Westerns have long been a male-dominated genre, but the classic Hollywood category has always had fans in women and plenty of room for strong female characters. Now, Godless—a Netflix series developed by Scott Frank premiering November 22—takes a classic Western and upgrades it with a cast of tough women, including Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever.
Much of the show takes place in La Belle, New Mexico, a town run and inhabited by women. But when notorious criminal Frank Griffin (played by Jeff Daniels) and his gang of outlaws head toward La Belle on the hunt for a young man named Roy (Jack O'Connell), it's up to the town of women to "defend against the murderous gang in a lawless western frontier."
Broadly spoke with Merritt Wever, who plays Mary Agnes, a La Belle widow who isn't afraid to handle a gun herself. Wever talks about the challenges of playing tough on screen and developing armor in response to the endless barrage of heartbreaking news.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: I’d love to hear how the role of Mary came to you, what your favorite thing was about playing her, and why you wanted to play her?
MERRITT WEVER: They just offered it to me instead of having me audition, which made me nervous, because I always worry that I’ll show up and open my mouth and they’ll say, "Oh, no. That’s not what we thought at all," you know? But I could tell it was a really good part.
It came to me in feature length, I think [Scott Frank had] been wanting to make this for a while, as a feature, then expanded it later into a limited series of seven episodes. I could tell that [Mary] was a good part but I didn’t read the whole thing for a couple months after that. I’m still not sure why they thought of me for the part! On the page, [Mary] seems so…she’s tough and strong and I didn’t feel tough or strong when we were shooting it, at that time. I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t come off as believable and I think I was nervous the whole shoot about that. So, I leaned in to all the ways that she was…not so tough? Or vulnerable? Or defensive? I tried to find different shades of whatever "tough" can mean.
There is a sort of quiet strength to her which I enjoyed. She’s not a caricature superhero, kickass type of woman. I like that.
She’s complex, thanks.
Westerns are, obviously, sort of a stereotypically male genre, boys’ club—
I think that’s probably why I didn’t watch any of them, honestly. They just didn’t appeal to me… But I get the appeal of the genre, I really do. I get it and there’s certainly room for a lot within it.
I feel like people are interested in modernizing the western genre. Even last year, you know, movies like Hell or High Water, In the Valley of Violence—they’re sort of modern takes on this very classic genre and I like that this is a town full of women, It’s such a good idea.
I know, it’s a fantastic idea. A town full of women, post-apocalypse for them. Post-tragedy… I was thinking about this this morning and I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but when I read it, I remember there being more of a difference between Mary Agnes and the other women in town, particularly Charlotte, played by Samantha Soule. I think there was a sense of these other women being, somehow, more frivolous, less realistic about the dire straights, and more inviting of the idea that if you get men into the town, they’re all gonna come save you or something. If we let these guys take control of the mine, that will solve our problems.
Before I'd started watching Godless, it was almost presented as a show about how men ruin everything. Jeff Daniels' character brings this sort of violent, vengeful storm with him. Is that kind of how it was pitched to you?
That this is a western about men ruining everything? I hadn’t thought of it that way… I don’t see them as characters that are ruining anything or damaging anything. But these are also stories of [their] time, and they are men of their time.
I think the death of all the men is obviously horrible and tragic… but I also see it as an opportunity for the women of this town. Well, Mary Agnes thinks of it as an economic opportunity, to get a little power, to find ways for the town to survive financially without giving up economic financial control. I think she knows how important that is.
Maybe that’s what I mean [earlier] about how I read the script and [Mary] was fighting the idea that these men would ride into town and take care of all their problems. First of all, that’s not gonna happen. That never happens, don’t trust them. But I feel like that wasn’t the point, once we started shooting as heavily.
You mentioned working with Scott, but Steven Soderbergh is also an EP of Godless. Did you get to talk to him, or was he ever on set?
No, I’ve never met him or spoken to him. But I had a wonderful time [working] with Scott, I just found him really lovely. I’m realizing that sometimes I don’t give…I’m trying to find a nice way to say this, but I’m often kind of looking for the disaster, the catastrophe, you know. It takes me a long time sometimes to trust men in position of power. And sometimes I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never drops like that.
Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a good thing to be wary about.
Well, I don’t know. It’s exhausting to have your dukes up all the time. And it’s not always fair, it’s not always earned, you know?
I’m just exhausted by seeing news stories every day about another guy in the entertainment industry being a complete dirtbag.
You can become a little hardened. Everyone has their own experiences, whatever they may be. You can just start walking around with your armor, like a porcupine, which your armor already up.
I think it’s understandable. I had—I don’t know, reading all these news stories lately, I feel it in my head, I feel it in my body, realizing that I had an audition recently. And I walked in and I realized—I mean, it was a response completely divorced from the situation I was in, the actual room I was in, the person that was in it, the people that were in it—but I went in there and I was, you know, wearing the fucking heels and the makeup and I just all of a sudden realized: I’m really tired of walking into rooms all done up, asking men for their permission. Their verbal acceptance, in order to do my job.
But again, it was completely divorced from the actual situation I was in. I think that’s part of what being an actor is, strangely. You can’t do your job without someone else allowing you to. That’s a mindfuck, a lot of the time. That sensation often conflates with the experience of being female and constantly being judged by your appearance, and being told what’s acceptable, and what’s acceptable for you to be and who it’s acceptable for you to be in a play and, you know. The experience of being an actor, and then the experience of being a woman in the business. You know, those things can trip over themselves, and they get worse, and lead to instances of you all of a sudden getting really fed up with the process of auditions and walking into, I don’t know, somebody called it "lining up for the pageant" once.