Please note: this set visit report contains minor details from the Preacher comics, which in turn may turn out to be show spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Sitting in front of a church, Jackie Earle Haley takes what might be his fifteenth bite of a sandwich amid an open field of Quincannon Meat & Power workers milling about. The scene is tense. The man playing Odin Quincannon’s stare is methodical and understated as W. Earl Brown as Sheriff Hugo Root tries to reason with him. But Odin knows what he knows and he wants what he wants, and there’s no telling him otherwise.
Conversely, Reverend Jesse Custer’s real-life counterpart, Dominic Cooper, is terrified. “I’ve been scared of it,” he mentioned to me and three other journalists on Preacher‘s New Mexico set. The “it” in question being getting right what so many thought was impossible. He knows the stakes are high when it comes to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adaptation of beloved comic book hero(ish), Jesse Custer. Nobody involved takes that lightly. Because, as Preacher‘s Tulip posits over and over, we are who we are.
“It’s impossible to try and impersonate an idea of someone,” Cooper explained. And in many ways, he doesn’t. Cooper’s Custer is a much more interior fella compared to his Garth Ennis-created comic book inspiration. “I kept going back to the comics and thinking about who this man is … in the comics, there are so many different phases of his life and his situation that happen quite quickly, so I had to maintain this sort of dark stillness that had to center everything, in a way.”
The dark stillness rooted in all of these characters is what truly brings Preacher to life. Be it Ruth Negga‘s Tulip (Jesse’s ex-girlfriend and boss-ass assassin type) or Joe Gilgun‘s Cassidy (everyone’s favorite drunken Irish vampire), the characters and scenarios of Preacher were already well-defined on the page and in the minds of the readers—rife with the brutal, grotesque, and shockingly unbelievable. But the show’s greatest strength seems to lie in its confidence to create its own iterations of these characters and scenarios in a way that remains faithful.
This much is evident from checking out the sets, cast, crew, production, and locations AMC has fostered to bring this demented piece of Texas to life. Passion for the project and the source material runs through the veins of everyone you encounter on set. That passion peers through in the tiny details, from the stained glass windows on set all the way up to the way the show is choreographed and shot. The production has truly figured out a way to create a world that, for so long, felt unattainable on TV.
Cooper noted that he figured out the “who” of Jesse in a single, barely hidden smile.
“We were filming one of the bar fights,” he explained. “Your instinct while doing big fight scenes is to try and suggest strength and danger and violence. But actually amongst this violence, there’s this joy.” We see that on Jesse’s face—a note given to him from showrunner Sam Catlin. “And it really unlocks a part of him that he’s trying to suppress but he actually relishes and loves,” Cooper continued. “It exposes the true him; the thing he’s trying to mask because he’s desperate to be good. But we often can’t hide the true monster that’s underneath the skin. That, for me, is him.”
That said, it’s not as though Cooper had him nailed down entirely in that one moment. “It’s been really hard; I haven’t done that before, really,” the actor said about finding the balance of Jesse Custer. “Because you want to come in and shake everything up and be the person—but that’s not Jesse’s job in this.”
The strength of Preacher‘s characterizations is most evident in the show’s evolved depiction of Tulip. In the early pages of the Preacher comics, the very blonde, very timid Tulip is not one for killing and has far less agency—erring more on the side of a thing Jesse must “protect” rather than a fully formed human. On the show, Negga is a force sure to become one of your favorite characters on, not just the show, but TV as a whole. She’s strong, capable, self-aware, and feistily demanding of the world and the people she cares about that are in it. “We are who we are, Jesse Custer,” she asserts matter-of-factly during the pilot. And she leans into it, hard, effectively becoming the tiny devil on Jesse’s shoulder probing him to accept both parts of himself: the preacher and the man she used to commit crimes with back in the day. Hers, even more so than Cassidy’s, is a mission of living in total self-acceptance, and it adds incredible, fascinating dimension to her character. “She’s fleshed out even more,” Negga explained.
Speaking on the Tulip/Jesse dichotomy, Cooper added, “This is a relationship that is much broader and more investigated in our show … The majority of their life decisions have been made out of care for each other.” But that doesn’t make it all that black-and-white. “The backstory of their life all makes sense; they despise but adore each other. But he’s on a different path from that life.”
In Tulip’s mind, “her relationship with Jesse is one of near hatred,” stated Negga. And in order to truly flesh out this more nuanced dynamic, “we get more more sense of her history; it’s a really cool backstory.”
