Just as it looked like James (Jimmi Simpson) was about to pull off the hilariously complicated con at the center of Epix’s Perpetual Grace, LTD, season one ended with the hapless hero on the brink of being caught out — at a fake funeral, no less. Will James be able to talk his way out of trouble? Given the last line of the episode (“Um… hey”) it’s not looking promising. More importantly, will there be a season two? And are Perpetual heavies Ben Kingsley and Terry O’Quinn really as scary in person as they are on-screen? EW called Simpson for some answers.
I just finished the finale and I could not believe that cliffhanger. I really thought James was going to pull the whole con off, and then, of course, we end with him seeing Uncle Dave (Kurtwood Smith) and Wesley Walker, Texas Ranger (Terry O’Quinn) at the fake funeral, and he knows the jig is up. What was your reaction when you first read the script?
SIMPSON: I thought, it’s [co-creator] Steve Conrad putting a Steve Conrad exclamation point at the end of the first season. He sees the story in its completion, so I wasn’t surprised that it’s such a cliffhanger. I loved the way he has James making one final push to get through this with, “Heyyyy…” [Conrad] manages to sum up all of the hesitation, all of the fear, all of the things colliding at one moment in time in front of James’s face — his realization that he is still overwhelmed. He’s trying to up the energy with one word. Like, “Let me explain…” And it just had me biting my nails to know how Steve Conrad is gonna follow through.
Over the course of the season, James went from sort of passively letting himself get involved in this Paul Allen Brown scheme to realizing he has to take charge and make sure the plan happens. As much as this whole thing has been one disaster after another for James, it’s almost like it’s been good for him, too.
SIMPSON: I think that’s the only way to interpret it. I think Steve Conrad’s point of being a better human being isn’t necessarily by choice, but it is by decision. James didn’t really choose to put himself in these situations, but he’s decided every step of the way, no matter how difficult it gets, to see one thing through, finally, in his life. To make up for one mistake. Now that one mistake Christmas trees into 1,000 mistakes, but he still — it’s all with the goal of making up for that one mistake. Honestly, if I were a quarter as brilliant as [creators] Steven Conrad and Bruce Terris I would know what’s happening next.
The way my mind goes, it can go two ways in my simpleton’s mind. Either [James] is about to kind of shit-talk an entire group of people to try to save [the scheme], or he’s going to gather together an entire town to unite them against this force that drains towns of their life’s energy. Pa [Ben Kingsley] and Ma [Jackie Weaver], as beautiful as their love affair is — and it’s one of my favorite love affairs that I’ve ever seen on TV – as beautiful and stalwart as that love is, they suck the life out of towns. They deplete towns of all their energy and finances. And so, you know, it’s taken James a whole season to get the self-confidence to say, “Okay, we can do this, everybody.” But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t wait to find out.
In the finale, we learn a little bit more about the day that James ran away from the fire — which ended up killing the rookie firefighter and left the rookie’s 11 daughters without a father. Why do you think he ran away from the fire after setting the bird free from its cage?
SIMPSON: It’s more of a misprioritizing situation. You have a man, James, with I guess you can say ADHD at best. He seems to be moving throughout the fire and the first distraction grabs his attention and he follows it. And he makes this choice, not fully paying attention, to save the life of a bird, and he ends up mildly injuring himself and leaving the scene. Now, in that state of mind, he looks back and sees someone filling in a hole that he’s left [by leaving]. He doesn’t look back and see someone who’s bound to die. He looks back and sees someone who’s finishing the job that he hasn’t done – which he’s pretty used to. Then he’s out there mending his poor little burned hands, when they stretch the body out of this rookie past him, and that’s when he realizes the long-term effect of this everyday life choice to just drop the hose and walk away.
