Preacher’s Creators and Stars Discuss Blowing Up Tom Cruise, Southern Accents, and Playing God

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Sam Catlin, Joseph Gilgun, Garth Ennis, Ruth Negga, Dominic Cooper, and Seth Rogen attend a screening of Preacher at 92nd Street Y on May 19, 2016, in New York City. Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/2016 Laura Cavanaugh

AMC’s Preacher was already one of the most-talked-about shows of the year before it even debuted. Geeks who read the comic-book series it’s based on had been salivating over it since the 2013 announcement that moguls Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had been tapped to develop a TV adaptation alongside Breaking Bad writer/producer Sam Catlin. And ever since the first episode was screened at SXSW in March, there was a ton of mainstream buzz about its obscene humor and over-the-top violence — especially about the fact that the show features a plot point about Tom Cruise spontaneously combusting.

The series’s first episode aired Sunday night, but an audience of fans got to see it three days before that, during a preview screening at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y. Afterward, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman led an onstage talk with some of the people behind Preacher: Rogen, Catlin, Dominic Cooper (who plays the titular preacher, Jesse Custer), Ruth Negga (who plays Jesse’s deadly ex-girlfriend, Tulip), Joseph Gilgun (who plays Cassidy, an Irish vampire with a checkered past, and who was particularly manic onstage), and Garth Ennis (the writer and co-creator of the Preacher comics series). They discussed everything from choreographing brutal fights in cramped vehicles to a possible Rogen cameo and the challenges of acting alongside a man whose face looks like an anus. A lightly edited transcript is below.

Given that the show blows Tom Cruise up in the pilot, what do you all plan to say to him the next time you see him?
Seth Rogen: I actually know Tom Cruise, so it's fucked-up. I will run into him. I'm praying he has a good sense of humor about this. I don't know how I would feel if someone exploded me, so it's hard for me to say. I hope he gets it, because I don't know if I would. But I hope he gets it, is what I'll say. You only explode people you're big fans of. That's the truth! And I love Tom Cruise. Edge of Tomorrow was dope.

Underrated!
Rogen: Totally underrated! It will be an awkward interaction. One-hundred percent. I'll update you guys after it happens.

Sam, at what point in the writing process did that joke come up?
Sam Catlin: Towards the end, I think? We needed one more religion …

Right, and what's the easiest religion to go after?
Catlin: Yeah, so I figured Scientology.

Rogen: We're validating it as a religion.

Catlin: We are. We're authenticating it!

Rogen: Yeah, it's being authenticated, so it's very complimentary, I think.

Catlin: An homage.

Let's go back to a little bit of prehistory. Garth, can you take us back to you and Steve Dillon coming up with Preacher, the comic?
Garth Ennis: Good, I'm glad you mentioned Steve.

We all love Steve Dillon, right? He's great! [Applause.]
Ennis: We proceeded largely on instinct. We sort of took bits and stuck them together, hoped for the best, leapt into the dark, crossed our fingers, and it worked. But it does mean that I've generously handed these gentlemen a big pile of problems to solve. I think they've done an admirable job, but, yes, it was hardly an organic beginning. It was bits and pieces and hoping for the best and "Oh shit, this works, and now we have to finish it."

How did you pitch it to DC Comics? What did you say this thing was going to be?
Ennis: I still don't remember. There was an outline, but it's long gone, it's lost to history. All the scripts are gone too. I don't even know if I did say this, but later on I claimed I said it was a Western. [Laughter.] And it had supernatural elements. “And you'd like it, trust me!” And it worked.

Seth, let's go back to Vancouver in the '90s.
Rogen: Yes, shall we? Alanis Morissette was popular. [Laughter.]

How did you first get exposed to Preacher and what did you think of it?
Rogen: Me and Evan [Goldberg] were virgins. [Laughter.] So we read a lot of comic books, spent a lot of time with each other writing Superbad at the time, and did not much else, honestly. Evan's brother was a huge comic-book fan, as well, and would kind of pass stuff onto us as he saw fit. And I remember Evan saying, "My brother gave me this and it's fucking crazy." And I remember reading it, and it just blew my mind.

