The South and Southerners are rich territory for comedy.
But it’s also hard to get it right. We all know someone who bristles when they hear a bad Southern accent. Or when they get the details wrong.
But few people make better Southern comedy these days than Danny McBride and Jody Hill. They’ve built a cult following around shows like Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals – depicting Southern men behaving very very badly. But also managing to capture the pain and heart at the root of a lot of these jokes.
But their latest show, the Righteous Gemstones, is their masterpiece. The family at the center of the show is an evangelical megachurch empire. And it’s got an incredible cast of McBride, John Goodman, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, Eric Andre, Walton Goggins, and my guest today, the incredibly talented, Cassidy Freeman.
I can’t think of a better way to start off season six of the Reckon Interview than with Cassidy Freeman taking us to church.
Freeman plays Amber Gemstone, a gun-toting, preacher’s wife who begins taking a much bigger role in the church leadership in season two. She and her husband, Jesse, played by Danny McBride, survive an assassination attempt, explore an all christian timeshare venture, and host a bible’s study for struggling couples.
You also know Freeman from her roles on hit shows like Smallville, Longmire and NCIS New Orleans, and films like the Forever Purge.
This week she gives us a peek at what life is like on the set of the Righteous Gemstones. How much of the show they’re actually making up on the spot. What it was like filming in Charleston during Covid. And her source of inspiration for the character of Amber.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: Well, let me start off by saying congratulations on the renewal of the Righteous Gemstones for season three. So well-deserved.
Cassidy Freeman: Thank you so much. We’re pretty stoked.
Reckon: I think this is the funniest show on television, and I think that you and Danny McBride do a really great job together on screen. You have great natural chemistry. I want to talk a little bit about the creation of this character of Amber Gemstone. I know that you grew up in Chicago and in Montana. Tell me about how you got into the mindset of this Southern matriarch of a religious dynasty.
Freeman: I don’t know that I had a whole lot of my life to pull from for this one. My mother was from Texas and Oklahoma. So I do have some family… you know, it’s so funny. I always wonder what do people from the South think the South is, right? Like you’re in Birmingham, Alabama, correct? So.
Reckon: I count Texas and Oklahoma.
Freeman: You do? You count Texas and Oklahoma? Good to know. Good to know. Like is South Carolina, the South? It’s in the name.
Reckon: I think most people would count South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. And then after you get that point, it gets a little wonky for a lot of people.
Freeman: And then those mountain people in North Carolina, they’re not the South. They’re crazy up there. Those hippies. So yes, I do have families from what I would consider the South compared to Chicago, where I grew up. And Montana is definitely not the South, but a whole different flavor of human being.
I kind of love the fact that I’ve gotten to live all around and experience all these different types of cultures, but I definitely have a side of my family that was more religious. Was more along this vein, but very, not this like megachurch, incredibly wealthy version of things. So I kind of had to go into my imagination. And also take a lot of cues from Danny [McBride], who’s kind of like the master of all ceremonies.
Reckon: If anybody else were doing Danny’s voice, you would think that it was just kind of like a fake Hollywood Southern accent, but he does it. I mean, it seems to be authentically who he is. Maybe he takes it up a little bit for effect, but you know, how did you create your voice?
Just as a little background, I lived in Chicago right out of high school. And when I’d tell people in Alabama that I was moving to Chicago, of course, everybody starts doing the “Da Bears” voice, like cause you know, people have a very particular sense of what a Chicago accent should be. And so like Southerners get very particular about how their accents are depicted on screen. And yours is great. You do a great job. Where were you drawing that from?
Freeman: Wow. Oh, thank you. Probably from my mom’s family in part. And then I do know that Texas is a bit different than Deep South or even like Eastern south. I really just listened to those around me. You know, I know. Most of Danny’s shows happen in that area. He’s from Virginia. But really just sort of like listening. And I’ve always had an ear and I love listening to people. So even just going out and listening to people in South Carolina that I run into. The baristas or people that work in restaurants or whatever, like, you know, knowing that they’re from there and listening to them and then trying to sort of emulate them.
That’s how I found it.
Reckon: You mentioned that you didn’t necessarily grow up in the mega church world. I believe at least your father’s family is Jewish and you actually have some roots on that side in Virginia also, right?
