Cassidy Freeman has only just given birth when she hops on the phone with Variety to talk about HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones.” The actor, known for her roles on “Longmire” and “Smallville” before portraying Amber Gemstone, a televangelist housewife with killer aim and a fierce disposition, doesn’t know what these moms are complaining about.
“It’s really easy!… Said with a perfect amount of sarcasm,” Freeman quips.
Unbeknownst to the majority of her cast members on the megachurch-focused dark comedy “The Righteous Gemstones,” created by Southern native Danny McBride (“Eastbound & Down,” “Hot Rod,” “Tropic Thunder,”) Freeman was pregnant during the majority of Season 2’s filming. “Well, no one knew minus my roommate and my bestie, Edi [Patterson],” Freeman says. Hot, mosquito-ridden days on-location in South Carolina, COVID-19 protocols, and some stunts here and there didn’t slow down Freeman, she adds.
“Someone was looking down on me and gave me a really easy, easy time… And no morning sickness,” Freeman says.
Now that Season 2 of “The Righteous Gemstones” — featuring McBride, Adam DeVine, Tony Cavalero, Skyler Gisondo, Gregalan Williams, Tim Baltz, Dermot Mulroney and Jennifer Nettles — has dropped all of its episodes on HBO and HBO Max, Freeman spoke with Variety about Amber’s evolution from Stepford Wife to intimidating ride-or-die, how she missed out on “Vice Principals,” how creativity was always championed over seriousness and potential girl-power team-ups in Season 3.
What was it like filming having a lot of COVID-19 protocols in place and then a pregnancy on top of it to worry about?
I think all of us were just so grateful to be working, especially during a time when so many were out of work or were underemployed, and we were given so many privileges like having these incredible nurses administer tests to use every other day, which were partly protocols by HBO and partly protocols of Rough House Productions. Everyone was looking out for our best interest. I think anyone that decides to have a kid while working is asking for complications, but I couldn’t have been more supported by the people around me.
There was a pretty big pause between Season 1 and Season 2 of “The Righteous Gemstones.” What was your reaction when you knew Season 2 was finally going to happen?
We had been shooting for two days when we got word that everything was shutting down in March of 2020. So, we had all geared up to go back to work, and like most of the world, the rug was pulled out from under us. At the time, I think we were more concerned with the well-being of the world than anything else. Knowing that we were delayed for a year made a lot of sense, only because we were on such a timetable with John Goodman’s schedule. Weirdly, knowing that we were going to be going back in a year, even though it was a long time to wait, was kind of a relief because like a lot of other shows, we were hemming and hawing and “are we or aren’t we?” and trying to sort out the unknown. That’s where a lot of the stress in this business comes in: not knowing when or if you’re going to be told to come back next spring. It at least gave me the freedom to go, “OK, what is this next year gonna look like?” It was a huge privilege to have a job that I knew I was going to come back to. And, then to come back, the tentativeness to sort of asking “are we really gonna do this?” and then find everyone back on board made it feel much more OK. The rush of emotions coming back from that year of being so isolated and so far away from everyone and everything else felt incredible. To this day, little moments like that still feel incredible, where we kind of get to go, like “Oh yeah, real life! This is what that’s like.”
How did you initially get cast for the role of Amber?
I had auditioned for Danny’s previous show “Vice Principals,” which was around the time my previous show, “Longmire,” had been dropped by A&E Network. We were in limbo as to whether or not we were going to find another network to put the show on. In that interim, I auditioned for “Vice Principals.” I was in talks with Danny and the team — I had never met them before. I was super excited to work with them and admired them, but then “Longmire” got picked up by Netflix, so I was no longer available for the role. Even though I was really happy that “Longmire” got picked up and that we got to make the series for another three years, it was a shot to me personally, because I was so excited to work with Danny and everyone else. But you just have to trust that everything works out the way it is supposed to. And I think it really did because then the opportunity to play Amber came up a few years later. Danny is really good at this: He remembers people that he likes working with and he likes working with the same people with mutual admiration, like Walton [Goggins] and Edi. I auditioned for the part of Amber just like a regular audition — Danny wasn’t there, and it was a run-of-the-mill audition hoping that he’d remember me from “Vice Principals.” And he did! I didn’t hear from them for another three weeks but, then, I went back to HBO and on that same day I found out I was going to be a Gemstone.
Amber was given more space to shine on her own during Season 2, and instead of dutiful wife, she gets to have more of an equal partnership with Jesse. What are your thoughts on how Amber has flourished between Seasons 1 and 2?
