The best kind of actor you can hope to encounter as a viewer (or interviewer, for that matter) is one that genuinely loves to act. It’s not just a job to them, a role they just happened to fall into, or a means to getting them to the next big thing. It’s something that they actively and enthusiastically choose to do over and over and over again — regardless of the mental anguish involved. Joseph Gilgun is one of those actors. Presently best-known for his role as Cassidy, a drug-addicted, alcohol-abusing, and refreshingly-human vampire in the AMC original series Preacher, Gilgun readily admits that one of his greatest talents is being “a bit of an asshole.” But, as Preacher dives into its final season, he is venturing into the world of creating and producing his own projects, and, in doing so, explores his range and his worth, both within and far beyond the role of “character actor.”
Over the past few years, Gilgun has become increasingly candid about living with Bipolar Disorder, often referring to himself as “absolutely mental.” But it’s his raw and relatably self-deprecating candor that makes Gilgun undeniably (and possibly even extra) human, a quality he brings to every role he takes on. Gilgun’s passion for his work, the pursuit of truth, and his ambitious energy is palpable, even with two phones and 3,500 miles between us.
ZF: Let’s start with the beginning. How did you get started in acting?
JG: When I was little, I couldn’t read and I couldn’t write. So my behavior was not great as a result of that. I think, more than anything, acting school was a punishment. But I had a great time! I fucking loved it. I remember being worried about going into this new environment, and it was actually four kids, just like me, who couldn’t sit still or behave themselves. So that was how I started.
ZF: How did you know you wanted to do it professionally?
JG: I don’t know if I can remember the key moment. I think it was just the general feeling of acting. I loved the escape from being myself. I don’t know whether I knew that then necessarily, but, at the time, due to my behavioral issues, it was a kind of release. It was a breakaway from what I considered back then as being a failure. I was being told I was good at something for the first time.
ZF: Seeing as you started so young, was there ever a point in your career where you thought to yourself, “Damn, I want to do something else with my life”?
JG: No, not really. You know, I’ve got bipolar disorder. I suffer from depression and things like that. From a young age, I’ve had to contend with that while filming. I suppose there are certain roles that are detrimental to my mental health, but I kind of love the sacrifice. I love the fact that it’s damaging. When you consider being that person every single day: You’re them more than you are yourself for months on end. And so, yeah, there have been times where I’ve just had a lot of self-doubt about if I’m capable of achieving what I’ve set out to achieve. So, I suppose there have been moments, but I’ve always known how lucky I am to be able to do what I’m doing. I feel very, very fortunate and very humbled by the process, especially with Preacher and the industry I’ve got going here in the UK, as well.
ZF: In the moments when you’re so deep in a character that maybe it is affecting your mental health, or you’re having those self-doubts, how do you go about recentering yourself in those moments?
JG: Smoke a lot of weed.
ZF: There you go!
JG: You know, I use medical marijuana to sort of regulate my moods. A big part of bipolar that isn’t spoken about is the shifting mood. It’s not necessarily someone who is very depressed and then they’re hyperactive; there’s also a lot of stress involved because you have little-to-no control over the way you feel. And so, I find marijuana can help me with that. And, also, I’m not massively social on set. I do like to spend a lot of time by myself. I need that space, and it can be detrimental at times. I can isolate myself so much so that it exacerbates the symptoms, eventually. Then it becomes about avoidance and I almost fetishize my own sadness in a way.
ZF: In those moments when you’re feeling that you’re isolating yourself or you’re hyperactive, are you able to consciously think, “How can I channel this kind of unease or rockiness into my performance?”
JG: I don’t want it to come across corny in this — but it’s kind of a beast that you can’t really tame. I’m 35, I’ve been living with this thing for a good chunk of my adult life; the symptoms have gotten a bit worse as I’ve gotten older due to the stress and pressures of grown-up life, if you will. If I’m angry that day or if there’s something that’s triggering me, I can channel the anger, absolutely! I mean, that’s something that I seem to access quite quickly. No one’s ever really asked me that. I think I probably do use my mental health and take advantage of it. I’m never frightened of scenes where I have to get emotional, ever. I’ve got like endless tears to cry.
ZF: I would imagine that have acting as an outlet would be liberating in that sense.
JG: Yeah. It’s hugely liberating. I mean, I’m a very emotional character, and it used to be a problem being the sensitive one. I suppose I really do use it, yeah.