Fans of the comic book will be happy to hear that Gilgun’s Cassidy positively vibrates to life, feeling almost as if Ennis wrote the man in some sort of real life iteration of Stranger Than Fiction. (Just look at the photo of Cassidy/Gilgun below and tell us you don’t see it.) But even with accolades aplenty thrown his way, Gilgun was terrified about fan reception. “I am slightly nervous about that, because I don’t want to let the fans down. In fact, that frightens me more than the idea of letting Sam and Evan and Seth down. It always really shits me up because they’ve invested so much time in this.”
“I’ve tried to keep hold of the root elements of what Cassidy is, but of course when you go to shoot it as a human being—rather than a still-framed character drawn by a man—there’s a lot more to it. With Cassidy, he’s jovial, but the fucker’s a sociopath,” explained Gilgun.
Added his co-star Negga (who is Irish), “The way you do it, all your rhythms just sound exactly like how Garth wrote it. He speaks in this sort of archaic Irish way, so he’s not like a modern Irish person—it’s this strange sort of mash-up.”
Preacher, in and of itself, is a bit of a mash-up. One of comic books and religious rumination, of hyper-violence, hyper-grotesqueness, and hyper-justice. Of grey areas aplenty. Its world is colored by its extremism and how it defines the characters and humanity at large. All the things that have kept Preacher on a list of comic books that for a long time seemed impossible to turn into a movie or TV. The scene we saw being shot with the aforementioned Odin Quincannon, for example, was one Negga couldn’t believe they’d be able to get approved for air.
So how do they pull off what so many long thought impossible? Gilgun credits AMC’s support of the show as the key. During filming a particularly brutal scene, the cast were, “doing it thinking, ‘This is taking hours, it’s fucking brutal, we’re all going to have terrible nightmares and no one’s going to be able to put it on TV,’ [but] AMC’s been super cool about it. There’s never been a moment where they say, ‘Well that’s just fucking outrageous and not happening.’ They want it to be true to the comic.”
“They’re also playing with levels,” added Negga. “I think they’re being very careful with how they spend their violence. They want it to explode on the scene.” And it shows, particularly in the pilot. “You really have to capture the energy of your entire first season [in the pilot]. … Garth’s comics are unapologetic.”
But, Negga mentioned, “There’s a sense of justice in Preacher … Of baddies getting their due. Of the scales being balanced. And that’s a thread throughout comics—about the bad guys getting their due, usually in some sort of violent end. And that appeals to people because that’s not always how it is … But why do we like violence? Why do normal people like violence? Is it cathartic to see a bad guy getting his comeuppance, that makes us think, ‘Oh, I’m glad’? There’s a sense of justice there, but it’s a question you have to ask yourself.”
It’s something that invigorates everyone on the cast and crew, but especially Cooper. “I’ve never been involved in anything where I’ve been just so excited to get on to the next one. You just immediately want to see where it goes because it’s just so adventurous. … I just love to see these people, I love to watch the bits I get to watch. I think people will be thrilled by it. It will keep people compelled in the most curious way.”
And while the show certainly takes liberties with the story itself—the aforementioned Quincannon, fans of the comic books will recall, doesn’t show up until Preacher #42 – The Meatman Cometh—there’s a method to the madness. “They’re going to keep as many strands and themes alive as possible,” noted Negga. This means seed-planting and story-altering in ways that may feel, initially, like Easter Eggs but ultimately paint a more connected picture than seen on the page.
Added Cooper: “We end where the comic starts, essentially. And it’s so necessary—because you need to get to know these characters—to show it, to ground something that can become extraordinarily flamboyant.”
But don’t think that, even though it’s a grounded and gritty reality, it’s all dark and broody antihero business. “There’s a tendency to think that serious means really still and tense and quiet. But that’s not the totality of a human’s experience, is it?” quipped Negga. “Sometimes I watch things and go, ‘God, I’m much more hammy than that in real life.'”
When asked what he finds Preacher most reminiscent of, Cooper remained a bit stumped. “It’s hard to say where it sits in terms of what we already [have], partially because I think it’s very different. It reminded me, when I first read it, of Twin Peaks. It’s kinda got the incredible mystery of that and the absurdness of it, occasionally—it has all those elements. I think that’s what people’s fascination will be.”
And if you don’t like it? Gilgun has some suggestions. “If you’re one of those people who loves getting offended by shit, just turn it off—not everyone’s like you!”