Jennifer Lopez knows how to make an entrance. The actress’ magnetic first appearance in Hustlers — a sultry, extended pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” — is the buzziest scene in a film full of them, marking the transformation of a cinematic persona. Indeed, throughout Hustlers, Lopez is like you’ve never seen her. You can’t take your eyes off of her. She’s compelling, seductive, commandingly guiding the camera and holding the audience’s attention everywhere she goes. She’s a movie star.
Lopez and the Hustlers team has had plenty to celebrate recently: The film met an ecstatic response at its Toronto International Film Festival launch, generated strong reviews, and this past weekend, conquered the box office with a $30-plus million haul — the best opening of Lopez’s career, and a huge breakthrough for studio STX and director Lorena Scafaria (The Meddler). Faithfully adapted from Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article, the film tracks a group of strippers pre- and post-2008 financial crash, who begin an elaborate scheme to stay afloat — and then some — by scamming horny Wall Street guys via increasingly dubious (and dangerous) methods.
In Ramona, the enigmatic but driven ringleader, Lopez has found her definitive role, a beguiling anti-hero well-versed in the powers of persuasion. Too many to count have called this the best performance of her career, and with that, the Oscar chimes are starting to ring. But there remain question marks: Can Lopez, who’s stuck mostly to fluffy rom-coms the past few decades, capture the Academy’s attention? And perhaps more importantly: Can Hustlers?
Such concerns speak to gendered bias in awards conversations: Hustlers is a slick, prestige con film of the sort that the Oscars tend to reward, though typically when fronted by a male cast. (Think The Usual Suspects.) And that’s to say nothing of the general derision often shown toward “stripper movies.” Yet as Hollywood continues to experience a sea change — as a movie like Hustlers, largely on the back of Lopez’s commercial appeal, can not only get made but thrive — it’s proving itself (tentatively) ready to embrace what used to be unfairly dismissed. This doesn’t mean to say Hustlers is on its way to a Best Picture nomination — but it’ll occupy a firm place in the conversation.
Put simply, Lopez has a lot going for her here — so much, in fact, that saying she isn’t the frontrunner at this stage, given the state of the field, feels a bit naive. (Lopez gives a clearly supporting turn opposite lead Constance Wu in Hustlers; in the unlikely event she campaigns for Best Actress, it’s a very different story.) For starters, the Academy loves a career redefinition: Mo’Nique proving she’s a dramatic powerhouse in Precious, Matthew McConaughey shedding pounds and finding soul in Dallas Buyers Club, and on. Lopez only benefits from the inevitable minimizing of her past screen work. Here, at last, she goes serious — and she does so brilliantly. It helps that like Mo’Nique and McConaughey, to stick with those reference points, Lopez will be gunning for her very first nomination.
Lopez’s work in Hustlers also allows her to showcase some impressive physicality. Scafaria has a habit of just holding the camera on the actress while she performs, particularly in that grand entrance, which is as much a demonstration of strenuous body work as anything else. Lopez knows when to live in her character’s skin — she doesn’t ring a false note — and when to show her work.
And I’d argue the field lacks a more obvious top contender than Lopez right now. Her toughest competition looks to be Laura Dern, a scene-stealer in Marriage Story. Most recently nominated for Wild, Dern is a beloved industry figure, and has a second meaty turn to bolster her case in the forthcoming Little Women. But unless you count Allison Janney’s monstrous — and relatively dramatic — I, Tonya role, comic work has found very little love in the category over the past 20-odd years. Other likely challengers in 2020 include Annette Bening, alternately uncanny and moving as Dianne Feinstein in The Report, and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s Margot Robbie, but each face unique obstacles. (Film visibility in the former’s case; screen time and dialogue… amount in the latter’s.) Little Women may field a major player, whether Dern or Meryl Streep or, especially intriguing, the surging Florence Pugh; we’ve still yet to see movies like Bombshell and The Irishman, which contain possibilities too.
But perhaps the most convincing factor regarding Lopez’s Oscar chances is the success of Hustlers itself. In its combination of box-office gross and water-cooler appeal, it’s emerging as the fall’s breakout film. And despite its stacked cast and broad appeal, Hustlers feels like a bit of an underdog, having struggled through development and facing harsh judgment before premiering. Lopez considers herself part of that narrative. “My life and career are about not letting people put me in their box,” she recently told EW, “but being limitless in that I can do many things, and you don’t get to tell me what those are.” Jennifer Lopez, underdog? Hey, she knows how to play the part.
Robert Redford has been president for 28 years. Cell phones and the internet are outlawed. Fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Costumed heroes were popular, then banned. Police wear masks to protect their identities and cannot use their guns without a dispatcher unlocking them first. Reparations were issued for racial injustice, and our country remains ever divided.
This is the alternate history America of Watchmen, HBO’s upcoming drama series from writer-producer Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) that’s a bombastic mix of inspirations from Alan Moore’s “unfilmable” 1986 graphic novel infused with new characters and socio-political themes. “It’s so wildly ambitious and original, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before and also addresses important issues,” says director Nicole Kassell of Lindelof’s scripts.
The story is set three decades after the events in Moore’s Watchmen text. Most of the graphic novel’s iconic characters are apparently dead or in hiding, though a character we suspect is Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandius, is kicking around in a mansion (and played with gilded smugness by Jeremy Irons), and the staggeringly powerful Doctor Manhattan is rumored to be hanging out on Mars. The focus instead is on a new character, Angela Abar, an Oklahoma police detective (The Leftovers‘ Regina King) with the secret superhero identity of Sister Night. Abar is investigating the reemergence of a white supremacist terrorist group inspired by the long-deceased moral absolutist Rorschach.
Below Lindelof gives his first in-depth interview about Watchmen, as well as discusses another title for the first time — The Hunt, a film he co-wrote with Nick Cuse that likewise touched on topical political divisions. The Huntmade headlines when it was pulled last month from its planned Sept. 27 release by studio Universal after President Trump and others attacked the film.
Entertainment Weekly: After The Leftovers, you probably could have done whatever you wanted. What made Watchmen right — aside from wanting a very difficult job? Damon Lindelof: I ask my therapist that question on a weekly basis now. “Why, why Watchmen?” First and foremost this is something I love and something that made a very profound impression on me when I read it when I was 13 years old. In the same way, I wanted to work on a Star Trek movie [Star Trek Into Darkness] and an Alien movie [Prometheus] this is something from my childhood that I carry a tremendous amount of nostalgia for. The fantasy I indulged as a young man was maybe one day I can tell Watchmen stories. The first two times [Lindelof was offered the opportunity to write a Watchmen adaptation] it was incredibly tempting. I said no for various reasons. First and foremost, the timing didn’t feel right — [director Zack Snyder] had just made his [Watchmen] movie. And secondly, revisiting the source material meant adapting something that I knew was so perfect. I knew the best job I could do adapting the original Watchmen was just being a really good cover band.
So is there a way to take this thing I love and be inspired by it, not erase it, but build upon its foundation? That depends on whether I have the right idea. The ideas started to come with what to do with Watchmen and then it didn’t really feel like a decision anymore but something I felt compelled to do. That sounds arrogant and full of hubris but when I haven’t made choices based on that feeling things haven’t turned out so well because then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But when you get really inspired you have to chase it even if it leads to ruin.
You’ve said that the project is not a sequel and not a remake but a “remix” and I think some are confused by that. Can we accept that what happened in the comic/film happened in the past of your world? That if we re-read the graphic novel or watch Snyder’s movie that we have a firm handle on what occurred 30 years ago in this story? Yes. Look, [the new series] certainly fits into the “sequel” box, and definitely doesn’t fit into the “reboot” box. We treat the original 12 issues as canon. They all happened. We haven’t done any revisionist history, but we can maneuver in between the cracks and crevices and find new stories there. But for all the reasons you just articulated, we wanted to make sure our first episode felt like the beginning of a new story rather than a continuation of an old story. That’s what I think a sequel is — the continuation of an old story.
After the Television Critics Association press conference this summer, some stories claimed Robert Redford was actually in your show because the president in HBO’s Watchmen for the last 28 years is “Robert Redford.” But the actor is not appearing, right? Were there any concerns about making a real person the president in your show and depicting their real-life liberal ideals as leading to a more totalitarian society without that person actually being involved? The short answer is yes. I’ve had a lot of reservations about a lot of the creative choices made in the show. I don’t think any of the choices were made without reservations and conversations and ultimately a decision. I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to defend every decision I made, but I’ll be able to explain why I made it. We had that conversation you’re suggesting. But the world of Watchmen is so heightened and so clearly it’s an alternate history that it will be clear to everyone we’re not talking about the real Robert Redford.
More importantly, the way we handle this story, you can’t blame Robert Redford for everything that’s happened in the world. The show says Redford has a liberal ideology, much like the actual Robert Redford, and he was incredibly well-intentioned in terms of the legislation he passed and the America that he wanted to create. But that doesn’t mean it worked out the way he wanted it to. And that’s not on him, that’s on us.
Can you tell us more about this alternative world beyond the lack of cell phones or Internet — which, of course, are also helpful to eliminate from a screenwriting perspective when telling dramatic stories? Yes. We’re living in a world where fossil fuels have been eliminated as a power source. All the cars are zero emissions and run on electricity or fuel cells — largely thanks to the innovations of Dr. Mahattan decades earlier. There’s also this legislation that’s passed, Victims Against Racial Violence, which is a form of reparations that are colloquially known as “Redford-ations.” It’s a lifetime tax exemption for victims of, and the direct descendants of, designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history, the most important of which, as it relates to our show, is the Tulsa massacre of 1921. That legislation had a ripple effect into another piece of legalization, DoPA, the Defense of Police Act, which allows police to hide their face behind masks because they were being targeted by terrorist organizations for protecting the victims of the initial act. So … good luck sound biting that!
I saw the opening of your pilot depicting the massacre then Googled “Tulsa 1921” and — like you said in another interview — I was surprised and embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this tragedy before. Why was that incident in particular, and Tulsa in general, the right setting for your story? Like you just said, my ignorance of the fact that it happened made me feel compelled to educate others. And I could go around to my friends or put it on social media but I feel the biggest platform that’s been afforded me is I get to make television shows that potentially millions are going to watch. And for a show like Watchmen, which already had a built-in audience that has nothing to do with me, to use Watchmen as a delivery mechanism for this piece of erased history felt right as long as it was presented in a non-exploitative way.
Also, the superhero genre always feels like it takes place in New York, Gotham City or Metropolis. And Gotham City and Metropolis are just New York paradigms. So I was like: What does a superhero show look like in Oklahoma? That idea was interesting to me in terms of what it would look and feel like and kinds of people we would populate it with. I also just felt that tickle in my gut that was like, Do it here. That tickle has not always steered me right but it is the thing that makes me do the things I do.
In some ways, there’s also the added challenge of not just doing Watchmen but doing a superhero deconstruction story when there have so many other superhero deconstruction stories in recent years — from Kick-Ass to Deadpool to The Boys. Did that factor into your thinking as well? How do you break new ground on super anti-heroes when even that is now common? That’s a great question. It’s almost like the truly subversive thing that you could do right now is to celebrate a superhero because the “dark” version, or deconstructed version, is so in the culture. And by the way, in the mid-80s, Watchmen and TheDark Knight both did it, so the idea of deconstructing the superhero myth is 30 years old.
