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Claws Star Carrie Preston on the Double Trouble of Playing Twins

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Even in the wackadoo playground that is TNT’s Claws, Polly “Polly-Pol” Marks is a standout. Whether she’s mentoring a group of male escorts while adopting the persona of Fame-quoting “Master Polly,” or donning sweater sets and statement necklaces to play mama to a traumatized teen whose mother tried to sell her into prostitution, Polly is a master at stealing personalities. In “‘Til Death,” the penultimate episode of Claws season two, we finally find out why.

Polly has — well, had — a twin named Lillian, who died when the girls were 12 years old. Unbeknownst to anyone, Polly had a hand in her sister’s demise, and her guilt about that led her to assume alt-personalities to keep those bad memories at bay. Until Sunday’s episode, that is, when a series of personal dramas and professional stresses converge to fracture Polly’s tenuous façade, giving Emmy-winning actress Carrie Preston the chance to play both Marks sisters. Vulture spoke with Preston about revealing her character’s past, using Cyndi Lauper and the power of dance to heal Polly’s broken heart, the freedom of working on a show that can “go big or go home,” and her future as Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Fight.

How long have you known about Polly’s backstory?
Towards the beginning of the season. Originally, I thought the episode was going to be A Beautiful Mind, where the audience was going to think Lillian was a real person until the end, and it’s revealed that she’s not there. But they decided it was more interesting to tell the audience pretty early on that Lillian is a figment of Polly’s imagination — and then the reveal is that not only is she a figment, she never even grew into an adult. This whole manifestation of her sister is something that’s been growing and growing and growing in Polly’s mind since they were 12.

This episode has some truly crushing moments. When Lillian says, “I literally work every minute, sometimes I feel like I don’t even sleep,” it’s really what Polly’s life is like, trying to outrun this this secret.
Exactly, exactly. It’s always there. It’s like that voice that we have in our head that’s constantly chattering at us. You find all these different ways to try to silence the voice, but it doesn’t go away. Finally, Polly gets to the point where it’s not a voice anymore — it’s an actual, physical manifestation, it’s standing there in front of her, and she’s going to have to deal with it. Lillian is there to be seen. Lillian needs to be seen.

Polly has a lot of stresses: Her breakup with Dr. Ken, Marnie running away to live with her mother, not to mention her various criminal activities. What do you think was the biggest factor?
The trigger is definitely Marnie leaving. Polly has a very unhealthy attachment to this girl. It’s not really fully reciprocated or appropriate. So, when this girl leaves her, that abandonment brings back that original trauma of the death of her sister. I haven’t seen the episode yet, so I’m still not sure how they edited it, but that sends Polly into this physical place with asthma that — it’s not really asthma, it’s just that it gets triggered every time something dramatic happens. We set that up in the first episode of the season when Riva gets shot. So, I tried to lay in some foreshadowing for this moment because I didn’t want it to come out of nowhere. If you look back at what Polly’s been doing all season, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is Marnie leaving her. It probably wouldn’t have hit her as hard if Ken was still there, but he’s not there, either.

Lillian literally knocks on Polly’s door after she reads the good-bye note from Marnie.
Yes, she’s just right there. And it would make sense that something like that would happen. Trauma happens that way. It happens quick when something is broken, and that’s what happened to Polly.

Polly tells her friends about Lillian’s death, but she tells only Desna the full story. Is Desna the only other person who knows that Polly pushed Lillian before she drowned?
No one [else] has ever known. I thought it’s a much more interesting thing to play, that this is the first time you’re telling something so traumatic and owning your own culpability in something that is so dark in your life.

After finally sharing the truth, Polly and Lillian recreate their childhood skating routine as a dance to “True Colors.” You had to learn two sides of choreography and perform that whole routine. What was that like?
The dance was not in the original draft of the episode. I had pitched it to [Claws creator and showrunner] Janine [Sherman Barrois] because we always have these surreal moments where we do these elevated things, whether it’s synchronized swimming or a karaoke shootout. I thought, “If they had been ice skaters, wouldn’t it be so cool to have this dance between them?” I originally thought it would be cool to do it on a green screen and make it look like an ice rink, but we’re dealing with budgets and things like that. It wasn’t in [the script] at first, and I was disappointed. I mentioned it to Jamie Travis, who directed this episode, and he was like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to have that.” Then we had to get music clearance, and that takes a while. We didn’t get the music clearance until the day before we were shooting it. The idea was, if we couldn’t get the clearance for Cyndi Lauper, maybe we could get the clearance just to use the song, but we would use a different artist singing it. I was like, “Oh my God, no — it’s got to be Cyndi Lauper.” Because I had pitched the song, too. I thought it would be perfect for this moment, because it needed to be a song that they would’ve skated to.

There’s this wonderful actress, Valerie Jane Parker, and they hired her to play both Polly and Lillian opposite me. She’s not even really had time to read the script, and there we are, learning both sides of a dance with the choreographer the night before we have to shoot it. It was pretty intense. We were excited, and then as we were learning the dance, we got word, “Okay, this song is cleared, we got the rights.” It all just worked out. Valerie was completely amazing and ready to go, and I was so grateful to have somebody there to play off of. She would watch what I would do with Polly and then she would give that back to me whenever I was playing Lillian and vice versa.

Is that dance a sign that Polly is ready to move forward?
I think that’s her hope. It was a moment of [Polly and Lillian] coming together. But as with all mental-health issues — which this is — those don’t just go away after you have a nice therapeutic chat. I don’t think Polly’s going to be okay now. Is this going to make her not want to put on so many personas, or is it going to make her do it more? Or is it just going to make her own it? I don’t know, but it’s going to be a very fun question to answer in season three.

This episode was very intense for Polly, but on Claws, there’s always room for a bit of levity. Dr. Ken serenading Polly was an odd and perfect gesture that befits this odd and perfect couple. What can you say about their future?
There’s always hope when somebody has found somebody that understands them, and both of those characters understand each other’s neurosis. That’s a rare thing. I’m rooting for them and I’m glad that the audience roots for them as well.

Every week, it looks like you’re all having a really good time.
Well, you’re right about that. There is a great amount of joy and laughing. The comradery and the chemistry that you see between all of us is very real. The hours are long and it can be very grueling, especially for Niecy [Nash], who’s there all the time, but we all rally around each other. We’re all under each other’s spell. Luckily, on our show, it’s anything goes. We’re not doing something naturalistic here, so it does give us the freedom to go big or go home. The story and the style of it is elevated, and the audience is willing to go there with us, whether we want to do a make-believe TED Talk or a Brady Bunch thing about abortion.

The Good Fight is also headed for its third season. Do you know if Elsbeth will be returning?
No one has asked me yet, but I certainly will if they do and I’m available. I love that role, I love those people, and as long as they’ll have me, I will be there, so I hope they call.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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