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Why Paula Malcomson Came Back to Deadwood

Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Paula Malcomson has been all over TV since the cancellation of David Milch’s Western series Deadwood: most recently on Ray Donovan, playing the hero’s wife, Abby, as well as on Fringe, Sons of Anarchy, and the Battlestar Galactica spinoff Caprica. This past week, the Northern Irish actress is back in Deadwood reprising the role of Trixie, the onetime frontier prostitute turned sweetheart of John Hawkes’s entrepreneur, Sol Star, for Deadwood: The Movie, a long-delayed end to the story. (Spoilers follow this paragraph, so don’t read the interview until after you’ve watched the film!)

Malcomson was interviewed during a visit to the Deadwood set at Melody Ranch outside Los Angeles in December 2018 on the second-to-last day of shooting. She answered questions while reposing in a 19th-century love seat atop a sawdust-covered stage in the Gem Saloon, still clad in the wedding dress Trixie wears through the second half of the movie. She had just finished filming the final scene, in which Trixie’s ailing, exhausted ex-boss and former lover, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), is helped to bed by his employee and ward, Jewel (Geri Jewell), who rubs his feet and tries to sing “Waltzing Matilda” to him, mangling the lyrics the whole time.

Though essentially comedic, it’s a powerful scene because it’s about the mortality of all the characters, particularly Al’s, and the way the end of a TV show can become a metaphor for the ways that rich and productive lives are interrupted or ended. Filming it put Malcomson in a reflective mood, as her answers here indicate. Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which was common knowledge among cast and crew but hadn’t yet been publicly revealed, was also on her mind, though it wasn’t up for discussion.

How does it feel being back?
At this moment, sitting here, I don’t know how I feel about it. It’ll become clear afterwards, in the sort of “Jesus Christ, that happened!” moment.

A lot changed for Trixie between season three and this movie, eh?
Well, she’s become a business owner. Really a co-owner of a hotel. She and Sol are living in it and working in it together. And she gets to have a baby! I got to have a baby on my very first day of shooting!

Did they put some kind of prosthetic on you?
Yeah! We modeled the scene on historical pictures we’d looked at showing the old ways of giving birth. We had two chairs set up, and my legs are up on one of the chairs. When I showed the picture of that setup to the director, Dan Minahan, he said, “I fucking love it,” so we went ahead and did it that way.

It’s great to have that kind of input on a scene.
It’s really cool. And the result was a great shot with Aunt Lou and Doc and Sol Star all in the room together.

It’s always amazing to me how the most refined, advanced medicine from another time can be stuff like “Poke a hole in the back of his skull, that’ll let the headache out.”
Exactly! There wasn’t any such thing as anesthesia, at least not the kind they have now, where it’s localized. They just knocked them out to have a kid and used forceps to deliver the baby. A lot of women would die in childbirth, of course. I think that’s Trixie’s big fear, that the baby’s going to die or she’s going to.

How does Deadwood feel different now, as opposed to last time?
Our typical speed is the slow telling of the tale, you know? We’ve got a lot of plot and a lot of things to pack into two hours. We have to develop a bit of a different muscle, tell the story in a different way. We all want to take a long time to tell it, and that’s our instinct because that’s how Dave writes.

When I came back here and watched all the characters and background [actors] gathered in the thoroughfare, I realized not one of them would have minded if somebody had said, “You know, we changed our mind. We want to do more of this.” This movie will be a nice way to end it, but perhaps we are left with a little bit of ambiguity there at the end of David’s script.

What, you’re saying you don’t think Al is dead and this is the end of Deadwood?
I don’t know.

Making more Deadwood would be difficult now even without David’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, because everybody’s doing their own thing. I would imagine scheduling was a major difficulty for this movie.
I believe so, although people jumped through hoops to be able to do it.

What would you say is the biggest difference in what’s onscreen now compared with the last time you were here?
There are a lot more women in the town because Deadwood has become a slightly more hospitable place. In some ways, the movie is a little bit of a feminist manifesto. In the scene you just saw us shoot, Trixie walks from Al’s room out onto the balcony of the Gem, and I just so happen to put his coat on as I go out. That’s symbolic. It’s a passing of the baton. Al wants to pass the place on to Trixie. Al believes in her. He thinks Trixie is smart enough and tough enough to tell the men what to do.

I noticed the town looks a little different from what I remember of previous visits in 2005 and 2006. There are some new buildings.
Right, and a little bit of brick.

I was going to say “new materials.” Is that part of the idea here, that we’re creeping up on the 20th century?
Yeah. There’s telegraph poles and a telephone. We really emphasize the idea that there’s money in Deadwood, that it’s come from this — I don’t know if “global economy” is the right word for that time, but you can see that the town is a big player in the whole system. There’s money to be made here, everyone knows it, and the place communicates that idea. Even in the Gem, the girls are swankier.

How about the change in clothes?
Our costume designer, Janie Bryant, is obviously pretty much the best. We worked really hard on every single costume, and we did it together in a lot of ways. The big question was: How do we stay with the same kind of feeling as the original show but also get across the idea that now some of these characters have more money? It’s a different world once you’ve found that balance.

[Gestures to herself] This is Trixie’s wedding dress.

It’s lovely.
It is! And I love that I get to propose to him. I mean, not really propose — Sol’s been asking Trixie to marry him for years and she always tells him no, but then they get to the point where she thinks Al is feeling poorly. That, plus the fact that there’s a baby, makes her decide that this is the right time.

Was there a moment during the production when you felt you were really back in the headspace of the show?

First day.

Had to. Had to survive. Like I was saying, John Hawkes and I had as our first scene on our first day the part where Trixie actually goes into labor. But before that, we were just talking to each other in the scene, and about four takes in, I thought, Oh, there we are. We’re good. We weren’t sure about it until then.

When people ask you about Deadwood, what do they want to talk about?
They want to hear anything and everything. They want to hear David Milch stories. There are so many stories in this experience because, the way we attack the material, really, truly anything can happen. We always lived in this world that’s open to impulse, and as a result we have tons of stories about how a scene could have gone but then it took a strange turn and went another way.

I felt that with this scene because I heard the direction Dan Minahan gave you: “There’s something funny about this.” But your reaction in the takes after that didn’t make it seem like Trixie thought it was funny!
That’s probably because I don’t listen to my directors!

It might sound odd, but as I watched you doing the reactions to what was happening with Al and Jewel, I felt you were reacting on behalf of the viewer. That’s why there was sadness and love in your face, rather than amusement.
Yes, I wanted that. That’s actually what I was trying to convey.

Well, you succeeded, because it made me emotional.
I wanted that scene to have even more of that feeling than it had. I said to them, “I almost want it to have her actual point of view in the scene, like actually go ahead and have the camera be Trixie’s point of view.” Trixie has historically been the emotion of the town. She feels it all very hard. You see that a lot with the whores as well. At the child’s funeral in season two, the Bullock boy, it’s the whores who are weeping.

What will you tell people that you took away from Deadwood?
I got to learn at the foot of a master. David used to do something no one else can do: He’d prepare your soul before a scene, you know? I learned how to work with the material being a living, breathing thing, a thing that anything could change at any time. That meant you had to always be on your toes because David had made you the co-creator of the character.

So he set me up to be a real actor.

That’s quite a statement.
It is. And we’re all very much indebted.

Why Paula Malcomson Came Back to Deadwood