Fully aware of that, I started to think that for Watchmen maybe the more interesting point is to think about masking and authority and policing as an adjunct to superheroes. In Watchmen, nobody has superpowers — the only super-powered individual is Dr. Manhattan and he’s not currently on the planet. In The Boys, you have superpowered individuals in capes that can shoot lasers out of their eyes and fly around and have feats of strength and turn invisible. Nobody on Watchmen can do that. So I felt like we wouldn’t be deconstructing the superhero myth because all the characters in Watchmen are just humans who play dress up. It would be more interesting to ask psychological questions about why do people dress up, why is hiding their identity a good idea, and there are interesting themes to explore here when your mask both hides you and shows you at the same time — because your mask is actually a reflection in yourself. What’s the trauma an individual has that goes into the mask they wear? All that felt Watchmen-y to me. Again, these are not original ideas, but ones I thought were timely when we all have these different identities in code now.
You a sprawling cast. Is there somebody you want to single out who particularly surprised you with their take on they material? I can’t say enough amazing things about Regina King. The opportunity to make her the star of the show is one of the reasons this was worth doing. It’s not that Regina hasn’t had opportunities to show the world what an incredible actor she is, but to be at the center of the show is a pretty big deal. She’s able to surprise me constantly with her choices as a performer even though I worked with her on The Leftovers for a season and I’ve seen everything she’s she’s ever done going back to 227 and Southland. Yet she’s still able to make choices that make me go, What?
I also want to say that I’m constantly delighted — and I’m not a person that experiences the emotion of delight in my life — by what Jeremy Irons is doing in this show. I’m not only been a fan of his for decades, but I’m just delighted of the choices he’s making.
And that’s not to the exclusion of anything that Jean Smart does, but she’s not introduced until the third episode. Tim Blake Nelson knocks my socks off. And last but not least — and again, there are others I’m not mentioning that are fantastic — Louis Gossett Jr. You don’t get to experience him much in the pilot but starting in the second episode and all through the season he’s a living legend and it was truly a gift to have him say our words.
I re-read your 2018 Instagram letter to fans about doing a Watchmen series and one line now pops out: “We also intend to revisit the past century of Costumed Adventuring through a surprising yet familiar set of eyes and it’s here we’ll be taking our greatest risk.” Does that refer to the fact that King’s character is an original creation yet the apparent focus of the story? I’m not sure — even after watching the pilot — I know what that means? Very insightful. You should be in exactly the place that you are at the end of the pilot, which is: “I’m not sure what he’s talking about yet.” By the end of the sixth episode, it will be clear who I was talking about. There won’t be any space for debate. I think people will start to theorize who I was talking about prior to the sixth episode, but that’s the one that makes the subtext text.
Landing Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor as your composer was a big get for a TV show. He’s got such a specific style and the music makes a pretty big impact. What’s that collaboration been like? It’s Trent and Atticus Ross, they do all their composition work together. We were talking hypothetically about composers and I love the composers that I’ve worked with in the past — like Michael Giacchino on Lost. With The Leftovers, I wanted the show to sound different than Lost so we got Max Richter, who was amazing. When talking about Watchmen, I had to start all over again with somebody I haven’t worked with before because the music is a big part of making shows unique and different from one another. At the top of my wishlist were Trent and Atticus. I called HBO and said, “Look, they haven’t done TV but it’s worth an inquiry.” And [HBO drama executive] Francesca Orsi said, “This is the weirdest thing but their reps called us this morning and asked about Watchmen.” Within 48 hours of that call, Trent and Atticus and I were in a room together and it turns out they’re huge Watchmen fans. They signed up on faith and faith alone. They get the scripts at the same time the actors do. They started writing the music even before we shot the pilot so we can get a sense in our heads of what it would sound like. It’s been incredible. They’re doing some cool stuff I can’t talk about stuff inside the world of Watchmen musically that I think is going to be really cool. They go deep.
I think perhaps your boldest move I’ve heard about so far is Regina said about in an interview we did that you’re not only diving into very hot button topics but you’re handling them in such a way that viewers can read whatever they want into their meaning. You’re avoiding moralizing at a time when popular entertainment is terrified of being misunderstood because there’s such a willingness online to accuse artists of bad intentions. Is that an accurate read? And does that kind of freak you out? The read is completely accurate and yeah it freaks me out. But when I’m freaked out is when I get excited. I can’t write or create from a nervous scared space. If you stop and try to talk yourself out of doing something that might be upsetting or might make people onerous or confused or uncomfortable you’re never going to do anything interesting. You have to jump in with some degree of forethought and responsibility and then afterward you can ask yourself why you did it. The time for contemplation is not at the edge of the diving board because going back down the ladder is worse than the distance to the pool. I also kind of feel like, unfortunately, we live in a space where hate runs rampant not just on the internet but in real life and it’s important to remind ourselves this is a TV show. It is not real. Although it is dealing with real issues and it’s meant to generate and provoke conversations and emotions we have to contextualize that this is fiction.
That answer could also apply to another of your recent projects, the movie The Hunt (where a group of red-state conservatives are seemingly hunted for sport by liberal elites). From what I gathered from an early version of the script, the film, ironically enough, was attempting to satirize the same sort of divisive online political outrage that led to it being pulled from release. There was a lot of confusion about what the film was actually about. What were you trying to say with that one? The Hunt is, and always was, a story about what happens when political outrage goes to the most absurd, ridiculous extreme. Because we wanted the movie to be fun and entertaining, we did our very best to make fun of ourselves while making it. The last thing we wanted to do was make a “message” movie. The audience doesn’t want to be preached at so, if anything, this is a story about what happens to folks who deem themselves holier than thou. Spoiler alert: Things don’t turn out great for them.
What was your reaction to Universal canceling the film’s release? Is there a chance of distribution somewhere else? I’m a TV guy, so I’ve seen many shows “canceled” then revived, so, of course, there’s always a chance the same will happen for us. I understand why the movie was misunderstood, but I really hope people get a chance to see it and make up their minds for themselves.
The 5th avenue flagship of the New York Public Library contains all kinds of literary wonders: a Gutenberg Bible, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, the original scruff-eared muse for Winnie the Pooh. And somewhere today, between the iconic pair of stone lions that guard the entrance and the map archives, sisters Tegan and Sara Quin.
They’re here, like almost every book lover in the building, to soak up the grand archways and ineffable moth-wing smell of the stacks — and to talk about the upcoming release of their own first book, a joint memoir called High School. If the patrons sneaking glances recognize them, though, it’s not as freshly minted authors but as the Canadian indie-rock juggernaut known as Tegan and Sara, whose skillful pairing of serrated lyrics and pop-sweetened harmonies have made them festival-circuit stars for over two decades.
The fact that at 38 they’ve been famous for more than half their lives is not lost on the Calgary-born twins, whose small frames and fine-boned faces are approximately identical but easy to find the small differences in once you spend a little time around them. “The concept of writing about making our records or getting signed seemed so boring to us,” Tegan says, of School, which aims instead to tell a frankly intimate story of teen angst and the pair’s long, often bumpy road to self-acceptance. “Our story is only interesting because of the ground level, the foundation that drove us to be musicians.
“Like for Sara and I, we replaced drugs and alcohol with music,” she continues, “and found common ground to connect with one another and make something. It was [actually] the only time we spoke to each other! This is our attempt to say that we didn’t always have it together. We were liars, we were homophobic, we hated ourselves, we struggled just like everybody else. It took years and years and years of development to get to a place where we were even a relevant band that anyone would write a review about… So the difficult arcs and the trauma of that is the part that I want people to relate and connect to, because I didn’t have anyone to connect to about what I was facing when I was 15 or 16.”
“I’ll see myself in the audience at our shows,” Sara says. “I see acne, body shame, awkwardness. I love those kids, and I want them to read a book not about how we became famous or how glamorous going to the Oscars was or whatever people always ask us to talk about. I want them to know that us back then was just like they are now.”
Tegan and Sara Quin on their 17th birthday
Tegan and Sara
It was looking back, fortuitously, that also led them to the book’s companion piece: an album culled entirely from demos created in high school — dusty cassettes and homemade CDs found amidst the old notes, photos, and other ephemera dug up in the discovery process. Reworked and repurposed, the 12 songs on Hey I’m Just Like You are a vibrant testimony to both the duo’s raw adolescent talent and a direct line to the polished, eclectic sound of their present.
“Some songs we knew 100 percent were strong enough that we could record them as is,” says Sara. “Other ones were a bit Frankensteined — only a verse and a chorus here, ‘Let’s take the chorus from this song and make it the bridge,’ that sort of thing.”
They’re both grateful, they say that they were able to hold on to that material as long as they did, and get the chance to make the best of it after more than two decades. “We’ve always embraced technology. We embraced Myspace, the digital movement, and moving music into streaming,” says Tegan. “Why wouldn’t we? But I’m terrified to imagine the kind of garbage we would have put online that would have lived forever, with how much drinking and drugs we were doing back then — how much messy, sloppy, embarrassing s–t would be out there.”
Sara on her electric guitar
Tegan and Sara
As one of the last generations to straddle the era of smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity, the pair is glad, too, for the quieter advantages of growing up in a more analog world. “It’s good to be bored!” Tegan says. “It’s good to be on time because you can’t text and say ‘I’m going to be 15 minutes late.’ But also going deeper, I’m glad that there was no immediate gratification, no immediate stardom. We had to tour on a Greyhound bus because we didn’t have drivers’ licenses; we had the privacy to come out, to learn how to be out in the public eye. We had time to develop.”
Being one of the rare openly queer acts signed to a major label in the late ’90s and early 2000s came with its own, involuntary set of sand traps and obligations; not only to package and present their sexuality to the world at a bruisingly early age, but to represent the LGBTQ community at large — a heavy mantle for anyone, let alone two young women barely out of their teens, to bear.
“We used to say the most political act we can do is to step on stage and be ourselves,” says Tegan. “When we started, people used to be like, ‘How come you don’t talk about being gay onstage?’ And we were like ‘Lord, everyone there knows we’re gay! We talk about it in every interview.’ There were so many things we had to navigate with the press. And we had no peers, really, for the early part of our career. Every article about us always starts with our sexuality and how ‘weird’ that is — all that coded sexual twin-sister stuff. And so when we were young, I think we were mostly just embarrassed, and we didn’t talk about it [between] the two of us.”
“Some of these new queer artists,” Sara adds, “I reached out to them just like ‘Hi, welcome to the industry,” and they’re like “Holy s—, I listened to you when I was young!’ And others have no idea who we are. I’m not as interested in like, ‘Did I inspire another artist to come out or to be honest in the press about their sexuality?’ Because I think what’s more important to me is that we offer a safe place and a community for someone to feel comfortable with who they are, meet other people like them. And see a good role model — a role model with flaws.”
What they don’t want, she says, is to be “just an ‘It Gets Better’ story of hope and luck” — some glossy, oversimplified ideal that fails to acknowledge the messier realities of being a person in the world. “Some days I wake up and feel really good about who I am in my life, and other days I don’t. Some days I am proud to talk about my sexuality and some days I feel like I’ve done so much emotional labor that I want to just pack up and move to an island and give up. It sounds old-timey, but I don’t want to deny how long we’ve been around! Or that maybe we’ve had a legacy and influenced a generation of women who are queer or fluid or whatever. I just want to celebrate it.”
The pair keep bantering — about opening for 90,000 Lady Gaga fans in Quebec City (“absolutely f—ing thrilling”), the tribulations of road life (“like, a decade of diarrhea and ear infections”), and their recent meeting with Canada’s perennially sharp-dressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“We gave him some nice socks.”). But their publicist is signaling; there’s a lot more to get to today. So Sara jumps in on one of her sister’s soliloquies mid-thought: “Save that for the second book,” she says with a laugh as they stand up and walk back through the lions, their two heads together but separate, and disappear into the crowds on 5th Avenue.
