In a conversation with Awards Daily, Golden Globe-nominee Kaitlyn Dever discusses the life-changing impact the experience of portraying Marie on Netflix’s Unbelievable has had on her since the show premiered last September.
The character of Marie is someone that has made a lasting impact on audiences. In just under a year she and the show of Unbelievable have directly changed the way we engage with portrayals of sexual assault in the media. Over the course of the eight episode series, Kaitlyn Dever took the time to portray Marie not as a symbol or as a prop but instead as a real person; a young woman with goals, with flaws, someone who had a life before the assault occurred and someone who continued living after.
Dever took the time to show Marie’s resilience, her courage, and her bravery in a way where one would only assume the actress has spent countless hours with the real-life figure. Instead she made the choice to not seek Marie out, to grant her a sense of privacy and not put her through any more unnecessary trauma. Instead the Golden Globe-nominated actress took meticulous care combing through the article, book, and podcasts that inspired Unbelievable to help her understand every facet of Marie’s life. She even drew inspiration from her past research on the foster care system from her time working on Short Term 12.
Through all of that, alongside the patient support of a passionate creative team, Kaitlyn Dever brought to the screen one of the most impactful characters of the modern TV era.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Kaityn Dever detailed the life-changing journey of bringing Marie to the screen and how the experience has fundamentally shifted the way she (and hopefully) audiences discuss and interact with portrayals of assault in the media.
Awards Daily: Unbelievable premiered nearly a year ago. What has the response from audiences been like for you?
Kaitlyn Dever: Even today, it has been an outpouring of real love. It was amazing to shoot this kind of story without any expectations besides the hope that people would learn from it. Now it has been overwhelming to see people sharing their stories and feeling comfortable to come up to me in person as well as everyone on social media. It has opened a lot of eyes and it has been really cool to see that we’ve been able to impact people in a big way.
It has also been a big learning experience for me. It was obviously one while we were making it but in the aftermath of talking to people I have learned a lot. We took the show to Washington D.C. to help the Debbie Smith bill get passed – a bill that is crucial in eliminating rape kit backlogs. This entire experience will stick with me forever. I have never been a part of something like this before and it is rewarding to know that people are learning and listening.
AD: Going back to the beginning of your experience, I read that you didn’t want to meet the real life Marie that your character is based off of. What made you decide not to meet her?
KD: When I was sent the first copy of the script as well as the article and the podcast, my heart sank. It was a story I wasn’t aware of, and a lot of my friends didn’t know about Marie and her story at all. I felt it was important to shed a light on her story immediately when I read it because it was such a representation of courage and bravery as well as a real story of hope even though it broke my heart to read. It made me shocked and upset and angry; all of those emotions combined and going into that knowing all of these things I knew the importance of it.
Knowing all of that, as an actor your first instinct is to call that person. I was honestly hesitant and torn. I talked to Susannah Grant (our creator and producer) and Lisa Cholodenko (the director of the first three episodes), and we discussed how the circumstances are very different. From what I learned very quickly is that sexual assault is something that sticks with someone for the rest of their life, that trauma never leaves. I didn’t want to overstep any of that. I wanted to get to know her so that I could tell this story as truthfully as possible while also capturing her energy and resilience. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to respect that privacy.
I have heard from her since, but not directly. While we were doing press Susannah forwarded me an email that our producer Ken Armstrong received from Marie pretty soon after it was released. It was overwhelming and moving to hear from her. It was the only thing I needed really. She said that she found a lot of closure from the show. I couldn’t believe it and it brought me to tears.
AD: I can only imagine how emotionally taxing it was to portray what happened to Marie, especially in that first episode. I’m curious what precautions the producers and creative team took to ensure that the set and entire process was as safe and comfortable of an environment as possible?
KD: From the very beginning I was going down to the production office every day to have constant discussions about how we would handle all of these scenes and what the exact shots would look like. They even asked my opinion on what day I felt the most comfortable shooting what scenes.
For me the most difficult scene of the series was the assault scene. What I respected about the entire process was that it was a constant conversation as opposed to a single conversation. I also appreciated that they were able to take their time with the more difficult scenes. For the assault scene they allotted an entire day. They wanted to make sure that scene was given extra care and to make sure we were all able to communicate if we were feeling comfortable or needed to stop. I appreciated that.
