SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen this week’s Sons of Anarchy, stop reading now. The episode features a guest star viewers didn’t know was coming and, it’s safe to say, won’t soon forget. The actor spoke to EW about how the appearance — in both senses of the word — came about.
In the episode, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and the motorcycle club want to blackmail a city council member into voting in favor of Mayor Hale (Jeff Kober) retaining the land rights for his Charming Heights development. In exchange, they hope the mayor will lease them a property Jax has decided is perfect for the club’s new joint “companion” business with Nero (Jimmy Smits).
And this is when the jawdropping guest spot comes into play: Nero sends them Venus Van Dam, a transgender escort played by Justified‘s Walton Goggins, who worked with SOA creator Kurt Sutter on The Shield (where Goggins’ character, Shane Vendrell, used the alias Cletus Van Damme). For what happens next, read our full recap. Let’s hear from Goggins, whose transformation into Venus took roughly four hours.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was one of the greatest things we’ve seen in a long time, made even better because no one knew it was coming. How did it happen?
WALTON GOGGINS: Kurt, at one point, had done an interview with somebody and said, “The only two people who I could never have on the show are [Michael] Chiklis and Goggins, because of how closely relatable they are to their characters on The Shield. It would be very hard for our audience to accept them as anybody else.” I called and said, “That’s bulls—! Come on!” And we went back and forth, like how would we do it? I wouldn’t want to do it as anything that would be compared to The Shield. And then I just said to him, “I’ll do it if I can be a transgender. I would like to play a transgender.” He said, “No, you wouldn’t.” I said, “Oh yes, absolutely, I would. Let’s do it as a transgender.” This conversation was like a year and a half ago.
He texted me while I was filming [Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained] down in New Orleans, and he said, “Were you serious?” I said, “About what?” He said, “Are you going to play Venus Van Dam?” I said, “Have you written it?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Send me the pages.” And I just fell in love with her immediately. It was really important to both of us that we really go there, we make her a three-dimensional person with feelings. Sassy, sweet, smart, and beautiful. Try to make her as beautiful as I can be — it takes a lot of work for me as a straight man much less as a woman to be anything close to beautiful. We had such a good time. He had written her in a way that I would want to hang out with her. It’s a woman who I would want to be around.
The lipstick was a great color on you, I have to say.
Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
And the breasts. What were they made of?
Those are real. You just haven’t seen them on The Shield or on Justified. I wear a sports bra to push them down. No. We just wanted it to be as believable as possible. Doing a lot of research and speaking to a couple of transgenders down in New Orleans, where I was, it was looking at what makes them sexy, what makes them so taboo and sensuous and appealing. Breasts are a very big part of it. And Kurt really, really wanted to have that as a part of her experience. And I thought it was the best idea, because maybe you wouldn’t look at my wrists if you were looking at my breasts. [Laughs] But it seemed to really fit on my frame. It’s a [chest] plate, you know. But I don’t want to give away my trade secrets. As far as you’re concerned, they’re real.
How else did you prepare for the role?
What was so difficult, to be quite honest with you, was that I had to do most of my rehearsal with a full beard. I was sweating my ass off in New Orleans in the seat of my maleness working with Quentin, and I would come home at night and try to just feel her in my body, and I literally taped towels up over all the mirrors, so I wouldn’t look at myself then because I looked so different. I came back [to L.A.] on a Wednesday. Thursday, I went to the wig shop. Friday, I started shaving my whole body. Saturday, I went and got my mani-pedi. Sunday, I relaxed and took very long baths and put lotion all over my skin. Monday, we did a makeup test. And we filmed on Tuesday.
It was filmed in one day?
One day. I couldn’t be in those stilettos more than one day. There’s no way.
You walked well in them.
Thank you very much. And that was without any practice. We put those on and just began walking. And it was like 110 degrees in the Valley that day. So I almost melted, along with my breasts. [Laughs]
Did they have to fan you between takes? Did they take care of you?
