Preacher has been a welcome addition to the small screen this year, standing out as not just another comics to TV adaptation. What really puts this series over the top is Dominic Cooper’s portrayal of Jesse Custer — the titular preacher trying to guide a small Texas town on the path of goodness in an attempt to keep his own demons at bay.
Cooper sat down with journalists during the ATX Television Festival in June and talked at length about playing Jesse Custer on Preacher. He discussed the nature of violence on the series, Jesse’s relationship to other characters — like Tulip, Cassidy and Eugene — and how his character will evolve (or devolve) by the end of the season.
The conflict within Jesse is evident from the very first episode of the series, especially that speech he makes on the escalation of violence, which Cooper said was a way of getting into the character. “It was about revealing Jesse’s urges actually, what’s bubbling under the surface, and what he’s trying desperately to restrain himself from being. As was the fight sequence in the end when he smiles and reveals the truth — the relief, like a drug addict,” recalled Cooper. He added, “When [Jesse] sees something wrong, someone wronging someone like that, like this child who’s in pain, it probably reminds himself very much of himself. He has a very disturbing childhood. People often ask, ‘Is Jesse a good man doing bad things or a bad man trying to do good?’ I think he’s genuinely good. He’s had a rotten upbringing and a really tough time, and he’s trying his hardest to be the person he thinks his father wanted him to be.”
There are some violent scenes on Preacher, but as Cooper pointed out, they are never gratuitous. “People talk to me about this show and the nature of it, but I’m much more perturbed and disturbed by what we are capable of as human beings each time I turn the radio on or watch the news. I don’t think it’s gratuitous and violence for violence sake. Each time it’s seen or mentioned, it’s an unearthing or a discovery of each of those personalities and the people in it. It doesn’t continue in that vein,” he explained. “You’re going to get three huge sequences, like you do in that first [episode], but they reveal the identity of who we’re dealing with, who these characters are that we hope to follow and in a way, care for. The violence in their life is damage and pain, which I’m becoming aware of very quickly. [Jesse] is struggling. He knows it’s right to get away from it and try to do right for these people. He’s desperate for that feeling that he had as a child, that idea of home and love without it being tarnished by hate and violence.”
Jesse Custer is being pulled in different directions by the people in his life, as well as by forces within him. Cooper told us, “It is a hard character to play. He’s just striving to do what’s right and it confuses him. He’s got people pulling him in different directions. He hasn’t had the proper upbringing or childhood, but has a memory of something good. And the small amount of time that he had with his father — who was a very good man — he’s trying desperately to cling on to.”
Tulip (Ruth Negga) is perhaps one of the most conflicting parts of Jesse’s life. “Tulip’s the love of his life essentially and is the only thing remotely close to family that he has, and yet she’s trying to pull him in a direction which is wrong and that he knows is dangerous and volatile and can only lead to a worse future. There’s no hope or goodness in that,” he explained. “They are the centre of each other’s worlds, but they are on a very different mission. She’s out for revenge at this point. She’s on a very specific mission, and Jesse can’t be dragged down that route even though he’d try to do anything. It’s going to be very exciting to see how that unfolds and whether Jesse cracks.”
Cassidy and Eugene also shake up Jesse’s status quo. “[Cassidy] has turned up, who is kind of his best friend, and challenges his idea of religion and he world and what it means to be alive. [Jesse] loves his company because at last he’s got someone — a drinking buddy — who is opinionated and confronts his own opinions,” said Cooper. “He [also] has someone like Eugene who highlights everything that Jesse’s doubting about religion and God and his faith.”
Eventually, the story will bring Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy together, creating chaos. “It’ll be interesting to see how this group of lunatics gets on when the get on the road and go in search of what they’re in search of.”
It’s not clear whether or not Jesse is good or evil, and Cooper commented on that aspect of the character: “You have this entity which is pulling him in two completely separate directions. I think Jesse’s both good and evil in equal measure. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think that’s why I was so attracted to playing him as a character. Conflict within oneself is always interesting. We all are dealing with it on a daily basis — what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s a constant battle, isn’t it? Are we taught that by our parents? Do we know that when we’re born? It’s a very interesting conversation.”
For those of us that are up to date on the story so far, the relationship between Jesse and Eugene is a complicated one. Eugene, in a way, is going to Jesse for guidance and for validation, but there’s a hesitation in Jesse initially, which then culminates in a terrible event. “What Jesse ends up doing [to Eugene] is beyond anything you could imagine,” Cooper told us. “He’s terrified of [Eugene] because every time he speaks to him, he speaks the truth and he underlies Jesse’s biggest fears. Jessee can’t actually offer any good advice. Eugene’s kind of advising Jesse. He knows he should feel that Eugene is innocent and that he should be forgiven, but I don’t know actually if there’s a part of Jesse that despises him and he can’t keep that away, and it’s beyond his capabilities.” Cooper added, “He wants to nurture and care for [Eugene], and he feels sorry for him to a point, but it gets very dark, that part of the story. It’s an incredible relationship, and I think Eugene really terrifies Jesse. [Jesse] is not strong enough. That’s when he needs someone like his father. His father would know how to handle that situation that Jesse cannot.”
Cooper teased a bit about where his character is headed toward the end of Preacher‘s first season, and it doesn’t sound pretty at all. “By the end of this season, Jesse turns into quite a vile human being. You see him so conflicted in the beginning and sort of on the edge, lost and almost giving up, firing on every cylinder what he believes to be good and powerful and for the good of people, to plummeting into despair.”
Cooper had some great observations on how Preacher is representative of America, from his perspective as someone from England who grew up in a family that wasn’t religious. “When you’re not immersed in a society or a world, you have a much more simplistic but clearer defined aspects of people and the world in which they inhabit. I don’t think [Preacher] is just a depiction of America, I think this small town could be a small town anywhere,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in a family that was religious, but you can’t help but be aware of it and it being a part of everyday life. I can relate to it in a way what it must mean in a town such as Annville where it’s the centre, where it needs something to bring everyone together and the importance of that, and therefore the importance of what Jesse’s trying to do in that town, which is bring these lost souls back together. I find that a really interesting part of this, and that to me was what, before I knew what Preacher was, before I knew what the comics were and what they meant, that’s what it was to me — a small town in America with this preacher who is useless. These people in this town are really interesting, they’re really on the edge, they’re falling to pieces. Is this man going to be able to bring them together? And suddenly there’s someone called ‘Arseface’ and I was like ‘What the hell is going on here?'”
What the hell indeed! Only three episodes remain in Preacher‘s first season, and thank goodness we’re getting a second season. There’s still time to catch up on Season 1 and get ready for the July 31st finale.