ZF: So, what motivated you to become more and more vocal about your mental health? Was it more for you? Or were you thinking, “More people need to know about this”?
JG: I think it’s a mixture of the two, really. You know in the industry, particularly here in the UK, I put on this role of this happy go lucky character in a lot of these interviews that I do. And that’s not always true. Sometimes I’m giving you a construct of what I think the people want to see. And what can happen is you can pretend, and you sort of mask this awful feeling of self-doubt and piercing sadness, and what ends up happening is you go under.
I’m doing it for myself in the sense that I almost want to lay myself bare, so that if people like me at the end of that, then maybe I am worth it. Maybe I am worth the jobs; maybe I am worth the lifestyle; maybe I’m worthy of being on the other end of the phone with you, even. So there’s an element of just wanting to be accepted as damaged and seeing if people are going to be okay with that. I feel like I’ve gotten to a stage in my career where it affords me a platform to stand up and say, “Look, I’m mental. I’m fucking mental. And this is an ongoing thing that will never leave me.” Especially for men, I feel, particularly around my age, it’s so important to talk about your mental health. If you’re suffering, the first thing you should do is tell someone about it. I feel like, if you’re getting lost, it’s a good idea to let people know the direction you’re headed because a lot of people get lost and we can’t find them. So, it’s really important, I think, to stand up and say something if you’re in a position where you can. It’s an injustice to sit there and do nothing.
— And I never feel worthy, the truth told. I never feel deserving of any of the roles, and I feel like I fuck every one of them up. I’m very self-critical and cruel to myself, you know? I’m attacking myself constantly, so, in all truth, I’m still working on it. I’ll never be over this, you know? This is the way it is for me, to some degree anyway. And it’s a long road repairing these things — these sort of these ailments you pick up along the way as life bangs you around. I feel like everyone has these roads they can go down. Most people only have two. They understand one road they walk down every single day, and they know the route. They pass the same tree, they pass the same piece of broken fence, and they know their destination. But on that road, you pass another one, and it’s like a thin path. It’s dangerous because you don’t know it and you don’t know where it leads. And it’s almost like the horror you know is better than the horror you don’t know. My suggestion is to wake up and go down that road. I mean, it’s fucking terrifying, but you’ve got to do it. And I’m halfway down and it is terrifying.
ZF: So, in that sense, when you’re offered roles or given the opportunity to go about picking a new role, are there any key elements that you look for where you think, “Oh well, I actually think I can do that justice”?
JG: Yeah, depth and truth. I want to see meat on the bone. I know that I’m not a leading man — I’m not handsome like that — but I want depth and I want truth in whatever role I play. Let’s consider Cassidy for a minute. I mean, that’s a fucking vampire who’s 180 years old. Now, you might argue, where’s the truth in that? But we’ve constantly worked little techniques, little rules we’ve given ourselves, to ground that character in some sort of reality and humanize him wherever we could. So, you know, you can do all of these horrific things to him — chop him up and shoot him, cut his dick skin off, or whatever (and it does grow back) — and in that sense, there’s no truth in it. But the way he handles those moments are very human. It’s disturbing and incredibly painful, and it leaves him not just physically scarred but mentally scarred. He has a lot of flaws. He self-medicates because of his sadness. He’s just like everybody else — it’s just you can’t kill him. So, even in Cassidy, there was this truth and this honesty. It wasn’t like fucking bullshit Twilight bollocks where everyone is smoldering with these crystal clear eyes and these perfect white fangs. You can only go so far with that before it runs stale, because, you know what, there’s no truth in it.
ZF: Do you prefer characters like Cassidy? Obviously, between Misfits and Preacher, you’ve kind of been in this more fantastical world. And then you look back at something like This Is England, and it’s a bit more straight-up, raw, and human.
JG: I think as an actor it’s important to not really have an agenda. I wanna try to play as much as I can. I mean, I feel like I have a lot of range. I’m OBSESSIVE with getting into a role, on the verge of making myself a bit ill. I feel like as an actor, any young actor…. I can’t really cast myself as young anymore. I’m thirty fucking five! I’m losing my hair. Do you know what I mean?
ZF: Oh, you’re fine!