At every turn the people involved in this show had so much passion for this issue and really wanted to tell this story honestly without being PSA-ey about it. It invited conversations and I was able to talk through every moment with the team.
AD: This is the second time that you have portrayed a character that has grown up in foster care or a group home system; here with Marie as well as in Short Term 12. How do you think that experience of going through the system affected how Marie reacted to what happened to her?
KD: It was helpful that I had done a lot of research on the foster care system prior to signing on to this show. All of that information was still very much on my mind and I had even talked to a lot of people who had worked in foster care facilities and Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of Short Term 12, used to work at a facility as well. Even the source material that I had access to gave a lot of information on Marie prior to the assault. All of it was extremely helpful to me in order to bring her to life.
One of the many things that I learned is that trauma affects people in very, very different ways, there is no one set way to look to. Marie had already gone through so much trauma in her life and what I read about her is that she had created ways to cope with this constant trauma. I think that greatly affected the way that she reacted to being assaulted. I had read something in the book A False Report where she refers to this switch in her head that she calls her on/off switch. I think that it is such an act of bravery because it shows what she is willing to do to shut it off when she is in her lowest lows and feeling so hopeless. There’s a moment in the show where she realizes not only are the cops questioning her but people that she thought loved her are questioning her as well. There is such a resilience in being able to turn it off in those dark, dark moments and those little things I found so helpful in being able to understand her and her spirit.
AD: This is a show that has been deservingly praised for the way that it depicts assault and its aftermath in an extremely accurate and non-sensationalized way. After going through the experience of making the show has it changed the way in which you engage with media that depicts assault and the way we discuss and investigate it? Are there any tropes in the media that stick out to you now as something we need to fundamentally change?
KD: There are many things the show discusses and showcases that are important points to bring up that haven’t been before in an honest way. With a lot of true crime these stories are depicted with clear good guys and bad guys viewing both sides of those stories. With our show we don’t vilify anyone. What our show does so brilliantly, with all credit to our amazing writing team, is that there are people that mistakes without being good or bad people. We show two departments, one that has received proper training and one that hasn’t. I’ve learned that we need to change how we train people to investigate these cases.
The way that we view the sexual assault scenes in particular is very monumental. In the past we’ve seen those types of scenes over-sexualized. What I appreciated so much is that early on when I was reading the story and discussing the shots with Lisa Cholodenko and our DP is that they told me they wanted to shoot it from Marie’s point of view. Again, it showed me that they had a real passion for this and were committed to doing it in an honest way. I think that is something we have been missing in the past; showing this issue in an honest way without sexualizing or sugarcoating it.
In order for things to change people need to understand that everyone reacts differently and this kind of trauma sticks with you for the rest of your life. There is so much more to the show but I think those two things are the main things I’ve learned that have changed the way I look at this overall.
AD: Unbelievable features an incredible ensemble but your character doesn’t really interact with many of them. Was it hard being isolated from the rest of the cast and have you gone back to watch the other storylines?
KD: I remember sitting down and watching the show as a whole. I obviously read each script but watching Toni and Merritt bring those characters to life was incredible. You really get to see that love between those two detectives, I found it moving. I was so excited to work with them and then I read the scripts and realized we wouldn’t really be working together but even to be associated with them was enough for me. I appreciated being able to do one piece with Merritt at the end. It was a big moment for both of those characters and to finally see her side of that scene onscreen later on was so cool. We shot our sides of the scene separately and I called in for her scene the day she shot her scene and she called me when we were out on the cliff for my scene. That’s not something that often happens and it was extremely powerful.
AD: Marie is someone that has made a lasting impact on me, and I find myself thinking about her every day. She’s someone that has made a lasting emotional impact on a lot of people’s lives, and I even find my mom bringing her up a lot. Is there anything about her particularly that sticks with you the most?
KD: She is the most courageous person I have ever read about, and she will stick with me forever. Getting to play her was the biggest honor, and it was deeply rewarding. I will be forever grateful to the team behind Unbelievable for trusting me to take this on. There is so much about her that I think is powerful but I think about her resilience, the way she coped. I think about the assault and the series of assaults that happened after that with the cops, the detectives, and the people she thought loved her.
There is a line that I say in the show: ‘I’m just trying to be as happy as I can be.’ That speaks volumes in so many different ways.
Unbelievable is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.