Bow Before Sons of Anarchy's Queen, Katey Sagal...

Actress shares her start and how she created her Emmy-worthy character, Gemma Teller Morrow

By Jennifer Godwin Dec 11, 2009 2:05 AMTags
Sons of Anarchy, Katey SagalPrashant Gupta / FX

Let the word go forth from this time and place: Katey Sagal deserves an Emmy (and a Golden Globe and a SAG Award) for her work as queen Gemma Teller Morrow on FX's motorcycle-driven family saga, Sons of Anarchy.

Sagal's transformative, heartbreaking, epic work as the magisterial maternal being that is Gemma Teller Morrow is simply one of damn finest TV performances to come along in ages. Specifically, her work in season two—as a empress who suffers silently through the aftermath of a gang rape in order to protect her empire—was nothing less than magnificent.

In short, Katey Sagal's Gemma is the queen, full stop, and attention will be paid.

To honor the queen, and to follow up on the aftermath of SOA's blockbuster season-two finale, we caught up with Ms. Sagal herself, and got the scoop on her past and future with husband and Sons of Anarchy show runner Kurt Sutter, what it took for Gemma to survive the depredations of the L.O.A.N. thugs in season two, and where Gemma goes from here...

OK, let's beginning at the beginning before we jump to Sons of Anarchy. We've all known you for over 20 years now, but how did you get started in the business?
I actually started as a musician. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter so that's what I started doing, but in high school my dad [director Boris Sagal] put me in a movie so I could get a union card, which was really helpful because it's hard to get a union card. He thought I was talented [in acting]; I wasn't sure I was.

What was that first movie?
It was called The Failing of Raymond with Dean Stockwell. I played a patient in a mental institution. I'm gonna say I was 16, 17—I was a kid.

A lot of your family members are in the business, right?
[Husband Kurt Sutter] just hired one of my sisters to write for the show. She did freelance last year, and he just put her on as a regular member of the writing staff, so she'll start that this season. And I have another sister, her twin—they used to have a show called Double Trouble. And then I have a brother who's an actor, his name is Joey, and then I have another brother who's a lawyer at Warner Brothers. 

After such a long, successful career, what's your relationship to acting at this point? Are you still hungry or can you take it or leave it?
I'm grateful that I'm employed. Growing up around it I watched my dad go through the ups and downs of the business. As a kid we moved a lot, it was based on if he was working or not, so I watched that it was hard work to get, and it's great when you got it. I feel every time I have a job that I'm mostly just grateful that I'm getting to do what it is I like to do. That in itself is an awesome thing, I don’t think a lot of people have that. 

And how did you meet Kurt Sutter?
We were introduced through a mutual friend, and he asked me if I would have coffee with him sometime, and I said yes, and then I was kind of was out of touch because I had my little kids and was running around with my children. And then he called me like a couple months later and asked me to coffee, and we went and kind of never left each other after that.

What did you he initially tell you about Gemma's storyline this season? Did you know what you were getting into?
He was pretty clear about the whole arc when he presented it to me at first. I was really looking forward to it, not the actual scene to shoot, but as an actor, I understood where the character was going, and I thought well that's a pretty interesting way to go with her. People are dimensional, people are not just one way so the opportunity to show that is always interesting.

Is it easy to embody Gemma Teller, or is playing her hard on you?
The stretch with her is she's very different than me. Some of her base instincts are similar to mine—I have three children and you don't want to cross my kids—but she comes from such a different headspace, and I guess my biggest challenge is to constantly remind myself we are two different people. I'm always having to realize her responses are not the same as Katey's responses would be to a situation.

What was it like to shoot the rape scene for the season premiere?
The week previously we had gone to the set, Henry [Rollins] and I had kind of walked around where we would be, and it was treated really delicately. That actually went pretty smoothly in terms of the choreography of it and the emotionality of it. You just go there...but it was a very safe environment so we were able to play. I think it was more uncomfortable for Henry than it is for me. We hadn't known each other long, and he's a sensitive soul, and here he is, coming to take down the matriarch, so it might have been more uncomfortable for him.

And the bookend to that was the confession scene later in the season, where the family gathered 'round the table and Gemma told what happened to her. What was the feeling in the room on that day?
I thought that was a beautiful scene. Kurt had initially written it so you weren't gonna actually hear me telling that story so much as you would see me telling that story, so I learned that dialogue very quickly. Usually I work on it a bit in advance, but this dialogue I sat with for not too long a time, which I think played into the realism of it, in that I was really telling the story for the first time in a lot of ways. He ended up deciding to keep a lot of me speaking. It was very emotional for all of us on the day. It was a big culmination, we'd been really leading there, so it was just as emotional for us as it seemed to have been for the audience.

In your mind, what made the difference this season in bringing Gemma and Tara together so closely?
The fact that Tara (Maggie Siff) stepped up to the plate and helped Gemma and helped the club. The fact that Gemma at the end of the first season realizes she's not gonna to be the first girl, in terms of being close to her son, so Gemma being the smart woman that she is, she realizes it's better to join them. She's decided to contribute to the education of Tara, she's going to teach her how to be a woman in this world because it looks like she's here to stay. And Tara really went out on a limb for the club this season, she risked her job, she risked everything so Gemma admires that.

Prashant Gupta / FX

Was it just me, or were Gemma and Jax a little more distant this season?
A season is probably a few weeks in story time, so I think it was a really rough few weeks in terms of intimacy for anybody with Gemma. She pulled away from everybody after the rape. As an actor, I miss being with Charlie [Hunnam]—I love playing with Charlie—so who knows, maybe my husband will write stuff for me and Charlie.

And where did the chemistry between you and Ron Perlman come from?
We instantly had great chemistry, Ron [Perlman] and I. I felt like he was the perfect guy for that part. We have a great working relationship as does everybody on the show...like the guys all kind of get along as if they were in a real club and us girls kind of filter in and out but we're always around. And Ron is one of the guys, but he definitely has a leadership position.

What can you tell us about Gemma and Unser's relationship, which became so important in the second half of the season? Does Unser have a crush on Gemma or are they just pals or what's going on?
I don't think it's a crush, I think Unser (Dayton Callie) is from Charming, as is Gemma, and he watched her grow up. I think he watched her go through whatever family stuff she had and leave Charming and then come back so he's kind of like a big brother. I think that he has his loyalties towards these people because he grew up with them. I don't think there's anything romantic involved, he's watching out for her.

Are we going to lose Gemma in season three? Does she vanish into parts unknown?
I don't know, I think he [Kurt Sutter] might know but he doesn't really let on, I don't know, but I never really do.

How is Gemma going to feel about her own responsibility for Abel's kidnapping?
Well, I think Gemma's would response would be horrified, and she would be proactive in righting the wrong. She's not somebody who sits on the sidelines, she takes action. I don't know, I don't know that the fault will be put on her. I think nobody would question that Gemma loves this family and she would in no way intentionally put any of them in danger. I don't think that anybody would question her motives.

Katey's a brilliant actress who deserves many trophies, right? Agree with us in the comments or be banished from the realm forever!


Snuggle up with our Sons of Anarchy Season Two gallery to stay warm over the long cold winter months until the show starts up again...