[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Wednesday’s season premiere of Big Sky. Read at your own risk!]
There’s a new big bad in big sky Country. After a relatively quiet last few months in Helena, Montana, private detective Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury), undersheriff Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick), and newly appointed sheriff Beau Arlen (Jensen Ackles) have begun to investigate the disappearance of a young backpacker named Mark Woodman (Zach Tinker), who was last seen hiking a trail known as “Deadman’s Drop” in the wilderness. As it turns out, Mark presumably fell to his death after trying to escape from a troubled man who has ties to Sunny Barnes (Reba McEntire), the mercurial matriarch of a new “glamping” family business who will stop at nothing to protect her family. —and keep her decades of secrets buried deep in the mountains.
TV Guide spoke with showrunner Elwood Reid about the introduction of McEntire’s colorful character, the personal events that led to Beau’s arrival in Montana, the development of Jenny and Beau’s (currently professional) relationship, and the potential recurrence of past characters who were missing from the premiere.
Sunny is working really hard to keep her family together — all while running this “glamping” business in the mountains. What would you say are her biggest motivations for her this season, and how will she begin to intersect with the rest of the characters in the future?
Elwood Reid: I think there’s a little bit of this in all of us — there’s a parent who will do anything to protect her family, to protect the people she loves. And the question with her becomes, when does she cross that line? Now, there are some events that are set in motion having to do with her illegitimate son that nobody knows about, who may or may not be a very disturbed person in the woods. How far does she go to protect him? Is it gonna damage her business? But then we’re gonna learn there’s a far, far darker secret lurking in her family from her, and we begin to tease it in this first half of the season.
I think this is what got Reba [interested in the character]: She has this outward american pie Chevrolet demeanor, and everyone buys that. We, the audience, get to see glimpses of a different Sunny Barnes. As the season progresses, you begin to see, “Oh my God, there are layers to this woman. Ella She’s even darker than I thought. Is she gonna go there? Oh my God, she went there.” And then there’s gonna be a place in the season where something even darker bubbles out of her family de ella, and you’re gonna be like, “Wow, what is she going to do?”
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We’ve written pure psychopaths and crazy people like Legarski (John Carroll Lynch) and Ronald (Brian Geraghty), of course, and Scarlet (Anja Savcic) and even Ren (Janina Gavankar), who was a criminal psychopath. There’s something — and I want to be careful using this word — endearing about Sunny. I think she’s a funny, slippery character that people are gonna watch and go, “You know what? I would do the same thing if someone was coming at my family.” There’s a real us-versus-them attitude, so when someone comes to her family de ella, she circles the wagons and does anything in her power de ella to protect them. So that’s the line we’re playing with her and Reba has been amazing. I think, with a character like that, it’s really easy to go over the top.
It’s funny you ask about the future. I’m very, very reticent about talking about future character reveals with my actors until I’ve worked with the actors and I know they can handle it. Because a lot of times, you will find that the actors will lean into, say, where they’re gonna be in Episode 8 instead of playing the reality of where they are in Episode 1 or 2. So for me, I’ve been very miserly about how I parcel out information to both Reba and Rex [Linn, who plays her husband] about where their characters are going. I want them to be surprised. She literally texts [me] the minute she finishes a script, and she’s like, “This is so good! What’s happening? I have to have the next episode right now!” She’s reading it like we would watch it, and that’s what I want. I want that engagement with her. I don’t want her to go, “Oh yeah, I know where I’m going.” And not that Reba would ever do that, but I just want her engaged and excited for everything.
In the premiere, Jenny goes to examine an apartment without any back-up — and Beau calls her out for making that call. Will Beau’s approach to law enforcement force Jenny to be more responsible on the job? How do they push each other to look at their jobs differently?
Reed: Nope. [Laughs.] That’s the funny thing about Jenny’s character. Jenny’s gonna Jenny any time she wants to. What’s fun about writing her is, she’s the [kind of character] that’s gonna go jump off of a building and karate kick someone in the face, she’s gonna jump into places with guns. [After] working with Katheryn for all this time, there’s a lot of that in Katheryn’s [own] character. She’s very brash; she’s not afraid. She’s like, “I want to do my own stunts!” And it’s three in the morning, and she’s jumping into a pit of dead animals, and I’m like, “Okay, we can have a stunt person just capture that [shot].” So I try to use that in her character.
And I think, with Beau, he does give her guardrails. But at the same time, he also realizes that that’s her special power, that she can just go to that place. I don’t think that’s ever gonna change with her. I think that’s what makes her, to me, such an appealing lead of a show. It’s just watching her do the crazy thing, go to an 11 at all times.
