Judy Gemstone, the volatile middle daughter on HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, has a need for attention that borders on the pathological. She’s prone to slamming doors and stomping about in her sequined ice-skater getups. She’s preemptively defensive about everything, snarling like a cornered possum. And she possesses a flair for sexually graphic profanity that is downright poetic. Repeatedly sidelined within her family’s megachurch empire, Judy does whatever it takes to get her father, Eli (John Goodman), to take her seriously, scrapping and jockeying for power behind her peacocking brothers, Jesse (series creator Danny McBride) and Kelvin (Adam Devine). “It hurts your feelings when you feel like people are disregarding you, or not giving you the credit that you’re due,” says Edi Patterson, who plays Judy. “That can morph into frustration, and then it’s just swipes from a bobcat.”
Patterson hails from Texas City, a Gulf Coast town dominated by its oil refineries and distinct lack of showbiz prospects, so she knows what it’s like to have to fight a little harder just to be noticed. In the late nineties, Patterson found her voice in the Austin improv scene, then almost immediately jumped into Los Angeles’s storied troupe the Groundlings, which led to a series of supporting gigs on sitcoms such as Partners and Black-ish. In 2016, Patterson landed a plum role in McBride’s acidic show Vice Principals, which proved to be a fateful match. Patterson’s zeal for vulgar, very precisely off-kilter wordplay both rivals and complements McBride’s own, and soon the two were collaborating on a film that would star Patterson (one she promises is still in the offing), and Patterson had joined The Righteous Gemstones as both writer and breakout, wild-card star. That first season, Patterson was repeatedly singled out for critical praise. A song she cowrote for the show, the rollicking country ditty “Misbehavin’,” became a viral hit. Just as The Righteous Gemstones wrapped its first season in late 2019, Patterson was also delivering another scene-stealing turn in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.
Then came COVID-19. As production halted on The Righteous Gemstones’s second season, Patterson returned to Texas City and her parents’ house. She bided her time doing voice-over work from her closet—most recently, she can be heard on both HBO Max’s Ten Year Old Tom and Adult Swim’s Teenage Euthanasia—and revising Gemstones scripts over Zoom, and generally waiting to get back to playing the role that, Patterson says, “makes me feel like I got shot into space.” Now, with the show’s second season making its long-delayed debut on January 9, it’s finally time for the world to take notice of Judy Gemstone—and Edi Patterson—all over again. Texas Monthly talked to Patterson about finding empathy with Judy’s twisted psyche, the importance of specificity in comedy, and why there’s nothing worse than someone trying to be funny.
Sean O’Neal: I don’t imagine there was much of a comedy scene in Texas City?
Edi Patterson: Yeah, there’s not. I didn’t start doing improv, or dipping my toe in, until I went away to college. There was a big comedy scene in my house, like, on the TV. And, you know, with my dad being hilarious, and me coming home and trying to imitate my teachers and stuff. In seventh grade, we had a thing called Class Day—a talent show, basically—and me and some other girls wrote a Dating Game parody. We didn’t have cable growing up. We had these three upper channels that played all reruns, so I would see episodes from The Dating Game from the sixties and seventies, and I and a few friends thought they were so funny. So we wrote a Dating Game parody where all three of us played guys, and I was “the nerd.” And that was the first time I went, “Oh, well, I’m gonna do this for my job.” I hadn’t even realized until then, like, “Oh, right, you can do this.” That that can be what you do in life.
SO: Your dad was a plumber and your mom was a teacher, so you came from two very “real job” kinds of people. How did they react?
EP: Amazingly. Crazily, when I think about it. I can’t even express how lucky I got and how grateful I am. I had been trying to make them laugh my whole life. But when I realized I wanted to be an actor—which was, again, in, like, seventh grade—never was there one second where they were like, “Nah, don’t do that.” Never even urged me to have a backup plan. They didn’t have any idea how to help me, but they were one thousand percent for me doing what I wanted to do. They were both awesome people and very, very bright, and they kind of knew, like, what’s the point in dissuading someone from following their dream?
SO: Who were some of your early comedy heroes?
EP: Again, because we didn’t have cable, we got all the Carol Burnett reruns, and I was obsessed with Carol Burnett. I was obsessed with Tracey Ullman. I was obsessed with In Living Color. I used to meet up with a friend of mine after school, and we would literally just stand in his room and do Fire Marshal Bill for hours. There are videos stashed in drawers—that I hope are never found—of me doing Pat from SNL. I feel like anyone who’s ever wanted to be a performer went through this phase, where you thought that being funny equaled doing stuff you already saw on TV.
SO: So it wasn’t until you moved to Austin that you took your first real step toward performing?