JG: Oh, it’s on it’s way out! I reckon I’ve got another three years until I’m my Uncle Pete. But if I could write my obituary in the industry, I’d love to be known as a character actor. Someone who would throw himself into the deep end and not be afraid. I’m not scared of parts. There’s plenty I am frightened of, but I’m not frightened of making myself vulnerable. I’ve been doing that for years. So my dream, I suppose, is to be like the character actors I’ve always loved and admired. The ones that really deserve to be A-listers. Your Christian Bales… Your Daniel Day Lewis’s. These are men that changed the game and give almost too much of themselves, and I want to be that guy.
ZF: Do you think that emotional exploration is a bit easier for people to stomach when it’s placed in this make-believe world?
JG: I think it is, yeah. It sort of gives you a distance from some of the reality of the things we’re filming, doesn’t it? I think you can sort of remind yourself that he’s a vampire. You can sort of remind yourself that this is a superhero, you know? I suppose there’s a comfort there that you can expose these raw truths about society and life and how cruel it can all be, but you almost have to airbrush it ever so slightly for people. You get the message across to more people as a result of that. There needs to be a mild level of attachment, but they need to be able to disconnect when they need to. I think doing it in sort of a fantasy world certainly helps.
ZF: And do you ever worry that living in these fantasy worlds yourself? That these characters become an act of avoidance for you?
JG: Yeah, absolutely they do. I mean, Cassidy is really bad for that. I think Cassidy’s self-destructive nature bleeds into my own. In that sense, I’ve had a great time. It’s not to say I’ve not enjoyed myself, but, fucking hell, it does come at a price.
ZF: Also, you’re at the point where you are able to start pursuing your own projects. How do you go about wrapping your mind around that, and what are the kind of stories you want to tell?
JG: Well, I’ve got this thing where I’ve always felt underestimated because I can’t read and I can’t write — I suppose, being told all the time that that means you are stupid. And for years and years that’s how I felt. I felt like an idiot. 35 years old: Can’t read anything; can’t write anything. How on earth am I going to write my own show?
Christ. It’s just this monumental task. But the one thing I have is ideas. I’m full of them. And there’s a point in your life where I think you have to stand up and say, “I know my own worth.” This is the first show that I’ve created and produced, and what it’s taught me is that it’s absolutely doable. I am very resilient, actually. I didn’t realize that with my mental health and putting up with a lot of emotion like I do — and the stresses and pressures that puts on your day-to-day life. But it’s made me pretty tough. I’m going through this unlocking and this lift away from this oppressive feeling I’ve given myself. Brassic is partly an autobiographical piece, based on my colorful past as a young man developing in life. And so I feel like I’ve earned it. I feel like I belong there because I created it. So, it’s unlike any other job I’ve ever done in that sense, and I want to do more. I want to make films and more TV. It’s lit a fire in me — it really has — and I want to be a problem. I want to be that guy that you have to stay on the right fucking side of because I’m giving you the work.
ZF: How beautiful is that? That you’ve gone through your career thinking “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy,” and now you’re finding this outlet where you’re like, “Fuck, this is my life. And hell yeah, I’m worthy.”
JG: Yeah! What it has taught me is that it’s about being heard, I think. A good chunk of being a human being is just feeling like people heard you and heard what you had to say, and, for the first time in a good while, I’m really being heard. All my opinions are being taken into consideration. I feel very lucky and very humbled by the opportunity.
ZF: So, final question: After being in this business for pretty much your entire life, are you still able to find those moments of play where the pressure isn’t as draining for you?
JG: ALL THE TIME! I mean, it’s an escape. You aren’t you anymore. You can be whatever character is on that page that day, and there’s just endless joy in that. You know, I’ll read Preacher scripts and just laugh out loud on my own, and then you get to film it, you get to immortalize this hysterical moment. There’s nothing quite like that. But, you know what? It’s a 50/50 split. It’s a double-edged sword. You have the side to it that’s really good for you, and you have the side to it that just pulls you under. And I love both sides. It’s just like bipolar. I’ve been living with that my whole life anyway. I don’t have any frame of reference. I don’t know what it feels like to be stable and to understand that is beyond me. So, it makes no fucking difference — the light or the dark — I’m used to both.
Preacher’s Joseph Gilgun Isn’t Afraid to Be Human | TEAM CREDITS
Photography / Benjamin Tietge
Story / Zoe Farrell
Stylist / Julia Lurie
Hair Stylist / Declan Sheils using Aveda
Photographic Assistant / Mehran Pakgohar