A preacher, a violent criminal, and a vampire walk into a bar. It’s not the setup for a joke. It’s an actual scene in a TV show from the brain trust of Seth Rogen, his This Is the End co-writer and co-director Evan Goldberg, the co-executive producer of Breaking Bad Sam Catlin, and DC Comics. That’s not the set-up for a joke either.
It’s the strange bedfellows that make up Preacher, AMC’s wild, genre-bending adaptation of a cult ’90s comic book series that is, as Catlin told BuzzFeed in an interview, “fucking crazy, and it should not be on television.”
“There you go!” laughs Dominic Cooper when I tell him how his producer described the show. The dashing—and apparently ageless—37-year-old British actor (Captain America, Mamma Mia) plays the titular preacher: a boozed-up, chain-smoking, world-weary Texan with daddy issues, godlike power, a shady background, a guilt complex, and a best friend who drinks people’s blood. His name is Jesse Custer.
“I think it absolutely should be on TV,” Cooper counters. “Actually, it’s a breath of fresh air that people are responding so well to us. You crave the madness. You do crave the insanity of it.”
“Insanity” is an apt word to describe Preacher.
AMC’s marketing campaign has been dutifully mysterious about the show, a clever strategy considering that the “WTF!” exclamations that spasm involuntarily as you watch are part of the show’s fun.
It’s also impossible to describe succinctly. It’s at once a supernatural thriller, a meditation on spirituality, a portrait of life in the Deep South, a classic Western, horror camp, slapstick comedy, and comic book-inspired character study. It’s ridiculous and unsettling and provocative and perverse. The gore is grotesque. The humor is gut-busting.
“It’s like we’re dealing with a schizophrenic in all its sudden genre changes,” Cooper says. “And TV is shot so quickly. I’m doing a bloody fight scene with a chainsaw in one minute, and then a serious discussion about the meaning of life and religion the next.”
That the series is an adaptation of a comic book series is both its greatest selling point and possibly also its liability. Preacher has all the specificity of place and tone, and certainly the boundless imagination of the best comic book adaptations. But it’s also nothing like what you might expect when you hear that something is based on a comic book.
There are no superheroes or spandex—though Jesse does wield supernatural powers of sorts.
Instead there are just fantastical lights that speed through the solar system, crashing into the world’s preachers and causing them to explode into a horrifying pile of organ smithereens. There are coked-out vampires who leap out of airplanes, preachers who get in bar fights with their congregants, and a parishioner so compelled by the godlike powers of his spiritual leader that when he’s told to “open your heart” to his mother he literally cuts the beating organ from his chest.
Nothing about it seems like something that might come from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. And nothing about it screams “from one of the guys who brought you Breaking Bad.” But the unlikely collaboration of the three is what makes Preacher the unlikeliest of must-see TV: There’s no way a show like this should work as well as it does. And that’s precisely why it hasn’t existed until now.
Preacher was a cult comic series that ran from 1995 to 2000 under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. It was never hugely popular, but its audience was—as is typically the case in the world of comic fans—fiercely devoted and passionate. Among those fans were Sam Mendes and Kevin Smith, who each had previously attempted to adapt Preacher for the screen but never got their projects off the ground.
Cooper ventures that the tricky nature of the story—its moral ambiguity and its whiplash shifts in genre and tone—needed a serial format to breathe enough to make sense, rather than the feature format Mendes or Smith envisioned. Their understanding of the humor and the proper way to calibrate it in a story like this, too, is the “secret sauce” to Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin crafting an adaption that works. “That Monty Python aesthetic,” he says.
The script was one of the best he had ever read, Cooper says, then recalling his surreal first meeting with the trio to get a better understanding of how they were going to pull this off.
“The meeting I had with them in the beginning was a bunch of hairy blokes trying to explain to me the insanity,” he remembers. “The way they were pitching the show, with a boy who has a face like a sphincter and a man who will sleep with meat and the various other things. They had such joy about such ridiculous things, and such a clear idea of what they wanted it to be. You could gather that they were going to get it right.”
Whether he was going to be able to get it right was more of an uncertainty.
Early on in the Preacher pilot, one of Custer’s youngest parishioners, an elementary school student, approaches him asking him to make his mom’s boyfriend stop abusing her. “People said before you came back here, before you were a preacher, you used to do things,” the boy says, the first hint at the preacher’s questionable past.
Later, when a character from that past, his ex-girlfriend Tulip (played hypnotizingly by 2016 breakout Ruth Negga), resurfaces, she surveys his attempt to reform and lead a town and scoffs: “We are who we are and that’s it.”
When Custer ends up counseling a disfigured young church member—the aforementioned man with the mouth in the shape of a sphincter—he tells him, “No matter what you done. When you need him he has to be there for you. God doesn’t hold grudges.” He’s assuaging the young man’s guilt over his sins. But he’s clearly also talking about himself.
“From that first meeting, they saw something in me that they liked for this role,” Cooper says. He never formally auditioned for the part. His first day portraying his take on Jesse Custer in front of the creative team was during the first rehearsals.
“That doesn’t mean that I was confident that I was the right person to bring this character to life,” he continues. “They happened to think that I was, but it took me a long time to get my head around who I thought I was, who I thought it should be.”
So why were they so confident in his casting, if he wasn’t so much himself? “I imagine what they saw from my other work was this ability to jump from genre to genre,” he says. “It’s what they needed from all the characters, from scene to scene.”
Cooper first came to the attention of American audiences when the West End hit play The History Boys came to Broadway, eventually being adapted into a film as well. It was released almost exactly 10 years ago.
What you know Cooper best from over the next decade might depend on your taste. Do you like movie musicals? You might recognize him singing Abba songs with Meryl Streep as Sky in Mamma Mia! Are you more into arthouse flicks? Then he’s the guy from The Duchess or An Education. Genre addicts probably know him from Dracula Untold or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, while fans of franchise blockbusters know him as the younger Howard Stark—father of Tony, aka Iron Man—in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
(Might we suggest you check out his startling good dramatic work in the indies Starter for 10 and The Devil’s Double—with a cry-filled detour to last year’s Miss You Already, a woefully underrated weepie.)
“I don’t know what it is,” Cooper says when asked about his uncharacteristically diverse filmography, and why he’s so nimble switching genres when so many other actors are boxed into one thing. “There are things that I’ve gone in for that I’m just like, ‘How do I have the nerve?”
Playing the son of Saddam Hussein, for example, in The Devil’s Double. Which he landed.
“It’s hard to say, but there’s obviously enough stuff for them to see to know that I would be able to do what’s required for Jesse Custer,” he says.
At this moment Cooper has a bit of an epiphany: It’s not just his professional career that has prepared him for the unique challenge of Preacher. In a way his entire life has, from his days as a young boy growing up in England and playing with his brother and his brother’s friends.
His brother used to make films on his crude camcorder, Cooper starts to explain. They were always a mix of two very distinct styles: the cartoonish gore from the zombie flicks they like to watch and the tech-noir atmosphere of Blade Runner, their favorite film.
Mother’s vases were hurled across rooms and shattered. Matchbox cars were doused in petrol oil and set on fire. Fake blood abounded.
“When I turn around on set some days I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve entered professionally the world in which we were trying to create when we were younger with the camcorders,” he says.
“So weird. And so cool.”