EP: I did a tiny bit of dabbling at Texas State [University], but yeah, my main improv stuff for, like, a paying crowd was doing Theatresports in Austin at the Hideout Theatre, in 1999. And I was out of my mind because I loved it so much. I could feel inside of myself that I had some sort of aptitude for it, but I was out of control. I was such a spaz, it was almost like the joy would overtake my body, and I couldn’t handle it. It took me a while to realize the merits of slowing down. But I think that’s how beginning improv is for a lot of people who end up doing it their whole life. You feel like you discovered fire. You’re like, “Oh my God, where has this been?”
SO: And then you jumped straight into Los Angeles and the Groundlings just a year later?
EP: Yeah, I had read enough to know that so many people I thought were amazing—Will Ferrell and Lisa Kudrow, and on and on and on—had gone through [the Groundlings]. And when I went there and saw the show, soon after moving to L.A. in 2000, I felt like there was Icy Hot inside my veins. I couldn’t even handle it. Their focus was on characters, and on making characters really specific and funny. And that’s what I had been doing for my family and my friends my entire life. I just had that crazed feeling of, like, “I have to be a part of this. I must be a part of this, or I will die.” I had done a couple of indie films, and I was doing things I really loved in Austin. I really loved the people there. But early on, I realized if you want this to be your job and your life, you have to go somewhere else to do it. Austin is one of the coolest cities on Earth, and you can totally get why someone would just want to keep doing improv there. But yeah, I wanted to end it in a different way. I knew that I wanted to act in TV and movies. And so I knew I had to go somewhere else.
SO: There’s this tendency with comedians from the South to lean into it and exaggerate their “Southernness.” Did you play it up? Or did you try to get away from it?
EP: I never, ever tried to get away from it. I mean, I can’t! I can’t remember trying to, you know, wield it or anything. But it’s just so inherently in me. I feel lucky that I’m able to just let it rip. With a lot of Judy Gemstone, I can just let the Southern part of me out. I can turn up the dial.
SO: It’s funny, though, because one of the things I like most about The Righteous Gemstones is how it avoids those easy Southern stereotypes.
EP: Oh yeah, dude. Totally. And I think that’s because Danny’s from the South; I’m from the South. We film the show in Charleston, South Carolina, and that’s where a lot of those dudes live now with their families. A lot of people involved have grown up in some part of the South, so they know people from the South are not a joke. They’re awesome and complex, just like people from anywhere. And yeah, I’m with you. I get annoyed when human beings are minimized in that way. It’s not specific. It’s just somebody doing an accent. It makes me crazy.
SO: There’s a through line from your characters on Vice Principals to Righteous Gemstones, where you’re playing these people who are excessively, almost maniacally overconfident. But they’re also full of self-doubt and desperation. How do you find the comic sweet spot between those extremes?
EP: Well, I think those things are in almost every human. And the sweet spot for me is just feeling the truth of it, and knowing that I find it really, really funny when people are more confident than they probably have a right to be. It’s just such a fun and juicy thing to watch or play and just swim in. I think those things happen in all of us, and if you can turn them up to eleven, and still feel in your gut that you believe them, that’s the sweet spot.
SO: Judy seems almost developmentally arrested.
EP: How dare you.
SO: It’s like she has a twelve-year-old’s understanding of social mores and sexuality.
EP: Okay, fair. Yeah, yes.
SO: What’s her deal, exactly?
EP: [laughs] Well, I think that, from the second she was born, she’s wanted to be important. She’s struggling to be seen as [just as] important as her brothers. And I think that she’s fighting some of the inherent things in that world. She has to scrap, to show that a girl can do things just as well as a boy. And some of this has followed her into adulthood, because I think she probably didn’t ever have a ton of friends, aside from her family. So there were probably social things that she just didn’t learn. I think entitlement and extreme wealth can stunt a person, too. She’s just given whatever she wants. And being a brat to get what you want seems to work in her world. Also, I think a biggie is that her mom saw her in a way that her dad didn’t yet. Maybe because she was a girl. Maybe because she’s wild. But now her mom is gone. And so I think that’s her whole “SEE ME, exclamation point” vibe.
SO: How much of playing Judy is about you trying to really get into her psyche and motivations, like we just did, and how much is it just kind of letting things fly?
EP: I would say it’s a very healthy mix of both. I think about her ins and outs a ton, and I think there’s reasons for everything she does. That said, if I’m improvising as her, I just know to trust it. I know that what comes out is the truth, and that it’s now canon. There are some times that I do surprise myself, and I go, “Whoa, yeah. Judy thinks that.” She just comes out of me and tells me stuff sometimes.
SO: Has anything ever come out where you were like, wait, that’s too gross, or pathetic, or mean?
EP: Um, no. [laughs] I gotta say, no. If I say it and I mean it, it’s the truth. No matter how crazy it is. I think the fun and the magic of our show—if I can just get a little bit “woo” for a second—is that everyone means what they say. Even when what they’re saying is off the rails, the Gemstones mean it.