Ohmygod, everyone took care of me. I had never experienced that kind of attraction from both sexes at the same time. You couldn’t help but be attracted to her. Like, I was attracted to her. I’d never experienced that kind of chivalry from men before. And everyone was so respectful. Charlie and Kim [Coates], everyone from the moment I came out. I was very careful — they really didn’t see me until I came out as Venus. It was easier to play pretend because they had not sneaked a peek beforehand. And everyone wanted to touch my breasts. [Laughs] Everyone. I was lucky, because I got to touch them as much as I wanted.
You could tell how much the guys, particularly Jax and Tig, enjoyed Venus.
To be in a room with such masculine men on a show that is about testosterone — and I’m very familiar with that world having been on The Shield for so long — and bring this kind of energy into that world, it was so smart for Kurt to approach it that way, through humor and through real curiosity on behalf of these ultra-masculine men. It felt so genuine and so real. Both Kurt and I, again, wanted to be so respectful of transgenders and to make her as real as possible and someone who is lovely and someone who makes you see past it. Once the shock is over, you say to yourself, “You know what, I get it. She’s really sexy. What a very cool lady.” I hope we’ve done that.
Why was this a kind of character you were seeking out?
I’ve been so fortunate to be on this network [FX] for so long now, and the audience that followed The Shield and watches Justified — all of them watch Sons, plus another 2.5 million people. It’s extraordinary, how well-received that show is and the following that show has. Both Kurt and I said, let’s play with sexuality. What does it mean? People identify me one way. It was a real challenge for me as an actor and a process that I really wanted to go through. Kurt facilitated that. It kind of worked out for everybody.
I wanted to talk about a few moments in particular. Venus kissing Jax when she left — was that scripted?
It wasn’t scripted. And it was interesting. As respectful as Charlie and all of the guys were to me, I wanted to be respectful of them. We’d done takes a few different ways, and I just leaned over and whispered in Charlie’s ear, “Just trust me.” And they yelled, “Action!” and we began the scene again, and there was this moment where it was so sincere and so sweet, I just leaned in and kissed Charlie the way that Venus kisses him. The look on his face — the shock of What was that? It was tender and sweet! — it was sooo priceless. It was just like, wow, that’s what it’s like. That’s the moment.
And the line, “How ’bout, like, an air traffic controlman?”
I think that was improvised. Kurt wrote it out and then said, “Just play. You’re Venus.” I’ve gotten to a place in my career where most of the people I work for or work with encourage that. [Laughs]
So in my recap, what should I call those little tassel whips you’re working in that scene?
[Laughs] Instruments of pleasure? Instruments of pleasure and pain? Maybe they’re purgatory sticks. Let’s call them purgatory sticks.
The fluttering of the hands when Venus was nervous — all you, I assume.
Yeah. What you try to do as an actor is move past the point of making choices…. If you spend enough time thinking about it, and you’re coming from a real pure place in your heart and you give yourself over to making believe, then all of those specific kind of moments just become second nature and they just happen. There were things that I asked women about — like little tricks for how you apply your makeup, ways to sit, and ways to get up from a chair. There was one trick that I couldn’t get in my head, because I’d never done it before, but the woman who was doing the hair, said, “Well, when you put your lipstick on, you put your finger in your mouth and you pull it out to make sure that none has gotten on the inside of your lips that could get on your teeth.” And it just made perfect sense! When she said that, it all clicked in. Honestly, right now, if you could see me, I’m standing like Venus. I’m walking like Venus and my hands are right where Venus would keep her hands because it’s so intoxicating.
Last question: Where is that latex assless catsuit today?
Ohmygod. You talk about fitting into something. The time it took to grease my body… Literally, it took two months for my hair to grow back. It’s still kinda growing in right now. But I think that that suit has probably disintegrated. From what we understand, latex doesn’t last that long, and Venus was working very hard that day. So, I think it’s a one-shot deal with those catsuits. [Laughs] But I’ll just say this, we have the wig and we have the shoes. This may not be the last time you’ve seen Venus.