‘Claws’ Star Carrie Preston on Playing a Con Artist and ‘Gunning For’ a Lead Role

Carrie Preston has been playing twisted Southern belles all her life, but as Polly in TNT’s “Claws,” she gets to try something a little different: a fabulist ex-con with an indomitable attitude and a killer manicure. Preston has long been a scene-stealer, in everything from rom-com “My Best Friend’s Wedding” to the vampire soap “True Blood” and legal procedural “The Good Wife.”

Now, as Polly, she’s part of a crew of five women who are also involved with the local West Florida mafia. “That alone was intriguing enough to get me to read the script,” she tells Variety. Her character is a compulsive liar who enjoys her fictional histories more than her depressing real one. But as Preston learned when discovered more about “Claws’” “insane words and incredible characters,” she learned that the story of what really happens to Polly — a story slowly unfolding in “Claws” — is even more bonkers than the stories she makes up. That sealed the deal for Preston. “I thought, okay, great! I’m in!” Here, Preston talks to Variety about reclaiming Southerner roles from British actors, being a working actress in her 40s, and that elusive role she’s still holding out hope for: being the lead of her own show.

One of the things that’s so interesting about Polly is that she has aspirations to a WASPy lifestyle, but she’s living a life very far from that — with a completely different social circle and fashion sense. What’s it like to play a character that comes from one thing, but is another?

Well, as you’ve probably noticed from Elsbeth Tascioni [Preston’s character on “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight”], I like to play characters that are unpredictable and mysterious — and have one thing going on, on the surface, and a totally different thing going on underneath. Polly, obviously, is no different. As matter-of-fact, she’s probably the most layered character that I’ve ever played. People don’t really know what to believe. She is someone who is creating a lot of fiction for herself and for the world. I think we do that a lot in life — not to the extreme that Polly does it, but you know, if you look at social media for example — lots of people are presenting themselves in a way that maybe they aren’t actually in real-life, you know? We can curate ourselves now. Polly is a con artist. Somebody who’s probably covering up a lot of sadness and pain with a reinvention. She finds this comfort in a makeshift family,and owes a lot to Niecy’s character, Desna, for helping to buoy her up. She has these women around her that don’t judge her for all of her delusions. [Laughs.] I like to think of her as an illusionist — somebody who can change when she needs to, and when she needs something.

She seems more comfortable telling stories than anything else.

Yeah, because why tell the truth, when the truth is so painful? You know, I think probably what Polly thinks is, why would I want to be who I am? That’s not a very fun or interesting person. And that person — who has probably been hurt and damaged in her life — is not going to go very far.

You had to learn how to do nails, correct?

Yes. We had some nail technicians come to the production office and teach us a very brief but very intense crash course on how to do nails. We found that each of us, kinda like in the show, had our strengths and weaknesses. I definitely seemed to do the old-school gel nails quite well. I was good at the acrylics, but Jenn Lyon was probably the star pupil. Got really into it. But we have to look like we know what we’re doing on camera, so it was important for us to understand. I have a great amount of respect for what a manicurist does — now when I go and get my own nails done at a nail salon, I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. Especially any kind of intricate work that they’re doing is … it’s a real art form. I think our show is going to highlight that.

Were you familiar at all with this part of Florida when you took the role?

Not specifically that Palmetto, Bradenton kind of area, which is West Florida. I hadn’t really visited there. But I did grow up in Georgia, so I’ve visited various parts of Florida. When I started researching it, I became pretty fascinated by what goes on there. I read a statistic that in a scale of 1-100, the violent crime that happens in that area is somewhere around 91. The national average, I think, is 41. I don’t know that that statistic is correct. But there are strange happenings in that area. And I think Eliot (Laurence, who wrote the pilot) hacked into it. I think he told us that, there were not just one, but two separate instances of a penis being bitten off in that area, in just the last year! Just freak and bizarre things that would lend themselves to a show like “Claws.” It’s fun to be in a different place on TV. We’re so used to just seeing shows that are the West Coast or the East Coast.

Am I right in thinking that digging into the stereotypes around a Southern lady is something that’s interested you in your career?

Yes, definitely. As a true Southerner, it does sometimes bother me that a lot of Brits are hired to play [us] — and I really feel a great responsibility, as someone who’s from that area, to bring these women to life in a way that is familiar and true, but singular as well, and not just the stereotypical Tennessee Williams type of Southerner, which I think people tend to go towards. I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten the opportunity to be cast as so many kinds of Southern women, and I really try to differentiate them. One of things that I wanted to make sure I was doing with Polly in ”Claws” was not referencing Arlene from “True Blood.” Totally different types of Southern women — albeit, both of them being very strong and very complicated and layered, but nonetheless, different women. I’m always just drawn to those roles that present one way and have many other things going on underneath. It’s just more fun to play as an actor. As Polly, the Polly persona that she’s putting on, I raise my voice I have a more upper register and I do all that — because later in the season, you’ll see that Polly likes to put on a different character. You don’t really know who Polly is.

I have to say, in the first episode the moment I laughed the most was when Polly picked up Virginia’s purse and dumped it out, really aggressively.

Well, it was very important to me, with very little dialogue in that section, to make sure the audience knows that Polly did just fine in prison. She got along just fine. [Laughs.] I mean, she could cut a bitch.

Because film has such a narrow standard of what age women are allowed to be on screen, there’s been a huge expansion of roles for women outside those ages. Do you feel like the TV field has opened up opportunities for you, or do you feel like you’re still waiting on good scripts to come your way?

I’ve never worked more than I am working now, and I’m in my 40s. That’s a good sign. I really like to play these complicated characters and I really like to transform. I played the ingenue, of course, when I was young — but even with those, I tried to make interesting choices and mess them up a little bit — make them layered, and complicated, and not all stereotypes. [But] I’m gunning for the lead. I want to be number one on a show.  I’ve been supporting for a long time and happy to do it, but yeah, I’m hoping for a lead role and I’m not giving up.  I’m holding out hope that somebody will trust me with that at some point.

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