Edi Patterson’s latest TV role is a big one on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, but she’s been in the comedy game for a long time. From her early years as an improviser in Austin, to joining the Groundlings in Los Angeles, to eventually joining the cast of Damon Wayans’s short-lived sketch show The Underground, Patterson’s slowly racked up an impressive list of accomplishments, and it keeps growing, year after year.
More recently, Patterson landed a recurring role as Ms. Abbott in Vice Principals in 2016. Which would be exciting enough for an actor alone, but Patterson and Vice Principals star-creator Danny McBride had such an instant and familial bond that they wrote a movie together soon after the show wrapped. “Anything he did I would know how to go with,” says Patterson. “And anything I did he would know how to go with, in a fun way.”
Eventually, when McBride was putting together the cast for his next HBO project, The Righteous Gemstones, he of course asked Patterson to play his sister Judy Gemstone as well as join the writing staff. She’s excited to be doing what she loves, and that may be why so many great places are excited to have her.
Patterson recently spoke with Vulture about the writing process with McBride, her delayed reaction process to finding her comedic voice in improv, and why it’s always helped her to say “Fuck it.”
You’ve said that you and Danny McBride had an instant connection when you were acting on Vice Principals, which led to you writing together as well. How did the writing side of things come to be between you and McBride?
When we finished Vice Principals, we had just been talking about writing together. At first we were trying to work on a movie together — a brother-sister movie — and honestly, the impetus of the idea was something where we could physically beat the shit out of each other because that made us laugh. And then one of the days I came in he was like “Oh, I had this other idea,” and it was about me being the mom of this young actor for a four-day adventure. So we just started writing it and found we write really well together and wrote a couple of things, actually. Then he had the idea for Gemstones come up, and he asked me to play Judy, and of course I jumped at that. After HBO said they wanted more episodes of the show, he asked me to come write for this season.
Do you expect something to come of the mom-actor movie?
Yeah, I think we’ll make that one at some point. It’s called The Kevin Bacon Movie, and I think Danny will direct. I don’t know when we’ll do it, but I do know we’ll do it at some point.
What’s the writing process like between the two of you?
Our initial approaches are different in that he will hammer something all the way out, and then go “This felt weird,” and then hammer it all the way out again. He has such a knack for making it better every time. I come from such an improv background that my initial thought is usually like All these ideas are awesome; let’s pick one and we’ll make it awesome. But he takes time in that initial phase of “Let’s get it all out, and then let’s see if that works.”
He’s also very prolific, very fast, and can crank out a scene, and it’s genuinely smart and funny when you read it, which is sort of staggering how all of the elements can come together so fast. I’m a little different in that sometimes I need to stare at the laptop for a little while or pace, and then an idea will sort of come in sideways. I tend to stare in that initial phase and he will just start working, and he’s not afraid to work it again and again.
As a writer on Gemstones, were there any specific stories, moments, or character choices in this season that you pulled from real life?
I don’t know of a specific story from my life, but I do think that with all the characters, Judy included, I know from my own life how she deals, even when hers is turned up to 11 or louder than how I’ve felt the feeling. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel like you’re not understood, frustrated, or not seen — like you’re a badass and then maybe a second later go, “Oh was I not a badass?” I definitely know all those feelings. And I think the thing with all these characters is that it’s all regular human stuff and then you let it rip. They have less filter and they’re more entitled, and when they feel something or think something, there’s almost, like, a permission from God: Well, what I’m thinking or feeling must be right.
What about your character Judy specifically? Was anything from your life an inspiration behind the character?
She doesn’t come from anyone I know. It’s kind of like that volume or frequency thing: letting certain emotions rip and then turning them up or down. I’m sure on some subconscious level there’s a “growing up in Texas” aspect in there somewhere in Judy of sort of knowing kind of what all this is. I didn’t go to a mega-church, but I grew up going to church every Sunday — Sunday school, all that stuff, so I think it all becomes a mix, and it’s in there, but she’s not based on anyone specifically that I know.
You started doing improv at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, right? What was that experience like at the onset of your improv career?
That was the first place that I did improv shows for audiences, and I was out of my mind because it felt so exactly right to me. It was so exciting that I couldn’t even contain my happiness and energy. I think I had a base-level aptitude for improv. I think I had a certain amount of God-given talent for it but — all-caps BUT — I was such a spaz because I was just beginning, and part of my thing was that I couldn’t contain my fucking joy of improvising in front of people.
When did you find your voice?
I think I had some semblance of recognition of that from the jump, but I honestly, think that it’s like a Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours thing. I just kept doing it and doing it. You make these realizations, and they happen in your body first and then later you go Oh that’s when I realized to stop trying — don’t try to say funny things, just listen, or That’s when I realized that silence is awesome in a scene.
In the moment it’s not a lightning bolt. I think later you go Oh shit, that’s when I figured that out. I do think it’s one of those things, in an exciting way, that I think you figure out all the time. And if you want to be really good, you have to know that you don’t know anything. Ultimately I don’t know anything, I have so much to learn still, and I think that’s so exciting.
You spent two weeks as a guest writer on SNL in 2013. How did you end up getting that opportunity, and what did you end up coming away with from the experience?
They came to a showcase at Groundlings, and I did a couple things that they dug. I can’t remember who came — maybe Colin Jost and a couple other people. They liked the two pieces that I had in that and asked me to come guest write for a couple weeks. It was cool to see how it all works, and you come away with this feeling of If I have to, I can write a whole thing in a week. I’m not saying that would be a great thing to do, but you came away from it thinking I now know that if I need to, I can do anything.
I got something on both weeks, which was a very cool thing in that I got to have a whole experience. One thing was a live sketch, and one that I contributed to was a filmed piece that I sort of got to help produce and direct. I felt like I got to have this very cool full experience that maybe even is an anomaly for a two-week stint like that.
Did you expect it to turn into something longer, especially given that you had early success?
The second you’re done, you don’t expect anything. You just think I did that and it was really cool. They did contact me a couple times in the next year or two, but both times I was busy working on something else. One time I was still under contract for this show that I had done ten episodes of, and the second time I was in the second season of Vice Principals. They did call to see what was up. I don’t know what that would have entailed, but I think everything works out the way it’s supposed to.
If someone reading this wanted to follow in your footsteps as either an actor, writer, or improviser, what would be your advice to any of those aspirations, or perhaps something that covers all three?
The quicker you can get your head to a place of “Fuck it” in a really fun way — and for me “Fuck it” has no negative connotations, it’s really positive, like a fun shrug of the shoulder — the sooner you can get to that and not care or put onus on what the outcome is. You see in that moment, whether you’re writing a scene or going into an audition for something, that so many times the nerves can get weird [and] the more important you think the job is for your life. It messes your brain up, I think. Same with improv. All those thoughts are garbage, so the sooner you can get your brain to Fuck it — I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that I’m going to be here for whatever shows up and be open to it. And I know whatever shows up is going to be better than what I can try to manufacture right now. That’s my advice, if that makes any sense. Work hard, work your ass off, but get some “Fuck it” in your head as soon as you can.