Merritt Wever remembers exactly where she was when she first read the scripts for Netflix's limited series Unbelievable, which premiered Sept. 13. "I was on a plane, and I remember my cheeks flushed and my skin got red and something in me, like an engine, started going," the 39-year-old says. "I didn't realize, until recently, that maybe part of what that was was anger."
Wever stars as Karen Duvall and serves as one-half of the series' dynamic detective duo, opposite Toni Collette's Grace Rasmussen. In a heart-wrenching storyline inspired by a real series of rape cases in Washington and Colorado, the two detectives team up when they realize the similarities between their open cases. The series begins following a young woman named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), who is accused of fabricating her rape story, and then weaves together several other survivors' stories.
Wever, who won Emmys for her work on Nurse Jackie and Godless and will soon be seen in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, talks to THR about playing a fictionalized version of a real detective, her chemistry with Collette and the challenges of working on a show with subject matter that is at the forefront of the political and social conversation.
You have played a lot of fictional characters on TV in recent years. What was it like playing a character based on a real person in Unbelievable?
I had recently come off a job where I was playing a real person [Karlene Faith in Charlie Says], and there was a bit of source material there that I could draw from. This wasn't brand-spanking new, but I think one of the things I clocked — not just because the story is true and the nature of the story is such that it mattered — is that playing a real person puts a certain kind of responsibility on you, and that responsibility can get translated into pressure. As an actor, I had to be careful not to let that pressure — the pressure to get it right or do it right — shut me down.
A conversation at the forefront of the political climate is believing victims of sexual assault. What was the pressure like dealing with a story all about that?
What I found most useful was to do as much research as I could and cover all my bases, and then at the end of the day when I showed up on set just play what was on the page. I don't think carrying larger ideas about the political and social conversations happening right now would have been useful to me in the moment as an actor. They certainly can be useful and instructive in my life or when choosing material, or deciding what you do and don't want to be a part of. But when it comes to doing the actual work in the moment on the day, that stuff becomes a weight that makes the acting space smaller instead of bigger.
How do you think that the show has advanced the conversation, or how would you like to see it advance the conversation?
I remember the first time that I was asked that question — I think I shrunk from it. I am not used to looking at [my] work and thinking about what I want people to think or feel in response to it. I usually see my job as finding a way to do my side of the work the best I can, and then letting people come to it and have their own response. But I do consider myself lucky to be a part of something that matters. I think that, as actors, we don't have choice usually in what comes our way, and I consider myself lucky to have happened to be asked to be part of something like this.
You and Toni Collette have a buddy-cop vibe going on in the show's lighter moments. How did you cultivate that chemistry?
We never talked about it, we just came in and did the work. And I am so glad that the work was with her. I feel so lucky and grateful that I got to work with someone like that, but we didn't go in and talk about it. We knew what the story was and we just played what was on the page. I don't know if that's because it was based on a true story — we read all the stuff, we knew what was happening and there was no need to come up with anything. So much of our job in this script was to provide a certain engine for the story. I always felt like Kaitlyn [Dever]'s Marie is the heart of the story, and then Toni and I are providing this other kind of engine, this other kind of fuel.
Did you want to know everything that was happening in the other plot of the story?
It was interesting knowing that on days when I wasn't working, somewhere somebody else was pumping along and providing this story that was so vital and so important. As much as Karen and Grace are looking for the person who did this, they're also making their way closer and closer to finding Marie and serving her. I think one of my favorite parts of the series is when you see Marie in this horrible place of resigned despair in her therapist's office, and it's intercut with, across many states and many years, Karen and Grace looking through that footage [videotaped by the therapist] and coming across her driver's license. I always thought that was very moving.
Speaking of the detectives, in preparing for the role did you reach out to the real detective on whom your character was based?
You know, that wasn't an option. From what I remember, [executive producers Susannah Grant and Sarah Timberman] weren't able to get the life rights to [detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot]'s story, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that their story has to do with their job. So, I knew I was going to be playing a character based on a person, but it wasn't going to be Stacy and that speaking to her wasn't going to be an option. I hear she is very, very busy right now on a pretty big-deal, important job, which isn't surprising at all. But what I did do was read the book that is the expanded version of the [Marshall Project/ProPublica] article, A False Report, written by the same journalists. I found that incredibly helpful.
It is a great justice story, but also a very sad, horrible and angering story at the same time. It has a lot of different emotions.
It's very easy to read that article and care deeply about what happened and about these people, not just Marie, but Stacy and Edna. I had a lot of respect for these people and a lot of gratitude for them and what they did, and for their generosity in allowing their stories to be shared — particularly Marie. I think it is a very generous and brave thing to allow this long and excruciating and consequential chapter in life to be so publicly shared.
TV sometimes struggles with depicting religion as a part of everyday life, but Unbelievable portrayed it in a real way through your character. What was it like playing a character who's informed, but not ruled by, her religious background?
One of my favorite pieces of who she is as a person is that quote she keeps on her dashboard, a passage from Isaiah: "Here I am, send me." I thought that was an incredibly lovely and instructive piece of information. I used it as at least part of the backbone of who she was.
That phone call scene at the end of the show between your character and Marie is in many ways the emotional resolution. What was it like to film that?
Actually, Kaitlyn and I did speak to each other that day. We called in when the other was filming their scene. I was so glad to have that, because the scene is so important narratively. And also because I think so highly of her as an actor and I found it really lovely and moving to work with her, even on the phone. It was so powerful even just to speak to her, and I was really grateful to her for doing that.
You've played such memorable but different characters recently. Is there a thread that ties together the characters you gravitate toward?
I don't think I tend to look at that kind of big-picture stuff, not yet. Also, we have so little control over what comes our way, we are so at the mercy of what other people think of us, what other people think we are like or what we are capable of that it doesn't always feel like you are choosing roles, it feels like you are being chosen. If you are lucky enough to be chosen. I know that the things that are interesting to me in a part tend to be the things that make people vulnerable, the things that make people fully human, whatever the opposite of perfection is. Or maybe that is bullshit, and I am just trying to answer your question with words and it's not really true.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.