The Light from the TV Shows: Chatting with Natalie Zea about “Justified” (with a little bit of “Dirty Sexy” talk, too)

FX’s “Justified” continues to be one of the best series on television, with a lot of the credit for its success rightfully being attributed to Elmore Leonard’s original source material and the love and respect series creator Graham Yost and his writers have for Leonard’s work. Lest we forget just how important the cast is to the success of the series, however, I wanted to make sure that I took advantage of the opportunity to chat with at least one of the actors from the ensemble after they wrapped the “Justified” panel at the January TCA tour. As there’s such a wealth of talent to choose from, I’m sure you’ll believe me if I assure you that it was complete coincidence that I just happened to end up talking to the most gorgeous one of the bunch.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t entirely coincidental. Look, I’ve been smitten with Natalie Zea since she first crossed my radar as part of the cast of ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money,” and I had the chance to talk to her in a perfectly legitimate capacity. So sue me.

Also, just so it’s out there, I should probably also mention that I sound like a complete doofus a couple of times, responding to her responses by simply saying, “Really?” I’m not usually like that, but, hey, this is what happens when you’re blindsided by a beautiful woman…

Bullz-Eye: So what was it like when the cast gathered back together for the first table read of Season Three?

Natalie Zea: We, uh, don’t do table reads. [Laughs.]

BE: [Surprised.] Really?

NZ: Regretfully. I think they’re very handy. I think it’s that Graham (Yost) is not a fan of table reads. I’m not sure why. So, yeah, you kind of get thrown back into it on the first day. My first scene of Season Three was a love scene. And it’s, like, “Oh, hello, haven’t seen you in six months! How are you doing? Great! Let’s get into bed!” [Laughs.] And then, y’know, after the first 15 minutes, it’s like I never left.

BE: There’s at least a slightly different dynamic with your character this season, owing to her pregnancy, but you indicated during the panel that you’re not planning to play her a whole lot differently.

NZ: No, I’m not. Also, in regards to the pregnancy, what I realized but didn’t say is… We’re not really talking about the pregnancy as much as we are the baby. So I think probably Winona’s pregnancy is going quite well. [Laughs.] She’s having a really easy time of it. Which I like. I think…y’know, if there are concerns with viewers – and I think there would be, given the nature of this show – that it’s going to turn into this, like, “Baby? Pregnancy? I want ice cream and pickles! My feet hurt!” [Laughs.] It’s not happening. The pregnancy almost never gets addressed. But the issues…the outcome and the issues regarding the outcome, those are discussed. Because it’s life. And you have to discuss it.

BE: Speaking of ice cream, that was a great line Raylan had at the end of Season Two. As if anyone would ever believe that he’d settle down and sell ice cream. Ever.

NZ: It could happen… [Laughs.]

BE: Sure. Sure it could. [Laughs.] So when you first started “Justified,” did you get any indication about where your character was going to be going?

NZ: At the very beginning? No. And I was actually somewhat hesitant to take the job because of that, because I had run into a situation where I had been on a show and the character seemed to not quite find its feet, and I didn’t want a repeat of that. Graham was actually very honest with me, though. He said, “Look, I can’t make you any promises, but I can tell you that there’s a reason that we want you on permanently, so you can trust us or you can take a hike, but we really would like to have you.” So, uh, I was in escrow… [Laughs.] And I was, like, “Well, I’m not gonna say no to that!” So I really did sort of jump in quite blindly.

BE: That kind of parallels Anna Gunn’s experiences on “Breaking Bad,” where she wanted to make sure that Skyler White wasn’t just going to be the harried wife, and Vince Gilligan basically assured her, “She’s going to start off in the dark, but eventually she’ll be in on the crime.”

NZ: Right. Because, you know, it’s an archetype that has become… [Sighs.] …troublesome, playing the reactive significant other to the hero just because of the need for dramatic conflict. It happens a lot, and I think actresses – at least the ones who’ve been doing this for awhile – are concerned that they’re going to sort of become that trope. And it’s happened with Winona. At times. I mean, there’s no way for it not to have happened. But it’s something that you try to avoid at all costs, I think.

BE: Sure. But, like, for instance, when the series first kicked off, I think most viewers figured, “Oh, here’s his ex, she’s back in the picture, you just know they’re gonna get back together…”

NZ: Yeah, I mean, I assumed it as well. But I certainly didn’t think it was any kind of guarantee.

BE: I think the most surprising plot development with Winona came last season, when she stole the money.

NZ: And…that was a bit of a misstep, I thought.

BE: Really?

NZ: Yes, because the reason behind all that wasn’t fleshed out enough, only because there was so much else going on. I just think it kind of got lost. And I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that. I think it just didn’t resonate the way we had intended for it to, because the buildup was…not quite right.

BE: How quickly did you and Timothy Olyphant find your onscreen chemistry?

NZ: [Long pause.] I would say…I mean, I think it’s all subjective, but probably about halfway through the season. I would say “Hatless,” which was Episode Six of the first season, when we got to spend a lot of time together as our characters in the episode. I think that’s when we really locked into the rhythm and sort of began to understand the relationship.

BE: For a second, I thought you were trying to say, “I’d say we have more chemistry when he’s hatless.”

NZ: [Bursts out laughing.] Well, I have to say, I do enjoy him more without the hat. Just because I can see him, you know?

BE: “Justified” obviously has a ridiculously talented writing staff, but have you yourself brought anything specific to the character of Winona?

NZ: For me…as superficial as it might sound, I tend to work from the outside in. Nails are really important for me for any character. The voice is really important for me for any character. And, of course, the hair and the makeup. But I try to take care of what you see, and then I let them sort of take care of what I say and think and feel. [Laughs.] And hopefully the combination makes a fully realized person.

BE: How has it been working with Elmore Leonard?

NZ: I, uh, met him today.

BE: Really? For the first time…?

NZ: Yep. And he was wonderful. [Laughs.]

BE: I know we’re up against the wall, but I attended my first TCA tour when “Dirty Sexy Money” was being presented, so I was just wondering about your thoughts when you look back on that show.

NZ: I have such fond memories. You know, I get approached all the time on the street by such disparate, interesting people – just such a wide array of people – who really seriously lament the fact that that show went too soon. And I have to say, as much as I enjoyed it and as great an experience as it was, I sort of relish it in the fact that it went out on greatness. You know? I think we could’ve done another season. I think after that it would’ve… [Hesitates.] My fear is that it would’ve just gotten to be too much. It would’ve been too over the top, too campy, too ridiculous. So I sort of like that we went out in a blaze of glory. And I loved that character. But I was fine to let her go.

BE: How was the experience of working on “Hung”?

NZ: It was a challenge, I have to say. It was one of the more challenging projects that I’ve worked on. But, conversely, it was also the project that has gotten me the most acclaim in my career. So I guess it was worth it. [Laughs]

BE: Lastly, I can’t remember: did you and Walton Goggins ever have any scenes together during the brief period when you were both appearing on “The Shield”?

NZ: No. In fact, Walton and I have never in our lives ever acted together in the same scene. [Laughs.] We’ve been in the same scene, passing each other, but that’s it!


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