Mahershala Ali and Nic Pizzolatto on ‘True Detective’, Lessons Learned from Season 2, and More

     January 13, 2019


Created by Nic Pizzolatto, the HBO series True Detective has returned for an eight-episode third season that plays out in three separate time periods, as it explores the case that haunted Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali). In 2015, the retired detective finds that his memory is failing him, making it hard for him to reflect on the disappearance of two local children in Arkansas, and that 1980 crime, as well as developments affecting the case in 1990, had an affect that reverberated through his family and his partnership with Roland West (Stephen Dorff).

At a press conference to discuss the new season, executive producer/writer/director Nic Pizzolatto and Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali talked about the case they’re exploring, how the season typically develops, how the reaction to Season 2 affected the approach to Season 3, what the seasons have in common, why a project and character like this is appealing for an actor, the differences in the character’s demeanor throughout the time periods, why they’re not looking to fool the audience, how the location contributes to the storytelling, lining up the directors, how David Milch got involved with co-writing the fourth episode, and why each season is only eight episodes.


Image via HBO

Question: Nic, can you talk about the case that you chose for this season, and how you wanted it to impact the characters?

NIC PIZZOLATTO: I wanted a case where it was possible that it could be revisited over these three separate timelines, so there would have to be an element that was unresolved, in each of those timelines. Even though there is a murder, I wanted something that was less sensationalistically violent and perhaps more closely tied to the idea of family because so much of the case would ultimately impact this character’s family and haunt them, in its own way. There’s this real shadow over the marriage, for a long time. What do you say, when you wouldn’t have met the love of your life, and you wouldn’t have had your children, if this terrible thing hadn’t have happened? And then, it was just thinking about those things, and about Wayne and Amelia, as characters, and about a suitable mystery that wouldn’t push us into any real violent heart of darkness stuff. It haunted me, the more that I thought about it.

How does the season of True Detective usually start, for you? Do you imagine a character first, or is it a setting, or is it a crime?

PIZZOLATTO: Usually, it starts with the character, and with this one, it definitely started with Wayne Hayes and the desire to tell a man’s life story, in the form of a detective story, and the idea that, if he’s losing his life story, near the end of his life, then who he is becomes the mystery, in a way. I just tried to think about how you could do that. The case started to suggest itself, and then the setting and Wayne’s history. It all becomes symbiotic, really quickly, but it starts with the character.

What did you learn from the response to Season 2, that you applied to how you developed Season 3?

PIZZOLATTO: I learned that there was a lot of stuff in Season 2 that people hadn’t really wanted to see, based on Season 1 of True Detective, but I’m very proud of the work everybody did. I just try to keep getting better at what I do, and I think subjective criticism is a big part of that, so I tried not to shut myself off from any of it. I just want to get better and even narrow the focus of what is it that we’re trying to do. It’s a big team effort.

What do you think it is that connects the seasons together, and what do you think makes this season feel the most different from the other two?


Image via HBO

PIZZOLATTO: Maybe the focus on character and the intertwining of timelines. It’s a much, much more complicated structural thing that we tried to do this year, than existed in Season 1, while having some familiarity with Season 1, the way that you had these two timelines that then merged. And we wanted to go to a lesser known part of the country, tp a place that’s mysterious, not only in its landscape, but people don’t know very much about it. There’s a tone and a texture in common, but I feel like this one has a lot more light in it than previous seasons, and it reaches for hope a bit more. I’m not even sure this is properly noir, given where it goes.

Mahershala, your film career has been booming, the last couple of years and you’re a busy guy. What made you want to take on this project for television, with a 500-page script and everything else that you have going on?

