The first season of AMC’s comic book adaptation Preacher mostly focused on Dominic Cooper’s superpower-possessing man-of-the-cloth Jess Custer, Ruth Negga’s vengeance-seeking Tulip, and Joseph Gilgun’s boozy vampire Cassidy in modern-day Annville. But the show periodically visited with The Cowboy (a.k.a. The Saint of Killers), as the character attempted to save his sick family in what appeared to be The Old West, but which was ultimately revealed as Hell. This taciturn gunslinger is very much an American archetype — but is actually played by chatty Scottish actor Graham McTavish.
“It was a very strange feeling for someone from Scotland riding into a Western town, on a horse, with two enormous .44 Walker Colts,” says the actor, whose previous credits include playing Dwalin the Dwarf in the Hobbit movies and Dougal MacKenzie on the TV show Outlander. “That’s the kind of thing you only dream of, when you’re a child coming from the U.K., not ever actually thinking you’ll do it. There was a moment where they did a long shot of me riding into the town, it went for about three or four minutes, of me just arriving with all the wagons, and the townsfolk, and the stores, and everything you would imagine a Western town has. It was all I could do not to actually jump up and down in the saddle and punch the air with joy!”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the role?
GRAHAM McTAVISH: I was doing Outlander in Scotland and they approached me to go on tape. I recorded it in the apartment I was staying in, with Edinburgh Castle in the background. Very, very strange. So, I did that, and then they set up a video conference call with Seth [Rogen, creator] and Evan [Goldberg, creator] and Sam Catlin [showrunner], and again with this surreal background of Edinburgh Castle, I had this video conference call with them about a series of comic books that I was a huge fan of. I’d read them many times beforehand, and so it ended up really with me, Seth, and Evan just sort of geeking out over how fantastic it was that this was finally being made! It went well, we were all on the same page, and I was just super enthusiastic to do it.
I was stuck out in Santa Fe with this little kind of splinter operation. They had this whole period where they just shot the Saint of Killers stuff. So I didn’t meet anybody else, really. I ran into Joe and Ruth briefly, but I was out on my own. The first time I actually met Seth was at San Diego Comic-Con, earlier this year. So, it was quite an unusual experience.
You say you put yourself on tape, but what did you actually do? I mean, your character is so still and taciturn. Did you just stare angrily at the camera for five minutes?
[Laughs.] Yes, I basically looked threateningly at them for some considerably time. Same with the video call, really. I didn’t speak, I just looked at Seth, and he got the message: “Give him the role! Or else!”
No, in all seriousness, it’s a very interesting process playing that kind of character. Because he doesn’t say a great deal, he doesn’t do anything, or say anything unnecessarily. It’s a very interesting discipline to impose upon yourself. The temptation, as an actor, is always to fill the silence with something, by either speaking, or moving, or gestures — anything. That’s what a lot of actors go to, to feel secure in a performance. And I learned, through theater actually, particularly working with Richard Wilson [the famed British actor and theater director] at the Royal Court, the power of real, real stillness, and how intimidating that becomes, and how overwhelming that becomes, for an audience or for any other actors working in the scene with you.
So, it was a really great challenge to have to carry that through a multi-episode arc in the first season and going forward with the character in the next season. I don’t imagine he’s suddenly going to become this loquacious chap that’s wandering around spouting huge monologues about his inner feelings! So yeah, I find it really, really fun to do.
Your character disappeared for long stretches in the first season, which led up to this big reveal about him being in Hell. Was that a difficult secret to keep? Did any of your friends ask you what was going on?
It was a massive secret. And I’m terrible at keeping secrets. So I pretty much just had to go into isolation and not speak to anyone. Yeah, they were saying: “What’s happening?” “Why haven’t we seen you for two episodes?” “Why are you in the 19th century?” “Why is this going on?”
But I thought that was a really clever tactic on the part of the writers, the producers, on it. The wanted to tease this introduction of this character, where, I think, it makes you want to know more about him and how someone like that could possibly fit in to this story. That’s why I love the moment at the end of the season where you see him, in modern times, dressed in his 19th century cowboy outfit, and he’s there, he’s with them. But, yes, it was a little confusing to some of my friends. But they’re very stupid, so…
Preacher season 1 is released on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday in three-disc sets with deleted and extended scenes and two featurettes: “The Unfilmable Pilot” and “The Stunts of Preacher.” The Blu-ray set also has a gag reel and two additional featurettes, “Chainsaw Fight Breakdown” and “Behind the Killing Machine: Saint of Killers.” You can take a look at the second featurette, above.