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'Sons of Anarchy': Drea de Matteo on the reveal, Wendy's backstory

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SoA S7 Gallery 04
James Minchin/FX

Spoiler alert: Tuesday night’s episode of Sons of Anarchy ended with Jax telling Abel that Wendy was his “first mommy”—and Abel later telling Jax that Gemma killed Tara. While we wait to see what Jax does with that information, and what role Wendy plays in his investigation, EW spoke with Drea de Matteo about Wendy’s emotion in that moment, her feelings for Jax, the backstory de Matteo created for her, and her relationship with Gemma (and Nero).

EW: I saw you tweet that you don’t know what’s happening next because you don’t read the scripts. But you go to table reads, right?

de Matteo: Not always. I don’t know if Kurt [Sutter] gets mad at me, but I don’t always go to the table reads. I’m a fan of the show. I don’t even want to know what’s happening. And even at the table reads, I’m like, “La la la la la la la la la la.” I don’t want to hear.

Let’s go right to Jax telling Abel the truth about Wendy. The level of emotion as you listened was perfect.

It’s funny. I had to live tweet last night while I was watching the show. I don’t know how to tweet, at all, period. So I had to have someone in New York on the phone with me while I watched the show tweeting for me—the guy who runs my Twitter page. [Laughs] So I was trying to pay attention because I was curious to see what take they would use on that. Because I don’t really have much dialogue, I just had to react to what was being said. I think my first take, I cried so much in it, and it was such a mess—snot pouring out of every hole of my face—that they didn’t end up using that one. The minute they let me out of the gate of the scene, I was so emotional. I remember Paris [Barclay, the executive producer who directed the episode] saying to me, “I don’t know how we’re gonna duplicate this from every angle.” Normally when you cry in a scene in a show, everyone’s like, “Ah, wow, that’s amazing. Thanks.” This time, it was like, “Are you kidding me?” [Laughs] Like on The Sopranos, the more insanity of the crying, the better. And on this one, I had to really temper myself towards the end.

What were you trying to think about?

I have two children, and I’m separated from their dad. So all I had to do was think about my own experience and play it in that scene and it was right there for me. As an actor, we just keep that stuff inside until they open the gates when they say, “Action!” So you walk around all day with all of these emotions [Laughs], and then boom! But as an actor, we have to orchestrate it and temper it. But in that moment, I lost it. It could have been years of sadness that just exploded into the scene. It was probably just too much for that moment.

How surprised were you when you learned that’s the moment Jax finally tells Abel?

I knew eventually it would have to happen this season, so I was ready for it whenever. Forget about me, Drea, being taken by surprise, Wendy, obviously, is completely taken off-guard when he decides to say it to him. So I had to be in that head space, too, like, “Holy s–t, I had no idea this was coming, and I’m not prepared.”

The scene afterward, when Jax comes into the kitchen as Wendy makes tea, really showed how far those two have come. You believe they’re friends now, but in the back of everyone’s mind, you never forget how he shot her up with heroin. How do you view that journey back to a good relationship?

I have a penchant for playing characters that have been victimized repeatedly and still stood their ground and still remained unembittered. She’s just forgiving, all the time for the greater good of the family or the love. I, Drea, look like a hardass, and people would assume a lot of times that the characters that I’ve played were harasses, even on The Sopranos, and I’ve actually been playing a victim all this time, playing the one who’s usually the most vulnerable, the most innocent. Even though I look like I’ve been around the block 70,000 times, she’s still kind of pure. I guess that’s what I play best, the fine line between those two things—playing someone who tries to sift through all the bulls–t and still remains loving in the end. On Sons of Anarchy, Wendy and Nero are the only characters who really don’t have an agenda that has to do with anything but their love for their children, their love for their mates, their love for their friends. They really come from this kind of pure place, as opposed to the rest of the characters that are coming from these really mangled corners of their mind. I think that’s why Nero and Wendy have been paired up so much.

I talked with Jimmy Smits earlier this season, and I told him I was finding myself shipping Nero and Wendy. Have there been moments where you’ve wondered if there’s something brewing there? He said people would talk about it in the makeup trailer.

Yeah. I think we were all confused. I remember sitting in the makeup trailer with the makeup girls, and we were like, “What is going on?” Even with Katey [Sagal], I’d be like, “Am I gonna take your man? What is happening here?” But again, we just never know where it’s going. We’d find out the day of the new script, and that’s it.

To get back to the kitchen scene, it was so sweet when Wendy and Jax hugged—but it felt like she pulled away. Like, she has to work to keep this friendly and not let her feelings for Jax, which she admits she still has but knows she shouldn’t act on, get out of control. Is that a correct read on that moment?

One hundred percent. I think that scene was written for that purpose. I think being able to put her arms around this man who she’s probably loved since she’s met him, and to feel that proximity and all the emotions that rush in—but she also knows that this is taboo, that this is a world of hurt for her that could send her back into the recesses of her mind. ‘Cause that’s the one thing that she has a weakness for is that relationship. Nothing good is gonna come out of that because of where he’s at in his life and because of the way he’s treated her in the past. So yeah, she can’t let herself get caught up in the possibilities of her own emotions when it comes to being close to him. She’s gotta focus on the baby and the baby only.