Freeman: I do. Yeah. My grandmother was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi butcher in Virginia.
Reckon: Okay. Yeah. A common Southern story.
Freeman: Yeah, I know. That’s why I wondered.
Reckon: Were there real-life people—I don’t know, Tammy Faye Bakker or Beth Moore—were their real life Evangelical women that you looked to when creating the look of this character, the blown out hair, the perfect posture.
Freeman: I remember auditioning for this. And Sherry Thomas told me, she said, you know, I did an audition and then I had to go test, which is testing is when you go in front of all the producers and it’s kind of like the last step before they say yay or nay. And I remember Sherry Thomas, our casting director said, like go to a blow dry bar and get the Southern blow dry hairdo.
And I was like, “for real?” And she was just like, “yeah, believe me. Not that they don’t have imaginations or your talent doesn’t shine through, but it’s really just nice to see it all together.” And there is a very specific aesthetic to this particular kind of woman. I try not to base characters I play on people that exist just because I don’t want to get into the realm of like right versus wrong. I wanted Amber to sort of have her own voice. And even though I may not be a part of evangelical or mega church or even Southern charmy kind of environments. I do know what it’s like when a woman really cares about what she looks like, because I’ve lived in Los Angeles. Just taking into consideration how women who care and also who have money or who are trying to portray a certain level of class or status, how they hold themselves. And it’s very different than how I hold myself. So I don’t go around worried about my posture in that way or how I’m presenting to the world. So it’s kind of a fun activity. I think half of like being an actor is just being a creep, like watching people and just sitting at like the coffee shop.
Well, let’s talk about the set because you were obviously on there with a lot of comedy legends. And you certainly hold your own. I’m curious about how much of this is improvised, how much of it is kind of scripted out and planned?. How much do you get to shape kind of the character arc of Amber and what’s that like?
Freeman: I work with some incredibly talented people and talented in multiple realms. Right? You have like just the effortlessness of John Goodman. Where you’re watching him in person going, “what’s he doing? I don’t see what he’s doing.” And then you see it edited and put together in you’re like “genius!”
Reckon: I love that this season has tapped into how menacing he can be. Like he has that ability to go from jolly and fun to scary as hell in no time flat.
Freeman: Yeah. Like he might really take you down. I love that too. I hope he enjoys playing that part. Cause you know, all of our parts are… there are parts of us, right? All of it’s inside of us.
But I will tell you a lot of this is scripted. I think Danny would say, out of all the shows he’s done, this is the least improv only because they spend so much time on these scripts. And particularly season two, they rewrote the whole thing all over again because we had a year off from COVID. So, you know, we do have really tight, awesome scripts. And then we all get into a room like a church lunch scene, and then it’s like, whatever happens happens. That entire Disney wedding extravaganza ,I can’t tell you how many of those takes were like seven plus minutes long. We really dug deep into all of our knowledge of the Disney catalog. What types of people would marry each of us. And I mean, our camera crew must absolutely hate us.
But no, what’s really cool is that Danny has a very, I think, unique and specific sense of humor, one that he and Edi Patterson have really like honed in. They’ve worked together before. They write together. They’re both just such talented improvisers. And then you add in all of the talents that Danny has chosen for this particular show. Like obviously Adam is drop dead funny and Tony Cavalero’s character Keefe is hilarious. And Tim Baltz is this silent, consistent MVP. I can’t tell you how funny is Tim Baltz is in actual person and when he’s on. But in any event, they all are just so hilarious and a lot of is improvised and never makes it in, but the stuff that does, you know, it’s really fun to see. I think more than like it’s 30% or it’s 50%, it’s that they’re open to it. It’s always like, everyone’s happy to see it and experience it and cheer each other on.
Reckon: You mentioned that Danny and David and Jody had had rewritten all of season two because of COVID, but also it feels like the world changed a lot during that two year period when y’all weren’t filming. And particularly in the South, and I don’t know how much you kind of pay attention to the actual evangelical world while all of this is going on, but like, there’s been a big push back by women like the role that you play about the way that the church treats women in the South. And, you know, some of that started with the #MeToo movement and some of that started in the response to the murder of George Floyd and just kind of the way that the church approached COVID. No masks, obviously in a lot of these mega churches. You know, how much of that is playing into the way that it seems like Amber is taking on a more assertive role in this season and is kind of helping push Jesse into getting involved with this timeshare and getting involved with the Lissens and things like that.
