By Kyle Fowle
March 10, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Michael Becker/FX

Spoiler alert! Mary Steenburgen, who plays the quietly vicious Katherine Hale on FX’s Justified, joined us to talk about the eighth episode of the season and Hale’s wavering loyalty to the men in her life. If you haven’t watched the episode yet, you might want to stop reading right about now…

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get to this specific episode, how did the role of Katherine Hale come about?

MARY STEENBURGEN: Graham Yost just rang me in the summer before they started their [fifth] season and told me that he wanted to create a character for me. He had the name Katherine Hale and he was fine-tuning who she might be. I asked him why he thought of me, and he said it was because I could handle the comedy element of it. I really hadn’t watched Justified, to be honest with you, but I started and I immediately…he was talking about the style of Elmore Leonard, where there is this darkness, but a comedic tone to it as well. It’s a bit of a tightrope, but it’s a wonderful place to play. I loved that Katherine was a kind of black widow; she’s just a tremendously interesting character to me.

It’s hard to tell who Katherine is loyal to. She pals around with Duffy a lot—and you’d have to be somewhat loyal to him, considering how much time they spend in that hotel…

[Laughs] As she explains to somebody at some point, when they ask why she’s in this hotel—because she has a five-bedroom house not that far away—she says she likes going to a place where no one can find her, although it seems the wrong people are always able to find her. In terms of who is she loyal to, I think, in her own way, she’s loyal to her husband, the memory of her husband—and I want to hugely qualify that by saying in her own way. She wasn’t sexually loyal to him, but he was her husband and partner, and that means something to her. I mean, I have the advantage of knowing more than what you’ve seen, and that definitely means something to her. I think that she loves Markham, and has probably always loved him, but there’s a part of her that would do him in, and certainly steal his money, if it’s confirmed that he’s the snitch. When she lost Grady, she lost the standing of her life, and ultimately Katherine is in everything for Katherine, for her survival. I think that the two men in her life, Grady and Avery, both get some loyalty from Katherine. I think Wynn Duffy is just a convenient person in her life.

It’s almost as if he’s the lost puppy she got saddled with when Grady died.

[Laughs] Right. And I think also there was a shorthand with them, a history. They’d been through a couple wars together, and they knew how much or how little they could trust each other, and in their world, that’s at least something.

Does a lot of Katherine’s loyalty to herself go back to what Markham said earlier this season, that women in the crime business have to be extra strong and ruthless? Is it just a product of her learning how to survive over the years?

Yeah. She has somehow survived in a very male world. Graham and I talked about her backstory, and both of us agreed that she was somebody who had a very bleak, disturbing childhood. Very poor, but was one of these people who… when she saw glamour, or glamour in her world, in Harlan, she could recognize it. It’s kind of, knowing what it is you want is part of the battle, and Katherine had that ability. She could also reinvent herself. She’s canny and street smart, and she’s always known how to use her sexuality to her advantage. She doesn’t care about the age she is, she’s not going to phone it in yet. At this point, it’s still working for her, if only with one person [laughs].

I think it works with more people, in this episode specifically. She has the scene where she buttons up Duffy’s shirt, and it’s kind of menacing and sexy at the same time. And when Art comes to the hotel, just as their conversation ends and she’s walking into the other room, she starts unzipping her skirt.

I added that little thing at the end because I’d recognized I’d actually done the scene with somebody I hadn’t come on to, and I felt, “oh god, we can’t let this happen” [laughs]. I think even with Ava she’s sexual, and certainly with Boyd. I didn’t want to leave Art out [laughs]. I think the person that this has obviously gotten her somewhere with is Avery, and they go back a long way and they clearly have a lot of memories, and took risks to be with each other. I think she delights in using herself in that way, and is also aware of what works and what doesn’t work. She’s often the smartest person in the room, but she has some fatal flaws, as you’ll see.

You had a great scene with Nick Searcy this week where a lot of backstory is revealed. There’s this great natural rapport and chemistry there, which I think is tough considering they’re talking about a bunch of stuff that the audience hasn’t seen happen, and involves a lot of characters we’ve never seen as well. Is that natural rapport a product of the show’s great writing? Do you approach a scene like that, one where it’s heavy on backstory that the audience has never seen, any differently?

Honestly, a big part of that is how good an actor Nick is. He’s so subtle. He’s one of these actors who when you’re acting with him, you believe every single word he’s saying. Maybe part of it is that years ago I did a project with him. Some of it is just the writing, but the weird thing is that scene is kind of a, what my ex-husband used to call a shoe-leather scene; it walks you through some information. It’s really talking about people who aren’t there and people the audience will never meet, so those scenes can be really tricky, but I think it works. I haven’t seen it yet, but I remember feeling good about it. I put it down to the usual astounding writing, but also to Nick, who’s just so good.

Do you think Katherine is a sympathetic villain, in that she has a very personal, emotional reason to be doing what she’s doing?

I don’t look at my characters that way. You could answer that better than me. That character is probably not considered a sympathetic character, but in order to play somebody like that… nobody who is that person thinks of themselves as not sympathetic. They see the world through their own eyes. Most of those people aren’t judging themselves; they’re judging everybody else. So I don’t judge them. I fall in love with them, and I find a reason to be fascinated by, or justify whatever they do. And if that becomes, not even something I have to think about, but just a part of the whole thing—how I might speak, how I might dress—all of that is a part of my being their advocate. As soon as I analyze them from a likable or unlikable point of view, the I’m outside of them and looking at them as somebody else might.

Were the scenes with Ava (Joelle Carter) from earlier this season just a blast to do? That’s some of my favorite stuff from this season. I would watch a whole series of you two snorting cocaine and pulling off heists.

Totally! We said that that day; like, how much fun would this be? Just this kind of demented older mentor, who she clearly is both terrified of and fascinated by, and going out and just pulling low-life stunts and then drinking champagne and doing coke and telling stories. I absolutely love that episode, and loved working with her. Most of that was shot in one day. I love the jewelry store scene and the scene back at the hotel.

Has there been any sort of kinship while working with Sam Elliot this season? I feel like you two don’t often get offered roles as villains, so you’re kind of in the same boat here, just having fun with these roles.

We did have fun! He and I did a movie together years ago where we played husband and wife, so we knew each other. This was especially fun. It was fun to be villains, but again, I didn’t really, that wasn’t my experience of working with him. My experience was more about the cat and mouse game; the “can I trust you?” I loved all that. I think one of the beauties of all of it, on Justified, is they give you so much to do. I’m a product of… I studied with Sandy Meisner a million years ago, and his first opening sentence was “the seed to the craft of acting is the reality of doing,” so my whole career, the things I’ve loved the best, are when you have something to do. Not so much what you say, but what you do, and with Justified, Katherine Hale is always doing something, and as the season goes on, it gets more intense. She might just be talking in that scene with Art, but… it’s a fishing expedition. There’s always something to be doing.

So, big final question: Should Avery Markham be more worried about Raylan and the law breathing down his neck, or the threat that is Katherine Hale?

[Laughs] Well, he definitely shouldn’t turn his back on me. He should never take me for granted.