The promo for next week’s episode shows Wendy telling Jax that she doesn’t want anymore secrets between them now. It implies that she tells Jax who helped hide Juice from the club. If that’s the case, it feels like it could finally be the payoff to Gemma telling Tara in the season premiere that she trusts Wendy—for now. How would you see that shifting the dynamic between those characters?

I think Gemma and Wendy have really gotten to a place of acceptance. Where Gemma’s been at this season, she’s really trying to do her own damage control. She’s the one villain who did something so absolutely unforgivably brutal to the main protagonist of the show. It’s vile, but yet, as a fan who watches the show, I completely understand her. That’s the way Kurt wrote it, the way Katey played it—I’m on her side. I think if she would even explain to Wendy where she was at, and why she did what she did, and why she’s kept it a secret as long as she’s had, I think Wendy being the kind of person that she is, would completely understand. Would she be petrified? I’m sure. Would she be mortified? I’m sure. Would she want revenge? I doubt it. Would she want Jax to take revenge? No f–king way. I don’t know, I just think Wendy comes from a way more hippie-esque kind of thing. She’s tried to be tough with Tara and Gemma from time to time, throwing some zingers their way, but at the end of the day, Wendy is gonna end up going back to a place of purity because she doesn’t want to hurt people. The other characters on the show, they don’t care about hurting each other to protect themselves, to protect other people. Even Unser, who’s the good guy, he still has tons of secrets. My character can’t hold on to those secrets. Nero is not a secret man either. The other side of it is we’re the two characters who’ve probably been forced to look at ourselves emotionally and psychologically because of our drug addictions and because we were put away—he in jail, me in a rehab. And with children, we’re the two people who have probably worked on our self-worth the most, so we might be the most centered, even though we might be the most open, which leaves us the most vulnerable. Our purpose on the show has been to maintain that sense of humanity.

Katey once told me that Kurt sat people down before the pilot and gave them their character’s backstory up until we met them. Are there things you’ve talked about with Kurt, or filled in yourself, that we’ve never heard about on-screen but that always informed the way you played Wendy?

When Kurt hired me to be on the show, I died in the pilot. That was it. I came in with [exec producer] John Linson from the beginning, and it was just a funny little thing: “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I loved the world. That was it. There was no expectation of my character coming back. But I think the fact that I wanted to do it at that time, [Kurt] asked me, “I don’t know what we’re gonna do with this, but do you want to stick around?” I stuck around for a little bit, but I did have other engagements, so eventually I had to leave and that worked out fine because my character could go to rehab for four seasons. [Laughs] I did a lot of work on myself, which would make sense for me to be able to be standing tall by season 7 and not be that messed up on drugs still. So we never sat down and really discussed a backstory on who my character was, so I gave myself my own backstory, and it would be news to Kurt to find out that his character was this person. But this is what I put in my own head: That I am probably from the East Coast. That I don’t have much family back home. That I didn’t have a very good or structured, loving family. That I was probably a dancer in a strip club. Came out to California to maybe try to dance—maybe it was professional dancing, who the hell knows—but then I ended up just stripping and getting hooked on drugs. Probably got more hooked on drugs once I fell in love with Jax because the world—there was a lot of s–t around. So that was my backstory, that I was a little bit of a party girl wild card.

I would assume if Jax broke up with the love of his life, which was Tara, and she had moved away, that I was just some flashy piece of ass that he could get with. That’s probably how we came together. He took care of me, I think, to a large degree, as opposed to Tara coming in and taking care of him, which is the way it really played out. Tara was the voice of reason, the conscience, and she was a strong woman. My character was probably a lot less than that. So those are my little pieces of backstory. But because I was in and out so much, I never really went that far.

That’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing that. One last question: Last night on Conan, you talked about how much you love to curse.  Your upcoming reality web series, The Muthaship, which officially debuts Dec. 1., seems like a nice venue for you because they can just bleep you. Was that the draw?

[Laughs] The Muthaship was an experiment. All my friends are working at Endemol, so they just kind of pushed me into it to see if we could shoot a little web series on an iPhone—and that’s what we did, we shot it on an iPhone. So it’s so experiential and so silly. We’re not lit, we’re barely mic’d half the time. It’s guerrilla craziness. But we did it, and we ended up with a product that we thought could be kind of fun, and now they want to try to sell it. I swore I would never do a reality show. I’ve been offered them for years and years, because our family life is a little crazy—I will admit to that. Definitely not the conventional mom or family or anything, for that matter. So it’s something I did in my 40s, once I felt that my life had become less precious, and my career was less precious, and I didn’t need to prove that I was a formidable actor. I said, “Just f–k it. Why not do this? You know what, I like being myself now. So if I’m gonna be myself in front of a camera for five minutes, I think I’m ready to do that.” So yes, it’s a lot of cursing. A lot of cursing around my children. I’m sure Child Services is gonna be knockin’ on my door when this thing comes out. [Laughs] But the one thing that you can’t deny is that the love I have inside of me for family and my friends is what rules. That’s really what the little show is about.