Just a time-knife’s throw from Ponzu Scheme, the stars of The Good Place have gathered outside a familiar frozen-yogurt shop to film one of their last-ever group scenes. It’s hotter than Hades (hmmm) on the Universal Studios lot, but a figurative chill fills the air as the cameras roll on yet another loaded goodbye for the series finale of NBC’s ambitious afterlife comedy. “I can tell you’re sad,” dopey, pre-successful Jacksonville DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) observes of Team Cockroach. “You have the same look on your faces that my teachers did whenever I raised my hand in class.”
Creator and finale writer-director Mike Schur minds the minutiae, readjusting trays of oysters and a bong while tweaking punchlines involving “concussion sauce” and “younger bodies.” “There’s a lot of endings,” he teases of the finale, “and there’s a lot of resolution to a lot of the characters’ stories in certain ways.”
Schur certainly won’t reveal the fates awaiting our scrappy in-limbo souls—reforming dirtbag Eleanor (Kristen Bell), overanxious ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), self-consumed socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason—or humanized Bad Place architect Michael (Ted Danson) and ever-evolving database Janet (D’Arcy Carden). But there are scads of colorful clues on set: a mini football field; people in matching outfits; a hybrid tanning booth/karaoke machine (leisure activity? torture device?). Oh, and Shakespeare has done something dramatic that’s the talk of…wherever this is.
We can’t disclose what the fork is going on, but it’s a cosmic swirl of joy, melancholy, loopiness, poignancy, and the profound. Some actors do battle with moistening tear ducts. “We’re supersensitive right now,” mock-warns Jacinto. Says Carden: “We’ve been trying to keep the tears inside of our eyes.”
Even the genial general of the show (make that: of TV) is feeling the sting. “It’s like, ‘Oh wait, we may be acting sorrow, but it’s creeping in here,’” offers Danson. “But there’s also a great deal of satisfaction and pride in being part of this chapter book about morality and farts.” Adds Jamil: “I’m f—ing overwhelmed. I’m in denial. I may never leave and just walk the lot like a ghost. I’ll dress up as Tahani and haunt tourists.”
However you cope with loss, prepare to bid farewell to one of TV’s most inventive comedies — one thoughtful enough to explore the pursuit and value of goodness; one brave enough to feature giant toads, a bagel shop named From Schmear to Eternity, and references to Kierkegaard and Hume. Only 14 chapters remain in this underdog series that toiled in overnight-ratings purgatory, built a dedicated audience online, charmed critics, won a Peabody, and recently nabbed five Emmy nominations. (It also mic-dropped one of the mightiest mind-melting finales of the new century when Eleanor deduced that she and her beleaguered companions were actually in the Bad Place, not the Good Place.) But before retirement (not the soul-disintegrating punishment facing Michael), a final test awaits (besides the can humans evolve? experiment): concluding this paradigm-shifting adventure on a heavenly note. “This will be worth it,” declares Bell. “It will give you a lot of feelings — and one is a strong sense of satisfaction. Not only will the ending be worth it, you’ll understand why the whole thing was worth it.”
Schur says the decision to end the series after four seasons “felt right” and “fell into place” once the writers decided to have Judge Gen (guest star Maya Rudolph) allow the Soul Squad a redo on Earth at the end of season 2. An early exit from No Exit-ville was arguably necessitated by design, as this show burns through plot faster than Eleanor through shrimp. Ever since Schur moved up Michael’s “discovery” about Eleanor — something that would seem like the logical ending of season 1 — to about the halfway point of the season, story speed doubled, “which means four seasons became eight seasons,” explains the creator. “I think that’s about right. The goal has been to chew through story and accelerate things twice as fast as the old system of network TV suggested.”
This fearlessness was something that he learned in the writers’ room of The Office when Greg Daniels (with whom he would eventually create Parks and Recreation) decided to advance the Jim and Pam’s Will-they-or-won’t-they? relationship. “It was among the many great lessons that Greg Daniels taught me,” notes Schur. “Sometimes the best thing to do is to just plow headlong into the scary thing and trust that you’ll be able to keep up the drama and the intrigue of the show. And in this case, we applied that lesson to literally every single aspect of the show.” Not that the news was easy for all to digest. “It’s the best-worst feeling in the world to be a part of something you love that’s ending,” says Bell, adding that it’s “so meaningful and impactful because the entire last season is such a lesson, a gift.” Shares Danson: “I was slightly stunned— you rarely get canceled by your creator. But it had so much integrity.”
That’s one quality the Soul Squad aims to imbue in the new test subjects for this not-so-modest experiment that could save Team Cockroach (plus all of humanity) from eternal torture via butthole spiders and spastic dentistry. When we left off eight months ago, Michael and the team showed Judge Gen that the points system for determining entrance into paradise had gone to hell — somewhat literally — and pitched a grand and desperate test to settle the score. Season 3’s finale unveiled the first two subjects — Chidi’s neuroscientist ex Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Tahani’s gossip-blogger foe John (Brandon Scott Jones) — and now viewers will meet the other two human guinea pigs, also chosen by Bad Place boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson): a pleasant-ish Norwegian and a fourth soul who are “more abstract in the ways they are designed to drive everyone crazy,” hints Schur. Once test subjects themselves, the members of the Soul Squad face great challenges in mentoring this foursome, with Eleanor doubly taxed; this former lone wolf must lead the operation and tolerate the pain of spending quality time with memory-wiped beau Chidi, who is now what Schur calls “an ethical sleeper agent.”
Also in this ambitious and bonkers fourth season (which begins Sept. 26): a new version of Janet; visits to old-school locales; returns of old friends/fiends; surprise guests (“I really couldn’t believe who I was standing next to on the screen throughout the season,” teases Jamil); a secret-spilling baby elephant made of pure light; and an episode modeled after a John le Carré mystery. “When we were told [about season 4], we had no idea,” says Harper with a chuckle. “There’s no way anyone’s going to conceive where we’re going with this.” “It’s like a board game,” adds Carden. “Not Monopoly. More Candy Land vibes.” Bell chooses a different analogy: life (not the board game). “It is frustrating, requires effort, hilarious at times, and in the end is really meaningful,” she explains. “And over too soon.”
Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
As for that End, the cast found the capper to this comedy to be unexpectedly powerful and poignant. “It’s completion of our journeys in a way that I find satisfying, hopeful, and goes beyond our conventional understanding of storytelling,” declares Harper. Jacinto was compelled to action. “After I read the finale, the first thing I did was call my parents,” shares Jacinto. “I just needed to see them after that.” And Jamil just needed a moment to fully embrace it. “I raged against the ending ever so briefly when I first read it,” she admits. “I wasn’t ready for it, emotionally. But then, as the brilliance of it — the complete correctness of it — washed over me, I started to accept it.”
How the audience will respond is both final frontier and great unknown, but rest assured that one of comedy’s brightest and most humane creators strove to answer those giant-picture questions that the series has been asking. “We didn’t pull any punches,” he says. “This show explicitly laid itself out like a book, in that we call every episode a chapter and it feels like an old-timey serial in the way that novels [were] published in magazines, one chapter at a time. That’s true to the way that the show was meant to feel, and the way we were creating it. But it also means it’s like, ‘All right, a–holes, whaddaya got? What’s the final chapter of the book?’ So it definitely feels like a tall order.” Fans aren’t asking for much—just a finale that unmasks the secrets of the universe, redefines the human condition, takes the Jaguars to the Super Bowl, and explains how to rig one of those dope shrimp-dispensing soda fountains.
Brad Pitt has a great laugh: a sort of staccato, slow-rolling ah-huh-huh-huh that makes you think of surfers and cowboys and movie stars. He uses it more than once to excellent effect as Cliff Booth, the laconic stuntman-cum-sidekick who stumbles into the dark heart of the Manson family in Quentin Tarantino’s showbiz Babylon Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and not at all in the lonely-astronaut epic Ad Astra (out Sept. 20), though it often punctuates his conversation with EW about both those roles.
To say that one of the world’s most beloved and best-known celebrities is having a moment 30-plus years into his career feels, at this point, pretty much indisputable. But don’t call it a comeback, or a Brad-aissance; several times over the course of a friendly, sometimes philosophical interview he’ll insist that his only goal is “putting stories out into the world” — which in 2019 means not just starring in a pair of films that may well end up dominating the coming awards season but also continuing to head up Plan B Entertainment, the boutique production company responsible for a vanguard slate of films, including Vice, Moonlight, Beautiful Boy, and 12 Years a Slave.
That laugh comes tumbling out again when he’s asked to find the thread between Hollywood’s Cliff, a sort of beach-boy Lebowski with a singular gift for sudden violence, and Ad Astra’s Maj. Roy McBride, an almost pathologically contained spaceman on a solo mission to Mars. “Well, Cliff is by far a much easier way to live, and certainly I would say what we’re all striving for,” he says, chuckling. “But to get to Cliff’s peace of mind and acceptance in the day, you’d probably have to go through Roy’s dilemma to get there.”
Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures
Pitt quickly grows more serious, though, on the subject of Roy’s arc in Astra — an emotional journey that often finds the major struggling to maintain his NASA-trained composure even as the fate of both his family and the free world (and, the movie heavily implies, his soul, too) hangs in the balance. “Toxic masculinity, that may be a little harsh as a term? But certainly we’re questioning what is masculinity,” he muses. “Having grown up in an era where we are taught to be stoic, taught to be capable, not to show weakness, never be disrespected — that works for the pioneer spirit, I guess, on the plain when you’re trying to make your claim. But it’s also very limiting, because it doesn’t embrace the whole human being.”
And while he admits to having no special affinity for space movies (“Um no, not specifically. I mean, when I was a kid my dad took me to see Alien, and that’s still everything”), Astra did get him pondering the mysteries of the universe, as it were: “In all our concepts and constructs of how we understand life to work, there are powers there that we cannot even begin to understand,” he marvels. “Powers that can bend time, and gravitational forces that could crush a planet. And just that we ourselves are made from dying stars — I find that really awe-inspiring, just because of how much we don’t know and yet how connected we are to it.”
Astra director James Gray (The Lost City of Z), who has known Pitt for more than two decades, tells EW that though he didn’t pen the script for his longtime friend — “I never actually write projects with actors in mind, because you’re always disappointed when they don’t do it” — he did end up getting exactly the performance he hoped for: “In some ways, because he’s a star, Brad’s acting is underrated. To control a performance and still convey the ideas and the emotions necessary for the film I think is as difficult as anything, really. To be kind of showy — and by the way I’m not saying this about him in Quentin’s movie, which I think is wonderful — but sometimes a showy performance can lead us in a very obvious series of choices. But he understood it completely, this character who lives so much in his own head.”
Heady isolation isn’t so much an option in Pitt’s other day job as the cofounder and CEO of Plan B, which often involves developing and championing the kinds of films that fall far outside his own lived experience. “It’s certainly not by design,” he says of the company’s particular track record with black auteurs like Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen. “Myself and my partners Jeremy [Kleiner] and Dede [Gardner] have an extreme belief in equality and this want for justice in an unjust world, and I think we naturally are kind of guided that way. We were trying to get Selma made for years, and it wasn’t until 12 Years did what it did that it suddenly opened the door for all of these others.”
“Certainly when we started,” he goes on, “it was at a time when we saw that the studios just weren’t taking that kind of gamble on more complex mid-range budgeted films. “[And] I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to contribute to the zeitgeist…. But you know for every one that gets made, there’s another 10, so it takes a fight for all of them. And I can’t tell you how many talented, talented people there are still struggling to to be able to tell their story, the one that moved them. That’s where we were able to apply our muscle in a way that I never even expected when we started.”
