[This story contains spoilers for Justified: City Primeval‘s first two episodes, “City Primeval” and “Oklahoma Wildman.”]
Justified: City Primeval is uncharted territory for Adelaide Clemens.
The Australian actor has notably played religious wives on critically acclaimed series such as Rectify and Under the Banner of Heaven, so Justified: City Primeval’s Sandy Stanton is a strikingly different role by comparison. Sandy is an ostentatious cocktail server at a Detroit-area casino, and she uses her workplace to recruit wealthy marks so she can put her con artistry to use. When her partner in crime, Boyd Holbrook’s Clement Mansell, left town in 2017 after beating a murder charge, Sandy had to fend for herself until his sudden return six years later, wreaking havoc on the current games that Sandy is running.
For Clemens, the opportunity to play Sandy meant that she could play against type, specifically that of Rectify’s Tawney Talbot.
“Tawney was perhaps the bridge to Under the Banner of Heaven, because if they’ve seen you do that sort of role, then they can trust that you understand the stakes,” Clemens told The Hollywood Reporter (in an interview ahead of the SAG-AFTRA strike). “[Tawney] was not vain at all, and I took it to the nth degree with her. So, it was fun to play someone like Sandy who is vain and has a specific sense of style. Her sexuality is her currency.”
At the time of Clemens’ casting, Quentin Tarantino was still on board to direct one or two episodes of the revival series. Tarantino is a massive fan of novelist Elmore Leonard, whose books have inspired both Justified series, as well as his third film, Jackie Brown. In fact, Tarantino and Justified leading man Timothy Olyphant first discussed the idea of adapting Leonard’s City Primeval novel while filming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Tarantino ultimately had to exit the new series for personal reasons, but his influence still rubbed off on Clemens’ portrayal of Sandy.
“Even the idea of him as a director was helpful to me because it set a tone. I was inspired by a lot of the female characters in Tarantino’s films, like True Romance, which he wrote,” Clemens says. “I loved what [Patricia Arquette] did in that, because she’s playing a sweetheart. I found a lot of similarities with Alabama and Sandy in that they just end up with these bad guys and they really believe they’re in love with them. But I think they both have good intentions and are good people.”
Below, during a conversation with THR, Clemens also discusses shooting HBO’s Watchmen pilot and why she ultimately had to depart the show.
So, you were a part of last year’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which was well done. Did that FX production help open the door to Justified, one of FX’s most beloved properties?
No, it was pure coincidence. Just a really lucky coincidence.
Well, I was a big fan of Rectify, and because Tawney Talbot made such a strong impression on me, it was somewhat jarring to see you as Sandy Stanton at first. Tawney was this soft-spoken, devout woman, while Sandy is this very showy and outgoing con artist. Is Sandy’s energy new territory for you?
Yeah, completely. It was so exciting to get to play this role. I think Tawney was perhaps the bridge to Under the Banner of Heaven, because if they’ve seen you do that sort of role, then they can trust that you understand the stakes. But I’m not Tawney. (Laughs.) She was not vain at all, and I took it to the nth degree with her. I remember having conversations with the costume designer, saying, “She only shops at Walmart and thrift stores,” and then that was the wardrobe I got for four seasons. (Laughs.) And then playing a Mormon on Under the Banner in the ‘80s, it’s not my style, costume-wise. So, it was fun to play someone like Sandy who is vain and has a specific sense of style. Her sexuality is her currency. So I know what you mean.
Sandy was with Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) when he was arrested in 2017 and tried for murder. Aunjanue Ellis’ lawyer character then helped him beat the rap before he seemingly went wandering around the country. Is their opening scene at the casino the first time they’ve seen each other since that night in 2017?
Yeah, I think there’d been a phone call. I think she found out that he was [coming back to Detroit], and so she has that nervous feeling that he could walk in at any moment. What’s important about Sandy in the first episode is that we only see one side of her, and as you go through the show, you’ll see that she’s incredibly mercurial. She has a specific relationship to each man that she’s working, and her relationship with Clement is also a certain way, probably because it’s the longest relationship that she’s had. You see a little more of her true self with Clement, and then how she is with Skender [Alexander Pobutsky] is how she perceives he wants her to be. So, she’s incredibly tactile and doting and girly, and laughs at all his dumb jokes, but it’s all a show. Throughout the series, you’ll see that she’s a conwoman. She’s working everyone as it goes.
