An illustration of actress and writer Edi Patterson sitting on a chair wearing a red hat.

Illustration by Patrick Morales-Lee

The deep-water port of Texas City has long been known for its refineries, shrimp boils, and the longest human-made fishing pier in the world at 5.3 miles. But it now also lays claim to one of the most bonkers Southern characters on TV: Judy Gemstone, as played by native Edi Patterson in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. The show’s writer, producer, and actor grew up in Texas City and draws inspiration for her character from her hometown. “I’ll always love Texas City,” Patterson says. “It made me who I am.”

In the series, Judy is the daughter of a wealthy, corrupt Southern televangelist named Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and sister to associate pastor Jesse (series creator Danny McBride) and youth pastor Kelvin (Adam Devine). She’s a grown woman with the temperament of a child. She loves a sequined outfit and has no problem being inappropriate at all times. And she steals pretty much every scene she’s in. Gemstones is the third comedy series McBride has sold to HBO, after Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, and it follows the Gemstone family as they hilariously scheme, argue, and fumble their way through life.

Patterson first worked with McBride on the HBO show Vice Principals. She’s written for Saturday Night Live and played Fran in the Oscar-nominated film Knives Out. Earlier this year, she hosted the Texas Film Awards in Austin and filmed the SyFy show Resident Alien in Vancouver. No matter where she’s at, though, Patterson says she returns home often to get back to her roots and find inspiration. “You’re just surrounded all the time by awesome characters,” she says.

TH: How often do you get back home from Los Angeles?
EP: My parents’ house is still in Texas City. My dad passed a little over a year ago after an illness, and that’s still my mom’s house. I was home a lot when my dad was sick and during COVID. I rewrote the second season of Gemstones and wrote the whole third season pretty much on Zoom. A lot of it was written on a laptop in Texas, from my childhood bedroom.

TH: When did you get the feeling there was a path to comedy or acting for you?
EP: I went to Texas State [in the late 1990s] and was doing a BFA in acting. The TV and film teacher was Larry Hovis from the show Hogan’s Heroes, and he was deeply adored by all of us. He was all about meaning what you say and the idea that less is more. The things that ended up being most creatively fulfilling for me were doing Fool for Love as someone’s grad project. Or the musical Falsettoland.That’s when I felt like I could really sink my teeth into this.

TH: You’ve played a lot of Southern characters, but were you ever pressured to get rid of your Texas accent?
EP: I remember coming home from Texas State on weekends and being in my parents’ backyard and one of my uncles saying to me, “Why are you talking funny?” I was like, “Dude wait, what? What am I doing?” It kind of subtly went away at some point but, oh honey, I can tap in real quick. I can do a brain-and-body reset. I am always surprised by the amount with which I use “y’all.” It’s what everyone should say, though.

TH: How has your hometown informed your path?
EP: Texas City was not the easiest place to grow up if you want to write and be an actor. I love it though because if kids are allowed to have these thoughts about wanting to be an actor, you have to figure it out in a different way that can potentially make you a very interesting weirdo.

TH: Coming from a churchgoing family, how did your parents handle your dreams of becoming a performer?
EP: I think it was incredibly scary for them. When I moved, they drove me across the country and dropped me off in LA. I had two friends in LA who I had gone to school with. I think sometimes about how awesome that was, that my parents did that. The second we got there, my dad was like, “Well, this is some bullshit.” I think it was wild for them, but they just really believed in me.

TH: Can you talk about your collaboration with Danny McBride?
EP: He’s the greatest, honestly. His brain constantly surprises me and makes me laugh. When I worked on Vice Principals with those guys, I had not ever met him before. The first day I was on set, we were doing kind of a big scene where a school bus was leaving on a field trip or something. We did it a few times and I asked him if he wanted something different from me, and he said, “Try whatever you want.” Then everything in me was going off like a carnival. I started trying to feed him things, like fun pitches to hit. We just really make each other laugh, and I respect him so much.

TH: You and Danny do a good job of creating larger-than-life characters who don’t fall prey to Southern stereotypes. Is that on purpose?
EP: When I see Southern stereotypes it makes me deeply angry. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved specificity and loved watching—for lack of a better word—weirdos. People who are just so exactly themselves. I’ve always gravitated toward that and wanted to be near it. I’ve got a really colorful group of aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s fun and loud when we get together. When my dad’s dad was ill, these caregivers would come during the day, and they weren’t the greatest ever. It was just what we could pay for. They were these wild women. They felt like they were out of fiction. One talked like Elvis. One had a braid that went all the way down past her ass. Those women inform my characters.

TH: Judy looks like a rip-roaring character to play.
EP: The thing I love about Judy is that the way the Gemstones grew up—so off-the-charts wealthy and entitled, surrounded by opulence and access—stunted her emotionally. That’s so fun, and there are not a lot of filters. It’s almost like I can just open a geyser with her and just absolutely let it rip. She acts, and then thinks about it. The whole idea of running downfield as fast as I can, it’s just the greatest.

TH: What’s your perfect Texas day like?
EP: Man, oh man, I love Austin so much. The second I walk out of the airport and feel the air, it’s like, ooh wee bob, something exciting is gonna happen tonight. There is some kind of magic for me there that is undeniable. A little while ago my mom and I took a day trip from Texas City to Round Top to see some family and hang out, and I had no idea Round Top had gotten so cool. They’re gonna figure out there is some kind of magic vortex happening there in the geography. Breakfast tacos, and if the weather is right, then a trip to Hamilton Pool should be in the mix. Head back to South Congress, walk around and shop a little.

TH: Is there an iconic Texan you’d love to play?
EP: Not to get wild, but somebody ought to toss an Ann Richards role at me. That would be off the charts.

Season three of The Righteous Gemstones premieres June 18 on HBO. Follow Edi Patterson on Instagram, @edipattersonhi.

From the July 2023 issue

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