In fact since its 2001 founding, the company has already racked up three Best Picture wins (for The Departed, 12 Years a Slave, and Moonlight). But the thrice-nominated actor promises he’s not interested in gunning for personal gold, despite the growing buzz on Astra and Hollywood. “Oh, man. I’m gonna abstain,” he says of campaigning for either role (though his generous recent press schedule may belie that). “I mean, you never know, and it’s really nice when your number comes up. But the goal is for the film to land, to speak to someone whether it’s now or a decade from now. I find chasing it actually a disservice to the purity of your telling a story, and a shackling thing to focus on.”
He’s less circumspect when it comes to another, less expected career avenue: the world of prestige television, where A-list peers like Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey have already blazed a trail. “Could I see it? Absolutely,” he says. “What I love about TV is that you get to spend more time with the characters. You have to let go of so many scenes in order to fit into the ‘film’ container, as far as running time and how it plays, and with a series, being able to break it up, you can expand so much more. I’m especially drawn to the comedies that are able to do that. That might just be romantic of me, I may have to go with the times, so we’ll see. We’ll see where it all lands, but that’s certainly of interest.”
In the meantime there’s more than enough to keep him occupied, between promoting his current projects and tending to a production slate that this year already includes Astra and the Sundance sensation The Last Black Man in San Francisco (which EW named the best film of 2019 so far this past June), as well as the upcoming Timothée Chalamet drama The King and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ Underground Railroad series for Amazon. So does that mean there could be some truth to a recent viral magazine quote that implied he’d soon be done with big-screen acting?
“I was just saying that it’s really a younger man’s game,” he insists. “Not that there aren’t still parts and interesting things to do. As I get older and transition does its thing, the great thing about producing is you still get to be part of what I love most, which is storytelling. Or maybe it’s just me, maybe I’ve just seen my interests broadening or shifting into other things. But no. No!” — one last, long ah-huh-huh-huh — “It’s not a claim of retirement.”
On Monday night, at the storied Winter Garden Theatre in Downtown Toronto, a packed house twice burst into mid-film applause for the TIFF premiere of Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story. The first instance arrived courtesy of supporting star Laura Dern for a broadly comic monologue delivered with gusto; the second was for male lead Adam Driver, after he wrenchingly performed the Sondheim song “Being Alive” — the showstopper of the film.
Marriage Story had already debuted last week at Telluride to universal acclaim, and as the dust settled at TIFF — perhaps the most important showcase of the year for incoming awards contenders — it maintained its place as the critical darling of fall-festival season. Reception out of Toronto was no less rapturous than at its unveiling in the Rockies. Dern and Driver proved that they have the big moments that could take them all the way; Baumbach ought to compete across Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay; and leading lady Scarlett Johansson is firmly in the Best Actress conversation.
This is the kind of positioning that gets clarified out of TIFF — one of the world’s largest film festivals, where many campaigns truly begin and others quietly fade away. With TIFF’s opening weekend behind us, the race has come into considerably clearer focus. Just a few anticipated hopefuls now wait in the wings.
Along with Marriage Story’s success, Monday night delivered what may be the season’s biggest disappointment so far. Despite the heat behind it, Taika Waititi’s ambitious tragicomedy Jojo Rabbit has a lot to overcome to emerge as a significant Oscar player. It has passionate advocates and, on the surface, enthralled audiences during its late-night debut in Canada. But for a film juggling fine-line satire and surrealistic touches, the critical support simply isn’t there. The movie scored a 47 on Metacritic out of Toronto; over the past decade, the only Best Picture nominees to generate such mixed-to-negative reviews were Bohemian Rhapsody and The Blind Side, huge mainstream hits that grossed over $250 million apiece domestically, as well as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which shares similarities with Jojo — a superb child performance at its center, a creeping earnestness — but is without its polarizing comic elements. Safe to say this was not the response those behind Jojo were hoping for.
As for other seeming contenders that probably won’t go the distance: Netflix’s The Laundromat is a disjointed Big Short-esque exposé of the Panama Papers scandal that, despite a stacked cast fronted by Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman, didn’t impress either in Venice, where it launched, or Toronto. And The Goldfinch, a blockbuster literary adaptation that has prestige written all over it, did not play well at TIFF and has effectively fallen out of the mix. Its theatrical release in September, early for fall contenders, won’t help matters.
If one Best Picture nominee was birthed in Toronto, look to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The Marielle Heller-directed tearjerker was kept tightly under wraps before its first TIFF screening; by the end, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the theater, and reviews were better than expected. It’s a feel-good movie with just enough bite and ingenuity to avoid being labeled as mere fluff, and the timeliness of the movie’s decency narrative sells itself. Matthew Rhys will have a tough go in a crowded lead actor field (more on that in a minute), but Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers should have a supporting nod locked down, and will go for the gold.
Other big TIFF premieres staked more of a claim in specific categories: While Hustlers earned respect across the board, the real campaign will go toward Jennifer Lopez’s career-best performance (in supporting). Biopics Harriet and Just Mercy feel a little too familiar to sneak into in the Best Picture field — though the advocacy behind the movies could give them an extra push — but Cynthia Erivo’s star-making portrayal of the Underground Railroad pioneer and Jamie Foxx’s electric supporting work as an innocent man on Death Row, respectively, cannot be denied. (TIFF’s programmers were sure to note at the latter’s first screening that Foxx also launched Ray at the festival.) Eddie Murphy makes good on his fans’ comeback hopes in the riotous Dolemite Is My Name, and Wesley Snipes is a compelling secondary candidate there; Long Island school fraud drama Bad Education feels like the year’s I, Tonya, still without a U.S. distributor but featuring a knockout lead performance (this time from Hugh Jackman) and a magnificent Allison Janney right behind.
Lots of names, and still a lot to see (The Irishman and Little Women, to name the two most anticipated). And still more that effectively built on their Telluride/Venice openings, like Ford v Ferrari — a muscular and involving racing drama that, alongside the meditative and distinctive Marriage Story, is the biggest awards breakout out of the early September haze — and The Two Popes, a Netflix sleeper with a never-better Jonathan Pryce. The witty, talky nature of it feels tailor-made for Academy voters.
Finally, there’s the Joker of it all: Todd Phillips’ incendiary pic is only gaining steam off that surprise Golden Lion victory out in Venice and Joaquin Phoenix’s special honoring at TIFF but continues to court backlash. (In her review for EW, Leah Greenblatt wrote, “A movie with the message this one hammers home again and again…feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in America almost every day.”) Between Phoenix, Driver, Murphy, Pryce, Ford’s Christian Bale, Uncut Gems’ Adam Sandler, and Pain and Glory’s Antonio Banderas, Best Actor options are overflowing in Toronto alone. Best Actress, meanwhile, is still taking shape, with Renée Zellweger (Judy) leading the pack so far.
Last September, an under-the-radar world premiere at TIFF by the name of Green Book won the event’s prestigious People’s Choice Award: a prize voted on by all attendees, and a reasonably good Oscar prognosticator — in 2018, especially good. Once again this year, it should set the tone. (The festival wraps Sept. 15.) Is A Beautiful Day really the movie we need right now? Can the Two Popes talk their way to the finish line? Will Joker’s artful nihilism receive yet another embrace? One thing’s for sure: We’re off to the races.
Reese Witherspoon isn’t about to cause a scene. But she is freaking out a little bit. “Diane Sawyer came to visit and oh my God, it was amazing!” Sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant on a balmy August evening, the Academy Award winner throws her hands over her face to muffle her excitement. (There will be no Elle Woods-esque squeal here.) She’s recalling the day that the legendary broadcast journalist stopped by the set of her upcoming series with Jennifer Aniston, The Morning Show (Nov. 1). Her face still in her hands, Witherspoon continues in disbelief: “She sat at the monitor and watched me and Jen read the news!” The pair have come a long way since trading barbs at Central Perk.
The Morning Show — which marks Aniston’s major return to TV after Friends ended in 2004, and the pair’s first project together since Witherspoon guest-starred on the NBC comedy as Rachel’s spoiled little sister Jill in 2000 — takes viewers inside the world of daybreak news. “There’s something sort of bulletproof about morning shows,” Witherspoon says. “They’re a stalwart part of American culture.” After all, every day millions of Americans wake up and turn on the Today show, or any number of other programs, and are greeted by familiar faces they trust to deliver the news with just the right amount of personality. At least that’s the expectation. As you brew your morning coffee, they update you on the latest from the White House. As you pick out your clothes for the day, they let you know how the weather is looking. And as you prepare to head out the door, they amuse you with fun anecdotes about the internet’s buzziest viral video. “These shows are some of the last programming in the country that still tries to appeal in Los Angeles and New York and Des Moines and Mississippi,” says Morning Show executive producer Michael Ellenberg. “You have to introduce an idea of what America is that works for blue states and red states.” It was Ellenberg who brought the idea for The Morning Show to Witherspoon, whom he worked with on Big Little Lies, and Aniston in late 2016. (“I said to him, ‘I’m not completely closed down to television because it’s been pretty good,’” Aniston recalls.)
He can trace the idea back to 1989, when he saw Jane Pauley get replaced on Today. (It’s widely believed to be because she was “too old.” She was 39 at the time.) Then in 2012, Today’s veteran newsreader Ann Curry was reportedly driven off the program after less than a year as a cohost, a subject explored in journalist Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning, which Ellenberg quickly optioned. (Stelter is a consulting producer on the show, which uses his book mostly for background research.) “These are some of the most powerful women in America, and we watched them get screwed publicly, basically,” Ellenberg says. Witherspoon adds: “I was astounded by how honest a lot of female anchors were with myself and Jen. I think most people would find it shocking that women in that position, of what we perceive as power, are looked at as expendable.”
With Aniston, 50, and Witherspoon, 43, on board to star and executive-produce the series, it wasn’t hard to find The Morning Show a home. By August 2017, they’d met with Apple. Did we mention that Apple creates TV shows now? In March 2019, the tech powerhouse announced it was entering the streaming world. (Hey, all the cool kids are doing it!) Joining the relative elders — Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video — as well as the new class of streamers — HBO Max, Disney+, Facebook Watch, Snap Originals, Quibi, and too many more to count — Apple is launching Apple TV+, an app so shrouded in secrecy you’d think it was the nuclear codes…or the next iPhone. For instance, ahead of Tuesday’s 2019 keynote, Apple wouldn’t even confirm how much it will cost. (But the Apple execs do have jokes, promising to reveal how much it will cost if only a reporter would hand over her credit-card info.)
One thing that’s always been known is that The Morning Show would be a part of Apple TV+’s initial slate of programming. “It was day 2 or 3 of us being here at Apple when we heard the pitch,” says Jamie Erlicht, who is head of worldwide video for Apple alongside Zack Van Amburg. (Both came over from Sony Pictures Television.) “It was so undeniable, both in the story they wanted to tell and who was involved. We left the meeting and we literally didn’t even know how to order paper clips for the office — let alone a TV series — but we said we had to have it.” Fifteen minutes later, they called to make an offer. And, it seems, the enthusiasm was mutual. “The more ambitious this project was, the more I felt like Apple was the right place for it, because they were taking a shot too,” Witherspoon says. “They’re putting themselves out there to get into the content world.” (It also probably didn’t hurt that Apple agreed to pick up the series for two 10-episode seasons before they’d filmed anything.)