Clement has such an iron grip on her. Does she maintain a relationship out of fear?
Yeah, I think she tells herself that she’s in love with him, and I think she believes she’s in love with him. It’s also clear she doesn’t have many people in the world. She grew up in the underbelly of Detroit, and so loyalty is very important in that world. And I think she made the decision at some point that she was going to be loyal to Clement. And what happens is the more afraid she becomes of him, the more she starts convincing herself that she’s in love with him, and that it’s true love. She’s a romantic, and she’s also optimistic. She’s kind of a best-case-scenario person. So, I think she goes into every single one of these scenarios and simplifies it. She tells herself, “We’re just gonna go get the money and we’ll get out of there.” But as the show goes on, Clement gets increasingly manic and sociopathic, and she’s partially in denial about that until a certain point.
Did you and Boyd dream up any backstory just for the sake of your performances?
I always do. It’s fun, and it just helps to draw on it in the scenes. It fills out the character. But we didn’t really make sure that we were on the same page at any point. I met Boyd when we started working together, and it was pretty clear that there was a whole bunch of trust and respect, which is incredibly conducive to creativity. It was just a blast.
So, Sandy takes advantage of wealthy men at her casino, and then Clement robs them. Is that the gist of their game?
Yeah, that’s the con they ran, and when he left, she had to figure it out herself. And so she’s been working all these marks and getting quite good at it. She’s been figuring out ways to fill in the piece of the puzzle that Mansell usually provided and the action he usually takes. But obviously, it’s not done with any of the violence or the lengths that he takes it to. But when she saw him after so long, that was a real bummer, because he again took it too far, and then he blew the whole thing. So, she’s had to do this on her own, and she’s learned a few things. She’s a little stronger than when he saw her the last time.
In the second episode, you have a fun scene where Sandy is pretending to be sick in front of Raylan and his partner (Victor Williams). Is she pretending in order to make herself harder to read? Or is it more about seeming incapable of committing any crimes?
Sandy is not a mastermind. (Laughs.) I think she’s incredibly brilliant, but she’s not thinking 20 steps ahead. She’s thinking, “How do I make myself incredibly vulnerable right now? I’m gonna put on this dumb bathrobe, and I’m gonna pretend to be sick.” And I think it was incredibly clever on her part. It was probably just instinctive, but it made her vulnerable. It also created an uncomfortable environment for the two men, because she’s scantily clothed in an adorable fox bathrobe. So, I don’t think she’s thinking far ahead, which is why things go off the rails a little bit in that scene. She seems all over the place, and that’s because she doesn’t even know the whole story. She just walked into the apartment, had two words with Mansell and suddenly the police were there. She doesn’t know what happened last night; she doesn’t want to know. But that scene is just a fun exploration of her trying to tread through quicksand.
It’s always interesting when actors have to give performances inside of their performances, and Sandy pretending to be sick probably shouldn’t be as convincing as you pretending to be sick. She’s not as skilled of an actor as you are. Does that make any sense?
That makes sense, but I don’t know that I would be any better at that. (Laughs.) I’m a terrible liar. But I know what you mean. It was a tricky thing to do, but at the end of the day, she is a very good con artist. Later on, she goes to an art gallery and gives a whole performance about something that never happened. So, she has to be good at it. But Tim [Olyphant] and Victor [Williams] and I had rehearsed the [sick] scene for a while, and we had a lot of fun rehearsing it. And then on the day, Tim just came up with the idea. He was laughing to himself and just said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she was sick?” And at first, I was like, “I think he’s just joking around.” So, the truth is that I actually had to come up with that on the day, and maybe that helped it.
Clement tasks her with disposing the gun that he used to murder a judge (Keith David) and his assistant. What stopped her from dropping it in the river?
She did the math and realized that if she is getting rid of a murder weapon, then she could be put in prison. So, I think that’s one of the first steps to her realizing that Mansell is really out for himself.
She opts to return it to Sweety’s (Vondie Curtis-Hall) bar’s bathroom where Clement originally retrieved it. Why does that seem to be their preferred place for gun storage?