The movies of the '90s were my favorite — that's what really shaped my sensibility as someone who makes movies. So things like Pulp Fiction, and Sam Raimi's early movies, and Peter Jackson's early movies, and Scorsese's movies. You know, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers' movies. And then I read Preacher and it was like all of those things combined into one thing. So we just became obsessed with it and would just talk about it all the time. As soon as we had any power in Hollywood at all, we started trying to make it. And then it took around ten years for that to happen.

What stood out when you read Preacher? What were some moments you remember reading and going, I can't believe this is in print?
Rogen: There was so much. It was so fucked-up! [Laughter.] The thing that I still remember is the look on the guy's face who gets his jaw shot off. It's in, like, Tulip's introduction. He has this look like, "Huh?" He's trying to look down at it, like this, to see what's happened to him. I remember just laughing and thinking, Whoa. One of the scenes that me and Evan reference a lot when we make movies is the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta accidentally blows the guy's head up in the back of the car. We always talk about how funny it is, but how fucked-up it is. That frame was kind of the equivalent comic-book version of that, where, like, there should be nothing funny about it, but I still remember the look on the guy's face as he's like, "Huh?" It really made me laugh. I think how funny it was, was the thing that stuck with me.

So, Sam, how did you get roped into this? What did Seth and Evan say to you?
Catlin: Uh, just, "Do it"? [Laughter.] I'd never heard of it. They called me on Skype, I think. They were in Vancouver making some movie about a North Korean dictator. [Laughter.]

And who can remember that?
Rogen: That went really well. [Laughter.]

Catlin: And I was like, "No, I stopped reading comics when I was a child." And they were like, "You're a fucking idiot. You don't know what you're missing. You gotta read Preacher, it's the greatest thing." So I read it. And I had no idea how this was allowed to be in print, let alone how we were going to put it on television. Then we just started to figure it out, and it's been two glorious years since then.

The airplane fight-scene in the pilot is really something to behold. Joe, what's it like filming that? How much stage combat —
Joseph Gilgun: It's a shitload to do, man. It's a fucking nightmare. [Laughter.] You see that fight and you're like — [Points to his mug onstage.] Can I get some more beer in that?

You're not supposed to give away the secret!
Gilgun: We're all just pissed as — But you know what, there's a lot involved [in the scene]. John — how do you say his second name, dude?

Rogen: John Koyama.

Gilgun: John Koyama.

Rogen: And Jeff Imada. Our fight choreographers.

Gilgun: The fight choreographers: fantastic men. And what they'll do is they'll give you a breakdown. So, they'll go, "Right. I'm you. Try not to be stupid and watch what I'm about to do." So they show you this enormous fight. And you think, Shit, how am I going to break this down? Because it's really terrifying. Because you don't want to let anyone down. It's a brand-new job. You're working for Seth and shit like that. [Laughter.] [Looks out into audience.] Is that [Michael] Slovis? How the fuck you doing, lad? [Laughter.] He’s here, eh? He's come. He's directed one of the best episodes, I might mention, that bald fellow right there. Like a single breast. Like a singular tit.

Jesus Christ.
Gilgun
: Oh, fuck, come on. I don't mean it. It's not my fault. It's my personality. It's the way I was raised. So they break it down for you and before you know it, you kind of know what you're doing. You start to go from 30 percent, 60 percent, up to 80 percent — that's when people start getting caught on the bridge of their nose. People getting kicked in the nuts and shit. In the end, I was so terrified of not learning it and just letting everybody down that I learned it all.

I mean, I was in my fucking hotel room, in the Sheraton — [Stands and starts mimicking a fight.] [Laughter.] So I got it in the end. I think that's why they used so much of it, which is a massive credit to me and only me. [Laughter.] Because I learned the fucking thing! I don't know my lines. [Looks out into audience.] That's Matty [Tauber]! That's the producer! Oh, I love that boy. Stand up. Let us clap for you. [Applause.] Yeah! I love you, man. Sorry, I'm just useless at questions. Ask someone else.