I sometimes think that Amber’s sort of like a flower, because, when you first see her in Season 1, she just seems like this pretty woman that is dutiful and closed-off a bit. She hits some vulnerable notes in Season 1, when her son betrays her or when Jesse betrays her, and she sort of lets the fierce cat out of the bag and is stern about not letting that shit slide. I thought it was interesting that in Season 2, we never have to go through the rigamarole of she and Jesse mended what went wrong in the first season. We sort of arrive at them being an even stronger team. I think we all know what it is like to argue with our significant others and get to that moment where you kind of go, like, “Am I fucking done here?” And then you have this really beautiful switch into, “Oh my God, maybe this horrible thing can actually make us stronger.” Like, whatever we went through was a bit of a battle scar, but it is a scar nonetheless. It is healing. So, Amber’s now a bit more open, and she doesn’t just help Jesse by being a guest woman in his life but, part of a team. That’s also because Jesse himself is allowing her to do that because he does not want to keep her in the dark any longer. I love it when she shoots the motorcycle boys and she soothes Jesse’s abilities to take a shot, but she takes the stage anyway and takes the spotlight and publicly admits she was the one that got to stop the bad guys, not her husband.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with wealthy fictional families on TV right now?
The uneven distribution of money right now in the world is an interesting concept, especially during a pandemic and well, everything going on right now in Eastern Europe, and I think we’re kind of obsessed with billionaires as a result — but in a weird way. I’m not really sure if it is healthy, to be honest, but we are fascinated by what people spend this money on and we are fascinated by how those families come to their money, in an effort to understand almost that we are not defunct simply because they have that family. We watch these shows because we see that the fanciness of it all is kind of cheap — it isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
Our show goes beyond money and into this megachurch televangelism world, and I think a lot of people think those families are perfect because they are “believers,” but there are always cracks in the pavement. It is the cracks that we relate to when we watch, not so much their wealth or those circumstances.
Did you do any research into megachurch or televangelist wives when getting into character for Amber?
Listen, Mónica, I love cults. I am fascinated by cult culture, and why we as people get so drawn to things and sell a part of ourselves to something that may not be totally in alignment with our values. We turn a blind eye to these parts of communities that may be icky or wrong because we want answers, and we want to belong. There’s this great sense of belonging. Danny expressed that this show was about people, not about a specific type of person, and even though the backdrop was something that I could have gone and researched, I didn’t want to make Amber a caricature of Tammy Faye Bakker or what these women were like. Something amazing about our show is that there are dick jokes and full-frontal male nudity, but then by next moment, John Goodman has you by the heart and you want to start crying. There are beautiful moments of authenticity and emotion, and then funny and ridiculous comments (mostly from Edi). I try to think more about the world where the Gemstones exist, not necessarily what they would believe, in order to shape Amber.
When you guys are filming, are you actually down in South Carolina? Where’s the “Gemstone Complex” in real life?
Yup! We’re there. It’s beautiful, and it’s real sweaty. We shoot a lot of our stuff on a stage we have down there and on location in different, sprawling Charleston mansions.
What is it like to be in a cast with so many comedians? Are you always bouncing off each other and collaborating, or are you all secretly serious when studying your lines?
Ha. Yeah, we’re real serious. No, it’s like going to an amusement park every day. Honestly. It’s so uplifting, and it is so encouraging, and I learn so much every single time I go to work. It’s a playground, and it’s something that Danny has been really adamant about and that bleeds through everything that he does. Most of his shows have this energy and vibe to them and all of that comes from the top down. Danny is one of the calmest, well-read, centered, rad dudes that I’ve ever gotten the chance to work with, and he’s so smart, too. The best thing about coming back to set with everyone is that we all have each other’s backs no matter what. We’re always encouraging each other to go for it and to try something new. The scripts are very well written and they’re complete, but Danny will always nudge us to improvise and go off from a place that comes from excitement or inspiration you have at the moment. And no one is ever going to make fun of you or put you down for that. It breeds the greatest creativity.
Are you hoping for more of a girl power team-up between Amber, Judy and Aunt Tiffany [Valyn Hall] now that they all seem to have started to love each other a bit more?
I’m always down for girl power. I think it’s interesting that Amber and Judy did find some common ground this year, though I always think it is funny when Judy and Amber kind of go after each other at lunch even though it isn’t always my favorite thing when shows pit women against each other. But, I think they work even better when they realize they have far more in common than they know. I do look forward to seeing how that plays out in the future.