[This story includes spoilers from the first three episodes of Apple TV+’s High Desert.]
Patricia Arquette is continuing her relationship with Apple, but her new comedy, High Desert, is much different than last year’s Severance.
In the half-hour series High Desert from co-creators Nancy Fichman, Katie Ford and Jennifer Hoppe-House, the Oscar winner plays Peggy, a recovering addict with a predilection for chaos who, after the death of her mother (Bernadette Peters), winds up working as a private investigator in the California desert town where she grew up. Jay Roach directs and Ben Stiller is an executive producer for the series that includes Matt Dillon as ex-husband Denny, alongside fellow castmembers Rupert Friend, Weruche Opia, Brad Garrett, Christine Taylor, Keir O’Donnell and Eric Petersen.
During the below interview with , Arquette explains why she connected so personally to Peggy’s path, how her work on Severance impacted the new show, why Stiller was unable to direct the series as initially planned, where things are heading with her character’s fraught relationship with her ex and why there was one violent moment that the actress worried was “a bridge too far.”
High Desert is your second recent project with Apple. Had you filmed Severance before this came around?
We were putting this show together for so many years. I got cast in Severance, I believe, and then we pitched [High Desert] to Apple, amongst many other studios, and Apple ended up saying yes, thank God. While the writers were finishing work on this season of High Desert, I shot Severance, and then as soon as Severance wrapped, I started shooting High Desert. It was great to go from this claustrophobic, structured, uptight character [in Severance] — but you don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling — to Peggy, who’s the opposite. That’s all of this energy, and nothing’s hidden, and everything’s a disaster, and it’s right in front of you.
What was it about High Desert that felt like the right fit for you right now?
It’s a little love affair or something. I love this person. I love all these weird characters and these crazy stories. I also felt like, after coming out of that pandemic, we all needed to laugh, and I really needed to laugh, and this material made me laugh. And it reminded me of a lot of addicts that I’ve known in my life — many of whom, unfortunately, have since passed away, and many of them when they were very young — who were very resourceful and funny, but always hustling and had these great qualities and knowledge and beautiful hearts, but were wrecks, walking disasters. I wanted to remember and honor them in some way — their restless spirits.
You have gotten to do some amazing work with Ben Stiller over the years. At what point was he no longer on tap to direct High Desert, and what was the reasoning behind the transition to Jay Roach?
When we brought Ben in, it was when we were going to go out to places to pitch, and we wanted to have the strongest package possible. We wanted to go in with a director, so we went in with Ben originally, but it became clear that Severance was going to take more of his time. And then we reached out to Jay, and Jay responded to the material, luckily, and Jay and Ben had known each other because they’d worked together before. I asked Ben what he thought of Jay, and he was like, “He’s surgical about comedy.” (Laughs.) And you couldn’t find a nicer person on Earth than Jay Roach. He was just the perfect captain of the ship.
The show has a lot going on in just a half hour, between comedy, violence and emotional impact. What went into getting the tone right?
It’s innate when you’re dealing with the addict world — they gravitate to a lot of fringy people that other people would probably avoid. Peggy’s the kind of person who will run into the fire to get her purse (laughs) and somebody’s nice vase that they have in there. We wanted the tone to be kind of madcap and wild, and how she distracts herself from her own personal pain by keeping her life chaotic. Those people do often put themselves in a dangerous way.
Nancy, Jennifer and Katie are credited for writing all eight episodes. Was there also a writers room?
They did have a writer’s assistant. They’ve been really working on this material for such a long time in their minds. I wasn’t in the writers room, so I don’t really know exactly what their process was like. They would take the leads on different episodes and then give each other comments, edit it out, work it out to the place that they all like the best. And then, of course, the studio has notes, and the director has notes, and it’s all this long process. But they didn’t have a big writers room.
In the second episode, we get that memorable nipple moment with the guru.
I was scared that was too far. I was scared that was a bridge too far — I was like, is that too much? I’m scared of the nipple. But I was overrode, and that’s part of the process. I think they were probably right, but we all felt like it was time for a counterculture comedy, and the fact that we got a streaming network to let us do it was miraculous.
Does the nipple scene help to establish the stakes and consequences of the world?
I think so. It’s also just how she’s constantly creating a cyclone of a mess around herself. Many other people would just go get a simple second job, but not Peggy. (Laughs.) She’s also a master manipulator, like the way she manipulates Owen (Eric Petersen).
You get to work with such a top-notch cast. Peggy’s scenes involving her mom are emotional ones. What was it like to perform with Bernadette Peters for those?
Oh, my God. Such a dream. I’d grown up watching her and loving her. She’s such an icon, and she’s so incredibly talented, and she has a girlish quality that my mom had and also Nancy’s mom had. When Peggy was little, she ended up really doing a lot of caretaking for her mom. Bernadette has that quality where you could see why you would want to hang around her and how much fun she would be and how you would want to protect her too. Talk about a consummate professional. I felt like I’ve learned a lot from working with her, but also she would make me laugh a lot. It’s just really a joy to show up at work.
When you meet people like Matt Dillon, you meet her, and they’re everything you ever wished they would be. That’s how this was, and Rupert was wonderful too. Everyone who came in — Christine [Taylor], Eric. Everyone just knocked it out of the park and were cool, fun, neat people.
Episode three ends with that very dramatic phone call in the restaurant, where Denny is at Peggy’s home. What was the dynamic like with Matt, and what can viewers expect with where they’re heading?
It’s funny because, even growing up, we all had crushes on Matt doing The Outsiders and everything. I never got to work with him, and I always wanted to, and I really didn’t think that would happen. But part of what Matt had, even as a kid, was a realness about him. Peggy and Denny, it’s understandable why they’re together. There’s so many things about them that are the same. They’re hustlers; they’re manipulators; they’re a little bit criminal.
Denny’s the one person in her life that took care of her when their dad left. He’ll say one thing to Peggy, but he has a whole different plan, and he’s constantly getting them in trouble. And she knows she shouldn’t be with him, but it’s like butter. He’s the only person that can really out-con her. He does love her. He would risk his life for her. He’d step in front of a bullet for her, but he’d also be the reason someone’s shooting a bullet at her. (Laughs.) It’s a not a good idea.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
High Desert’s first three episodes are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping Wednesdays.