Joe really is Cassidy. I read these comics when they came out, and it's very bizarre to see someone walk up to you and be someone you read about in a fictional work.
Gilgun: I've got genuine issues. [Laughter.] And I'm only 32, Cassidy's fucking 119. I fucked myself in 32 years. Imagine if I lived that long.

Rogen: You won't. [Laughter.]

Gilgun: Talk to Dominic or someone else. [Laughter.]

Let's get to the well-behaved actors. Ruth, let's talk about your big fight scene. What was it like shooting that?
Ruth Negga: Actually, I had a similar experience to Joe, because I'd worked with Koyama for a few days on mats. It's like a dance, choreography, essentially, and then we transferred it to a car. It was fine. They had a lot of people looking after us, who make it look easy, you know? And it's just a thrill.

Dominic, you are the titular preacher. When they come to you and they describe this character, how do they break it down? What did they say Jesse was?
Dominic Cooper: It was the most unusual meeting I've ever had in my life.

Do tell.
Cooper: There were five hairy men in a sweaty room on the Sony lot, trying to describe something undescribable. They started by mentioning the characters, and they said, “There's this kid that looks like an anus.” [Laughter.] “He becomes a really famous musician. That might be in it.” I'm like, “This is good, really tempting, so far.” [Laughter.]

Ultimately, I got ahold of the script, which I absolutely loved, and then I went back over all the comics. And, yeah, I was desperate to play him. It was a huge honor, that they thought that I was right in some way. I don't know what they saw. And TV — I didn't realize how quickly you're making each episode. We do each episode in seven days. We're doing so many different scenes, and trying out different genres as each day unfolds. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Ruth, Tulip has undergone some changes from the comic. How was she described to you, when they came to you and said, “This is the character that we want to look at you for”? How did they summarize her? How do you encapsulate someone like that?
Negga: I think the word that is most used in relation to Tulip is "badass." [Laughter.]

She does build a bazooka out of soup cans or whatever.
Negga: But I think there's more to her than that, you know? I think that the great thing about that first scene is, she's incredibly violent, but there's also a tender sort of humor about her. You sort of fall a bit in love with her and also sort of want to mother her a bit, and look after her. So I think that you'll see that develop more and more through the series. And also you kind of get involved in Jesse and Tulip's backstory. I think that's interesting because it shows how deep their bond actually is, and how and why they're essentially soul mates.

The kids in the weapon-building scene were okay to work with?
Negga: They were amazing. They were seriously good.

It can always go either way when you're doing stuff with child actors.
Gilgun: I think child actors are fucking terrifying. [Laughter.] They're so clever and grounded. I'm just this mess talking to the mothers. "Oh, no, he's in bed by 9:00. Has read all the Harry Potters." [At that age,] I was still wiping shit off the wall. He's read every fucking Harry Potter? What do you mean? What's he fucking doing? Does he know about the outside? Sorry.

Rogen: I don't think we put you in any scenes with children. [Laughter.]

Gilgun: Not a one.

Seth and Sam, you guys took the show in a different direction than the comic. Not really spiritually, but in terms of plot and a lot of character backstory. Why make those changes?
Rogen: Garth was actually one of the first people to say we should do that, honestly. I think it was like this thing that we were afraid to say to some degree, which was, This is an amazing comic; but an amazing comic and an amazing TV show are two very different things. And some great comics, the best comics ever written, would not necessarily make good TV shows if you literally adapted them. It was kind of this thing in the back of my head that I didn't quite know how to reconcile. And Garth was like, “Well, you're going to change it, right?” And we were like, “Oh, I don't know.” He was like, “It won't work! I don't think it would time out. It'll be like two and a half seasons. I don't think it'll work.”

Once he said that, it really freed all of us to explore. And then Sam was the one who was like, “We should really turn the clock back. The show's called Preacher. By the time the comic starts, he's kind of done with it. Maybe we should see him actually trying to be a preacher and really making a go of it and really showing where his roots have grown, and where he's from, and really establishing the character in a way that kind of plays out more throughout the comics a little bit.”

