Created by Ken Woodruff (Gotham, The Mentalist), the new NBC series The Enemy Within is a psychological thriller that follows Erica Shepherd (Jennifer Carpenter), a brilliant former CIA operative who is now known as one of the biggest traitors in recent American history. When the FBI has to track down a very dangerous and elusive terrorist, they realize that they must get Shepherd our of the Supermax prison where she’s serving a life sentence, so that she can help them catch the same criminal who directly lead her down the path to treason.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jennifer Carpenter talked about why the pilot script for The Enemy Within appealed to her, whether she thinks her character’s intentions are pure, who Erica Shepherd is, at this point in her life, what she enjoys about the dynamic she gets to explore with Morris Chestnut, who plays FBI Agent Will Keaton, whether her character could ever be redeemed, the season’s big bad, and the collaborative vibe of the series.
Collider: I’ve seen the first two episodes and this is definitely an edge of your seat type of show. I’m excited to see more of the season.
JENNIFER CARPENTER: Well, good. That’s a good sign. I haven’t seen much myself. We haven’t done much ADR, so I’ve only experienced it. I haven’t seen it.
I would imagine that a fair amount of TV pilot scripts come your way. What was it about this one that made it rise above the others and really catch your attention?
CARPENTER: I just couldn’t believe the emotional acrobatics that it was asking of an actor, in the pilot episode. It felt more like cable than it did network and I thought, “If NBC is gonna muscle up and raise the bar, then I want to do that.” That was one of the discussions that (writer/executive producer) Ken [Woodruff] and I had very early on. I wanted to know what his intentions were, for the rest of the series, and that was basically his first answer. He said something very similar. And for the record, I don’t get sent a bunch of pilot scripts. I audition, like everybody else, and I really wanted this one.
What’s that like, when you do come across a character that you really like and respond to like that, and then you have to make sure that nobody else gets the role?
CARPENTER: I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the only thing that I have any control over is the four to five minutes that I’m in that room. Maybe that’s an illusion, too, but for that period of time, the role is mine, so I just do it how I would do it. When you decide that you want something, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s fantastic that you’ve met material that you respond to and that you feel like you have the equipment to serve, but on the flip side of that, it means that our entire family has to make a sacrifice and move out of state and take this gamble, when really you want information that just doesn’t exist, like how long do you think it will go? Should we be renting? There are so many questions that you just have to live with, and be okay with that.
When you have those instances, where you really want something and you don’t get it, do you find that you still watch whatever the project is, or do you try to just avoid that it exists?
CARPENTER: To be perfectly honest, I don’t watch much, so I wouldn’t say that I necessarily seek it out. But when I do see material that I wanted or had a shot at, sometimes it’s a relief because you think, “Oh, well, we look nothing alike,” or “Wow, we had totally different takes on it.” And then, sometimes you see it and you say, “Wow, I didn’t imagine it going like that,” and you learn a little something. So often, it’s about something that has nothing to do with you or what you turned in, in that room. There are so many politics. Suddenly, it matters how many Twitter followers you have. I just don’t have the extra time to chase something like that, and I don’t know how much of my personal life is supposed to infect people’s thinking, when they watch something that I’m doing.
What are the layers in this character that you find appealing?
CARPENTER: I have a real visceral reaction to hearing other people talk about my character. For example, when Morris [Chestnut] has done it in some of the press, he’ll make these statements, and I immediately want to jump in and say, “That’s not true! How do you know that?” But, that’s the fun of the show. It’s all about perception. As soon as someone’s perception of me is revealed, it becomes my job where, if I were a fish, I’d swim away into a foggy fishbowl, where they’d lose me a little bit. Ken has said, “She did this for her daughter,” but I’m like, “How do you know that? How do you know that it’s not some bigger thing.” He’s the creator, so he probably does know, but that’s not how I’ve chosen to play it. I’m not entirely sure that her intentions are pure. They may be based in good, but they’re not pure.
What does it mean to be someone like her, who is charged with treason and espionage against her country? How has that shaped who she is when we meet her now?
CARPENTER: The work is equally a passion and an addiction for her, and I think it’s in her DNA, at this point. I think her curiosity was sparked by her father’s work. Certainly, she was given acceptance by him when she showed interest. And the thing that I’ve been really loving exploring is this immovable sense of patriotism that seems so lacking, in our day-to-day news cycle and conversation. I talk about moving out of state and making some changes, but that doesn’t compare to the sacrifices that people like the Deputy Director of the CIA or Will Keaton at the FBI would make. They’re sacrificing safety, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting behind what desk, in what oval room. It’s about being good eyes and ears, and having good information for the main players in the country that makes big plays in the world. That’s why it’s short-sighted to pull one thread out of this piece and think that you can dissect it and understand it. At the CIA, if you make a decision, maybe a few people will get hurt or sacrificed, but maybe it will save hundreds of thousands of lives. Maybe Erica or Will don’t even know what the endgame is. They just have to play their cards, as best they can.
There’s such an interesting dynamic to the relationship between Erica Shepherd and Will Keaton because they’re personally antagonistic, and he also represents the FBI while she represents the CIA, which means that they’ll always be head-to-head with each other. What is that like to play and explore with Morris Chestnut?
CARPENTER: I have compared us to athletes before because we both show up on time, we both show up prepared, and we train hard. We rarely have to do a lot of talking or rehearsing a scene, before we can just turn the cameras on and show off our homework, and that’s exciting. He’s a good sparing partner. He’s also incredibly kind and generous, and a family man, which is a blessing. I’m the first one out the door, when we wrap, but as far as I know, nobody’s hitting the bars after, or looking to find out where the next red carpet is. Everybody’s there to do their work, and then go home and take care of their lives. And Morris helps to set that tone, which is lovely.
This seems like a woman who is perfectly content with punishing herself. What do you think it would take to get her to a place where she could actually not feel that way?
CARPENTER: Before prison, she had a pretty strong game face that she could easily access, the same way that I can go to work and make believe all of these horrible, difficult, and emotional things sometimes, but I know exactly how to get out of it and check it all at the door, and then go home and be with the people that I love. However, she did go to prison, and she spent three years at a max facility federal prison, which if you Google it, is a horrible place where it would take no time for someone to lose their mind. So, there’s a part of her that believes all of this, being out of there, is the afterlife. It’s all borrowed time, in a way. Believe it or not, there is a levity to it. I wouldn’t call it joy, but she’s feeling useful again and sharper than she has, especially seeing her daughter. She’s maybe finding access to the two sides of herself a little more easily than she had before.