From creator/writer/director/executive producer Sebastian Gutierrez (Gothika), the nine-episode Cinemax drama series Jett follows Daisy “Jett” Kowalski (Carla Gugino, who’s also an executive producer), a professional thief who’s fresh out of prison and trying to turn her life around for her daughter (Violet McGraw). But since the life of a long-time criminal never works out so smoothly, Jett is drawn back into doing one final job that leads to a series of assignments from ruthless criminals that put everyone she cares for in danger.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Carla Gugino talked about having only a matter of days between the end of her work on The Haunting of Hill House and the start of Jett, having the same young actress play her daughter in both projects, what made Jett such a challenging character, why she enjoys collaborating with Gutierrez, playing a master of disguise, whether she sees Jett as a criminal, and what her character’s biggest weaknesses are.
Collider: First of all, I loved The Haunting of Hill House, which was truly one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen, and I thought you were terrific in that.
CARLA GUGINO: Thank you! That’s a piece that I feel equally passionate about. I really think what Mike Flanagan did with that was pretty exceptional, and I loved playing Olivia so much.
When you play a character like Jett, that’s so different from the character in Hill House, was that something that was very important to you, especially with as fresh as that series would still be, in people’s minds?
GUGINO: Well, it’s interesting because I knew the order in which I was doing them, but what happened to me, to your point, is that I actually was supposed to have six weeks between the two projects, and because of the fact that Jett couldn’t push any further and The Haunting went a little bit longer, I had one week between the two projects. So, it was really a bizarre transition. Usually, it takes me at least a week or two, to start to let go of a character. And then, you’re building another character, and it’s like your cells are changing. It was really crazy because those two characters are so vastly different. Olivia is so deeply emotionally connected and so identified with being a mother and has psychic elements, and Jett is so pragmatic and not introspective and just an entirely different creature. So, that first week of shooting Jett was really bizarre. I felt like I was shedding skin like a snake and becoming someone else.
At the same time, did it get confusing to be working with the same young actress (Violet McGraw) playing your daughter?
GUGINO: Well, no, I chose her. Because I’m a producer on this, I was really active in casting. I don’t know any other 7-year-old actress who’s as good as she, and I love her and her family. And so, immediately, as soon as we got the green light for Jett, I said, “I can’t imagine another person playing Alice.”
And it’s such an unusual relationship dynamic because Jett talks to her as if she’s just another adult in the room.
GUGINO: I know. She has no idea how to talk to a kid. I appreciate that you picked up on that. I’m really close with dad, and we’re actually a lot alike, but he was one of those people that didn’t really know how to relate to me until I became an adult and started having adult problems. And then, he felt like he could talk to me. I think Jett doesn’t even know how to go about talking to her like a kid. I just don’t even think she’d know how to do that.
A lot of actors often talk about wanting to find roles that challenge and scare them. What were the things about Jett that scared you, and how did you feel most challenged by her?
GUGINO: Well, I’ll tell you, this role was incredibly challenging for me, and in ways that I hadn’t expected. I thought it would be challenging because I was also going to be producing, but that was actually not an issue, at all, other than maybe a lack of sleep. But the thing that was so challenging was that, in the 30-plus years that I’ve been acting, as an actress, you’re often asked, or at least I’ve been, to bring a depth of emotion and a humanity to make a character relatable and to make somebody fall in love you. You’re told so often, “Well, the audience has to fall in love with you,” while the male characters are allowed to just exist. But as Sebastian [Gutierrez] was directing me, he kept saying, “I’m seeing too much empathy. I know what you’re feeling. It’s too much. No, you’re caring too much about that other person. Jett doesn’t care about that. Jett’s just onto the next.” And as he was giving me this direction, I realized that all of my strong suits that I had been asked to do were not what was required for this, and in fact, it was the absolute opposite. Very rarely, have I been asked to just exist in something, in that way. I started watching Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and looked at Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Toshirô Mifune. There are these characters that you’re so compelled by, even if you don’t know whether you like them yet. Realizing that Jett keeps her own counsel, and she doesn’t care what other people think about her. That’s not of interest to her. She doesn’t spend any time thinking about that, but I’m in characters that are much more living in their emotional life. So, it was genuinely challenging and scary.
You’ve worked with Sebastian Gutierrez on a few different projects, for a number of years now. What do you enjoy about working and collaborating with him, and playing these women that he creates and writes for you?
GUGINO: Well, I was an admirer of him, as a writer, before we were ever together, so it was a very conscious decision to choose to work together. I’m always amazed when I open one of his scripts. When you’re reading a script, it doesn’t really matter who wrote. It’s about whether it works or doesn’t, and I find that his scripts are so engaging and they go by so quickly. That’s the case with Jett, when you’re watching it, too. It has that kind of playful quality. He just happens to write some of the best female characters. One of the things that I’m always looking for, in a director, and he certainly has it, is somebody who has a very strong vision and they know what they want it to be. I love that idea of serving that person’s vision and being the interpreter, and hopefully making it better than it was, through my interpretation, and taking it to the next level. That is a quality in Sebastian, and for sure, someone like Mike Flanagan, Ridley Scott, or Brian De Palma has that, as well. From an aesthetic, tonal perspective, music and performance perspective, Sebastian had a very, very clear vision of what he wanted, and that allows you, as an actor, to jump off the cliff.
This woman is not only good at being a thief, but she’s also a master of disguise, and we get to see her in a few different ones. Is it fun to get to play a character who also has to be different people, or does that make it even harder to figure out who she is, under the different disguises?
GUGINO: That’s a good question. I don’t know if it was more difficult or easier, but what I will say is that I had to be very, very clear about who she really is, for myself, in order to then have her depart to those different characters that she is impersonating. And so, I did feel the need to do a lot more work on who Jett actually is, in order to have that be the through-line of the show. She’s really good at naming her mark and understanding how they will respond. She’s no-nonsense. She would never wear a shirt that has a label on it that you can read. She’s about getting in and out of a room, and having somebody afterwards go, “Who was here? I don’t really remember what she looked like.” She’s trying to not make an impression.
Jett is very clearly a criminal, but do you think of her that way? How do you think of who she is?
GUGINO: Of course, as you said, she’s technically and absolutely a criminal. But when other girls were dreaming of getting married and having kids, or being princesses, she was dreaming of stealing things. She found a passion and a skill-set that she realized she was really good at it. It’s the thing that lights her fire, and it’s the thing that she thrives doing. It could be anything else, but it just happens to be that. She has a physical specificity about her. She has a profession, but her profession happens to be being a thief.
What would you say Jett’s biggest weaknesses are?
GUGINO: Well, she’s not very introspective. There’s a lot that she hasn’t looked at yet, in herself. She is very self-protective. In terms of being in relationships, she certainly is loyal to the end with the very few people that she has allowed into her life, but I would say that, in terms of being vulnerable, she’s not so great at that, and she certainly does not have any natural maternal instincts that she knows of. Of course, eventually, the mother bear has to come out, but that’s definitely territory that she’s never navigated before this.
Jett airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.