On a show filled with miserable cops and unsavoury villains, Adria Arjona plays the innocent woman stranded in a pit of liars and vipers on True Detective season two.
As Emily, the girlfriend and now-fiancée of Taylor Kitsch's brooding cop Paul Woodrugh, she brings humanity and vulnerability to a show that is otherwise known for its steely toughness and brutal violence.
On Monday, following the fifth episode of season two, "Other Lives," we talked to the humble, quick-to-laugh Arjona (whom you should definitely follow on Instagram) and learned more about how series creator Nic Pizzolatto guides his actors, what it's like to share a scene with Kitsch, and which animal you need to emulate if you want to look sexy onscreen.
Were you a fan of True Detective when you got this part? Had you seen season one?
Yes! I was actually a huge, huge fan. When I first watched season one, I remember telling my manager that I need to be on this show. Whether it's season two, season three, season four, season five, I don't care! I'm going to be on this show. He sort of laughed at me because I was so new and up-and-coming and it was going to be pretty impossible to get an audition for this. But I auditioned for the casting director for another project and she saw my work and she liked it, thank God. She sent me the audition for True Detective. It was nerve-racking because it was a dream for me. I didn't even know how to prepare for the audition. I chose to simplify everything and be truthful and I guess that's what Nic [Pizzolatto] liked. I don't know!
What was the audition process like? Did you have to read with any of the other actors?
That's a difficult question to answer because I actually did a self-tape. I was in New York and I never met anyone. I self-taped from my living room! I thought they were going to call me in and make me go to LA and read for Nic, but they went right off the tape. They liked it and I got cast. I didn't meet anyone until the first meeting with Taylor [Kitsch] and Nic where we sat down to discuss the characters and build the story. I said, "Oh my God, I'm actually here!"
How early did those conversations and rehearsals start? Nic Pizzolatto seems like a pretty intense guy.
He's amazing. He's intense because he's so smart and a genius when it comes to speaking with actors. The rehearsal process was very liberating. I thought things were going to be so set for us and that we would have to perform to the standards that they already had. It was completely the opposite. It was a very trusting experience. Nic trusts his actors with everything and that's why I think he's able to get the performances he gets. It's because he's so trusting. He just stands by and trusts your talent and guides you. It was so inspiring and so liberating for me as a new actress. I felt like my opinions and my words had some say. It was a collaboration.
How much of your day-to-day direction came from him? I imagine he's on the set every day, right?
You don't want to discredit the great directors because they did such an amazing job. But Nic was there every day and like I said, it was such a trusting environment and he trusted the directors that he hired to bring every aspect to the table. When it came to characters and motives and needs, we would have a communal discussion with Nic, the director, Taylor, and I. It was a group discussion. Nic knows these characters better than anyone on set, including myself! It was great being able to ask him questions and get such amazing answers. He really knows how to speak to actors and that's hard to find.
True Detective has this stylized dialogue that's often just slightly off from normal speech. What's the trick to learning your lines for a True Detective scene?
I got the script very late, about three days before filming. You make a decision whether you just work on the script and believe in every moment and pick out every moment, or if you sit down and memorize lines. Once you really dig into a script, learning lines becomes almost second-nature. I don't think I ever sat down and memorized lines. I was so nervous that this was True Detective and that I needed to do a good job that I would just dig into every scene. I was playing with Taylor Kitsch so it was fairly easy since I was getting such great work thrown back at me. It was pretty easy to just react and not think about lines at all.
Let's talk about Taylor Kitsch. I think he's been the season's secret weapon and he's so tightly wound. How do you create a dynamic where your chemistry is based entirely on two characters' lack of chemistry?
I'm not sure. He's such a humble, down-to-earth guy that you almost feel like you've known him forever the second you sit down to talk with him. In between takes, when the time was right, we'd joke around and mess around. But most of the time, it was game-on and we were all pretty focused in the scene. We're just actors working and trying to do a good job. Did I answer your question?
Yeah. I'm a big Friday Night Lights fan and I've been enjoying this new side of him.
Like I said, he's amazing. I learned so much from him. Being a new actor on the show, especially on a show like this, you become a sponge and try to look around and listen to everything. I feel like I wasn't the most social and it was because I was so busy soaking in all of this information because I was working with the best of the best. You have the best directors, the best cinematographer, the best second A.D., the best sound department, the best costumes. Everything was top of the line. I chose to sit back and listen to everything and take it all in. Now that I've had a leading role on a TV show, I feel more comfortable. I'm ready. And it's because of True Detective that I feel like that.