But the show Apple was originally pitched isn’t exactly what made it to the screen. “We started developing it in August, and by November, the whole world had changed,” says Witherspoon. Specifically, #MeToo happened. On Oct. 5, 2017, The New York Times published a piece in which Ashley Judd, among others, accused film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. On Oct. 15, Alyssa Milano invited other women to speak out by tweeting “me too,” a movement originated by Tarana Burke in 2006. And by the end of November, accusations had come out about Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and even Today’s Matt Lauer. On Nov. 29, NBC fired their cohost of two decades following allegations of sexual misconduct. “When #MeToo happened…it’s like, we can’t not address it,” Aniston says, with Witherspoon adding, “I don’t think I’ve seen a time in my life where more people have lost their entire careers over misconduct. People who were seemingly untouchable. We had to start totally over and redevelop the show, but it actually turned out to be so much more potent and topical.”
Part of that redevelopment process involved a showrunner swap. In April 2018, Kerry Ehrin replaced House of Cards’ Jay Carson, who’d previously been attached to the project. “We realized that the story that was unfolding was not the story we all wanted to tell,” says Erlicht. “So we regrouped with the exec-producing team and we realized that, as fantastic as Jay is, we just saw a different vision for this particular show, and that’s where Kerry came into the picture.” Ehrin, who’d written for Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and co-created Bates Motel, came to the series ready to tackle the #MeToo of it all as well as tell a story through a female lens. “I love Broadcast News and I love Network, so it feels like an area where you can have a lot of humor but you can also get at some real subjects,” Ehrin says. “I’ve been a woman in a very high-stakes business for 30 years and I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. I wanted to write complicated female characters that weren’t perfect and that weren’t bitches.”
Those complicated female characters include Aniston as longtime Morning Show cohost Alex Levy and Witherspoon — sporting brown hair and a Southern accent — as West Virginia local news reporter Bradley Jackson. Levy is a seasoned anchor. A well-oiled machine. She wakes up every morning at 3:30, works out, grabs her Red Bull and coffee, and prepares to give America whatever it needs that day. Jackson is a bit of a hothead. She’s dangerously passionate about the truth, and from time to time that passion gets her in trouble. (She’s nicknamed “Two F—s” Jackson from a moment she let the F-bomb slip on air…twice.) But neither woman is prepared for what their lives are about to become when the series begins.
In the show’s pilot, the sun’s not even up in New York City when s— hits the fan: After 15 years of cohosting alongside Alex Levy, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) has been fired following allegations of sexual misconduct. And it’s Levy who has to go on camera and address the nation, just mere hours after finding out the news herself. Sound familiar? “[Matt Lauer] won’t think this has anything to do with him,” Aniston says sarcastically. And although Ehrin would like to remind everyone that The Morning Show is a work of fiction, “this is the world we live in right now and it’s impossible to ignore it.” If there’s one thing this show doesn’t do, it’s ignore it. “People don’t look the other way anymore,” director and executive producer Mimi Leder says. “We put a microscope right up to who these people are.”
That includes the accused, Mitch, who, like Carell himself, is a man America has fallen in love with, and is one of the last men they want to see accused of something bad. As Aniston puts it, “No one else could play that part. There’s nothing you could find about Steve in a closet.” And for Carell, the man best known for playing hilariously incompetent boss Michael Scott on The Office for six years, it was a chance to play a guy who refuses to take a long, hard look in the mirror. “Mitch is a very flawed human being and someone with enormous personal blind spots,” Carell says. But Mitch’s firing is just the beginning of the most in-depth exploration of #MeToo scripted television has seen thus far. What happens to the accuser? What happens to the accused? How are loved ones affected? “Sometimes the world is so confusing that the only way that you can understand it is through art,” Witherspoon says. “We don’t take sides in any of it. It’s about the humanity of these issues.”
As for Witherspoon’s Bradley, she finds herself in Alex’s orbit when a video of her arguing with a coal-mine protester goes viral and the Morning Show producers bring her on for an interview. We can’t quite get into where the two women go from there, but with everything that’s going on, Bradley is not Alex’s biggest concern. Because not only has Alex lost her partner, but her contract is up for renegotiation with the network — led by slippery man-in-charge Cory Ellison (played to perfection by Billy Crudup) — and let’s just say that she’s older than Jane Pauley was in 1989. As Alex tells her teenage daughter in episode 3: “Sometimes women can’t ask for control, so they have to take it.”
Back in Los Angeles, just hours before Witherspoon will get lost in her memory of Diane Sawyer’s set visit, Aniston is sitting poolside at her sleek hilltop home, holding a bottle of Smartwater like the dedicated spokeswoman she is. Her blue eyes still sparkle the same way they did when she first walked onto the Friends soundstage. But by now, they’ve seen some things. “This role never could’ve come to me any sooner than now,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. I knew I was up to the task, but then there was the excavation of all the emotions in order to create this world for this woman. All of her lifelines are falling away. I would walk out of some of those scenes feeling like a manhole cover just came off my back.” Because, much in the way that America feels like it knows Alex Levy within the world of The Morning Show, America feels like it knows Jennifer Aniston in real life. “I understand that, with people having connections to Friends,” Aniston says. “I understand the isolation — not wanting to be seen, not wanting to be public, not wanting to have to go on a red carpet. It’s not always easy to go out there and have to be the person that you have to be.”
But when the lights come on and the cameras are pointed at you, you just figure it out. Especially if Diane Sawyer is watching.
In September of 2008, HBO launched True Blood, an edgy new show that welcomed viewers to the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, a supernatural hotbed in which local waitress Sookie Stackhouse couldn’t help but fall in love with a vampire … or two. In November of that same year, the first Twilight film hit theaters. Based on the massively successful book series, the movie followed the very human and very clumsy Bella Swan as she discovered that the sexy guy at school had more than just great hair. (Hint: He sparkled in the sunlight.)
So when The CW approached Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream) and Julie Plec (Kyle XY) about making a vampire show around that same time, they were hesitant to take part in the very established — and possibly dying? — trend. Little did they know, the trend seemed to be as immortal as its subjects.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
Author L.J. Smith launched The Vampire Diaries book series in the early 1990s, long before the days of Bill Compton and Edward Cullen. But when Plec and Williamson sat down to adapt it nearly 20 years later, they had to find a fresh perspective on the town of Fell’s Church and the brotherly love triangle at the center of it all. (Step One? Change the town’s name to Mystic Falls.)
JULIE PLEC [Co-creator]: Kevin [Williamson] and I were having lunch with the CW’s Jen Breslow, who was Kevin’s producing partner for several years before she ended up leaving to go into the network world.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON [Co-creator]: I was dealing with grief because my partner had died recently and I was in total shutdown mode of loss and despair and Julie and Jen had taken me to lunch to try to cheer me up, quite frankly. When someone dies, you’re in a horrible, dark place and you just want to cry all the time. I was in the worst place I’d ever been in my life and they were my friends who were just cheering me up. And then Jen was like, “You just need to work.”
PLEC: I was telling them about a pitch that I had about a supernatural boarding school and how much I loved that world, and we were talking about whether there were any vampires in it. I said, “I don’t think so because as much as I love vampires, between Twilight and True Blood, I feel like vampires are over.” Jen said, “I hope not because we have a book we’ve been trying to put together for a vampire show and we can’t find writers. It’s a series called The Vampire Diaries.” Kevin said, “Oh yeah I know that book, somebody sent it to me years ago wanting to know if I could adapt it into a movie.”
WILLIAMSON: I never read it, but a few years earlier, the book was submitted to my development executive and I just went, “Oh teen vampires, no thank you.” And then everyone passed on it and that was the end of it… until that lunch.
PLEC: Jen said, “Do you guys want to make it into a TV show” and Kevin said, “No.” [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: It was a big, “Hell no!” [Laughs] There had been all this Twilight success and here comes the show that really puts the nail in the coffin of the vampire trend. I just didn’t want to be the end of a trend. Who knew that it had a long way to go before it died out?
PLEC: I said “I will” because I had never actually created my own TV show so I would’ve done anything. And Kevin goes, “Oh alright let’s do it together.”
WILLIAMSON: Then Julie read the whole book overnight and she called me up and said, “Stop reading right now.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because if you turn the page I’m scared you’re going to say no.”
PLEC: I said, “I’m not sure you’re going to like this, but I think that there’s something in here in the way that Buffy built an entire journey around a town. I think there’s something about this town and all the characters within the town that could make it something special.” He wrote me back in an email and said, “You’re right, I am not enjoying it as much as I thought I would but I agree with you about the town.” The problem with the book was it was so similar in set-up to Twilight. The books were written well before Twilight was, so we had that as a defense but it just wasn’t something that he was all that excited about diving into because it felt too familiar. So we had to get over the hump of feeling like it was a retread of another person’s success.
WILLIAMSON: I thought about: What is this really about? It’s about this young girl who is dealing with death. I went, “Okay check that box.” It’s about how this dead man comes along and brings her back to life. I went, “Okay, wouldn’t that be lovely? That’s certainly what I need right now.” And so I used that metaphor and played against that allegory and Julie and I sat down at a kitchen table and we wrote it and we just cried over it. We tried to find that part of it that was really about Elena trying to learn how to live again. And it worked. It really worked. And in a weird way, the whole show was my Stefan.
AN EPIC PITCH
With a script ready to go, Williamson and Plec starting meeting with potential directors. And although most seemed to want to talk about the horror aspect of the show, it was first-time pilot director Marcos Siega’s focus on romance that landed him the gig.
MARCOS SIEGA [Director]: I was directing an episode of Cold Case and I got a call from my agent and she said, “There’s a great pilot script and we don’t want to get you too excited because they already have a director that they’re talking to but we heard there’s an issue.” They sent me the script, I read it during my lunch hour and I said, “I love this. I will meet them anywhere, anytime.” I had never done a pilot but when I got into television, I wanted to be the guy who would be making pilots. She called me back and said, “They can meet you early in the morning before your call time for breakfast at Jerry’s Deli on Wilshire.”
WILLIAMSON: We met with all these directors who were talking about, “Here’s what the vampires should look like,” and Marcos Siega comes in there and plops down in the booth over some matzo ball soup and says “I read this and I see The Notebook. Let’s talk romance.”
SIEGA: What I responded to in the script was the love story. The horror aspect of it, the scares didn’t even sort of present themselves to me. If you read the pilot script, the teaser was the couple in a car driving through the fog and then there’s a vampire attack, so it starts out with that horror beat. And I think because it was Kevin Williamson, I can see where anybody who was prepping for that thought, “Oh this is going to be scary and they leaned into that.” I fortunately just wasn’t given enough time to think. [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: He just started talking about the love story and Julie and I looked at each other and went, “Okay here’s our guy. He’s saying all the magic words.”
SIEGA: So when I went in there and I spoke about the emotional core of the story and the set up of a love triangle. I think I just hit a chord with both Kevin and Julie. And within another two weeks I had the job.
GIRL MEETS BOY(S)
The romance at the center of the story was between Elena Gilbert, the (soon-to-be-former) high school cheerleader who’d recently lost her parents, and Stefan Salvatore, the troubled vampire driven by a desire to be good. She was dead inside, and he was just dead. But together, they’d bring each other back to life.
NINA DOBREV [Elena Gilbert]: It was pilot season so I was auditioning for like 95,000 different shows hoping to get something and the week of The Vampire Diaries, I was also auditioning for Boardwalk Empire and a movie called Percy Jackson. I remember it was a big whirlwind and we had to decide which one to go do.
SIEGA: We went through a pretty extensive search. We were looking at a lot of people, and we weren’t really feeling it and then we saw this tape of Nina.
DOBREV: I sent in an audition tape and then I came in-person a second time. I don’t remember the exact turn of events but I remember I was sick and I had to do it again.
