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Sons of Anarchy Director Paris Barclay on Season 7, the Brutal Premiere, and What Lea Michele Has to Do With It

Sons of Anarchy director Paris Barclay. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Be advised that this interview with Sons of Anarchy executive producer and director Paris Barclay contains spoilers for the season-seven premiere, which aired last night. Strangely, it also contains a spoiler from this season of The Bridge.

As a gay African-American, Paris Barclay may seem like an unlikely candidate to executive-produce FX’s biker-gang saga Sons of Anarchy, and he knows it. “It’s not the show that I ever thought I would be involved with for this long, or that I would even watch,” admits Barclay, a longtime television director who won two Emmys for his work on NYPD Blue and has been nominated three times for Glee. “But from the pilot on, I got sucked into the universe. If only the Emmy voters felt the same way.” Maybe they will now that the series has kicked off its seventh and final season with the powerful “Black Widower,” which Barclay directed. He spoke with Vulture about what Sons of Anarchy will look like after Maggie Siff, this season’s gaggle of surprising guest stars (Marilyn Manson! Malcolm-Jamal Warner! Lea Michele!), and the possibility of a musical episode.

The season premiere was pretty bloody, even by SOA standards.
Yes, but that’s not all the blood there’s going to be. That’s just a little warm-up.

What would you say Jax’s state of mind is at this point?
Jax [Charlie Hunnam] is in a place that’s as dark as he’s ever been. The way that he’s dealing with the death of Tara [Maggie Siff] is not the way I would deal with the death of a loved one. He’s compartmentalized it and turned it into vengeance. That’s his focus. His focus isn’t on grieving or recovery or even taking care of his kids, as much as it is avenging the death of his wife. And because of his focus on that, he’s going to make some mistakes that are going to cause even more trouble. When you’re so focused on retribution, some of the simple questions you might have asked if you had a cooler head are just glossed over.

How would you describe his relationship with his mom, Gemma (Katey Sagal)? 
He’s very close to her. In the first episode, he said, “I love you.” He really turned to her, completely unsuspecting that she’s responsible for the death of Tara, for solace, for comfort, for support, for taking care of the kids, for being a sounding board. He’s put himself in the position to be manipulated by her. And she does it very well. They’re as close as they’ve ever been and almost too close for comfort in a way, but that’s where Gemma needs to have Jax, in order for her to feel comfortable.

Is it inevitable that he has to find out Gemma killed Tara?
I think it’s very unlikely that the last season of Sons of Anarchy will end without Jax knowing the truth about Tara’s death. Very unlikely!

Now that Jax’s recovering-junkie ex Wendy (Drea de Matteo) is back in the picture and Tara’s out of it, is there any possibility of a romantic reunion?
You’re asking all the right questions! Along with Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie), Wendy has become the voice of sanity and reason, which is so odd, considering where they’ve come from before, that the two of them together and apart have the clearest heads and the best perspective. Wendy busted out of rehab early, but she seems to have gotten her head on her shoulders, and she knows what’s important, and that’s taking care of her son and her sort-of stepson.

The show lost a couple of major characters last season. What’s it like to be on the set without Ron Perlman and Maggie Siff?
It’s different. Every time we lose a major character, the chemistry changes. I feel like in a way we’ve lost Juice [Theo Rossi] already, because he’s not in the clubhouse. He’s not with the guys. And he’s spiraling into a situation where he’s not very safe. But the biggest loss I’ve felt as a director has been Maggie. Because she’s been undersung for the work she did. She’s one of the best actors that has ever been in the Sons universe. I ache a little bit in the days without her. Selfishly, when you had her on the call sheet for the day, you knew it was going to be a good day. She’s just dynamite. She was great with the kids and very loving to the cast. She came back to visit with her new baby, and it was really emotional. We stopped filming for a bit just to welcome her back.

What was it like to direct Marilyn Manson as a Nazi inmate in the premiere?
He’s surprisingly fantastic. I did not expect him to be as good as he was. He absolutely floored me. When I think white supremacist, I don’t think Marilyn Manson. It’s not one of the names that pops into my head. But from that first scene in the first episode, he was just chilling and simple, and we’ve used him a few times since then. He brought even more humor and — with racist tendencies, of course — a wry, fresh, clever way. The man is really an actor. I was very pleased with him.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a biker-gang member was a bit of a surprise, too.
I’ve known Malcolm for 20-odd years, since his days on The Cosby Show, and he’s always owned a bike, he’s always ridden, and he wanted to be on the show. He came in and auditioned, and we created a part for him. Because (a) he’s great to look at now (b) he really rides and C) he’s friends with [co-star] Michael Beach and they ride together, so they had a nice bond. And he’s not afraid to be wryly humorous. He’s great to have around. There’s no trace of Theo Huxtable in his performance. He’s a blessing.

What’s the story behind Lea Michele’s upcoming guest gig? Does this show give instant street cred to actors known for playing squeaky-clean teens?
Exactly! She’s been the most fun. Lea has never been on a show other than Glee. I’ve directed a lot of Glees, so I’ve known her for a while. She’s been very much identified with the character of Rachel, and when Kurt Sutter wrote this role, he said, “Do you think we could get Lea Michele to do it?” And I said, “Well, hell, let’s ask!” And we did and she read it and within 24 hours, she said, “Fantastic, I’m in.” She only had to work one day, but she had to do six scenes, and she was awesome. The crew loved her. We finished early. She’s so prepared, and it’s such a different character from Rachel. This is a down-home, earthy waitress in a small-town diner who bonds with Gemma. She didn’t get to sing. She’s not going to do a note at all.

So no musical episode?
Sadly, no. When she was there with Katey, I said, “Can’t you sing a little something?” But no, she wanted to stay in character, and I respect that. And she didn’t die, so I’d love to see her again.

Annabeth Gish joins the show next week as the new sheriff in town, and she just got killed off on another FX drama, The Bridge. How did you work that out?
We knew she was dying on The Bridge, because we have a joint corporate partner, so we knew she was becoming available. And we’ve gone through a lot of sheriffs in this town. It’s hard to find someone who can bring something different to the table. With Annabeth, there’s an angularity and athleticism that’s easy — it’s not forced with her — that’s good. There are some secrets with that character. She’s not all she appears to be. She’s not going to be just another tough sheriff, and we thought Annabeth had the chops to pull that off. And sure enough, she’s taken us on a great ride.

How does it feel to know you’ll soon be riding off into the proverbial sunset?
It’s a little depressing. We’re on the downhill slide of the final season. We’re losing characters at a fairly rapid clip, and we know we’re revving towards the final moments we’ve always planned for the show. I have to admit, I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. It’ll be really interesting in the next five or ten years when people who’ve never seen the show find it on Netflix and say, “Ah, that’s why people loved Sons of Anarchy. It was pulpy, it was Shakespearean, it was dramatic, it was darkly humorous, and it was a weird concoction that stayed true to itself for seven seasons.”

Sons of Anarchy’s Paris Barclay on Season 7