Freeman: I think something really interesting that happened throughout this last year that we all went through was some reflecting, but also Danny talks about this a lot about how he comes up with ideas for this show and then before we’re able to film them and edit them and release them, they happen in real life.
And he’s like, what? He’s like, people think I’m like copying. And actually I think that art imitates life, I think that that’s really common. I think that we tried to stay really consistent with what this story was about. You know, like we touch on a little bit of COVID or there being pandemics and there being unrest in that whole, like G.O.D.D. God On Digital Demand speech that Eli gives, but we didn’t really want to belabor it.
I think it’s awesome that people are speaking out. I think it’s amazing that women in any situation or group of people want to be heard, want to be seen. I think Amber’s journey is more about the distrust of Season 1 and I feel like that’s when she really said what she needed to say as it were. With a firearm.
And that this next season is sort of the representation of Jesse and Amber being a team, instead of her just being a trophy wife or the person in the dark. To me, that’s about trust, right? That’s them both trusting each other to be there for each other, to be the team members and to push forward their agenda as a couple, rather than individually.
Reckon: Danny has a really great gift for creating these shows that are about just horrible people. I mean, people you would not actually want to spend much time with in real life, but also finding the heart and the humanity in some of these characters. How do you keep your character grounded?
And then also, a lot of these shows are about kind of the specific ways that like Southern men can be horrible to each other. So how do you and Edi [Patterson] carve out space for you in these sets that are very male?
Freeman: No, they are incredibly male. I think that’s representative of what they actually are. I think that’s sort of true to form.
I think it’s interesting from an artistic point of view for an audience to cheer for the bad guy. I think that’s almost strangely like an artistic ability that some people have. And Danny seems to have. You know, everyone loves all of these despicable characters that he or his cohorts play. I think in some ways it represents a part of all of us that very few of us will admit that we have. The part of us that either does or thinks the really awful things. We get to see them personified. And we go, like, “I strangely relate to that.” And so strangely cheer it on. Edi and I talk a lot about– Edi is like my wife in real life. We are so close in real life that getting to have that static on set is fun for us. But we’re also aware that women tend to be pitted against each other. We try to just make it about the characters and less about gender in terms of, you know, why do women always have to hate each other? The truth is that Amber and Judy, who they are, would not get along. They want the same things. You know, there’s limited resources that they’re both going after. But, you know, we have fun with that. And I just think that that playing that kind of despicable person, it’s freeing in a way. And I think people can relate to that side of it.
How I keep Amber grounded: amber is really clear about what matters to her. And I think she has a really soft heart. I think she really just wants people to be happy and wants to be happy herself. I like to think about and fantasize about what Amber’s life was before she got Jesse, before she became the kind of woman that could get someone like Jesse. And, you know, I think that’s kind of what grounds her, is the stuff we haven’t figured out yet. And I hope that gets to be developed in seasons to come.
Reckon: Obviously this is a set where the characters make horrible demeaning jokes about women all the time. Is there a place where you would draw a line as an actress that your character wouldn’t necessarily draw?
Freeman: I think in terms of like safety on set and feeling safe as a woman, it’s less about what’s being said and more about how and who is saying it.
I trust every single person I work with on the set. I’ve never felt demoralized or objectified or unsafe in any way, shape or form. And I think that the vulgar humor doesn’t, at least so far, nothing’s upset me to the point of wondering, like, “is this against my value system?” I mean, the show has more full frontal male nudity than any show I’ve ever seen, much less been a part of.
So in terms of that, I feel like really it’s leaning the other way. But no, there’s nothing about this show that ever makes me feel unsafe.
Reckon: So shooting during COVID, you know, I know South Carolina probably had less restrictions than I bet New Mexico or California did. What was it like on set trying to navigate that? Would y’all have been shooting during the Delta wave, I guess?