She’s just trying to get rid of it for fear of Mansell, and Sweety’s bar is where he got the gun, so she figures that’s a safe place. If he finds out that she didn’t get rid of the gun, she can say that taking it to Sweety’s bar is exactly what he did.
Quentin Tarantino was once in the mix to direct, but then he stepped away for some personal reasons. Were you already cast when that was potentially going to happen?
Yeah, I was cast, and then I found out about Quentin Tarantino, which was really exciting. Even the idea of him as a director was helpful to me because it set a tone, and I think the show does have a lot of pulp to it. I was inspired by a lot of the female characters in Tarantino’s films, like True Romance, which he wrote.
Now that you mention it, I do see some of Patricia Arquette’s Alabama in Sandy.
Yeah, I loved what she did in that, because she’s playing a sweetheart. I found a lot of similarities with Alabama and Sandy in that they just end up with these bad guys and they really believe they’re in love with them. But I think they both have good intentions and are good people.
There was a rather terrifying day on set when real-life violence collided with the set, and it’s pretty eerie considering the first episode has its own car chase with guns involved. Were you on set that day?
I wasn’t there on set, so I can’t really speak to exactly what happened. It was terrifying [to hear] and it was devastating to know that the crew were in that sort of danger.
I’ve heard British actors say that the Southern accent is easier than a standard American accent. So, with you being Australian, did you have an easier time with Tawney’s Southern accent than Sandy’s more familiar American accent?
I did Tawney’s accent for four years, so it became second nature. As Australians, we definitely have an advantage just because of the way we use our mouths and the muscles in our mouth. The Australian kind of muscular makeup is closer to a Southern accent, but Sandy’s accent was fun. She’s from Detroit, but we didn’t want to go with a Detroit accent because she’s a conwoman. What’s happening all over the States is because of TV, a lot of people are starting to sound like Kardashians. So, we wanted her to be influenced by pop culture right now, which was fun.
So, what was the aftermath of Rectify like for you?
I mean, Rectify wasn’t a big hit show. I didn’t necessarily feel it after it came out.
It was a critical darling, though, and it was watched by industry people, which can be just as beneficial.
Yeah, over time, I started to hear that people were watching it, and I think it spread in the industry through word of mouth. It’s a specific type of viewer that wants to watch that show, an intelligent viewer, I might say. So, the aftermath of it gave me, personally, a lot of confidence in my work. It was exciting and I learned so much. Ray McKinnon, the showrunner, was just incredible. He’s an actor himself, and he was so invested in our performances. It’s really rare to have a showrunner who is performance focused. It was also beautifully shot, and it was just the most wonderful, dreamy experience. I’m very close with J. Smith-Cameron and Ray, of course, and Marshall Persinger, one of the producers. So, I have a family from that show.
I hope this isn’t too sore of a subject, but I was elated when you were cast on HBO’s Watchmen. And so I’ve always wondered what happened when you didn’t end up appearing. Can you say anything about why things didn’t work out? And did a silver lining ultimately emerge?
I shot the pilot, and I was also signed on to do a Tom Stoppard play. I was the lead in a Tom Stoppard play [The Hard Problem] at the Lincoln Center, and it was the second play I’d ever gotten. So, I was going to do the play, no doubt about it. I’d already worked with Sir Tom Stoppard on Parade’s End when I was 21. So, I got that job in May or April, and then we weren’t going into rehearsals until September or something. So then I auditioned for Watchmen and I got the job, and I remember having a conversation with Damon Lindelof, saying, “I’m doing this play.”
So, the plan was to do the play, eight shows a week, in the winter, and then after my matinee on Sunday, I would fly down to Atlanta, shoot for a day and then fly back up to New York. And I was very nervous about that. I mean, there’s snow, flights don’t take off, so I was very nervous about that. And then what ended up happening was that they went with a local hire. The part was very small on Watchmen, but it was so wonderful to work with them all. Tim Blake Nelson and everyone were all so lovely and wonderful, but it didn’t make sense to me even when I got the job. (Laughs.) I was like, “Okay, I’ll go for this ride,” but I think it worked out the way it was supposed to, so I got to do the play.
Justified: City Primeval is now airing Tuesdays on FX. This interview was edited for length and clarity, and was conducted ahead of the July 13 actors strike.