Catlin: God is a big character in the comic and will be in the series as well. It felt like an opportunity to kind of see Jesse's investment in God and religion before God's true nature is revealed to him in the same way it is in the comics. So we sort of wanted to go back a little bit. We brought some stuff forward, but we actually moved some stuff back in terms of — yeah, like Seth was saying, we thought it was an opportunity to have the trouble come to Jesse in the beginning, before he goes out and seeks trouble of his own.

Garth, I hear you've been pretty involved in seeing scripts beforehand. What most surprised you as a new idea? When did you go, "That's amazing. I don't know that I could have ever come up with that"?
Rogen: If anything. [Laughter.]

Ennis: I wish I'd thought of the plane scene in the pilot. And there's a little bit of business coming later on with a rather tall chap with a pair of revolvers. [Applause.] That is frankly inspired. I wish I'd thought of that, too. I got the impression that when I said, “You're going to change it,” all I thought I was doing was confirming the suspicion you already had. After all, even if you were to do — and I think this idea was mooted at one point — one episode per issue, you'd still have to double the script. A 24-page comic script will not get you a 42-minute episode of a TV show. You're going to need new material. I like all the new material. I also like — and you'll see this as it progresses — some of the stuff from later in the book is being brought forward.

It's a question, I think, of pacing. It's a question of giving the story space to breathe. The comic hits the ground, as [Sam] said, at 100 miles an hour, and it accelerates. It really just creates this maelstrom, this whirlwind, that would whiz past a mainstream viewer and leave them bewildered. You need to slow it down. You need to give it space. They have.

Ruth and Dominic, how would you characterize how each of your characters feels about the other, as the show starts?
[Negga and Cooper sigh.] [Laughter.]

Gilgun: Don't look at me. [Laughter.]

Cooper: Well, more and more has been revealed to us as actors, as it's gone on, and it's really helpful because it's informed every decision certainly about what Jesse's now trying to do and achieve. I think a lot of the guilt he's harboring is because of his father and also because of Tulip, how he feels he let her down. There's also something that's being revealed that's happened between the two of them that's extraordinarily upsetting, something that they both can't move away from.

Like Ruth said, they're at the center of one another's lives. They have had tough lives, tough childhoods. They are each other's family. Knowing that, and that being the center of every action he makes — and even though he's trying to escape that life, he's drawn to a friend and he's also drawn to a town that he remembers from his childhood and his father. He's trying to replicate what his father achieved with these sort of dysfunctional people in this town.

And it's hard to escape something that you ultimately love, and deep down want to still be near and with. But he knows that for what he's trying to succeed at, they have to be apart. But I imagine before this entity takes hold of him, and he's decided to quit, he's probably going to find her and go back with her, and carry on as they were. Which is quite a happy place, but just a violent and dangerous one. Which I quite like.

Ruth, how would you characterize the relationship?
Negga: Tulip returns essentially because she has unfinished business with Jesse. Something happened to rupture their relationship. And I think that she's ready now to come back. I think the thing is, they need each other in their lives, even though they're not very good for each other all the time. But there's just a magnetism. But I think that Tulip thinks it's going to be much easier to sort of entice Jesse back on the road. But she's coming back to a man who's essentially wanting to evolve into a different person. And he feels that she's sort of toxic for him at the moment. And maybe she is.

But you also get the sense that there's something about that life that Jesse still can't resist. It's in his blood, and it's in his nature. Like, there's a great bit in [Jesse’s] fight sequence, where the camera sort of slows and you just see this smile. And you're kind of worried for Jesse. Maybe, you know, it's just his nature.

Joe, what does Cassidy want more than anything else?
Gilgun: What does he want? What does he not want? Know what I mean? It seems that — 119 years old, everyone's just fucking died and left him. He's just on this constant, tragic fucking roundabout of getting in trouble there, needing to move from there now because of those people, now I've gotta fucking be here for a bit. And now I'm in shit with them, now I've gotta go over there. My life, basically. [Laughter.] I mean, he's funny. He has a job, but he's a bit of a clown. But I mean, fuck me, that kind of life doesn't come without some serious trauma. And I think the reason he settled, what he wants, is to be loved and to love someone. He's not this fucking sexy vampire that everyone keeps portraying. [Laughter.] Smoldering vampires are everywhere. Fuck yourself.