SO: Can you tell me about the genesis of Judy’s big monologue in the season one finale? Here you’re telling this awful story about Judy trying to seduce her college professor and even kidnapping his son, and you’re trying to make it not only funny, but also vulnerable and sympathetic. It seems like that must have been a real tightrope act.
EP: It’s interesting you say that, because a lot of people will say, like, “How did you guys get through that? Were you and Tim [Baltz, who plays Judy’s partner, B.J.] just laughing the whole time?” And I’ve got to say, it was gut-wrenching. Because like I was saying, I love Judy. I think she’s doing her f—ing best, all the time. And so I just believed what I was saying. I wrote that monologue, and yeah, of course, I knew it was pretty crazy. I knew it was funny when I wrote it. It would really make Danny and I laugh until we were crying. But when I was doing it, I just meant it. I really do think that Judy feels like she got screwed in this scenario. So I’d be doing the scene, and it just felt really real, and really sad. And then we would have a second after we taped, where we would go like, “Oh my God. Wow. What are we doing?” [laughs] I don’t know if that answers your question. Maybe it makes you think I’m a crazy person. But I think that’s why anything is funny, is if someone means it. For me, the second I feel like someone is trying to be funny, I’m out. Something inside me just dies. I want to feel like people mean what they’re saying. I like to cringe when I watch things. That’s what makes me laugh the hardest.
SO: One of the other things that makes your character funny—and I think this is a trait you share with Danny McBride—is in the specificity of your word choices. Like, in that monologue, the phrase “ham slices” is just inherently funny. How do you arrive at “ham slices”?
EP: Well, I’ll tell you exactly. When I got to the part where I take the guy’s kid to the beach, it just popped in my head, like, “What do people give kids at soccer games or other outdoor things?” I can’t remember—do I also say “orange pieces”?
SO: Just “ham slices.”
EP: So for a minute there were some oranges in there—orange pieces and ham slices. Then we narrowed it down to just ham slices. But it’s just thinking, like, what does someone who’s kind of out of touch give a kid? Like, “You’ll love eating this on a beach.” But that takes us back to that moment I had at the Groundlings, and for sure, Danny has this thing, too: I love specificity. It’s what makes a human a human. The more specific, the better. And I love saying things in ways that aren’t quite the phrase as written, because I think that’s what people do. I feel like I know numerous people that I’ve grown up with, and even friends I have now, who just say things slightly wrong, and I love it.
SO: Like in that same speech, where you say you’re “not boyfriends and girlfriends anymore.” Something about the unnecessary pluralization is just innately funny.
EP: [laughs] Yeah, I was very pleased when Danny and I started writing together to realize he likes unnecessary pluralizations as much as I do.
SO: What’s changed for Judy going into the second season? What was your big, overarching motivation for her?
EP: I think there are a few things on the table. I think she’s gotten more of what she wanted, in that she does have a place front and center in the church now. She really seems to have an equal footing with her brothers, as far as the services go. She clearly is the one who does the music, and they’re seen more as a unit, instead of just Jesse and Kelvin doing stuff with Eli. I think that’s a biggie, and it’s boosted her confidence even more. And I think she’s still struggling to get her family to accept B.J. the way she wants them to, so that angst is still in the mix. And I do think you get just a glimpse, just a peek at a soft spot she has, with some stuff with—am I going to get into spoilers if I say anything else?
SO: Let’s just say that Judy kind of reveals a maternal side.
EP: Mm-hmm, okay. Yeah. Yes.
SO: Is that a hint at what the future holds? It does seem like that would be the next logical step—that Judy becomes a mom herself.
EP: I just think that, whatever you think might be the next logical step for any of the Gemstones, don’t put your money on it.
SO: So right at the end of 2019, you have this breakout performance on a critically acclaimed show. People are suggesting you as a dark-horse candidate for an Emmy. You’ve got this role in Knives Out. You’re gearing up to ride all that momentum into a second season. Then, boom, a pandemic. What did that feel like?
EP: I mean . . . I don’t know. I don’t know that I had any bitterness about the things you just said. I’m just really stoked that people seem even more instantly on board with the second season than the first season. I mean, people loved [the first season], but it took some people a minute, and I feel like . . . I don’t know. Just to get “woo” again, I think everything happens for a reason. And the pandemic was so horribly hard for everyone.
SO: But the worst for you, specifically.
EP: [laughs] Oh, how awful would that be? What if I was that asshole? “It was just really hard for everyone, but . . .” God.
SO: Are you still auditioning for things these days? It seems like people would be seeking you out now.
EP: I do get offered some stuff now, which is really, really cool. And some things I still read for and put myself on tape. So it’s a mix. But there’s definitely more stuff getting offered, and that’s a really cool feeling.
SO: You’re in the “Get me Edi Patterson!” stage of your career.
EP: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, I hope those are the exact words they say. And I hope they bark them at someone.