You know Joey Lauren Adams from Dazed and Confused (1993) and Chasing Amy (1997). In 1999, despairing of being offered another good, complex character to play, she decided to write one for herself, in a story largely about her own family, her own fears, and Arkansas, where she grew up. In 2006, after a number of discouraging false starts, she made the script, Come Early Morning, as writer and director. Adams gave the plum lead role of Lucy to Ashley Judd, who, as a result, has received her best reviews since Ruby in Paradise (1993). As the casting indicates, Adams became less interested in acting during the long process of moving her script from the page to the screen. She recently moved from Los Angeles (though she hasn’t given up her house there) to Oxford, Mississippi, where she continues to write. We had planned to conduct this interview on the balcony of Square Books, the town bookstore, but it was too cold to sit outside. Adams gave me a ride to her house in her pickup truck. She moved some heavy furniture (a big wooden table and a leather chair) just to make sure I was perfectly comfortable and had a nice place to sit.
THE BELIEVER: Can we start out in Arkansas? Did you live in a little town, or…
JOEY LAUREN ADAMS: It wasn’t country by any means. It was North Little Rock, which was across the river from Little Rock. They call it Dogtown because back in the day the rich people used to dump their dogs across the river. On our side of the river was a dirt road
and we’d drive our trucks and drink and fight and all that stuff. And on the Little Rock side, they had gazebos. The private schools were in Little Rock. We didn’t like Little Rock girls coming to our parties.
BLVR: Why would they dump a dog in North Little Rock?
JLA: It wasn’t going to make its way back.
BLVR: What church did you go to?
JLA: Park Hill Baptist.
BLVR: Oh, Baptist, good.
JLA: Yeah, so it was Southern Baptist. But my dad drank. I had one side of my family that was really religious and the other side that was not so much. They were, but they drank and smoked. But still, you go to church.
BLVR: I remember when I saw my grandfather drink a beer in a restaurant, I actually cried. I was about eight years old. I was like…
JLA: “You’re going to hell!” I think the church is where I first got involved in drama. I was in the stinky baptismal. Our church had red carpet and gold chandeliers, it was a nice church, and then there was the baptismal in the very back behind the preacher, and it just smelled really funky. They had dressed me up as an angel. I was standing behind the curtains and you could hear the congregation showing up and filling up and I just got that feeling. And that was it.
BLVR: You said that Fame, the TV show, inspired you to leave Arkansas.
JLA: That came later, once I got into high school. I guess Fame sort of opened my eyes—not every high school is like my high school. There are these weird schools in New York where people wear leg warmers, and dance, and hang out in the cafeteria and write music. So my friend and I ran away. We called our parents and said that we got kidnapped, that some guy hijacked us and made us go to Dallas. We thought our parents would say,“Well, since you’re there you should just stay. Why don’t you sign up for school?” I think my mom saw me going down a bad road. So she sent me to Australia as an exchange student.
BLVR: When was that?
JLA:When I was seventeen.
BLVR: So how did that change your perspective?
JLA:The family I lived with was a young couple, which was weird.They let me drink and smoke in the house. And the schools were very much like college. It was an open campus. It was your loss if you didn’t show up for school. And in drama, we were doing plays that weren’t Li’l Abner. It was really hard to come back from Australia. I felt like I was taking a step back, which I was. I got heavily into the Assembly of God.
BLVR:That’s reflected in Come Early Morning somewhat.
BLVR: I don’t think a lot of people know about the Assembly of God. I mean, I do.We had one next door to our church. And you know it’s bad when the Southern Baptists are saying, “Hmm. I don’t know. Don’t go over there!” So tell me about it.
JLA: As you grow up, these voids are created by whatever it is—the lack of a relationship with your father, or mother, or something. You form, and there are these little cavities that are left. This doesn’t apply to everyone, I’ll just speak for me personally. I started looking for other things to fill those cavities.You go in and the preacher’s on fire and he’s running around the church and he’s screaming. He’s sweating and women are falling out and the men are running up to put the blanket over them so you can’t look up their skirts. You reach this fever pitch and everyone starts praying their own prayers out loud, so
there’s just this, like, noise that you get caught in. It’s like a rock concert, and you just get lost in it. I would leave church and I was so high. Higher than pot or anything I had ever done. I was so high. This was right before I left Arkansas. I graduated from high school, barely. So then when I got to California I found a church in San Diego.
BLVR: Was it a Holiness church?
JLA: It was, but it wasn’t near as crazy as Arkansas. I never felt that same high, and went back to my old ways of looking for it. And then I went to L.A.But you know, I didn’t have that bumper sticker on my car with the sad mask and the happy mask. Or “Honk If You Love Acting.” I just wanted to expose myself to other things and meet the kids I had seen on Fame. After being in L.A. a couple of years I realized that all the people wearing the leg warmers and the weird outfits weren’t that bright. Where this is all sort of going is developing a hatred of, and falling back in love with, the South.
II. ALUMINUM SIDING AND SHITTY FURNITURE
BLVR: In the New York Times review of your movie, in which they were really praising Ashley Judd’s performance, there was a line basically implying that the only reason she could play this part was, quote,“you can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl.” Right in the middle of this nice review, such a snotty…
JLA: Is that the same review where they also said there was a lot of aluminum siding and shitty furniture?
BLVR: I don’t think so. I don’t remember that part, anyway.
JLA: It was one of the bigger, more respected papers. Something about there being a lot of aluminum siding and shitty furniture. And it amazed me because there is no aluminum siding in the film, and no really shitty furniture…
BLVR: There’s no trailer park in the film, either. I must say I’ve known people who lived in trailer parks, too. Nice, intelligent people.
JLA: It just really blew my mind. Whoever this guy was, you think,“OK, this has got to be a fairly educated person.” And his stereotypes were so innate and embedded that he actually saw things that weren’t there.
BLVR: He must know something about acting. He’s a movie reviewer. And yet he thinks that Ashley Judd is the equivalent of a sideshow performer whose Southernness is some kind of freakish attribute that she can, you know, call on at will.
JLA: It’s bizarre. I would go home to Arkansas. I had a friend who was living in a trailer, this guy, my first love. And he was fascinating to me, with more wisdom than anyone I had met in L.A.
BLVR: So what was he like?
JLA: He was… he’s just a guy who… who works.
III. TWO HORTICULTURISTS
BLVR: How much time do you spend in Mississippi now?
JLA: I’m hoping to really live here. I’ve been hired to turn a Texas Monthly article into a screenplay, and I can do that here.
BLVR: Can I talk about this a little bit, the writing? You wrote Come Early Morning, I think, because originally you meant it for yourself. Had you written before?
JLA: No. The way we were taught, writing seemed to me like something that dead people did. Also, because I didn’t go to college, I didn’t feel like that was something I could do. I just didn’t have the confidence.
BLVR: So when you wrote the screenplay did you just plunge into it?
JLA: I was acting, and I was not happy. I was just sitting in my house waiting for a script to come, waiting for Hollywood to come to me, and for me, that’s a really, really awful existence. I worked so hard, and I did Chasing Amy, and the reward for that was Big Daddy. I’m not some art snob. I love those big movies. Big Daddy had a nice heart to it, and it was fun to make, but I didn’t have to work a lot on the role.
BLVR: Right, it’s like coming back from Australia to North Little Rock.
JLA: Exactly. My first thought was, “Who do you think you are to write a script? You didn’t go to college, you don’t have any training. You’ve never taken a class.” But I just kept telling myself, “I’ve read a thousand scripts. I understand the format. And I’ve acted them. I’ve actually put them on their feet.” I knew the scenes that felt so false and phony, and were always so hard to do, and those were the scenes where you sit down and explain shit.
BLVR: You almost gave up several times—both on the script and on the hope of raising the money to make it. What kept you going?
JLA: My motivation was, I was out one night and met these two horticulturists who had somehow managed to get into this very trendy bar. We were wasted, me and all my friends, and it was probably Tuesday night. The bar was closing and we were going on to my friend’s house and I invited these two young kids. And they said, “But it’s two.”And I said,“It’s too what?”And they said, “It’s two in the morning, what’s the special occasion?” And I don’t know, it just broke my heart. I had no reason to be clearheaded tomorrow. Almost like, I want to have a reason to sleep in. Let me wake up out of my head so I can sleep till noon and half my day’s gone. This was an awful way to live. It was the key thing that told me,“You’ve got to write, you’ve got to write.” I knew I wanted to come back to the South, and again, that’s another reason I wanted to start writing and directing, because I can do that from anywhere.
IV. CHICKEN ON A STICK
BLVR: Now, why did you want to come back to the South? I mean, I know that’s all we’ve talked about, in a way.
JLA: Because I’m madly in love with it. I was riding my bike one night into the square and I went by the bookstore. Lisa Howorth, who runs the store, had hung garlands in the window. They were decorating for fall. And it was peanuts, okra, and Vienna sausage. It made my week. I went to the Big Star. I just needed to get some half-and-half. I went in the back because I didn’t know where they kept the half-and-half, and they had a whole plate–lunch buffet thing. I got some okra and green beans and black-eyed peas.
BLVR: I know you’ve had the chicken on a stick at the Chevron station.
JLA: Yes. I had that last night.
BLVR: Man! And you’ve got to get it from the one particular Chevron station. The other one says it has chicken on a stick, but…
JLA: I moved back for chicken on a stick. Why would you not want to be here? Southerners are storytellers. There’s shit I hear every day that I want to use. That’s why I think I’ll always be drawn to Southern movies…
BLVR: But you know, there is the thing. We had some problems down here that haven’t been entirely rectified. It’s like we were talking about earlier, in your truck. OK, you want to write a movie about the South, or you want to write about the South in whatever format. Well, you don’t want to go to the stereotype. But there’s some of the stereotype around.
JLA: There’s a lot of it around.
BLVR: Well, how do you deal with that? Both as a writer, and…
JLA: I can enjoy a good stereotype, like with the Coen brothers’ films. Craig Brewer, he takes the stereotype and does something iconic with it that makes it work.
BLVR: He’s the guy that made Black Snake Moan.
JLA: Yeah, and Hustle & Flow.
BLVR: Black Snake Moan is the movie that made you start smoking again.
JLA: Yeah, because it’s about blues. The lead character has cutoffs on, and this cutoff T-shirt…
BLVR: Now who plays her?
JLA: Christina Ricci. And the T-shirt has, like, the American flag and the Confederate flag and two guns. But he does it in such a way that it’s a big image, and it works. I think there is a way to play with stereotypes, because we do have them here. If anyone should be allowed to get away with it, I should, because I’m Southern.
BLVR: But in your movie, you went the opposite direction. You told me that you based one of the characters on your uncle, but you were constantly pulling back and toning him down because no one would believe him as a fictional character. The reality was beyond realism, is how you put it. Your actual uncle was too much for your film.
JLA: Because it’s so small. There were times when I wrote a lot of big movie moments, but I had to throw them out. Every aspect of the movie, I was so attentive, because I knew that if you did not believe that these people exist in this place, then the movie’s not going to work. If you don’t believe Nana and Papa are still sitting in the kitchen… That’s why the last image of the movie is on Lucy’s back. If I had had final cut, I might have tried some things with her face. But I didn’t have final cut. So the director of photography and I decided not to give them anything they could use. The financiers would have wanted the big smiling face that tells you everything’s going to be OK. I wanted it to be a moment you’re not even supposed to see.