Freeman: We did. We were, yeah. We shot from the beginning of March until the end of September. We actually never shut down from COVID. And I know the resources that we’re given are such a privilege. You know, we’re given an entire like small hospital staff of nurses and lab workers that really just test us every other day.
And anyone who complained about that? Man, oh man. I was like, we are so privileged to have this ability to do this. The science kept changing. It continues to change, actually. The virus continues to change and everything continues to change. And so I think, you know, the hardest part– look, yeah, no one loves wearing a mask. You do what you need to do. No one loves not hugging people or having that added stress. I was worried that COVID in general– no matter where, what wave or version we were in– to be creative, you have to be relaxed, right? To be creative, you have to be able to feel really comfortable. And, um, it definitely was a record playing in the background all the time.
I think different people have different levels of concern about this particular virus, about sickness in general. We all have things at home, whatever that be, whether it’s a partner or a parent or a kid or whatever that’s like high risk or, you know, and we all have different ideas. It also then became very like politicized and sensitive, especially in the South.
I think with Hollywood mixing with South Carolina, there may have been some very different feelings on either side of that. I think the trick was… the hardest part really was just to stay adaptable to what was happening and what was changing and then trusting the medical personnel. You know, when the Delta variant came out, there were a lot of breakthrough cases, but there also was this idea that people who were vaccinated, weren’t carrying as much viral load. And this continues to always change and people can always Google and find whatever they want to believe. So I think a lot of it was just letting go and trusting the people that we put in charge to keep us safe. And they did a really, really great job. And for that, I was really grateful, but yeah, I mean, ideally no one wants to film during a global pandemic.
And there were days when I was like, “why are we doing this?” But because we have to keep going and we have to keep finding ways to work and to support each other and to communicate and to be adaptable.
Reckon: Had you spent much time in the South, specifically the Deep South, prior to the first season when you were shooting in Charleston?
Freeman: No. I’d spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and Texas, which you and I have decided is also the South. I had filmed a movie in the top of Florida, like a million years ago, I felt like. And it was a weird movie that I hope no one ever sees. It was a scuba diving movie. It’s the first movie I ever did. Got me my SAG card. But it was really fun. It’s called “Breathe.” Don Murray directed it. Don Murray, who was in “Bus Stop” with Marilyn Monroe. Like that epic Don Murray. It was interesting to be in that area.
I’d never really been there. I mean, there was a bar that was under construction because months before it had finally been desegregated. And I was like, “oh, interesting.” And this wasn’t that long ago. But no, I haven’t. You know, when I drive to South Carolina, I drive through Birmingham, actually. I stayed there in this van that I’m talking to you from. I would love to get to know it better, but I have not spent a lot of time in the Deep South. Nope.
Reckon: Well, what’s the reception been like in Charleston because, obviously, as a Southerner, I see a whole lot of truth in what y’all are depicting on screen. Even the God Squad that Adam’s character has this season. Like, I remember seeing things like that as a kid growing up. And so it is caricature, but there’s a lot of truth there. And what’s the reception been like for y’all in Charleston? Like, do you get stink-eye from people or do people like it?
Freeman: The majority of the response has been positive. I think people do like it. I think they’re interested in the characterization of something that rings true. You know, obviously it’s pumped up for television. Danny also knew of a God Squad. That’s why he wrote that into that season is that he actually saw that. This like, you know, group of men that like rip phone books and break things with their hands. That’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Reckon: They’re not topless or anything like that, but like, certainly the Karate for Christ type stuff. A version of that rings true from stuff I remember seeing. “Man to Man,”, “Promise Keepers” like this, like masculine– the author of “Jesus and John Wayne” writes about it tying hyper-masculinity into… and there being maybe a homoerotic undercurrent for a lot of it.
Freeman: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe who knows? Maybe. The response I’ve gotten from people who are not only Southerners, but also churchgoers who are Christians, who are believers. I think they see sort of what we’re focusing on, which is more of the hypocrisy rather than just like anti-religion or anti-South. And I think it rings true. And I’m happy to hear it does to you because they are experiences that Danny has had, and it’s a world that Danny knows pretty well. You know, his family is religious. He does come from different versions of this. And I think it fascinates him for that reason as well. Not being super versed in it myself, I tend to just stand back and watch and like, hope that no one’s being offended. But also like quite fascinated with it and happy to hear that it’s ringing somewhat true..