How different was this set from Person of Interest, which you guest-starred on for two episodes? CBS and HBO are so incredibly different in the kinds of shows they make.
It was completely different. Both great experiences. Very different ways of working. With True Detective, you have a lot of time. How I like to describe it... it's like you're filming a theatre piece. When I was filming Person of Interest, I felt like I was on a TV set. Here, I felt more like I was on a theatre stage, but there were cameras there. The way that we rehearsed, the way that we would shoot things, the way we talked things out, it was like theatre. It was very quiet. The respect for the actors was huge. You could walk in and you'd really be in your zone. And I think it's because we had the time. With CBS, they had to shoot 20 episodes! They were both very interesting experiences. I can't say which one I like more. I do love theatre, though. So maybe I answered that one.
You said you got your scripts three days in advance. Did you know all of Paul Woodrugh's secrets or did you only know what Emily knew when you filmed your scenes?
No! I think Nic did this on purpose. I just got my sides and would see on set where Taylor was at and I would think, "Oh, this does not look very good!" But it was really Emily observing him and trying to figure out what was going on. That was so special for me, that I did not know what was going on. I reacted based on what he was doing, not judging him based on what I had read. After we filmed, I would go up to Taylor and Nic and say, "Okay, what's going on? Tell me everything!" And they would share and I'd say, "Okay, cool, cool, cool. Don't tell me anything else." And then we'd go back into shooting and at the end of the day, I'd go back and ask, "What's going on with you? Where did you come from?"
Well, it works. I watch the show with a group and every single person has had a different moment of sudden realization about what's going on with this relationship and in his head. Nothing is telegraphed.
I love watching the show now because I'm watching like the audience. I'm seeing the show without having read a lot of it, so I'm curious to see what's going to happen next. Obviously, I know what happens with our story and I know a little about what happens with Taylor. I should have asked more questions! But now I can watch every other character's story and be intrigued by it like a normal audience member. I love it.
Are you a fan of noir and mystery stories? Did you borrow from a favorite movie or book to bring anything to the character?
I had the urge to bring a bunch of stuff, but I think I would have contaminated it. Nic's work is so simple but so complex that if you bring anything [external] into it, you run the risk of contaminating such a beautifully written character. I was very careful. I just sort of lived in it. That's what I enjoyed the most. I did my own backstory on this character. I lived in this relationship and learned how it would feel. I didn't want to bring in anyone else's work. But I did do an animal exercise for the first episode because I didn't know how I was going to do the [bedroom] scene. So I said okay, let me just pretend that I'm a cat. It'll all work out! Nobody knows that but you—I just spilled my secret! But that was the only way I could crawl on that bed and feel comfortable in just underwear and a little t-shirt. I'm just going to pretend that I'm a cat... a very sexy cat.
I've always wondered how an actor prepares for a scene where they have to be sexy and intimate in front of an entire crew of people. Now I know. You pretend to be a cat.
Yeah! I decided to be a cat because the way they move and the way they crawl on things... Obviously, it's an animal so it's not sexy, but the human version of it can be very, very sexy. My intention was to seduce Paul and since it's such a sexy scene, it was hard to juggle... being sexy and keeping the love you feel for the other character. That was my biggest challenge. I think we did it. I think we did it.
At this point in the season, Emily is pregnant and getting married. From her point of view, things are going really well. But since this is True Detective and bad things always happen to anyone who seems remotely happy, should we be worried about Emily in the coming episodes?
[Laughs] I don't know about bad things. Circumstances always get a little complicated when your husband's not very in touch with you. Something is a little weird when someone proposes to you out of the blue and says they love you. Emily is very unsure, but very hopeful. I'm going to stay very hopeful for Emily and say that hopefully things do work out.
You're in the new Netflix series Narcos, right?
What's it like working with Netflix compared to HBO and CBS?
They're all very different. They're all very wonderful. I've been very lucky. I've been able to work with some heavy-hitters in TV. I did one episode for Netflix and it was a wonderful experience filming in Colombia. But my biggest dream and my biggest accomplishment was to be on HBO and True Detective. It was a show that I just fell in love with. I haven't watched Narcos yet, so let's see what happens.
You've done network television, cable, and streaming. You're a true 2015 actress.
Oh, thank you! I just got goosebumps.
This article was originally published on Esquire.com