PLEC: She came in and read and she was sick and we sort of said, “Oh great thanks, nice to meet you, see you again soon,” and she didn’t feel good about the impression that she left. So she went back and put herself on tape and had her reps re-submit the tape and asked us to take a second look. We did and it was just undeniable at that point that she was the one. So she basically booked the role off of her self-tape after, in her mind, blowing her first audition.
DOBREV: I did get the show but they didn’t tell me because they wanted to test different guys. They wanted to keep me in the dark because they wanted to keep me on my toes and they made me keep auditioning over and over again with multiple guys. I think it was 15 guys I had to read with under the pretense that I still hadn’t gotten the role.
PAUL WESLEY [Stefan Salvatore]: I was a young actor living in Los Angeles and I’d done six or seven pilots for various networks, but none of them took off. They sent me the script for The Vampire Diaries, and I knew immediately that the show was going to be a hit because it was Kevin Williamson. It was one of those auditions that everyone was vying for, all the young actors were vying for Damon and Stefan because they were such breakout roles. And they wouldn’t see me for Stefan because they thought I was too old. [Laughs]So I went in and read for Damon and had a callback and did okay. Then I didn’t hear anything and went on with my life. I actually think I tested for another show. Then I got a call that they were having a bit of a hard time and had done all these tests and they thought they found the guys and they didn’t.
PLEC: Stefan was the hardest to find. It’s the kind of role that you can’t just cast the smoldering pretty boy because there’s such depth and layers of loss and loneliness living in that character. So you really need a true actor. But you also can’t just hang your hat on a great theater-trained actor who doesn’t also make people’s hearts go pitter patter.
WILLIAMSON: The book destroyed us because if you look at the description in the book, that person doesn’t exist.
PLEC: [Stefan’s] a good man, a good soul, but with a layer of danger because he’s a vampire who struggles with blood lust and struggles with his addiction to this woman and with his fury with his brother.
WESLEY: Once they’d cast Ian Somerhalder, they said, “Because you’re younger than Ian, they’re willing to see you now for Stefan.” There’s a casting director by the name of Lesli Gelles-Raymond and Lesli was the one who kept pushing for me. She kept shoving me down their throats.
PLEC: We pushed production at least once, and we were in danger of being less than a week away from shooting and having no male lead and ultimately — and quite famously — we were sort of pressured into casting Paul Wesley against our desires, which of course means everybody knew way better than us and that we almost missed out on the most perfect piece of casting.
WESLEY: Lesli was like, “Just see him one more time!” And they were like, “Okay we’ll see Paul Wesley again ugh, whatever. We’re over this kid.” [Laughs] So Lesli put me in the room again, this time for the role of Stefan.
PLEC: There just aren’t that many actors who can live in both worlds, the heartthrob world and the serious actor world, and Paul had never been a heartthrob and neither Kevin nor I saw him as a heartthrob, which I think was sort of the problem. There was so much going on in Stefan that a lot of the actors we were reading just couldn’t act him. There was no denial that Paul could act the part we just didn’t see him lighting up the screen but we were just dead wrong.
With Dobrev already cast — even if she didn’t know it yet — and not much time before they needed to start filming, they began the oh-so-important process of chemistry reads. Because, if nothing else, Stefan and Elena’s relationship had to be … passionate.
SIEGA: I had Nina come to my house with a couple of the guys that we were considering and one of them, unbeknownst to me at the time, was her real-life boyfriend. Obviously when they did their chemistry read, they had a lot of chemistry but he just wasn’t right. I could see she was giving it her all and he was too but it just wasn’t connecting.
WESLEY: I showed up to the test and I’m not exaggerating, there were literally 15 guys there from everywhere from Australia to England to New York City. Everyone had flown out. They basically knew they needed to cast this role within a matter of three days and so they not leaving any stone unturned.
DOBREV: I read with a lot of guys and I had different experiences — good, bad, indifferent. It’s not that one person was perfect for it; everyone was just so different. But I remember that Paul was the only one who didn’t speak to me unless we were speaking on camera. Everyone else was trying to schmooze with me and flirt with me because it’s a chemistry read, and that was my first-ever chemistry read so I thought that’s what it was supposed to be as well. I was trying to get a vibe: who did I have the most sexual tension with? And because Paul didn’t speak to me, we had the least sexual tension.
WESLEY: I didn’t even look at her. I saw her looking at me trying to say hello and I refused to even make eye contact with her. And it sounds a little pretentious and actor-y but the scene we were doing for the chemistry read was the first time we ever met, it was our first conversation, and I wanted her to meet me for the first time in the room during the audition so that it was real.
DOBREV: When he left the room, everyone had auditioned and they asked me, “Who did you connect with the most?” And I said, “I don’t know who I connected with the most but I definitely probably connected the least with that Paul Wesley guy.” [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: We didn’t want Paul until we met Nina. Paul came in like 100 times and every time he came in we’d be like, “Alright, here’s Paul Wesley again.” I liked him; I just didn’t love him. And only once we found Nina and put them together did I go, “Oh he’s really good, who is that? It’s the guy we passed on 15 times.” [Laughs]
WESLEY: Apparently my silly little plan worked.
DOBREV: Then Paul got cast and we ultimately had the best chemistry. It’s the kind of thing where you can see it on screen and you get an energy from the room that I maybe didn’t have a barometer on, but he was absolutely the right choice and the best person for the role. I couldn’t imagine anyone else being Stefan and I’m so grateful that they chose him because now he’s one of my closest friends and we have a friendship that will last forever — vampire pun intended. [Laughs]
THE BAD BROTHER
Stefan and Elena would make up two components of what would become the series’ central love triangle, with the third component being Stefan’s devilish older brother, Damon Salvatore. Damon knew how to hold a grudge, deliver an enigmatic one-liner, and wear a John Varvatos T-shirt better than anyone else in Mystic Falls (or on TV).
IAN SOMERHALDER [Damon Salvatore]: I had come off of Lost and I saw the whole network dog-and-pony show and I said, “I want to be edgier, have fun and do really cool weird s—.” And I tried and I fell on my face a few times. I fell off the map for sure. It was a very rebuilding, humbling time, but the one thing I said I wasn’t going to do again was some network show. So they sent me this pilot and I was like, “This is Twilight on TV, I have no interest in doing this.” I didn’t read it. Cut to: I’m in Vegas with my family, I read it and I’m like, “Holy s—, this is an amazing piece of material, what the hell am I thinking?” I called and they said, “They’ll see you tomorrow morning at 11 a.m.” I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh my god I’m in Vegas.” So I taped the [script] sides together from the business center at the hotel, put them on the dashboard of my car and starting at like 5 in the morning, drove through the desert with the light on in my car because there was no light yet and as the sun came up over the Mojave, that’s where I started figuring out Damon.
WILLIAMSON: He came in and you could see Damon but his audition didn’t say Damon. I think he was nervous and his headspace was somewhere else and he just didn’t really do a good job, but I had watched the first season of Lost and I knew him from Pulse, a movie I had done some work on back in the day so I kind of knew his ability a little bit.
SOMERHALDER: When you want something that badly, the stakes are very high. I did really well in my studio test, which was fun. And then I bombed my first network test. The first take I did was awful. [Laughs]
WILLIAMSON: He just wasn’t giving it. The network wanted somebody else. It was split. Some people wanted him and some people didn’t. The president of the network, Dawn Ostroff, looked at me and said, “Go talk to him. I understand why you like him but he’s not doing it.” So I took him out in the hallway and I was like, “Dude you’re blowing it.”
SOMERHALDER: The door closes and he goes, “Well, that sucked.” I said, “I know! I don’t know what’s going on!” He’s like, “Just do what you did in the studio test, have fun, be in control, you’re Damon, this is your role. You gotta do this.”
WILLIAMSON: He was just nervous. They were all leaning toward this other actor, who will remain nameless, who I just refused to consider. I just would not go down that road. I said, “Will you please take a breath, think this through and just go in there and own it? This is your part, it really is.”
SOMERHALDER: This guy they were testing had been out drinking all night, he was super cocky and trying to psych me out. I looked at him and was like, “There’s no way you’re getting this brother, it’s just not happening.”
WILLIAMSON: And Ian came back in and he blew it. They said, “I’m sorry, we need to see a little bit more before we can say yes to him,” and it was the only time in my career where I said, “If he doesn’t get the part I’m going to have to leave the show.” That’s how much I didn’t want the other person to get the part. I was like, “I know the other guy gave a better audition, but this role is Ian, and I think I can write for him in a way in which I cannot write for this other guy. Please trust me on this. Because if you can’t see it, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to continue on with the show.” Julie stood with me and Peter Roth, the president at Warner Bros. Television, said, “Let’s go with Kevin.”
SOMERHALDER: I got a call from my management saying, “So you wanna be a vampire?” And the rest is history.
“I’M ELENA.” “I’M STEFAN.”
With a completed cast, everyone headed up to Vancouver to begin production on what was one of the most highly anticipated pilots of the year. And for many involved, there was one scene in particular that foreshadowed the show’s success — and one that didn’t.
SIEGA: The very first thing we shot was the scene of Elena in the car with Bonnie when the crow hits the windshield. That was literally day one, scene one. And I wasn’t happy. The crow had to be a digital element but we needed something to hit the windshield and we had done a bunch of tests and everything we tried looked bad to me. I remember going home that night and thinking, “I’m f—ed, I don’t know if this is going to work.” But we hadn’t shot anything that was really at the core of what the show was, which was Paul and Nina.
WESLEY: During the pilot I felt the energy of: Everyone knows this show has the potential to be a big hit. I knew that the studio and the network had a lot riding on this thing and you felt the pressure while shooting.
DOBREV: I just remember there being so much excitement. Even if we weren’t shooting we’d be behind the monitors watching. Everyone was there. There was a sense of camaraderie that’s so hard to duplicate. The CW gave us these little cameras so we could shoot behind-the-scenes things and we have hours of footage of us doing crazy things and having the best time of our lives. Julie and Kevin and everyone took us out on Saturday night, they got a party bus, and I just have these memories of all of us after the bar closed sitting on the sidewalk singing “Wonderwall.”
SIEGA: It wasn’t until a couple of days later when we shot in the cemetery and it’s the scene where she’s running away from the crow in the fog and she runs into Paul that I walked away saying, “This is gonna work.”
WILLIAMSON: I love the moment where Stefan and Elena first meet and he picks the leaf out of her hair. I think they have beautiful chemistry when she says, “We have history together.” I saw it in the monitor and I went, “If this show works it’s going to be because they have chemistry.”
WESLEY: Marcos had the cinematographer use this white bounce board to create this light under both of our eyes. It was almost like this really weird little magic, a practical magic. It was nothing more than a white board that bounced the light into our eyes but it was very subtle and on camera it almost gave off this eery, other-worldly sense that something had happened, some connection had occurred.
SIEGA: In terms of film conventions, I just kept emphasizing beauty. You’re creating a world, you want the audience to feel something and not just in a self-indulgent way. I felt like this was a big, epic romance and it should look like a big, epic romance. That’s how we shot it.
PLEC: Sitting there at the monitors when he picks the leaf out of her hair, it just was instant magic. It became very obvious that the right decision had been made [in casting Paul]. When he stepped into the role of Stefan, he just sort of miraculously and immediately made all our hearts go pitter patter.
WESLEY: I don’t know what it was about that scene that made everyone go, “Oh yeah that’s it” but to me, I sort of knew that the chemistry would be there and that the show would work for whatever reason.
PLEC: When [Arrowverse creator] Greg Berlanti saw TheVampire Diaries for the first time he said to me, “I firmly believe that every actor has the role that they are meant to play that opens the lock to the power of their career and this is that role for Paul Wesley.”
