HBO’s The Undoing has a juicy, star-studded cast. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant headline this marital tale of deception and infidelity, but I was most excited by the presence of Noma Dumezweni. And I mean presence. Dumezweni doesn’t even have to talk and she holds your attention. Dumezweni gives such a fiercely intelligent, poised performance that you start to resent the Frasers for putting so many roadblocks in her way.
Haley is hired by Donald Sutherland’s Franklin Reinhardt because he knows that Haley can help Jonathan steer clear of jailtime. They don’t make it easy for Haley, though. Instead of handing over every ounce of information, they surprise her with hidden hammers and thoughtful late-night strolls around the crime scene. The Frasers are so privileged that they can’t get out of their own way and Haley has to swerve and improvise with each new development. I hope she kept a running tab of confessions coming from that household.
It’s always exciting when a skilled stage performer can transfer his or her skills to another realm of performance. Dumezweni is the type of actor that I personally want to someday see on stage (two Olivier Awards and counting, thank you very much!). When you are performing live theater, there is no room to be inauthentic. The audience is right there and they can feel the connection between the actors before their very eyes. That is so clear in Dumezweni’s performance. She has crafted such a deep well for Haley Fitzgerald that we already root for her, side with her, and want her to succeed even if her ego can sometimes get in the way. This is a performance, with all its stillness and care, that is so exciting.
Awards Daily: One of the other roles that you’re associated with is Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She is a character who values knowledge and the truth and justice. Are you always drawn to characters like that?
Noma Dumezweni: Absolutely. Also the script! They sent me the script for the very first episode and my manager told me that I wasn’t in it, but they wanted me to read it. I was like, ‘Shut up…this is David E. Kelley.’ The thing I say is when things make you curious, you have to go towards it. That’s what life is. It just made me curious. Then I got the sides with Haley, I needed to find out who the hell this woman is. Also, with a name like Haley, anybody can be up for this part. How are they going to divvy it up? That was my joy because I loved the script. I went through the audition process and I had about three or four more weeks of Harry Potter so it was the beginning of hunting for the next job. Then I get it, and I’m like, ‘What?’ At that point, I found out who was going to be part of it, and it freaked me out in a very good way. I knew I needed to meet this moment because it scares me.
AD: David E. Kelley is the man.
ND: He knows his stuff.
AD: You look at his stuff like Boston Public, The Practice, Ally McBeal…
ND: Ally McBeal was me. You’d always see his name. A David E. Kelley Production. It becomes a mantra. It goes into your system. He’s brilliant and he knows how to write a story. I am curious about what you think about the ending because I was watching it for the first time with an audience.
AD: The Undoing does an amazing job of pushing a hundred red herrings on the audience and then you second yourself over and over again.
AD: I was convinced it was Noah [Jupe]’s character.
ND: Oh no! The child?!
AD: I know! Isn’t it awful that that’s where my mind goes to?
AD: Even before Nicole [Kidman] found the hammer, I had a weird feeling about Noah. I was watching the fifth episode around 2 a.m. and when she found the hammer, I yelled out and then remembered that my husband was still sleeping. I had to rein it in.
ND: I am still processing it. I knew there were different endings and I remember there was another version. This ending came in later on and it shifted. Then to see it, the truth is that it was absolutely honorable to the book in that sense. You should have known. She should’ve known. I see online that people are pissed and then some people were happy that they were right. I love it. It does go into that high melodrama a little bit—that helicopter scene, I mean—but that’s what Franklin’s world is. What I’m enjoying is that it’s making audiences really viscerally react yes or no to the ending. I’m enjoying that.
AD: In that scene when the hammer is discovered…I want to know how Haley doesn’t smack everyone in the face.
ND: And walk out of the room.
AD: When you’re all discussing it, Nicole walks over and puts her arm around Noah in a very kind, mother way.
ND: Yes, that kind of mother. My baby! He’s going to be done, too.
AD: Do you think this was one of Haley’s hardest cases?
ND: There was that sense to me that if you were to have a case going forward, this was a moment where Haley learns humility in the biggest way. The biggest way. As we talk about it now, I like how she was so still, so fierce, so straight, so graceful…but when she realizes she was being played, that’s when things go wrong and who the fuck do you trust? ‘I know I did my job. I didn’t want to put you up there to begin with but then you said you could. What is your truth? I need to see it. I’m not feeling it.’ I’m kind of marrying the balance of why Haley had a tantrum. I keep thinking about that as an audience member, do you know what I mean?
AD: Haley did everything she was supposed to do. And she had how many curveballs thrown her way?
ND: Oh my god…
AD: She was able to maneuver all of them.
ND: But there are consequences of choices. Even I, as an actor, look at the character and think about the consequences of their actions. When they call her over to Franklin’s apartment, I know she’s thinking, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck’ because they are so close to the end and they are doing well. Then this twist happens and he washed the hammer! Going back to Haley, and I think this is what I hold onto; she knows the technicalities of the law inside and out, but this is the first time we see her sweat. Then we go into the courtroom, and she thinks it’s under control and she realizes that she’s getting played. The consequences of that—get rid of the weapon and your child might get in trouble—are mixed with her ego as well. They are so close. There is a sense of, ‘Fuck, I am going to put her on and she can’t talk badly against her husband. What else am I going to do?’ She’s not aware of what else is transpiring on the other side of the courtroom when Sylvia gets involved.