That’s where you meet him in the first episode, just still reeling from his simple man’s existence causing not just the death of one man, but the sacrifice, possibly, of 11 young girls. It’s him never wanting to do that again. He f—s up with Glenn [Dash Williams] right away, and he knows he can’t leave that kid hanging, especially after he harms him. So he’s gotta look after him, but then that folks Glenn into his cake batter of chaos. With each little task he asks of Glenn, that’s one step further in the commitment in James makes to seeing this kid through. At the point where we leave them on episode 10, they are family.
James does pull Glenn into this ridiculous scheme sort of unwittingly, but he also makes a positive impact on Glenn’s life. Poor Glenn was a very neglected kid with a drunk dad who, because of what Glenn goes through with James, decides he has to be a better father.
SIMPSON: Oh, 1,000 percent. That’s James’s greatest accomplishment. It’s not James walking into a pawn shop and saying, “Oh, this kid’s disenfranchised — I’m going to spend some time with him.” No, he needed this money and he had to hurt this kid [while robbing the pawn shop], and once that’s occurred, it’s his decision. He didn’t choose to save the kid, he didn’t choose to hurt the kid, but it’s his decision to follow through. It’s the most active effect that I think James has in this story so far.
It’s not about you becoming a superhero, this life. What it is about, is about you choosing not to hurt people anymore. Choosing not to be a part of something that could hurt people. Choosing not to walk away if you accidentally hurt people. And that comes through so hardcore with New Leaf [Chris Conrad] making this decision about his own self-worth. And with Paul (Damon Herriman), even though he didn’t hurt the girl, his actions allowed for it to happen, so he’s going to pay for what he’s done–once he’s learned all the martial arts to defend himself [in prison]. That’s one of my favorite monologues in the whole series. And that’s what it is, universally [with the characters], we’re going to stop hurting people.
Has there been any talk of a season 2 yet? We can’t be left hanging like this!
SIMPSON: We definitely need more. Who knows? It’s a newish network and everything’s pretty tight-lipped right now. As far as people I have talked to, like Steve Conrad, Luis Guzman, Bruce, Chris, we all certainly would love to keep telling this story, but who knows what will happen. Regardless, I don’t think the team will be split up. If Epix shortsightedly chooses to not pick this show up, I see us all working together very soon.
The way James talks is so specific — it’s very soothing but also weirdly expressionless. How did you decide to have him speak that way?
SIMPSON: Well it’s an absolute collaboration with Steve Conrad. He’s such a clear and articulate director. He considers James to be the center of the spokes, kind of connecting all of these big, beautiful, even weirder characters together. And he needed things to be measured and clear… I’m used to histrionics and dramatic interpretations of a line of dialogue, and for Steve, what he needed was the clarity of what he’s saying through a completely believable vessel, despite how crazy the whole situation is.
This season you shared scenes with two of the most formidable figures working today: Ben Kingsley and Terry O’Quinn. It seems like it would be deeply intimidating to stand opposite them in any capacity.
SIMPSON: So funny, and [from watching] the show, of course, it would seem that way. Holy sh– are those guys intense in the show. And they both have their own special form of levity. Sir Ben is so warm and welcoming. He always is there and prepped and ready to chat before shooting. He gets to work an hour early just to get into the zone. It’s so intense watching the work he’s doing, but directly prior to that, he’s mingling. He’s a very funny man, too.
With Terry O’Quinn and also Kurtwood Smith, both of these character actors are notorious for coming down hard on you, and Terry has this crazy, sweet velvet-lined voice. And he’ll be strumming some sweet tune on his guitar. He’s one of the sweetest goddamn guys you’ll ever meet. Before a scene, it’s just, “Hey Jimmi! How you doin’? I was just playing a little tune.” It’s just makes it more impressive when you’re standing there across from him and he’s drilling into you with those baby blues and just leveling you. So sweet.
My final question is about a different show: Are you going to be in the next season of Westworld?
SIMPSON: [pause] Um, I’m not saying I’m not. Officially, it’s “I don’t know.”
Perpetual Grace, LTD season one is streaming on EPIX NOW