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Katey Sagal, Holding Court On 'Sons Of Anarchy'

Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller Morrow in <em>Sons of Anarachy</em> on FX.
Prashant Gupta
Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller Morrow in Sons of Anarachy on FX.

As Gemma, the fierce matriarch of the biker gang in the FX series Sons of Anarchy, Katey Sagal has shot and killed people, hit somebody with a skateboard, pulled a gun on a baby and done other horrible things. It's all part of the challenge of playing the character, Sagal says.

"She does things in the name of loyalty, which I relate to, but she goes way beyond anything I would do."

Sagal won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Gemma in 2011. According to the actress — who's best-known for playing the red-haired, sharp-tongued Peg Bundy in Married With Children — Gemma's character is not based on any real person in the biker culture, partly because it was so hard to find research on the subculture's women.

"It's a very misogynistic culture and I say that with all due respect," Sagal says.

Instead, she based Gemma on a variety of regal political figures.

"She's the queen of the organization, so guys in the club are respectful of her — she's sort of like their surrogate mother in a way," Sagal tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think she pulls a lot of the strings behind the scenes, and she is privy to all the goings-on."

Sagal is also a singer-songwriter; before becoming an actress, she briefly sang backup for Bob Dylan and performed for a while with Bette Midler as a Harlette.

"I got the gig as a singer and then I had to dance like in high heels and in a mermaid fin, and all these kind of crazy things. I just never thought I would be able to do it!"

Sagal is working on her fourth record, which will be out soon. The fifth season of Sons of Anarchy premiered on Sept. 11, 2012.

Interview Highlights

On her husband, Kurt Sutter, writing Gemma with her in mind

"His idea came from meeting with our other executive producers who had wanted to do a movie in this arena. And he thought it would be a good television series, and so he wrote this world which sort of had a Hamlet arc about it, and there was definitely the mother of our Hamlet. And so he came to me as he was writing it, and said 'I think I have a part for you,' but he didn't really tell me what it was. And I didn't really know what it was until I actually read the script. But he did write it with me in mind, and then we were hoping the network would sign off on that. ...

Actor Charlie Hunnam (right) plays Sagal's character's son, who is president of the Sons of Anarchy outlaw motorcycle club.
Prashant Gupta / FX
Actor Charlie Hunnam (right) plays Sagal's character's son, who is president of the Sons of Anarchy outlaw motorcycle club.

"If you asked him, what he would tell you probably is when he came into my life, I already had two children, and he's their stepparent, and I was very protective of my children. ... He hadn't been around that kind of energy quite so much, so I think that's what was the springboard for Gemma. It was not so much the heinous things she does; it was that at her core, her motivation is her children, is her child. At any cost, she will protect him and her club."

On Peg Bundy's wardrobe

"When that character was shown to me, she was written to be very sloppy. She was supposed to be like this woman who never took care of herself and kind of was a couch potato. And I read the script and my take on it was, I thought there needed to be some sort of sexual energy between her and Al Bundy, because how could you talk to each other so horribly if something didn't happen that was wonderful also — even though he was always bemoaning that aspect of their relationship. So it was my idea to doll her up. I thought she should look sexy. ... So that was really my input to the writing, which I ultimately think made it a little more real and not so difficult to take. Because they were pretty tough on each other, those two."

On the conservative response to Married With Children

"Well, it was really an issue of censorship, and at the time we were very irreverent. And there was a woman named Terry Rakolta [who] tried to get us pulled off the air because she didn't want her kids to watch it. And our response was, 'Well, you change the channel or you put your kid in the other room.' It wasn't about stopping it; it was about you should be the parent and monitor your child.

"But she caused such a ruckus and tried to get sponsors to leave the show, that really what she did was like double and triple our ratings, and we ended up on the cover of The New York Times. I think it was after our third season where we were a hit, but we were still on the new Fox network that most people didn't have. I think like 60 percent of the country had it at the time — you had to have little rabbit ears on your TV to get it. And she did the exact opposite of what she had intended to do. So we sent her flowers every year, which I'm sure really pissed her off.

"I always had a struggle, which I still do, when you're playing a character and it's not necessarily your morals or your values. You're playing a character, but the way the media will sometimes ask you if these are your opinions, you know — they make you responsible for that, and I take issue with it because I don't believe in censorship. ... Married with Children was racy. It was sexist. It was a lot of things, but mostly it was funny."

On her father Boris Sagal's career as a successful director

"I didn't see him that much. You know, episodic TV directing is a very long and arduous job. You have very short schedules, short short shooting days, and you have to get lot of pages done. So my dad worked really, really hard. So I say that only to couch it — a lot of people think the show-biz family thing is very glamorous. I would say it wasn't. ... My parents were very artistic, but busy. The time I remember really seeing my dad and understanding my dad was when he would finally start bringing me to work with him. And then I was around that set environment, and I would see what was going on, 'cause it's hard to describe to a kid what your job is. It's hard to describe to anybody what that is, unless you actually see it ...

"Like I said before, too, I really wanted to be a musician; I had no aspiration at that point to be an actor. Part of me I think was rebelling against my father, because he used to say to me, 'You know, you could be actor.' And he said it to me when I was young. And I thought, 'No, I want to be a singer.' [Acting] didn't look glamorous to me at all — even when I met Elvis Presley, because my dad directed an Elvis movie. ... But I'll never forget, he brought me to the set. I met Elvis Presley. I was so not impressed. Now I would be. I was like a snotty little 12-year-old."

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