Reckon: And, you know, this season, the character that Jason Schwartzman plays, the kind of Brooklyn journalist, gives them equal opportunity of making fun of New Yorkers too.
Freeman: Yeah. Don’t all New Yorkers just take lines of cocaine off of their Adirondack chairs while they’re sitting outside of their Airbnb.
Reckon: Yeah. And then just mutter to themselves that they hate the South.
Freeman: I think I knew someone from Manhattan who did that.
Reckon: We mentioned that your father’s family was Jewish. Were you religious growing up? Whether it was Jewish faith or Catholic or anything in Chicago growing up?
Freeman: No, my parents, they were incredibly like balanced. They’re both lawyers. So they kind of come from science is truth. And like, what we see is truth and what we can touch is truth. And my mother was raised pretty Christian, but she, I think, and without knowing– she passed nine years ago, so I can’t have this conversation with her now, but the conversations I had with her were kind of like, religion was under the guise, for her and how she saw it, as misogyny and bigotry.
And the church was against… she basically was a freedom rider. She would go help people of color vote. And she was just spunky in general. But she had a real strong, uh, like north star for justice and for equality. And her and my dad, they met in DC when my dad was clerking for the Supreme Court. My mom was an intern at the U.S. Attorney’s office. So neither of them were raised incredibly religious. My father, because in the forties and fifties, for reasons we probably don’t even have to say, being Jewish wasn’t super cool. It was dangerous. And so I know growing up in Chicago, he grew up in Chicago and the suburbs of Chicago, he was the caddy for golf clubs that he wasn’t allowed to be a member of. And it was just in Chicago. So it was a different time. And I think they both sort of just focused on the things that mattered to them: truth, their careers, their family. They were never against us ever experiencing religion.
I had a friend I remember growing up who talked about Sunday School like it was a club and I was like, I want to go to Sunday School. And my mom was like, okay, go to Sunday School. You know, like it was no big deal.
I was partially raised by a Black woman from Mississippi who is still alive. She’s 98. She was my Na like my second mom. And she helped raise all of us and she’s incredible. And she would go to church on the weekends on the south side of Chicago. And so I would go to church with her, but that was like more, just about singing than anything else. I just loved to sing. And you know, every single person in my high school or my middle school got bar and bat mitzvah’d. So I’ve been to like a million of those. I was at religious ceremonies, but that was never practiced in our home, but it was always open to be talked about.
Reckon: I lived in the part of the Birmingham area that most of the city’s Jewish population lived in. So I also went to a bunch of bar and bat mitzvahs growing up.
You know, you mentioned that she was from Mississippi, some of my Mississippi colleagues, particularly my Black Mississippi colleagues, they refer to Chicago as North Mississippi. I said, I have a big tent for what the South is, but there are, you know, I think there’s a section of Chicago that’s called the Black Belt there in the South Side because of so many people moving up from Mississippi and Alabama during the great migration. So even if you didn’t grow up in the South, I’m sure there’s some Southern culture, especially if you were raised by a woman from Mississippi, that made its way into your life.
Freeman: Yeah, no, Ida definitely taught me a lot about what it was like growing up in Mississippi in the twenties, which is crazy. Yeah. She’s like better than any book I could read or movie I could watch. You know, she really is. I wish we all spoke to people more often, especially older people.
Reckon: Especially, you know, the connections between Mississippi and Chicago with the murder of Emmett Till and things like that. Very deep, the way that these things go back and forth.
So what’s next for you? You’ve got Righteous Gemstones coming up . You’ll be filming season three, I guess sometime next year. What other projects do you have in the works?
Freeman: The biggest other project I have in the works is that I’m having a baby in a week.
Reckon: Hey, congratulations. In a week? And you’re out hiking right now. Okay.
Freeman: Hey, thank you. Yeah. Yep. Yeah, I’m hiking. That’s my biggest project. She’s supposed to be here in a week. We’ll see when she shows up. So by the time this airs, hopefully I’ll be in the total realms of lack of sleep and sanity. Being able to be a mom and, and have this career is like a total dream.
