By LARRY GETLEN
Last Updated: 8:15 AM, October 11, 2009
Posted: 3:25 AM, October 11, 2009
At the end of this season’s first episode of the FX biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” Gemma Teller Morrow, the biker gang matriarch played by Katey Sagal, was knocked out, handcuffed to a fence, and raped by a masked white supremacist played by punk rock firebrand Henry Rollins.
The scene was graphic, and hard-to-watch. Knowing that the showrunner responsible for that scene was Sagal’s third husband, “Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, makes it more powerful – and peculiar. Even so, Sutter has given his veteran actress wife the most challenging role of her career.
“I’ve had to do a few things where I had terminal illnesses, and one time I played a part where I lost a child,” says Sagal, 55. “That was difficult, but this was right up there.”
Sagal says that the shocking plot twist was already set by the time she learned of it.
“We don’t have a lot of conversation about, what would you think if we did this,” she says. “He’s very clear about where he wants to take things. He told me, this is what’s going to happen, and I just said ”˜OK.’ As husband and wife, we’re one way, and the creative process is another. It’s not as collaborative as, what should we make for dinner, or, who’s driving the kids to school. It’s not that kind of conversation.”
In filming the disturbing scene, Sagal welcomed the chance to bring the tough-as-nails biker mama – who choked her son’s ex-wife half to death last season while the woman was confined to a hospital bed – in new directions.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to take a character and turn it upside down,” she says. “Because what this does to someone like Gemma is, it brings about a vulnerability. It strips her down. This is a person who runs on defenses – who’s very guarded, protected, and in control. So to give her a situation where she’s totally out of control, that’s interesting to play.”
While Sagal was helped along by detailed walk-throughs of the set and the scene’s physicality – being bound overhead by handcuffs can certainly scare the bejesus out of an actor – she also called upon rough events from her past to place her in the correct frame of mind.
“I use it all,” she says. “I’ve never been in that situation, but I’ve definitely been in others that have scared me to death, or situations that were physically harmful. So I relied on some of that experience to make an experience that’s completely unreal to me real.”
As the season has progressed, Gemma has decided to keep the rape from her husband and son – the biker gang’s leaders, played by Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam. Their discovery of the attack could cause a full-scale war, which could then lead to the club’s destruction.
While a surprising decision for a character not averse to revenge or violence, Sagal says it fits perfectly with Gemma’s ability to live deceptively.
“All the people in the Sons of Anarchy live in denial, and Gemma’s not foreign to keeping secrets,” she says. “This is one of the more challenging things she’s had to keep to herself, but her motivation is all about the survival of this little world of hers. Coming up against it day to day proves to be troublesome, but they’re used to keeping things under their hats. This is a group of people who are bonded by their secrets.”
Sagal enjoys a change of pace from “Sons” by voicing the character Leela on Comedy Central’s animated “Futurama.” She is best known for her 11 years playing Peg Bundy on the FOX sitcom “Married…with Children.” Sagal is also a vocalist who spent the ’70s singing with Bob Dylan, Gene Simmons, Etta James, and Bette Midler, with whom she toured the world as a member of her back-up troupe, The Harlettes.
“It was a very hard job in that she is the most disciplined workhorse you’ve ever seen,” says Sagal. “If you’re working for Bette, you’re working really hard. It was really good for me.”
Sagal stills sings occasionally – she’s planning four live dates in Orange County in December, and her CDs of original music are available at kateysagal.net – but she’s most excited about the twisting and turning of Gemma Morrow, whose current predicament, she says, will end in ways both explosive, and ultimately true to the character.
“This takes her on a very unexpected journey,” Sagal says. “What I can say is, as human beings, we tend to always return to, or live in, our true nature. So without giving too much away, she ultimately lands by being who she is.”