AD: This is a weird comparison that I’m not sure anyone else thought of, but when the case seems to be swinging in their favor, it reminded me of when the Presidential election started turning.
ND: Oh god. Like we can see the end line.
AD: Yes, exactly.
ND: And then someone pushes you.
AD: (Laughs) I wanted to ask you about your voicework because I love your speaking voice.
ND: Thank you.
AD: There’s a certain way, especially in your first scene with Nicole, where there is such a…I don’t want to say calmness.
ND: I know exactly what you mean. She’s made that speech so many times.
AD: That choice is so grounded in your character.
ND: I’m going to offer that up to Susanne Bier because a week before I am set to start filming, I am finishing Harry Potter. The Haley I had in my head was a little bit louder than what Susanne wanted. The muscle work and what I’m used to hearing is three years of theater work. I originally thought that no one was going to be able to hear me. A friend reminded me that the mic is there to support me when doing TV and film. She gave me a great note to speak to the distance of the person you’re talking to. Understanding that, I could go quieter and quieter and I could trust myself more. She’s been doing this job for a long time and I had to shift out of theater mode to be that still person. In terms of voicework, dialect coach Jerome Butler was there. I love voices but I don’t like listening to my voice. I learned a very important lesson years ago when someone said that you can tell when someone is in their body when you can tell from their voice. It’s true. When you are in your truth, your voice will be in its truth. Mine happens to be 100 cigarettes a day kind of voice, and I am so grateful for that.
AD: How do you think Haley prepares mentally for being in court. You’re an actor playing a lawyer who has to perform for a living when she’s in front of a jury.
ND: Yeah. I met a real-life lawyer who said there’s a real-life audience and you need to know what lines you are going to be throwing to the judge and throwing to the jury or open to the room. You choose those words in your preparation. I think Haley is one of those people who gets up really early and her life is very specific. To put it this way, specific. I don’t know about you, Joey, but I am a chaotic person and I think Haley looks at everything in front of her every morning. I think a lot of lawyers can hold a lot of information and that’s extraordinary.
AD: Watching Haley and the prosecutor go up and there and just talk is like an actor preparing for a monologue. It’s really impressive how lawyers get up there and essentially improv as they swerve around anything that comes up.
ND: It’s terrifying. Where are you digging? What language do you use to make a specific hit? That’s the language and that’s something David is so good at. It was clear when you read it, but when you’re saying it out loud, I have to know why I am saying it. We need to know what things mean in order to play with it. The punctuation is especially important. If I say a line as a question instead of a statement, how does that change the scene? If I act it as if there is an ellipsis there, how will it be different? That’s what I learned to do. Each time these actors give something different and then something different and that opens up the language as well.
AD: Douglas Hodge has a line in a scene with Hugh Grant where he says, ‘I prefer my clients to be guilty. It takes the pressure off.’ Do you think Haley thinks Jonathan is guilty the entire time?
ND: I don’t think he’s guilty the entire time, but I base it off the information she says when she first meets Grace. She knows her job. That’s the confidence that is Haley. She was that bright student who was able to use the law to the advantage of the client. For me, my choice is when the hammer arrives, that’s Haley’s wobble moment. She doesn’t care if he was guilty or not but based on the evidence we have but the case the prosecution puts against Jonathan is the case. For my taste, I do like the idea that it is the hammer moment. We know he’s a liar. She reads him very early on. This was never going to be in her ether, and that’s what the prosecution wants. It turned up here. I don’t believe she believes Henry about it. Then it becomes the law and then it becomes about Grace. I like that it was never about he’s guilty and Haley is getting paid shitloads of money. It was all about the job. When she sees him charm before the Connie Chung interview, it’s her ego and it’s all about winning. That’s why I would like to think that this is her humbling moment. And she was pissed. Did you think he was guilty?
AD: I always thought whether Haley thought Jonathan was guilty or innocent was irrelevant. If she dwelled on it, it would be about finding the truth and she wouldn’t be able to do her job effectively.
ND: That’s Douglas Hodge’s character. That’s a different way of living for Haley.
AD: She’s not a hack like that.
AD: A lot of people want a spin-off.
AD: What do you think a show about Haley would look like?
ND: I have no idea. For me, I have left Haley. Bottom line, if I’m honest, I’ve thought about it. People have met this woman and there are comparisons to Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating. I haven’t seen How to Get Away with Murder yet. I love TV but there are things that I just come to late. I will catch up with that. I love Scandal though. She has now joined the pantheon of these extraordinary, Black women who sort shit out in terms of the law and know their business. I was enjoying that conversation. What would that second series look like? I don’t know. It would have to be David E. Kelley.
The Undoing is streaming now on HBO Max.