But I think, more than anything, he wants to be loved. And he wants to be a part of something. I can imagine he's probably been bouncing from place to place for some time. Maybe giving up all hope of ever settling. Watching someone die again, I can imagine it would be a very difficult thing to keep going through. He's probably got children that have fucking died, you know what I mean?

So I think by the time he gets to Annville, crash-lands in Annville, and he meets Jesse, I think he sees maybe a little part of himself that once existed. I think he's on this path of redemption. He wants to sort himself. He's been a bit of a wanker. [Jesse’s like], “We're going to fix this. I'll be a preacher. My dad did it.” And I think Cassidy's sort of an old man and he's watching this young kid make just fucking really boring decisions, and he despairs of it. You know, he's a realist. He's unapologetic, just like me. I'm unapologetic about the way I am. I'm not sorry. I know I said I was sorry but I don't mean it at all. [Laughter.]

I think that, like everybody else, he wants to be fucking loved. I think that's all it comes down to, really. Regardless of the fact that he's a badass that bites people's necks. I just think that everybody needs someone, don't they?

[To Rogen.] Is he like this on set, too?
Rogen: Oh, yeah. [Laughter.] [Applause.]

Gilgun: The novelty wears off.

Rogen: No, it doesn't! I almost died trying to hug Joe earlier today.

Gilgun: He did!

Rogen: I always wanna touch — I find myself touching Joe a lot.

Gilgun: I went past him. And you could feel that he's not very tactile. It's like he doesn't know —

Rogen: It's true. I don't know where to touch him. It's why they've put us so far from each other [onstage].

Gilgun: It’s like being in the chimp enclosure. You know they’re dangerous. You’re like, Fucking shit. I'm immediately regretting it. This one could just pull my fucking — I'm just going to stand still. That's what it's like hugging Seth. No, it’s not. He actually literally put his arm through the fucking lift door, just closing. Like, dude, that's so brave! Like this really brave, fleeting hug through these doors that are about to close and cut it in twain.

Rogen: You always know when he's on set. [Laughter.]

Gilgun: Oh, I'm sorry.

Rogen: You don't hear a lot of, "Is Joe on set?"

Gilgun: It might be something. “He's got Asperger's,” or something. It might be a thing.

Rogen: Don't try to stop. Just keep it going.

Seth, you've directed a fair amount now in your career, and you co-directed the pilot. What was unique and a learning experience about directing this pilot?
Rogen: It was fun because of how many different genres play in. I mean normally — I think the movies [Evan and I have] directed kind of have different genre spins on them, but they're comedies. And if they're not functioning on a comedic level, on a minute-to-minute basis, they will be considered failures. So it was nice to do something, honestly, that wasn't like that. That allowed us to sit a little bit more in these moments and to not say from the get-go, Laughter is our barometer of quality here. You know? So, on a visual level, it allowed us to do a lot more. Comedy kind of locks you into a certain shooting pattern. So it was nice to be able to move the camera around.

And on a genre level, [in Preacher] there's science fiction, and horror, and Western, kind of southern-Gothic stuff, and Scorsesian stuff. And Tarantinoesque stuff. To be able to really indulge in all those different genres and fully just go for it on a visual level and on a tonal level, and really try to make a show, we kept saying, that could support that infrastructure. To have something where you could bounce from space to Africa to Texas to Russia. And to not have it seem random or jarring, but to really have it seem like a part of a cohesive piece. That was something we talked a lot about and was just a totally unique experience and completely unlike anything we'd attempted to do. There was nothing that told us we would be able to do it. It was really just a big swing we took, mostly because we knew we'd be super pissed if someone else took it.

Ruth and Dominic, what was the hardest word to do in the Southern accent?
Cooper: That's a good question.

Negga: Oh my gosh. “Jesse.” [Laughter.] I don't want to overact it. It always sounded a bit funny to me.

Gilgun: Fucking "padre." I can't say "padre." [Inaudible.] He knows what I'm about, because he's fucking Irish. [Gilgun is English.]