Considering Wesley’s last-minute casting, there was no time for brotherly bonding or hero hair jokes before Somerhalder and Wesley had to step into their roles as the villain and hero of the story, respectively.
PLEC: They ended up having terrific chemistry because Ian very quickly took Paul under his wing, brother to brother. It’s easy to fall in bro-love with Ian Somerhalder. So they were able to spark to each other quickly.
SOMERHALDER: Paul and I met in the valley. It was a fitting for our fangs. It was very cool, we met, we gave each other a hug. It was like, “Wow so we’re brothers. Here we go.”
WESLEY: They took a gamble. Casting a show is a risk. You never know if it’s going to work.
Wesley and Somerhalder’s chemistry was put to the test almost immediately when the pilot only gave the actors one scene together to launch the more-than-a-century-old, highly complicated dynamic that would carry the show for years to come.
SOMERHALDER: We rehearsed that scene two times and then we shot maybe three or four shots of me and then Paul’s side. I think I said “hello, brother” seven or eight times. But that was my audition scene and I worked on that scene hundreds of times to get it where that character had all those layers and flavors.
WILLIAMSON: The brothers hated each other but you knew there was a deep-seeded history that was bounded in love. It was all there. They really did a good job with that.
WESLEY: Ian and I both agree that the best love story is between Stefan and Damon. Ultimately, their brotherly love-and-hate relationship is probably the most interesting thing. They had killed each other, they love each other, they hate each other, they fight over the same girl. That was one of the most complex relationships in terms of depth and layers.
That relationship got off the ground quickly … literally. Stefan and Damon’s first conversation becomes their first confrontation in an instant when Damon pushes his little brother to his limits and Stefan tackles Damon out of a second-story window. They’re fine, of course. They’re immortal. But one thing that didn’t survive the fall? Wire stunts. Once picked up, the series moved from Vancouver to Atlanta and did away with any sort of wire work.
SIEGA: If I’m sitting in a room and that scene pops up, I turn away. [Laughs] My least favorite shot in the entire series is when Paul jumps off the roof at the very beginning. I just think it looks cartoony.
WESLEY: That was a bit cheesy, wasn’t it? Even though the pilot works, it does feel like a little hysterically dated in a way, whereas the show feels more timeless.
SOMERHALDER: In one of the takes, my body swung a little bit to the left and I almost clipped the side of the wall. It was no fault of the stunt coordinator or anyone, it was just one of those things and it could’ve been a really bad accident because I was moving pretty fast.
PLEC: [Losing wire work after the pilot] was born out of logic for me. Kevin liked to keep things as grounded as possible, as did I. So we liked to have a scientific understanding of how certain things could work. Vamp speed was something that we couldn’t understand and yet it’s just such a known trope across all vampire shows that it felt like well, this is one of the ones that we can allow. Georgia did not have a functioning wire unit at the time, at least not an affordable one, which meant any time we wanted to do a wire gag, we would be flying in stunt coordinators and equipment, which became expensive so we killed flight early on. And every time we worked with the crow it was a nightmare so we wrote the death of the crow into the story. Because it also seemed like, “How in the hell is he psychically manipulating a crow?”
WILLIAMSON: Damon traveled in the form of a bird in the pilot, because he was the crow in the book. We went, “Nah, we can’t have him turn into animals so we’re just going to skip that part of the book.” We dropped that real quick. [Laughs] We killed that bird by episode three.
PLEC: The fog in the pilot was a bridge too far for us. We basically used the pilot and did everything we had to do from the books and from vampire tropes to sell a vampire show, but when we got to series we realized that it’s just too much. When your heroes are capable of too much, then they should be able to do even more and it becomes more and more difficult to put real obstacles in their way while keeping the stakes grounded.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Central to the grounding of the show was the love story, which really began at the end of the pilot. After a chaotic back-to-school party ends with Vicki’s attack, Stefan shows up at Elena’s house to make sure she’s okay. Set to The Fray’s “Never Say Never,” Elena invites Stefan inside.
WILLIAMSON: Everything was geared toward that moment.
PLEC: When we saw the pilot for the first time and when that Fray song started and as the lyrics hit “I will be your guardian” and you see Stefan outside through the window, I thought that was the greatest editorial choice of all-time! [Laughs] The CW at the time was a big believer that your pilot should be loaded with very recognizable pop songs because when you took your pilot into the research screening room, the audience would just be happier if they recognized the songs. That’s why the pilot has so many songs like One Republic and all the pop songs of the day. The Fray was the one band and one song that just felt like it fit the voice of the show so perfectly.
WILLIAMSON: I think we even wrote it where she opened up the door to him and she welcomed him into her home and into her life. Everything was going to grow from that and there you have a series. Then we put the Fray against it and it worked.
PLEC: When we shot Nina’s side of the scene where she had to fling the door open, she asked, “What do you want me to be playing here?” Of course I used my go-to explanation for what defines “epic” in relationships in movies and I talked about The Notebook. So when Marcos yelled action, she runs to the door, she flings it open, she looks at him, and it’s the perfect take. I said, “How did you know how to do that?” And she goes, “Well you said you wanted The Notebook!”
DOBREV: I’m a chick. [Laughs] I’ve seen The Notebook and every other rom-com/romantic movie under the sun so I know the epic love scene tension that she wanted and we did our best to duplicate it and make it our own.
As the pilot started to screen for test audiences, something wasn’t quite right. The show was reading as more of an average teenage story than a supernatural one.
PLEC: I remember us feeling so excited when we saw the pilot for the first time and really feeling like we had something special. Then I remember us screening the pilot for the first time at the research screening and it not being perceived as that special. [Laughs] And Susan Rovner at Warner Bros. basically made Kevin and me write that opening voiceover, which did not exist in the script or anywhere.
WILLIAMSON: What happened was: If you look at the first act of the show, it very much was your typical CW show: Young girl writing in her diary, she gets up, you meet the troubled brother, you realize the parents are dead, and the vampire did not show up until I think it was minute 8 or 11. When we tested the show for the first time, you know the moment when Stefan compels the woman behind the front desk? The testing score was dead until that moment, the first moment of something supernatural. Because until then, if you were watching this show blindly, you didn’t know it was a supernatural show. So Susan Rovner was like, “You’ve got to let the audience know what they’re watching in the first 10 seconds. It will improve the test score.”
SIEGA: I remember the note came in and it was like, “I wonder if there’s a way where we can set this up with a narration?” In my mind I was thinking it would be Elena because she’s writing in her diary and I think it was Kevin that had the idea to have it be Stefan.
WILLIAMSON: We added that teaser at the very beginning, and that was all footage leftover from Vicki’s attack. [Laughs] That was all just leftover footage and we put it together and we wrote that voiceover. Then we retested it and the minute he said, “I am a vampire and this is my story,” the scale jumped up to the top. That was 30 seconds in and we’re like, “Okay we’re picked up.” It was a testing trick to get picked up and we decided to keep it.
WESLEY: I remember going in for ADR and doing the voiceover and I was like, “So what do you guys think, do you think the show’s going to do well?” And Marcos Siega was like, “Just get ready.”
DOBREV: I was living with [costar] Candice [King] between the pilot and when the show went to series because I lived in Canada so I was kind of homeless in the states. We would hear little rumblings, but we didn’t know if it was being picked up Then Julie Plec invited us over and screened it for us and we were all absolutely thrilled and couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. Because it was the perfect mixture of teen angst and drama and suspense and it had that sci-fi element but it was still so grounded in reality that it just felt relatable despite the fact that it was set in a fictional sci-fi world.
The Vampire Diaries premiered on Sept. 10, 2009 and delivered the largest audience of any premiere since The CW’s 2006 debut. There was no denying that the show had struck a vein.
PLEC: The day after it aired and the ratings were huge and it had exceeded all expectations, everybody was celebrating.
WILLIAMSON: I wasn’t quite sure what the ratings meant because it was the CW so the ratings were judged differently, but I do remember that Dawn Ostroff called, Peter Roth called, and they were ecstatic. Then by the second and third week as it continued to hold and then people started blogging about the show and then when we unexpectedly killed Vicki, that’s when people really woke up and started to engage. You could feel it.
WESLEY:The Vampire Diaries came out pre-social media. It got really big ratings but I didn’t realize how culturally significant it was until we did a worldwide tour for promotion. We did like the Hot Topic mall tour, and that’s when I realized first person how the story had affected people.
SOMERHALDER: Once the show got picked up, Paul and I flew to Atlanta to get apartments next to each other so that we could rehearse every second we needed to, which was a really funny story because we pulled up to the W [hotel] in Atlanta and we were wearing the exact same Diesel jeans, the exact same white crew neck T-shirt, we had the exact black boots on, and we had the exact pair of black Ray-Ban sunglasses. We looked like the f—ing Blues Brothers. [Laughs]
WESLEY: We literally were wearing the exact same outfit by complete coincidence. We looked liked twins. [Laughs]
SOMERHALDER: I didn’t know what the show was going to be even after shooting the pilot. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Paul’s apartment in Atlanta and we watched 106, which is my favorite episode of the whole series when Damon and Vicki are dancing around the Salvatore mansion, that we went, “Holy s—, we have something really special here.”
DOBREV: I remember when I was trying to make the decision — should I do this should I not do this — I called my mom, who’s not in any way connected to the industry, and I asked her: “Should I do this show?” I described it to her and then she was like, “What’s it called?” I said, “The Vampire Diaries.” I was a little nervous about signing a 6-year contract at that point. And she was like, “Vampires? What are they going to write about for six years? Do it!” So, thanks mom! [Laughs] But honestly, thanks mom because it was a great experience and a wonderful show and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
WILLIAMSON: Turns out, the vampire phase was not over!
Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.
Merritt Wever is nervous. Very nervous, in fact. Why? “Well, I’m always nervous,” she says. “That’s my baseline experience of the world.” She laughs warmly, loosens a bit, before pivoting to the root of the anxiety: It’s a mid-August morning and she’s about to give her first interview for her new project, the Netflix true-crime series Unbelievable. She’s worried about saying the wrong thing. About being “underprepared.” She takes a pause, then clarifies: “This matters to me.”
Created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Unbelievable is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article co-published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, which begins with the story of Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever in the series), an 18-year-old reeling from a difficult childhood in the foster care system. She reports being sexually assaulted, but as (male) detectives poke holes in her story, forcing her to repeatedly relive her trauma, the process wears on her — and she recants her report. She admits to lying, takes a deal to avoid criminal charges, and tries to move on. Her story is paralleled with that of two female detectives working a separate investigation into a serial rapist. Their intersection offers devastating insight into the social mechanisms that too often prevent rape victims from being believed.
Wever plays Karen Duvall, one of the detectives in the later timeline: an empathic, methodical cop who partners up with her once-role model, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), after realizing they could be chasing the same guy. Wever didn’t know the story before she was sent the series’ first three scripts. She read through them — as well as the original article — on a long cross-country flight. Her cheeks got red. She kept getting up to pace in the aisle “like a weirdo.” She adds, “It felt like it ignited something in me.”
As Unbelievable begins, Duvall is experienced in handling several sexual assault cases — at least, relative to the men who worked on Marie’s — and pursues the truth for her victims vigorously if, at times, imperfectly. Wever felt the pressure to get that story right, in all of its nuances. “I did all the usual things,” she says of her preparation. She read books, listened to podcasts, talked to various people who could inform her process. But no amount of material could ease the experience of living inside this painful, fact-based saga for three-plus months of filming. That goes for all of Unbelievable’s principals. “It was hard work,” Collette tells EW. “Some days felt like a bit of a slog.” Adds Dever, who’s handed the toughest material in the show: “I have to say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career, the hardest project I’ve ever done, just because I was putting myself in these [intense] emotional spaces every single day.”
