: That was something Merritt and I had talked about, how long have we been seeing each other. She said she understood the relationship to be fairly new, yes. That made sense to me too. There’s a tentativeness, and vulnerability. It takes courage to open up your heart to someone new, especially after you’ve been hurt or lost a loved one, and to explore a same-sex relationship for the first time. Mary Agnes tells her brother “I get lonely same as you.” Mary Agnes and Callie’s relationship might have stemmed from a need for companionship, neither of them knowing how deeply they’d grow to care for each other.

AE: Also, really Callie? A nude painting? Where the hell is Mary Agnes going to put that?

TF: Haha! I think it was a very romantic, sexy idea. One of my favorite moments is when Mary Agnes has that realization at Martha’s house. They sent me the Callie portrait after the shoot ended. It’s in my apartment now, not prominently displayed at the moment… but I am happy to have it!

AE: In the final shoot-out, Callie and Martha are total badasses. This feels like a relatively unique cinematographic event: “The Expendables,” 1884 La Belle-style. Do you think this is a positive step towards the empowerment of female characters?

TF: Yes!!! We were all so excited and looking forward to filming that shoot-out for weeks.

Photo via Netflix

AE: What was the best part about playing Callie?

TF: That’s really hard to choose! The entire experience was a dream: the horseback riding lessons, the western gun training, the beautiful costumes I got to wear, the stunning location, and acting in scenes with incredible actors like Merritt and Michelle Dockery, and Sam Waterston, who I’d looked up to and admired. As for the role itself, it was thrilling for me to tap into the more confident, tougher parts of myself to play Callie. I have never felt so badass, or I guess, accepting of myself as Callie does in my own life. The pioneers of the American frontier had to have an adventurous, resilient spirit, and in “Godless”, the women stand up for themselves. I wanted to honor what someone like Callie has been through, and the bravery she has to openly, unapologetically explore and express her sexuality.

AE: If you could have played another character on “Godless” (male roles included), which would you want to play?

TF: Roy Goode. Or Whitey Winn. I wanted to learn the fancy gun twirling.

AE: The Western genre traditionally has a lot of pitfalls for female characters: they tend to be damsels in distress, two-dimensional love interests for mustachioed gunslingers, or prostitutes. There’s not a lot of room for other character development when the focus is narrowly on men with guns. “Godless,” on the other hand, tries to step away from such narrow confines. Would you like there to be a sequel where we learn more about the women of La Belle? 

TF: I love the series just as it is now. I feel proud to have been part of such a compelling story that is loyal to the genre, but with the twist that there are powerful, complex female characters getting to do what only the men usually do in a Western. It’s historically plausible, as there really were towns like LaBelle where most of the male population was suddenly wiped out in a mining accident, leaving the women to run things themselves. I think by the end of the series the audience can imagine for themselves what might happen next. But, of course, if Scott Frank wants to write more… I will be there in a second!!

AfterEllen wholeheartedly supports a sequel (hint, hint, Netflix). In fact, a sequel focusing on the dynamics between the women of LaBelle and their backstories writes itself: Alice Fletcher’s (Michelle Dockery) marriage to a Native American following the death of her first husband, and this husband’s eventual murder at the hands of an unknown woman in La Belle; Mary Agnes’ reinvention after the mining accident and her shy, bashful romance with Callie; Callie’s resort to prostitution to survive in La Belle after her husband’s death of appendicitis; the reason behind German immigrant Martha’s (Christiane Seidel) naked rides through La Belle, etc. The storyline about Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) was all well and good, but let’s hear more about the women!

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