Over her almost-25-year career, Michelle Forbes, the Texas-bred actress, has popped up in pretty much every conceivable genre of television — sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica), camp fantasia (True Blood), action (24), drama (In Treatment), comedy (Seinfeld). These days, the perennial guest star can be found in another drama, AMC’s The Killing, playing Mitch Larsen, the glassy-eyed, grief-stricken mother of a murdered girl. Vulture asked the 46-year-old ex-punk rocker to walk us through her wily, winding career.
When was the last time you were recognized?
The other night at a restaurant one of the servers was glaring at me, and I thought What have I done? He’s like, “Ohmygawd it is you from True Blood. You scared me so much.” With Maryann [True Blood’s maenad], I think a lot of people tended to get scared by my presence. I had no idea that’s what we were doing — I thought she was hilarious.
She knew how to make an entrance.
When Alan Ball [the show’s creator] offers you an entrance where you’re standing naked in the middle of the road with a pig, you’re like, “Yeah, let’s go bring it.” I’ll do it standing on my head if you like. But if I am at a party, people are disappointed I’m not concocting some sort of orgy.
Speaking of debauchery, what was it like moving alone to Manhattan’s East Village when you were just 16?
I went to New York on a holiday, and I just ended up staying there. It was pretty brutal in those days. Being an old punk rocker, I pulled a lot from that period for Maryann. That whole period was just about breaking down boundaries and pushing the envelope of morality. New York is so different now. I barely recognize it. There were buildings that were burnt out and boarded up, and there were burning trash cans and rats running through the streets.
There are still rats!
When I was shooting The Killing, I was living in this fantastic little loft in [Vancouver’s] Gastown. It was this old brothel with a breezeway by the entrance. I walked into the breezeway one evening and a rat sort of raced at me. And I thought, Aw, it’s just like New York back in the day. I felt weirdly nostalgic.
On The Killing, we’re starting to see a change in your character, Mitch — maybe something darker?
I think what was good about Mitch’s journey is that she’s not only dealing with the gutting heartbreak of losing her child, but she also starts to be betrayed by everyone around her. She starts to realize that everyone is lying to her on some level. And it’s maddening. You can’t get to the bottom of your grief and find any closure, because you have to deal with yet another betrayal.
So where is this leading?
I can’t give anything away. I must tell you that once we finished filming, I went into voluntary amnesia.
You have to do a lot of crying for the part. What do you think about to get the tears going?
I don’t have kids, but you think about your daughter being stolen from you. There were times I couldn’t stop crying. Loss on any level can be paralyzing. In a strange way, that’s far easier to play than, say, Maryann, who is completely in her bliss. I think that’s more foreign for us than wrapping your head around sorrow. That is a very comfortable emotion for us. We all say we want to be happy, but if that was really offered to us, how terrified of it would we be?
You’ve come a long way since landing your first role, on Guiding Light, in 1987. How did playing a schizophrenic Venezuelan psychiatrist prepare you for this career?
[Laughs.] I do recall I ran around in a Catholic-school uniform quite a bit. Um, and I had a cigarette and a gun inside the uniform. And there was a goat on set for some reason. He came over and started urinating on my shoe. I remember thinking, Is this really the path you wanna go down? And I said, “Yes, yes it is!”
You’ve also appeared on Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and a couple of Star Trek series. Is it safe to say you have a geek following?
I guess so. It’s an odd thing, because people equate me with the sci-fi world, but in truth, I’ve only done fourteen hours of science fiction. I think the sci-fi fan base is so massive and so committed. Some [encounters] are ultimately embarrassing. Once, this person got down on their knees, and I was like, “Oh my God! Get up!” At a convention you would expect that, but this was so bloody random.
As a veteran of television, are there series that you’re pretty addicted to yourself?
I think one of my favorite shows right now is that damn Community! Oh my God, where did that come from? I don’t know who Dan Harmon [the creator] is, but he is my new hero. I met that cast at an awards show, and I loved each and every one of them. Both the paintball episodes were just fantastic! Those writers are such wonderful nerds, and they’re obviously movie geeks. And the show sort of came out of nowhere, didn’t it?