What can you preview about the relationships between Beau and his daughter, Emily (Cree Cicchino), and Beau and his ex-wife, Carla (Angelique Cabral)? How much of a driving force are those relationships in Beau’s life?
Reed: They’re huge. We meet the new husband of his ex-wife [Avery, played by Henry Ian Cusick]and he’s someone who’s involved in the mystery at the camping [site] and may or may not be a suspect at the same time. There’s this event that happened a couple of years ago back in Houston, which we’re gonna learn more about during the season, where he screwed up, and he feels truly guilty for that. But if you think about it, here’s a guy who followed his ex-wife, her new husband, and his teenage daughter to a new state just to be around them. That says something about him as a person. And then on top of that, as we see the season progress, we do realize he’s still carrying a torch towards his ex-wife of him, which I find really interesting.
When I get actors to come play with me, I try to make sure that they have dimensions to play. If I were to call Jensen and go, “Hey, Jensen. You’re gonna play a really cool, tough-talking sheriff who looks at blood splatters and handcuffs bad guys,” he’d give me a hard pass tomorrow. So I spent more time talking with Jensen about his character’s backstory about him, about what emotionally motivates him. And the same thing with Reba. That’s what keeps the actors on their toes.
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How “temporary” is the “temporary sheriff”? Is there a fixed commitment, or are you and Jensen playing it by ear and seeing how the story progresses?
Reed: Well, it is big sky. You did see the pilot, right? [Ryan Phillipe’s character] was shot in the head in a car, so that risk remains for everyone. It’s so funny because I get to walk around the set and say to everybody, “You guys have watched the show, right? Legarski’s triplet brother can show up and pop you guys in the head at any point.” And they all kind of laugh uneasily. This comes from Max Gao David E. Kelley, when he and I were sitting down and talking about the show. He’s a real proponent of burning story — if you got it, smoke it, just do it right there. And I’ve tried to adhere to that. Do I want what happened to Ryan Phillipe to happen to Jensen? Nope! He’s an actor I’ve wanted to work with for a very long time, and I am having a blast writing for him.
Everyone always talks about actors’ first day on stage; there’s something I call “the first day on the page.” And it’s happened to me multiple times where I’ve convinced a big actor or written a role for somebody, and then I can’t make them talk on the page. I’ve never had that problem, ever, with Jensen. I have the opposite problem. I could write pages and pages for him. His character’s demeanor of him, and the way Jensen’s created this character, just really sparks something in me, and that’s what we tried to do — the same thing happened with John Carroll Lynch. I wanted to write for John again, so that’s why we brought him back last year. I have to have that spark on the page, or you sense [something’s wrong]. I think the audience and the actors will know and call bullshit on me. They’ll know that I’m just moving them around like chess pieces.
Omar Metwally, who plays US Marshal Mark Lindor, will have a reduced role this season due to a scheduling conflict, but it seems like months have passed since he and Cassie split. How much of Lindor will we see this season? Will we find out where he went?
Reed: We’re hoping [to bring him back]. It really quite simply was a scheduling conflict. This sounds so mundane, but this is the way that Hollywood works. When we ended our last season, Omar came to me — and I even let them off a little bit early in the last season, I shot him out early. He really wanted to do this Broadway play, and it was something he was dying to do, and I was like, “Yeah, no problem.” And as those things go, the play kept getting bumped and rolled, and at that time, I didn’t even have a season three pick-up, and we didn’t even know, if we did get a pick-up, when we’d be back in production. Well, not only did we get a pick-up, but we got a much earlier start date for production, and he was still in the first week of previews on his Broadway show when we started production. I had to scramble and figure out a way to, for now, put him on ice. He’s a character I love and want to bring back. I just have to look at the schedule and see if I can bring him back.
It’s the same thing with Jesse James Keitel, who plays Jerrie. She has multiple shows booked out — star trekas we know, and she’s doing Queer as Folk. I wanted her to go off and do those big opportunities, and I do n’t know if I’ll ever get her back from her. I’d kill to have her back for an episode or two. She’s someone who I had a lot of fun writing. I really loved writing for that character.
Will we hear from Ren and the Bhullars again? Will we circle back with the syndicate at some point this season?
Reed: They’re always a threat. It’s funny you should bring that up — it literally came up in the writers’ room today. Janina is someone who I really love and, again, another person I love writing for. We bring up that name all the time. Given the new real estate that we have to devote to the case of the week, it might be tricky. In big sky, even if I’ve killed you, I can still bring you back as your twin. But you’re dead, you always have a chance of coming back on our show.
big sky airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on ABC.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism