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Actress Patricia Arquette brings sass and vulnerability to her 'High Desert' role

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I want you to meet Peggy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH DESERT")

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) And you, too, Dianne. Get out of my house. Get out of my residence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ma'am, there are children here, and I'm going to need you to tone it down.

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) I'm done. Take it down a notch.

KELLY: (Laughter) A taste there of Peggy, played by Patricia Arquette in the new TV series "High Desert." Peggy's life is chaos, to put it mildly. She is an on-again, off-again addict. Her family is trying to evict her from her house, the same house, by the way, where her husband, who has just been released from prison and who she is trying to divorce, has just shown up. She is working as a saloon keeper in a Wild West theme park in the California desert. The roof of her car has just been sheared off by a truck, and that list doesn't actually begin to capture everything Peggy's got going on. Patricia Arquette, welcome.

ARQUETTE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I am exhausted just reading the list of everything happening in Peggy's life, and I could have kept going another five minutes. Is it exhausting playing Peggy?

ARQUETTE: No, it's not. It's very joyful to play Peggy. I love Peggy so much. And I felt like after the pandemic, I really needed to laugh and that we all needed to laugh, and so I felt like this material was a real gift for me personally. She has a lot of energy, so it takes a lot of energy to play her because she's driving almost every scene. And she's doing 50 things at once, really, to avoid her pain. So she's constantly creating, like, landmines and distractions, and she's kind of a Tasmanian devil.

KELLY: (Laughter) That's a good way of putting it because Peggy is, as we've said, chaotic. She's disorganized. She's a total pain in the butt, and yet I just was rooting for her a hundred percent. And I wondered, is it her flaws that make her likable? Like, I'm not sure I would have been rooting for her so hard if she were perfect and she had it all together.

ARQUETTE: And I think it's interesting that you say that because I think we all have subconscious bias, and I don't think we're used to seeing troubled and imperfect women in TV so much that are supposed to be our heroes and also our leads. So it's nice to mix it all up and put it in a giant soup pot and pull out your "Anarchist Cookbook" and make this giant, crazy stew. Yeah, I think it is her flaws that are endearing, and it's also - you know, she's her own worst enemy.

KELLY: I want to give people a little bit more of the plot and some of the twists and turns. She tries to reinvent herself as a PI, a private investigator. And this is a scene where she's trying to negotiate her salary with her soon-to-be boss, played by the actor Brad Garrett.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH DESERT")

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) And you're going to give me 50% of all the business I bring in.

BRAD GARRETT: (As Bruce) Are you out of your mind?

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) Forty-five.

GARRETT: (As Bruce) No.

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) All right - 30. It's as low as I can go.

GARRETT: (As Bruce) Ten.

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) Fine.

GARRETT: (As Bruce) And you've got to get into PI class and work your way towards a license if you want to be a PI.

ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) Oh, come on. School's a racket. They spit you out financially illiterate and, honestly, with no real sex education. I learn more at home.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm trying to make it through listening to that without laughing. I think we've all been through a salary negotiation or two like that.

(LAUGHTER)

ARQUETTE: I mean, she's got a logic. It's a crazy one.

KELLY: Yeah.

ARQUETTE: And part of it is - I mean, she really is putting up these diversionary smokescreens constantly to get her way.

KELLY: Yeah.

ARQUETTE: And it works a lot.

KELLY: Yeah, although the salary that she ultimately lands is zero. we should note. She's an unpaid intern at the the whole negotiation.

(LAUGHTER)

ARQUETTE: But, you know, she's letting him think that, but when she lands some of these rewards or that reward, then she's going to parlay that - you know, everything's got a bigger plan ahead of it. She's playing, like - she's playing, you know, 10th dimensional chess with herself.

KELLY: (Laughter) I saw an interview you gave where you said your family is always asking you to slow down, which you don't really seem to be doing. And I'm curious why because you've got nothing left to prove. You've played every role. You're the Academy Award-winning Patricia Arquette. Why keep so busy?

ARQUETTE: I don't know, and I was thinking about that. There's a part of me that feels like, oh, now that I'm 55, I do feel that clock ticking. Like, oh, this is my life. I'm here now, and there's all these things. And I want to do all these things. And I need to do all these things. And I want to have these experiences. And then also, I know it also wards off depression for me. Being really engaged in something and focused on something and committed to it is one of my modes of self-care, my primary mode of self-care, even though on one hand, it can drain me, too.

KELLY: That feels so true. I'm also a woman in my 50s, and somebody asked me the other day, you know, when are you going to hang it up? How long will you keep going? And I was like, what? I'm just getting going.

ARQUETTE: Yeah,

KELLY: That sounds like you feel that as well, and I totally relate to the feeling of - it's exhausting, but it's also what is giving you energy.

ARQUETTE: Yeah, it's both. And honestly, to go to work with this cast, to have Brad and Bernadette and Matt and Christine and all of these incredible actors on the set making me laugh, the hardest thing was not to break character and laugh in the middle of a take.

KELLY: (Laughter) Which you sometimes succeeded at and sometimes not, from what I could glimpse.

ARQUETTE: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: Before I let you go, as you and I are speaking, as this show launches into the world, the Writers Guild of America is on strike. I know you have expressed support for the writers on strike. I do wonder, is it going to slow production of the show? Are you worried it will slow momentum that you've created with this first season?

ARQUETTE: Well, I have no idea. I don't know how long it will go on for, but I do support the writers' strike. And I'm a fourth-generation actor. I remember when cable first started and my dad was striking with the Actors Guild about cable, and we've had all these different interations (ph) now of different kinds of contracts and different technologies. And one of the conversations the writers are having is about AI, and I think it's a very important conversation because it's being taught from material that those writers made. And I'm very worried for the future of film and television. I think they're going to make a lot of superhero movies, movies that make a lot of money. But no one's going to put in the AI to make the little movie of the girl and her dad who used to be a boxer, and they're living on the fringes. Human beings tell the story of human beings, and one of the ways we do is through film and television. And if we lose that voice, we're really going to lose a lot.

KELLY: Well, Patricia Arquette, this has been a delight. Thank you.

ARQUETTE: Thank you. I'm a big fan. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Her new show, "High Desert," is out now on Apple TV+.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU GET TO THAT")

FUNKADELIC: (Singing) I once had a life, or rather, life had me. I was one among many, or at least I seemed to be. Well, I read an old quotation in a book... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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