“What kind of a writer are you?” said Gina Gershon as she handed me bottles of sparkling water and Diet Coke from an impressive hotel suite spread, flatly ignoring that I had declined her offer.
“When I was a young actress, I would have taken all of this,” she continued, playfully goading me into stocking up on snacks before we part ways, because “they’re just going to throw it away.”
“Take some of these,” she says, pointing to a table lined with pastries and cookies. “These are good. I already ate the chocolate one.” Gershon unfolded a napkin and laid it across my open hand. She may have been unfolding it for herself, but in my eagerness to play along I reached for the napkin and she obliged.
Moments later I was waiting for an elevator – my bag packed with Perrier and an open hand full of cream puffs – when the 50-year-old actress skipped past me chanting, “I’m free! I’m free!”
The conclusion of our interview not only signified the start of snack time, but it marked the end of Gershon’s press tour for “Killer Joe,” a twisted comedy-thriller starring Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church. Directed by William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”), “Killer Joe” follows an indebted Texas drug dealer, Chris (Hirsch), who enlists a killer-for-hire (McConaughey) to murder his mother so he can collect the insurance money. But when Chris can’t come up with a down payment for the hit, he offers his sister Dottie (Temple) as a retainer.
If Gershon was happy to escape this dark (albeit impressive) film, it comes as no surprise. The actress, who plays Chris and Dottie’s trashy stepmother Sharla, turned down the same role in the original 1993 stage version of the story, from which the film is adapted.
“I didn’t wanna do this eight times a week,” she explained, referring to the films graphic scenes of sex, abuse and violence, which earned it an NC-17 rating. “I didn’t wanna play this character and be in this emotional, physical space eight shows a week. It always bugged me that I turned it down, because I thought, ‘Oh, what a cry-baby I was.’”
Gershon is no stranger to physically and mentally taxing roles. Her filmography is packed with characters who lack glamour, couth and inhibitions, including her most famous roles in “Showgirls,” “Bound” and “Face/Off.”
“You know, I’m just a nice Jewish girl from the Valley, originally,” she said with a smile. “So, I think if you get to act it out in film, you don’t have to act it out in your own life. I feel like when I’m doing happy-go-lucky, simple comedies, my own life wreaks havoc. And when I do these parts, something gets cleaned up karmically. I like complex characters. I find them fascinating.”
In the case of Sharla, Gershon had the benefit of playing a type of character already synonymous with evil, wicked ways – the stepmother.
“It is very much like a warped Cinderella story,” she told me. “And instead of the evil step-sisters, you have the brother and the father. And then I’m the evil step-mother. Although, that part doesn’t work, because I feel like the one thing Sharla does that’s pretty nice – her only humane gesture – is I feel like she wants to get Dottie out of there. As much as she’s a pawn in her plot, it’s actually a good way to get out of that toxic environment.”
And just as Sharla helps Dottie (although it’s a stretch), Gershon helped Temple, 23, get through one the “Killer Joe’s” pivotal scenes.
“I think she was nervous about doing that love scene … and getting naked,” said Gershon, who also appears fully nude in the film. “So we had talked about it before and I honestly felt like a mother hen. I was pacing outside, like, ‘Is everything OK? Are you doing OK? It’s gonna be fine!’ I was very nervous for her. I really do adore her. I think that is reflected. When I met her, I just loved her.”
While it may not pile up big number at the box office a la “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers,” , “Killer Joe” boast one of the most capable casts of the summer. And, while it’s not perfect, offers some of the best indie filmmaking of the year so far courtesy of the legendary Friedkin.
“I’ve never experienced such a visceral film,” Gershon said. “You really experience it – for better or worse. I’ve never watched a movie where people don’t know whether to laugh or to leave. It’s very confusing to the senses, which I find amazing, because you don’t see films like this ever.”
“Killer Joe” is open now in select theaters. Click here to order tickets now on Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.