From showrunner Susannah Grant and inspired by real events, the eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable is a story of unspeakable trauma, and the strength and resilience that you can discover within yourself, as a result. When 18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever, giving a reserved but remarkable performance) reports that she’s been sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home in 2008, everyone from her former foster parents to her friends to the investigating detectives doubt the truth of her story. Meanwhile, in 2011 and hundreds of miles away, Detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) find themselves investigating a pair of intruder rapes that are eerily similar to Marie’s experience, and they partner to catch what is clearly a serial rapist.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Kaitlyn Dever talked about why this is such an important story to tell, feeling so deeply connected to her character, why she felt she owed it to Marie to give this project her all, gauging the emotion of the performance, what most saddened her about the treatment of Marie when she reported this crime, and what she did to leave the role behind. She also talked about what she’s been up to, since finishing this project, including making music and doing an episode of the upcoming FX anthology series Platform.
Collider: First, I have to say that everyone in this does truly terrific, remarkable work. It’s such a difficult story to watch, but it’s an important one, and I thought it was handled really beautifully and delicately.
KAITLYN DEVER: Yeah, thank you for saying that.
I’ve been a big fan of your work and I’ve been following your career since Justified. I thought you were terrific in that series and made a lasting impression among a group of very memorable characters, and you were also tremendous in Unbelievable. When this came your way, how much were you told about what it would be?
DEVER: Yeah, I knew immediately when I read the script that it was going to be a story that really mattered to me and to the people who watched it. It’s a really compelling story, and I knew that the people behind it and creating it definitely had a lot of respect for it, and I knew that it was gonna be done really right. That’s your only hope, doing something like this, with a story that is so difficult. Talking about this subject matter is definitely important. I didn’t know about Marie’s story beforehand, and I think that goes for a lot of people. I think a lot of people don’t know about this story, in particular, even though there was a podcast and the article and the This American Life piece. I just immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of it.
You’ve previously talked about feeling very emotionally connected to this character, and how that hadn’t really happened to you before. Why do you think you felt so deeply for her? What was it about her that really spoke to you?
DEVER: I think it was her bravery, at the core of it, her character, and who she is. She is such a strong person, who had to undergo so much unthinkable tragedy in her life. I knew that, if someone gave me the opportunity to be able to bring that to life, on screen and in a show that’s going to be seen by a bunch of Netflix [subscribers], it just made me so happy to be a part of a part of telling her story.
You’ve also talked about how getting to play this character was the hardest thing that you’ve ever had to do in your career. Were you prepared for how difficult that would be? Were there things that you did to protect yourself, emotionally, throughout the production, or did you have to let that go and give over to her, at least for the length of the shoot?
DEVER: Growing up and watching films and TV, I’ve always had such an understanding of what a really good role means to me and what it means to people watching it. I know when it’s good and I know when it’s done with so much effort, and I know the difference when it’s not. And I know that in my work and what I do, it’s a hard thing to get into. It’s so hard to be given an opportunity like this. As an actor, I feel so lucky. Because of all of these opportunities that people give me, I know that I have to just give it my all. That’s my mind-set with everything that I do and all of the work that I do. So, when this project came to me, I felt that feeling, times a hundred. Because of the subject matter and the story, I just had to forget about the way that I felt, for a second, ‘cause it wasn’t necessarily about me anymore and it wasn’t about the way I felt. I can put in that work for four months, and I’ll be okay. I can recover and come out the other end of it. I think that I just owed it to Marie. I put that pressure on myself, on purpose, because I knew how much it meant to me, and I almost had no other choice. I just had to do it right. I had to give it my all.
Once the shoot was finished, did you do anything to finally just leave it all behind?
DEVER: Yeah, there were little things that I did. Music is a huge release for me, sometimes. The best thing for me to do is just to go home, and eat with my family and sleep, and then go back to work, and do it all over again. If people were talking to me, I was light and jokey on the outside, but on the inside, at my core, I was constantly thinking about her and about what she could have possibly gone through, during all of this. I feel like I just had to stay in it.
Your performance in this is devastating to watch, but it’s also subtle because this girl has to keep more and more of her feelings to herself, as she realizes that everyone around her is doubting what she’s saying. Were there a lot of conversations about how to gauge that, especially with your showrunner, Susannah Grant?
DEVER: I feel like it was constantly a conversation that we had, every day. We took it very, very lightly, and I didn’t ever feel there was a lot of pressure put on me. I felt very nurtured and comfortable around the people involved. There were always conversations. No scene felt more difficult than the other. Now, looking back on it, every scene felt important, and I really felt like we were really doing it right. We also an advisor on set with us, who knows exactly how sexual assault cases go. She was always there on set, every day, just making sure everything was accurate and done properly, which was super helpful for us.
It’s really heartbreaking to watch how Marie has dealt with when she’s reporting her rape, compared to the way that the other detectives deal with their victims. When it came to that aspect of the story and really seeing that gap, what made you most heartbroken, or sad, or angry, when you saw how different the treatment was?
DEVER: The thing that made me so sad is that she had to re-tell that story, over and over again. I can only imagine how many times she was thinking about it, in her head, but then having to say it out loud to someone, and to repeat it to people that she doesn’t even know, it just felt like a cycle of assault. There is the initial assault, and then she’s almost just getting punched in the face, over and over again, and taking it. She’s really going through a lot. During one of the interviews with the detectives, I felt this feeling that actually wasn’t expected. I didn’t expect to feel that way, but I was doing the interview scenes, and we had two full days to get all of them done, and I was sitting there and telling the story, and I knew I was telling the truth, and I knew that I was playing a character that was telling the truth. The response I was getting was not necessarily mean, because the cops weren’t being mean or rude, but the way that they were asking me questions almost didn’t really feel like they believed me, when they were asking me those questions. It immediately made me feel small, and it made me feel like a little kid that was in trouble. I didn’t expect to feel that. It was a really big feeling that I had, and I didn’t expect that. It just made it all the more clear to me, how sad it was. It was all shocking and heartbreaking. The whole show is difficult subject matter, but the first episode is really the one to get through, and then the rest of the show is actually really informative and compelling. When I was watching it, even though I was a part of the story, I couldn’t stop watching it.
Do you know what you’re going to be working on next?
DEVER: I did just get attached to a project that I actually can’t talk about, sadly, but I’m very excited about it. I’ve just been reading a lot and deciding what it is that I want to do next, and what feels good to me, and what feels honest and right and different, at the same time. So, I’m definitely reading things, and I’m working on music with my sister (Mady Dever). We’re in a band (called Beulahbelle) together. And I just did an episode for an anthology series, called Platform, that BJ Novak directed. That has Lucas Hedges in it, and O’Shea Jackson. It’s gonna be really cool project that’s going to be exciting for people to see. That’s what I’m doing right now.
Unbelievable is available to stream at Netflix.