If you ever need to find actor Joe Gilgun on the New Mexico set of AMC's new supernatural western "Preacher," just follow the trail of blood.
"[I'm] constantly covered in blood," the tatted Englishman exclaims with a kind of mischievous glee. "There are hand prints everywhere, on the doors. My trailer was like a kill room. Like I'd killed loads of children in there."
A distressing statement. Yet declared with Gilgun's rapid-fire cadence it's disarmingly captivating. It's as if he's daring you to be entertained by the uncomfortable imagery. And that's "Preacher" in a nutshell. The new drama series premiering Sunday night on AMC relishes in the absurd and obscene. And if you can't help but crack a smile, blame Gilgun's cheeky delivery.
It helps that the actor has been cast in the role he was undoubtedly born to play. Think Billy Idol if he were a blood-thirsty Irish vampire, but one blessedly free of the usually requisite vampire fangs. Gilgun, of course, finds the fun in all the other vampire perks, specifically getting ridiculously doused in gore.
"Blood and my character are like peas and carrots," Gilgun says. "I'll have to put the outfit on that I had the night before, and that was covered in cold, sticky [fake blood]. It's just like being covered in actual blood only it doesn't smell of iron and that. It's like minty. On set you know where I've gone because you can smell cannabis and there's a blood trail all the way through."
Adapted from the hyper-violent, 1990s comics created by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, "Preacher" took almost a decade to get made. Thanks to the non-stop persistence of Hollywood comedy darlings Evan Goldberg (writer of "Pineapple Express") and actor Seth Rogen, "Preacher" was eventually delivered into the hands of writer-producer Sam Catlin of "Breaking Bad" fame. Together the trio finally christened "Preacher" with a pilot that crams humor, action and a pondering of the meaning of existence into a single hour of television.
Set in the no-horse town of Annville, Texas, the series follows the prodigal son turned village preacher Jessie Custer (Dominic Cooper) as he attempts to guide his meager flock into salvation. Jessie must head toward the light while avoiding job propositions from his ex-crime partner (and ex-girlfriend) Tulip (Ruth Negga) and the hijinks of one marooned vampire named Cassidy (Gilgun). Due to divine intervention (or pure happenstance), the preacher, the con and the vampire all become entangled in a holy war.
Even the premise sounds like the start of a joke that lands with a biblical apocalypse twist. And AMC is hoping that the Frankensteined mashup of styles will keep the series unique. "It's so genre hopping," executive producer Catlin says. "['Preacher'] can be a serious drama about the meaning of life, it can be a silly Monty Python-esque comedy, it can be a crazy-violent [Quentin] Tarantino [film]. It's a western. It has a lot of different tones to it that I haven't seen before on TV."
So how did "Preacher" find the balance between the silly and the serious? How did they find the humor when Gilgun is knee-deep in gore? Apparently there's an art to it. "There's different treatments of violence," Catlin explains. "There is something about Tarantino where he just throws so much blood at his audience that it creates a sort of an ironic distance from it all. We treated violence on 'Breaking Bad' in a very different way, which was incredibly realistic, grounded. If someone got punched on the nose they would have a bloody nose. It was very meticulously mapped out. So in a lot of ways the violence in that show would hit harder than the violence we have on 'Preacher.' It sort of becomes part of the landscape. And that's just part of the world that Garth created. This is a word that has lost its moorings. It's an embellishment of the violent American frontier spirit."
Everything is analyzed, from the size of a character's smirk right before he lands a punch, to what body part should be lobbed off that would be gross, but not too disgusting. For example, in the original pilot script the character Tulip is introduced mid-fight, slugging multiple attackers in a careening car.
"I originally scripted her as biting off the guy's nose," Catlin says. "And Seth and Evan said, 'No, no, no, we did that before. It was too disgusting. It has to be an ear.' Because for some reason the ear is less disturbing than the nose. And I think they were right."
Gilgun applies the same dissection of hyper violence and comedy to pry open the mind of his 119-year-old character.
"I know he's funny, but he's constantly being shot," Gilgun says. "It's agony. It's the same pain as it is for a normal human being; it's all the same. He got used to it. He's got used to being shot. He's got used to pulling bullets out of him. You think about it, get rid of the comical aspects of it, he's a really sad man. He's been subjected to some terrible [things]."
Cassidy is a fantasy creature who doesn't believe in the fantastic even as he makes his way through a bizarre world where angels, demons and monsters are all very, very real. Instead of living the "Interview with a Vampire" life of lace and luxury, he's broke, and spends most of his time drinking away the minutes on his endless clock. And though we won't see much of Cassidy's comic book origin story this season, we will witness the character struggle with the reality of his own absurd existence.
"I remember when my Auntie Doris was an old lady. She went, 'I wake up everyday.' I went, 'Go on?' And she went, 'Nah that's it: I wake up every day.' She's sick of it. She's had enough. It was her time to go. She knew that and she was looking forward to it. It was inspiring to me, as a model human being, to listen to Auntie Doris, who's lived and enjoyed it and is ready to go."
The first episode of "Preacher" has three impressively choreographed fight scenes but, Gilgun warns, things will cool off a bit, because again, it's a balancing act.
"We can't have enormous amounts of blood, terrible gore, every episode," Gilgun says. "There's nothing to look forward to in that sense. It's like a spliff, like having a joint. If you smoke it all day long, endlessly, it's just something you do. It's not a treat anymore, is it?"
Will the genre splicing win over the modern-day TV audience? Will folks fall for the Irish vampire with great banter, but a deeply twisted past? No one can say for sure, not even Catlin who confesses that he may be looking for a job in a couple of months. But he does know that "Preacher" comes in strong. And with today's television audiences, there's really no other way you can introduce an idea this intricate. You gotta go big.
"There's just been so much great, innovative television in the last 10 years that sort of the paved the way: 'The Sopranos,' 'The Wire,' 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad.'" Catlin says. "People took really big swings on those shows, and they paid off. Now audiences expect big swings. Audiences are so much more sophisticated and so much more… cynical is too pejorative a word, but they've seen a lot of great stuff. So it takes a lot to surprise them. I think AMC and Sony know that 'Preacher' is nothing if not a big swing."
And if "Preacher" can make folks wince when a ridiculous vampire takes a bullet, perhaps it has a prayer of a chance with today's audience.