Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever Tell Us How Netflix’s ‘Godless’ Redefines the Western Genre
Netflix’s “Godless” is a seven-part Western series that mixes the old with the new. The style is very much akin to the old Hollywood Westerns, but the plot offers a new spin on the concept. The show revolves around the town of La Belle, an 1880s town comprised entirely of women, but “Godless” is simultaneously driven by a classic revenge tale. The combination of old and new elements are essential ingredients in “Godless,” and they helped draw in the film’s formidable cast and crew. Entertainment Voice visited with the cast at the premiere of “Godless,” where we had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Scott Frank and leading cast members Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever and Thomas-Brodie Sangster.
Scott Frank discussed the genesis of the series, which he originally wrote as a movie 15 years ago. “Originally, I wanted to do [“Godless”] as a movie way, way back, but it was very hard to get made,” said Frank. “So we thought we could do it as a television series. More of the adult genre series are happening on TV. So [following that change] was when we decided to switch horses.”
One of the signatures of “Godless” is its unique blending of different Western themes. Though “Godless” sounds like the name of a gritty, nihilistic Western like “Unforgiven,” it has a lot of heart at its core, much like the old John Wayne movies. “I think there’s a lot of romance in [‘Godlesss’]” said Frank, “There’s so many different influences. If the story is one thing, if it’s all nihilist without having any emotion or humor, that’s never a good thing for me personally.”
Indeed “Godless” breaks new ground in fascinating ways, particularly in its inclusion of the town of exclusively women. Frank mentioned his excitement when he discovered that these kinds of towns actually existed. “I just thought it was the most interesting story idea I’d ever heard,” Frank exclaimed. “When my researcher, Mimi Munson, discovered [those towns], I though oh my god, that’s a great idea.”
Leading actress Michelle Dockery agreed about the town’s significance. Dockery plays Alice Fletcher, a Native American woman who the ladies of La Belle have cast out, “Alice is an outsider, the town thinks that she’s a witch, that she’s brought about all the bad luck in La Belle,” said Dockery “She was widowed twice before she was 21. Her life turned out very different, and was much more difficult after that. So life was a hard scrabble, and of course that makes these women have a very, very tough skin.”
One of the toughest characters is Mary Agnes, played by Merritt Wever. The sister of the local sheriff, Agnes lost her husband in the mining incident that killed all the men of La Belle. But Agnes has rebounded nicely, leading the charge against a mining company that wants to take La Belle’s profits. “I think that everyone has adapted and changed in their own way,” said Wever. “I do think that [Mary Agnes is] forward thinking enough to realize that this is a very unique and important opportunity. The idea of the town, the women of the town, being able to maintain financial independence. I think that’s a big deal. I think she feels frustrated that the other women don’t see what a big deal that is.”
Mary Agnes finds love in the form of a local madam turned kindergarten teacher named Callie. When asked if the death of Agnes’ husband allowed her to discover herself in a way she otherwise may not have, Wever discussed the lasting impact of the mining accident. “I think that the accident and the tragedy and the town created a space for her to live a different way,” said Wever. “it gave an opportunity for all the women in town to take up space in a new way. And I think that [Mary Agnes] seized hold of that opportunity.”
The women aren’t the only ones who live in La Belle. Thomas-Brodie Sangster plays Whitey Winn, La Belle’s deputy sheriff whose parents were killed in the mining incident. Whitey is enthusiastic and wants to prove himself a man, just like his father. “He hasn’t got it all figured out,” said Sangster about Whitey, “He likes to think that he does and I quite enjoy that playfulness between those two worlds. Being really quite innocent and childlike but also trying really hard to be manly and cool and be a protector… And be cool. I think he really wants to be cool.”
Being one the only men left in a town of women does have its drawbacks though. Because most of these women see Whitey as just a kid, he has to look for romance elsewhere. He finds Louise Hobbs, a violinist living in the town of Blackdom. “[Whitey] has known all these women and they always look at him as like a kind of son-like figure. There’s nothing too sexy about that,” laughs Sangster. “So the girl from across the town is like the girl next door really. I think he sees her from afar, and it’s a nice kind of young flirtatious relationship. It barely gets going at all. But it’s a sweet one and I think it’s a genuine one as well. I think it works very well in the story.”
The story’s central villain is Frank Griffin, played by “The Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels. Griffin is a murderous gun slinger who has an interesting habit of adopting lost boys, including the series’ protagonist Roy Goode, with whom Griffin has a twisted father/son relationship. Griffin had a traumatic childhood himself, in which his family was killed right in front of him. Daniels discussed Griffin’s habit of becoming the ‘pappy’ for lost boys. “It’s something that I didn’t resolve, because [Frank] hadn’t,” said Daniels. “But he was stolen just like Roy was stolen, and that’s a stronger bond than love. Frank says that.”
Upon further reflection, Daniels decided that it might take a good psychiatrist to figure out why Frank does what he does, and that Frank may not know the answer himself “If [Frank] were to sit down with a shrink and try to analyze that, probably then he’d come up with the answer that’s in his head,” mused Daniels. “But in his head [adopting Roy] was the right thing to do and it’s the best thing to do and that’s his motive. You don’t have to play everything [as an actor], you just have to play where he is. He may think he understands [why he takes in lost boys]. You may watch [“Godless”] and be like ‘why is he doing that?’ He doesn’t know. And that was fun to play a guy that mentally spun. [Frank is] trying to find his way, and they just had a camera in front of him.”
Given the father/son showdown and the traditional Western gunslinger models, it would be easy to assume “Godless” is just another Western genre story. But as Dockery reminds us, at the end of the day, it’s all about the women. “Essentially [“Godless”] is an authentic Western in many ways, but it’s a story that hasn’t been told,” Dockery said thoughtfully. “These towns made up solely of women were very common in the 1880s, and so I think for the audience [“Godless” has] really turned the Western genre on its head [by allowing the audience] to see the women fight.”
All seven episodes of “Godless” premiere Nov. 22 on Netflix.