So I feel pretty grateful, that I get to do that. Um, and I tried to time it between seasons and I really scored. So I did it. Yeah. That right now is my biggest project. I told my agents that I’m like totally happy to start working in like three weeks. And they told me to maybe just take a break and chill out for a minute.
It’s a blessing to be super supported by this too, to bring a little Gemstones to next season is pretty rad.
Reckon: Are you going to name him or her or anything like Gideon or Pontius?
Freeman: She’ll be born a girl, whatever she wants to be but part of me was like, I really like the name, Amber. There’s absolutely no way I could do that. It’s off the table. But no, I have no idea. I feel like I got to meet her first.
But I produce other films. I produced a horror film with my brother and our friends from Middlebury College, where I went to college. We’re kind of a little group of creatives that are constantly making small movies that make us laugh or scream. And constantly reading and trying to just like watch my friends.
But I took this year to have a baby.
Reckon: Our first is four months old as of today. That period where you are in between sleep all the time, it truly does break you in a way that’s unexpected
Freeman: So you and I, right now, you’re in new dad brain and I am in pregnancy brain, like last week of pregnancy brain. How are we even still talking?
Reckon: It’s amazing we got through this whole conversation. Yeah.
Freeman: That’s incredible.
Reckon: The thing, I guess, I didn’t know, going into it is that at about four months, their sleep regresses. Like you think, oh yeah, they’re starting to get to where they can make it through the night. And then all of a sudden they can’t make it two and a half hours through the night anymore.
So, well, that’s really exciting. I’m happy for you. And then, you know, this is a question I ask a lot of my guests. Um, whether it’s your experience with Ida growing up your experience with your mom in Texas and Oklahoma, your experience in Charleston, you know, what do you think of when you think about the South?
Freeman: Wow, well, maybe this is cause I’m from Chicago, but the first thing I think about is food. You know, Ida taught me how to cook. And this might sound like cliche, or I didn’t even really know how cliche it was, but black eyed peas and fried green tomatoes are my favorite food. Like ever. I even learned how to make the best gluten-free fried green tomatoes for all of my like gluten-free friends, which is a very California thing. I love the food of the south.
Another thing I think of when I think of the South is kindness, hospitality in that way. I will say something that I admire about cities and the cities I’ve lived in like Chicago and New York. I’ve lived all over the place. And I’m still getting to know Charleston having just spent two seasons there. I was on a show in Vancouver for three years. So I got to know what, like those Western Canadians were like. Chicago is its own breed of human being. New York. I went to school in Vermont. I lived in Montana and Los Angeles. And now New Mexico. Just really trying to hit everywhere I possibly can. The South seems really nice. Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s totally genuine.
Reckon: I think that’s a fair assessment. Yeah.
Freeman: Yeah. It’s like, they’re going to be nice to me no matter what. And I’m kind of like, if I pissed you off or I did something, I want you to be able to tell me. So sometimes I’m kind of weary of that because Midwesterners tend to be kind of like the labradors. We’re kind of like, Hey, we’re friendly. Let’s hang out. You know, like we might get our asses kicked a little bit sometimes for being just like so nice about everything.
But yeah. And I think about sweat because I’m going to tell you I’m not a hot muggy weather person. My people come from the North, you know, I’m like a Polish, Scottish. Northern, not Southern. I get real, real, like drippy. I just like and something in inside of me kind of slows down too. But maybe that happens to you guys. Do you feel that way?
Reckon: Yeah, I imagine, I spent one winter in Chicago. And you just kind of endure it for the winter as much as you can. And to some extent that’s how it is in the South in the summer. You know, I mean, like it’s nice to go to the lake and the beach and all that stuff, but you just try to stay inside as much as you can. Like when it’s hot enough that like the elderly are dying, then it’s too hot.
Freeman: And that’s right. When you’re like, I want to get my steps in today. I gotta go before 9:00 AM or after seven. And other than that, you’re pretty much just like laying there. Which honestly, if I could go to the beach or hang out in AC. AC also kind of freaks me out because it’s such a drastic change. And that’s true in Chicago too. Chicago summers are also sweaty. I’ve run away to the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a very dry climate and occasional snow. It’s real sweaty.
The Righteous Gemstones is now streaming on HBO and HBOMax.