Rogen: You hear it every episode, right? Over and over and over again.

Gilgun: [To Negga, who is Irish.] How do you say it?

Negga: No, don't ask me. I'm not getting involved. “Padre.”

Gilgun: It's been fucking four months.

Sean from the audience asks, “What are the odds that we'll see the Zippo?”
Catlin: The Zippo you'll see, but you'll have to wait for it.

Rogen: If you've read the comics, you'll know that Jesse doesn't have the Zippo [yet].

Another audience question for Garth: “What's it like to see your stuff come to life and what do you think about the changes?”
Ennis: Oh, it feels absolutely brilliant. If you want to know my favorite bits, from the pilot it would be [when Cassidy says to a cow he’s about to kill], "Come down here and give old Cassidy a kiss." And [when Tulip says] "We are who we are, Jesse Custer." But my absolute favorite scene begins with a dark and handsome stick and ends, "What sort of a preacher are you?" That was just sheer joy. Absolutely. So it's brilliant.

Next question: “Dominic, how did you keep a straight face when acting in the scene with Eugene?”
Cooper: With difficulty, in the beginning. But he's incredible. I think that character's developed so much as we sort of went on. At first, it was going to be very amusing. But then, actually, he's such a great actor, Ian [Colletti], and he emotes so well with such a lack of — he has half his face covered up. So he doesn't have the full facial expression. He's always doing it with his eyes. He's so wonderful and so revealing that when I'm acting with him, it's very touching. And he kind of exposes all of the stuff that Jesse's terrified of, and he's trying desperately to shy away from and hide. So after the initial shock of it — in fact, it's more funny now talking to him now without it on. [Laughter.] Him with a mouth is really unusual.

What was in Eugene’s meat milkshake? What was that made out of?
Rogen: I didn't ask, to be totally honest. I don't know. [Laughter.]

Cooper: It was meat.

Catlin: He's a method actor.

Rogen: A very good actor. [Laughter.] But what's funny is because of the mask, he can't eat; he has to drink.

Oh, like, throughout the day?
Rogen: Oh, yeah, at lunch, he has to have shakes. [Laughter.]

Gilgun: He never complains.

Rogen: He never complains, to his credit.

Cooper: Well, he might be complaining, you just can't hear him. [Laughter.]

Rogen: He could have a really miserable look on his face.

There's a P.S. to that question: “Seth, you do not look like Miley Cyrus's kneecap.”
Rogen: I think I do, actually. I appreciate it.

Gilgun: Miley Cyrus's kneecap? What the fuck?

Rogen: It's a long story. I'll tell you after.

This one’s for Seth and Sam: “This show took a Sisyphean effort to get made. And I'm so pumped that it did. The comic is so rich with elements and themes; there's everything. What is the most important element, or the feeling that the comic evokes, that you want to convey to the viewer?”
Catlin: [Sighs.] [Laughter.]

Rogen: What we talked a lot about was making a show that was incredibly emotionally grounded and relatable, but at the same time, really have the sense that anything — literally anything — could happen at any second. That on a stylistic level, on a narrative level, on a story level. Because that's what the comic did, honestly. You did not know what the fuck was going to happen when you turned the page. You didn't know what year you were going to be in. You didn't know what dimension. It was completely unpredictable.

But at the same time, you loved the characters. And amidst all that mayhem, all you wanted was for the three of them to be happy in the end, you know? And that was really, again, something we talked a lot about, was how to spin those plates. Make a show that was insane, but at the same time, just a really sweet story about three people that deserved to be happy. [Applause.] There's so much fucked-up stuff that happens, don't worry. After you watch the chainsaw fight in episode two, you might not feel that way. [Laughter.]

For Seth: “Any desire to guest-star in an episode?” It’s signed, “Jessica from Brooklyn. Love you and your laugh.”
Rogen: Thank you, Jessica. No, there have been roles we've talked about, perhaps, but they're in future seasons, potentially. There's one that we're excited about potentially doing, but it'll require —

Gilgun: If he plays God —

Rogen: That would be great. If I cast myself as God, I'd never hear the end of that.