The dark crime thriller Rellik, a six-part limited series told in reverse and airing on Cinemax, follows U.K. police detective Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer), a man determined to track down the serial killer who left him physically and emotionally scarred after a horrific acid attack. Beginning with the apprehension and death of the presumed killer and then working backwards to how it all started, Gabriel and his team – which includes Elaine (Jodi Balfour), the new transfer who’s a bit too close with her partner, and the police chief (Ray Stevenson), who has his own secrets – keep trying to put the pieces together, leading them to the ultimate horrific discovery.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jodi Balfour (who gives an intense performance as DI Elaine Shepard) talked about how much she knew about her character’s story arc when she signed on, her reaction to learning how the mystery would play out, telling the story in such an unconventional way, and the experience of working with Richard Dormer. She also talked about why she wanted to be a part of Season 3 of HBO’s True Detective, how much she misses her character on the far too short-lived Cinemax series Quarry, and what it was like to play Jackie Kennedy on Netflix’s The Crown. Be aware that major spoilers are discussed.
Collider: What were you actually told about this character and her story arc, in the beginning? Since you didn’t have all of the answers up front, what was it that made you want to sign on?
JODI BALFOUR: The funny thing is, for my very first audition, I was incredibly blind about the reality of the role and the show, to an extent. I had only read one episode when I went in to meet Sam Miller, who directed the bulk of it. In the audition, we really just focused on the more romantic scenes with [Richard Dormer’s] character. He kept pushing me and directing me, in a much more strange way, having me do these long, penetrating gazes, and he always wanted me to hang on words a little bit longer than a totally rational person would. And so, even then, regardless of whether or not she was responsible for the murders, I remember thinking, “There’s something much darker and deeper here than is on the surface and that’s more than what’s on the page.” And then, when the offer came through, we were still not the truth of the matter, but we were told that she was very instrumental in the big twist, and we put two and two together. At the first table read with everybody at the BBC, most of the cast had no idea, but me and Richard knew. I was sitting there reading the first two episodes with everyone and, at some point, everyone was chatting and saying, “Who do you think it is? Is it one of us?” I had to keep quiet for the longest time because lots of people didn’t know.
Before you actually knew, had you suspected yourself?
BALFOUR: Only in reading between the lines. I think an audience member would agree that the first couple of episodes do a really good job at not pointing to me, in any indirect way. When I accepted the job, I’d read five of the scripts. The sixth hadn’t been written yet. If anything, people who enjoy the act of guessing might point to Elaine, just because of how quiet she is in the first two episodes. She’s just a presence, more than anything else. But I truly had no idea, with that first audition that I had. It was only down the line that I was like, “Holy shit, that makes this much more exciting!”
Not just learning that she’s responsible, but also learning the circumstances of it, what was your reaction to finally getting all of that information?
BALFOUR: I was daunted, to be honest, to wrap my head around sociopathy, as an idea, and really understanding what that means for a human experience, and then also having to be honest and truthful about the kind of childhood she had, and investigating how that impacts a person. It’s actually fascinating. I don’t know if you watched this season of Mindhunter, but it’s a fascinating thing to watch, from the other side, learning how people up, until a certain point, really didn’t believe life experience could change someone for the worst and believed that people were born evil. Elaine is such a great example of how childhood trauma or adult trauma can really flip a switch in somebody. I found that all really interesting, but I was also incredibly daunted because I wanted to make sure I understood it, as well as I possibly could.
What was it like to tell a story like this, in such an unconventional way? After you read the scripts, were you ever tempted to pull them apart and put it together, to read it in order?
BALFOUR: Oh, yeah, definitely! The wonderful part was that one of the scriptwriters did me and Richard a huge favor and gave us each a little Elaine binder and a Gabriel binder. It wasn’t all of the scripts, but it was all of our scenes, chronologically, so we had our own little timeline binders. But I must say, without any disrespect to the writers, that it’s definitely a story that was constructed to be told in reverse. The minute you start looking at it chronologically, there are a few holes. You have to just suspend your own disbelief. We told the story this way for a reason. It’s not meant to be as logical as people are tempted to try to make it. It’s been interesting to look at the audience response because people are definitely in two camps with not much gray area, in between. Some people find it relentlessly demanding, and other people really enjoy the challenge of being invited along, as a detective or problem-solver. It’s definitely fun for those people.
When I talked to Richard Dormer, he said this was the hardest shoot he’s ever done, and he sounded like he had a miserable time with the prosthetics.
BALFOUR: I can confirm that. We had a good time teasing him, though – me and all the women in the makeup trailer. We loved to tell him, “Welcome to being a woman in a period drama.” His [call time] was two hours or so ahead of time, and if you’re a woman, that’s pretty much a standard [call time] for hair and make-up. But that could not have been enjoyable for him, at all. We also shot mostly in the warm months, and we were working with fire and running around, doing all of this action stuff. He had this thing on his face and he was sweating underneath it, and it was itchy and uncomfortable. Prosthetics are not for sissies, that’s for sure.
Richard spoke very highly of his experience working with you. What was it like to have him to go through so much of this with, as a scene partner?
BALFOUR: He’s wonderful. He’s such a serious actor, and I mean that in the best sense of that phrase. He and I were each other’s partner in crime, no pun intended. A lot of it was under the gun, and we were getting rewrites that were quite last minute. Because of the nature of telling it backwards, there was a lot of crunchiness to work out. As an actor, you still have to metabolize what you’re doing and find reasons to motivate what you’re doing, and a lot of that was confusing a lot of the time. He was my greatest ally, in us trying to make sure that we were being honest and realistic, and that we were always trying to serve the greater good, for the story’s sake. It was really wonderful. He takes everything really seriously, but at the same time, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is great. We had lots of laughs, as well, purely because Richard is Irish, and it’s impossible for them not to have the best sense of humor in the world. I don’t know if it’s what they have for breakfast in the morning, but I’ve never met an Irishman who didn’t leave me in stitches.
At least you had a few laughs because it seems like, otherwise, it might have been emotionally tortuous.
BALFOUR: Oh, yeah, it was, for sure. Honestly, I think that’s a bit of a survival tactic. If you were to stay in it the whole time, between setups and between takes, all day, every day, it would have become a little bleak. You rely on your company of actors. I don’t know what I would have done without the other guys that played the other police people, with the hours and hours and hours we spent in a really grimy, dingy building in East London, playing word games and guessing games. It was truly the best.