As for Wever? “The responsibility of the material weighed on me heavily,” she says. “And I felt like Toni and I were this engine that had to keep going, keep looking. This relentless energy honestly started to break me down after a while.”
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In the fall of 2013, Wever introduced her “baseline” nervousness to a national audience. She was on her second consecutive Emmy nomination for Nurse Jackie in the comedy supporting actress category — she’d been on the show for five seasons — when, against a field including previous winners like Julie Bowen (Modern Family) and Jane Lynch (Glee), she was named the surprise winner. In shock, Wever reached the stage, gushed “Thank you so much” a few times, and then said, without missing a beat, “I gotta go, bye,” before scooting away, the audience hooting in amused admiration. Last year, when she won her second Emmy for another meaty supporting turn, in Netflix’s Western limited drama Godless, she cracked on stage, “I wanted to be a grown-up about this” while fumbling her thank-yous. But this time, she didn’t abruptly say goodbye. Addressing her peers in the crowd, she said, “I’m still shocked you’ve made a space for me.” It’s about as genuine an awards-show moment as you’ll see.
And made a space they have. It’s been a long road for Wever, 39, a graduate of LaGuardia High School and Sarah Lawrence College. She got into the film business when she was just 18, and worked steadily under-the-radar for over a decade — recurring on shows like The Wire, taking bit parts in prestige films like Michael Clayton — before her breakout opposite Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie, where she played sunny and wide-eyed nursing student Zoe Barkow. Wever brings a radical sincerity to her acting, rooted in bone-deep empathy and a subtle conviction that often eludes Hollywood. In Unbelievable, she’s never been better. It’s a generous, loving embodiment of a detective doing her job as best she can, while shaken by the case at hand — by the victims for whom she’s seeking justice, the monster(s) getting away with rape, the dangerous culture of sexism coming into harrowing focus.
Karen marks Wever’s debut in a leading TV role; alongside Collette, a prior lead actress Emmy winner (and Oscar nominee), Wever anchors the series and propels it forward. She felt nervous about that, too. “All of a sudden it was very new territory to have the responsibility of a larger part,” she explains. “It ended up somehow exacerbating a lot of anxiety. I experienced it as a burden. What I would like to learn how to do is find more space and joy, instead of it being a burden. Instead of it being something that I’m not going to be able to live up to, it’s an opportunity.”
She continues, her voice slightly sharpened. “I think it also might speak to a lot of the messages that I’ve been given, having done this for a long time, and having started doing this young,” she explains. “It’s a strange thing to be a young girl and walk into rooms and have people tell you what you are and what you can and can’t do and what you can and can’t be like. As strong as I thought I was, it’s very difficult not to have those messages seep into you.”
It’s a theme that overlaps considerably with Unbelievable, and particularly Marie, whose arc extends to being scorned as a liar by her community. Filming the series, Wever found herself thinking about — even consumed by — Marie, even though Karen doesn’t know Marie exists as the narrative hurtles forward. “There’s a part of me as an actor that knew I was making my way towards Marie,” she explains. “We’re also trying to find Marie across space and time, three years later. I felt like I was operating without my heart…. I was pushing and pushing, going and going, and missing something. I was probably feeling as an actor like I was missing the other half of my story.”
She cuts herself off. “Now I feel like I’m rambling. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.” Yet it’s at the very heart of what makes her performance so special and true: that pervading sense of loss, that moral imperative.
It’s fair to say that Wever and Collette’s half of the drama is less intense than Dever’s. The pair are thrown into a slickly produced and sharply written procedural, and with that, buddy-comedy banter and propulsive plotting naturally find their way into the telling. Wever and Collette, particularly, work wonders together. “It was all Merritt for me,” Collette says. “She and I were very much a team. United. We often focused and supported each other. She alone made me laugh, in her own laconic way.”
“I really craved and appreciated those scenes where we got to relate to each other — it was like my shoulders could come down for a second,” Wever adds. “The ways that a person is complicated or a weirdo or human are always going to be the most interesting thing to me.”
Wever took a long break after filming Unbelievable last summer. “I don’t feel particularly ready for anything,” she says now. “I kind of can’t believe some of my good fortune, and I’m always afraid that it’s going to be snatched away.” (She’ll next star as the lead in Run, HBO’s upcoming half-hour executive-produced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge.) This is, she acknowledges, not an uncommon feeling for actors, freelancers “at the mercy of what other people think of us and what other people think we are, or think we can do.”
She returns to the idea that she needs to learn how to enjoy — or perhaps just accept — her undeniable success. “What I’m trying to work on, in an achingly slow way, is enjoying the good things when they happen, because good things don’t always happen,” she says. “If I keep pushing them away and not experiencing them, it’s just a waste of a life.”
As Wever reflects on her time during the Unbelievable shoot in Los Angeles, she keeps coming back to one of her few “blessed” days off. She took advantage by going to the dentist. (“I really needed to go to the dentist!”) On her way back, in an Uber, Wever was inundated with phone calls and texts. It was the day of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony during the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Men and women in my life [were telling me] what it was doing to them and their own histories, what it was kicking up in their own life, and their own processing — or lack of processing,” she says. She took these calls in the back of the car; the driver never referenced them. Of the end of her trip, Wever says, “I literally got out and gave him a five-star f—ing rating.”
This recounting, in a nutshell, answers why this matters to Wever. “I needed to [do] a good-enough job for these people and for this story,” she reiterates. “It matters to me, because — well, I’m not sure how it could not matter.”
All eight episodes of Unbelievable stream on Netflix beginning Friday.
Thirty-four years after the publication of her startlingly prescient novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood is delivering its potent sequel and, just like its predecessor, it’s already set off a flurry of anticipatory chatter. Perhaps the most pressing question is what the The Testaments means in the larger context of the Hulu adaptation, which used the original tome as source material for the first season but then extrapolated from it to build out the next 26 episodes, especially given the recent news that the network has acquired the rights to The Testaments.
Atwood’s latest book, which picks up about 13 years after the end of season 3 — there aren’t solid timelines in the world of Handmaids, but the existence of a few key characters in Testaments allows for casual mathematics — lives in the exact same universe as both the literary and television versions of Handmaids and, according to the author, will inform the screenwriters as they build out season 4.
“What I have given the writers’ room, which no one is allowed into including me, is a whole new whiteboard and a bunch of new characters,” Atwood, who will serve as a consultant on season 4, tells EW from her office in Toronto. “The story of the characters in the show is left open at the moment, so it’s up to [showrunner] Bruce [Miller] and the highly competent team locked in the room as to how they get those people into position.”
The Testaments enters the world stage amidst a political environment that could be described as Atwoodian during its better days, so it feels like no accident that the novel outlines the early stages of Gilead’s juicy, cathartic, and long-awaited downfall. Those who read Handmaids all the way through the epilogue are well aware that the regime will end, and the sequel gives us a surprising play-by-play that falls closer to the government’s inner sanctum than most could have predicted.
The book, which has already been long-listed for the Man Booker prize (“I expect I am representing the Old Bitty cohort,” jokes Atwood of the nomination, “which is shrinking by the minute”), splits the plot between three narrators: Aunt Lydia, a young Gileadian girl who becomes increasingly disenchanted with the country she was raised to worship, and a teenager in Toronto whose family is entrenched in Mayday’s operations (yes, Mayday is still going).
It’s possible to (attempt to) discern all sorts of deeper meaning about why the author chose to write this particular novel in this particular time. Given how beautifully and frighteningly she seemed to predict the erosion of women’s rights in America, what does Margaret Atwood know now that the rest of us don’t? She insists it’s far less calculating than that — she’d resisted the writing of Testaments and attempted other unsuccessful novels before realizing the thing that must be done. Atwood likens it to swimming in a very cold lake: “You put your foot in, you take your foot out, you think, am I really gonna do this? And then you have to run in screaming.”
She’s also quick to point out that the plot to take down Gilead, and the way in which one of the young narrators connects to present-day Handmaid’s Tale, was never a grand scheme. She only began putting the story together in the last two to three years, using research assistants to help go through the original Handmaids novel, and the current series, line by line. She never knew how Gilead was going to end, reminding all of us that “the only reason for writing novels is to find out what happens — if you already know, why would you bother?”
The portions of The Testaments that will likely come as the biggest surprise to readers are those narrated by Aunt Lydia. We’re all familiar with her outward demeanor, her ability to both terrorize women into becoming murderers and manipulate them into thinking that she cares about anyone’s well-being, mostly due to Ann Dowd’s commanding — and Emmy-winning — performance. This sequel offers not only a deeper glimpse into her pre-Gilead life (a warning to the continuity purists: It doesn’t quite match up with the flashbacks provided in season 3, episode 8 of the series) but her inner monologue.
As it turns out, Lydia has some sass to her, not unlike the onscreen version of June (Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches). Five minutes into a conversation with Atwood and it’s clear where she pulled inspiration for this wit — that’s not to say that Atwood herself is sassy in the manner of Aunt Lydia, but rather that she’s so intelligent and quick to honesty that you can easily be left with earth-shattering doubts: Whether you’ve ever analyzed a book properly, whether you’ve ever had a grasp on world history, and why you ever deigned to consider yourself qualified to prepare questions for someone of her stature.
Her tendency to answer questions with marginally-related anecdotes and lessons provides insights into The Testaments’ influences that would never have been uncovered otherwise. Ask about her predetermined plans for Aunt Lydia’s arc? She’ll tell you about a British battle reenactment. Ask about Donald Trump? She’ll tell you about the history of fascism. In the midst of a series of quiz questions directed at this reporter (another terrifying byproduct of being in Atwood’s conversational presence: The constant interior thought of Oh my God, am I supposed to answer this?), she explained in most Atwoodian terms her philosophy towards crafting the occasionally frustrating and always complicated allegiances of the women in Gilead.
“If you look at regimes that have come and gone over the years, you’re going to see that among the Nazis and Stalinists, a certain kind of education was prioritized,” she explains. “Don’t think we’re exempt. Every outlet teaches itself in the best light and tells people that this is the only way. So it was when, long ago, the Christians got control of education.”
Out on the road, among her legions of fans, Atwood fields even more questions — occasionally about plot points of her books but mostly of a more existential nature. Immediately after Trump was elected, a resounding theme was: Is this the worst thing that’s ever happened? (Her answer, in short, is no.) These days, people ask if there’s hope, or if we’re all doomed.
The Testaments offers plenty of bleak scenarios just like its predecessors (there is a particularly scarring description of Lydia’s capture in the early days of the coup, involving a stadium and thousands of women starved, tortured, and worse), but the building blocks of the regime’s takedown replaces the show’s feeling of powerlessness with the idea that maybe there is something that can be done.
Atwood predicts that as she promotes this sequel, she will receive plenty more questions on the topic of hope, which are in stark contrast from the queries she received in the early days of her career.
“In the ’70s I was getting, do you hate men?” she deadpans. “And sometimes a different version: Do you like men? Those questions are quite easy to answer…some men. I’m not too keen on Hitler and Stalin, but Albert Schweitzer had some pretty good ideas.”
The Testaments leaves plenty of its plot points open to interpretation (there is an epilogue similar in structure to that in Handmaids) and the ambiguity, combined with the passionate fanbase that the Hulu series has attracted, has the potential to invite reader questions of its own. On that topic, Atwood minces absolutely no words.
“Thing thing about a book is it’s got these things called covers,” she says. “If you don’t like the book, you can close them.”