MAHERSHALA ALI: I grew up in television. What I mean by that is that I was very fortunate to book a pilot, a few months out of school. That was in a time where, once you’re in TV, you stayed in TV. You didn’t get to do film. I came out of school in 2000, and I booked (the NBC series) Crossing Jordan in January or February of 2001. So, my relationship with television has been ongoing, having always aspired to have a blossoming film career. That’s how you would prioritize things. But over time, I found that it’s less about the medium and way more about the quality of the material. This was just a 500-page film that happens to be captured on television. The gift of having an opportunity to sit in the body and be in the bones of a character like Wayne Hays, as an exercise for an actor, I know that I’m a better man, a better actor, and a better husband and father, as a result of my six and a half months playing this part. To do this type of material and to be that close to it, it requires you to process, reflect and think about the world and people, in a way that goes beyond how you would normally do that because I’m spending so much time in the bones of another person. I will say that, if Nic was gonna do that on the stage, I would have wanted to do that. The medium wasn’t as important to me. I want to continue to do film, and to find a balance with film and television, and maybe do more film than television, but I just really wanna be in a position where I’m improving, as a person and as an actor, and working with extraordinarily talented people who challenge me and who support me, as well. I just really want to get better. That’s really important to me.

I love the subtle differences in Wayne’s demeanor, in each time period. What was it like to make those distinctly different choices?


Image via HBO

ALI: It was really building from a place of what was necessary. They just felt like necessities. I had to make these certain choices and make decisions that felt organic and truthful to who he is, in the moment. In 1980, he’s a different person. He doesn’t lose the essence of who he is, but he’s a different person in 1990 than he is in 1980, after 10 years with a really intelligent, passionate woman, who he’s trying to keep up with, in some way, shape, or form. You might begin to talk a little bit quicker than you were in 1980, still dealing with the residual of being alone in the jungle, a few years earlier. And then, as he ages and his mind begins to deteriorate, his heart opens up and he becomes more affectionate, more emotional, more loving, and more giving. That happens so often to people, as they age and get older. There are people who grew up in a time when there were men’s men, but then they age and they want to connect to their daughter and see that love in her eyes, and that requires you to tell them what you think of them. And then, you’re dealing with the health elements, which all begin to impact. I remember being very conscious of breathing and articulation, and how those things start to change, as people get dentures. Your speech changes and it affects how you sound. So, I tried to be aware of those things. There’s the anxiety around memory and losing memory, and not being able to track a thought. That all connects back to speech, breath and body. If somebody’s embarrassed or they’re hot, that begins to do things to people’s bodies. So, you try to be aware of those things, and then you throw it all away because, at the end of the day, you can’t really wear your homework. You gotta just be it. But I did get to drive myself a little bit crazy for awhile, thinking about all of those things and trying to get it right. And then, come Saturday morning, you’ve gotta give yourself a day and a half not to think about it ‘cause you’re gonna be right back in there on Monday at 5 am, doing it again.

Because Wayne is losing his memory as he gets older, was the intent to make him an unreliable narrator?

PIZZOLATTO: I do think he’s a reliable narrator. I think we can trust what we’re seeing because when hard reality breaks, you know it. It’s clear, in the series, and when he’s in an episode, I feel like that’s clear. Generally, a rule that I try to stick to is, if you’re seeing it, it happened. I’m not gonna play a game with you, where I show you something and then I say that it didn’t really happen, like I fooled you, ‘cause that doesn’t feel like I fooled you, it just feels like I lied to you.

Nic, did you decide to set this in Arkansas because of your own ties there?


Image via HBO

PIZZOLATTO: Yes, I knew the place. I spent four great years there, so I was real familiar with the landscape. I always found it very evocative and mysterious, in very tangible ways. It’s one of those places that I thought was beautiful, but I didn’t think very many people knew about it. And when I started thinking about Wayne and the case, it just felt like it would be great to set this in northwest Arkansas.

Mahershala, how does the location lend to how your character acts and reacts in the environments?

ALI: Even hunting and looking for the children as the mystery involves, we were hiking with the camera crew for 30 minutes with all of the gear, to even start work. We’d find our location, and then begin our day shooting, after we hiked into the mountains for 20 minutes. I’m confident that just feeds you with something, as an actor, to be in the environment of the real mountains or the caves, in which this mystery started. One of the first things I do, when I get to a city to start working, is to walk it, just try to get a sense of the vibe and the spirit of the town, and to see if that gives me anything. Just being in that environment in Fayetteville, getting a sense of the people, and knowing that the story had to start 30-something years earlier, but still be in that city and space, is something that really has contributed to the way in which we were able to tell the story.

Nic, can you talk about the choice of directors for this season, including doing it yourself, for the first time?