From show creator Josh Corbin, the Hulu drama series Reprisal is a noir that follows a femme fatale named Katherine Harlow (Abigail Spencer) who, after being left for dead, reinvents herself and sets out to take revenge against those responsible. With her plan in motion, a determined Katherine, who now goes by Doris, will be forcing everyone to choose a side.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Spencer talked about the appeal of a project like Reprisal, working on back-to-back TV series, what a great character this is to play, the layers to explore in a role like this, how she’d been told the entire story ahead of shooting, and not wanting to control anyone’s perception of the characters that she plays.
Collider: This seems like such an insanely cool character to play.
ABIGAIL SPENCER: Yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s such a lovely continuation of some of the things I’ve gotten to explore in other characters. There’s just no limit to what is potentially going to happen. I feel like it was a role that was written for a man but I get to play her. We typically see a man in this part, and we’re seeing a woman do it and it’s wonderful. We’re seeing it in a super feminine, powerful way and I love that. I really love the cinematic style of the show. The filmmaking is what drew me in. When Jonathan van Tulleken and Josh Corbin told me how they wanted to make the show, it was pretty dreamy. The cinephile in me got excited about all of these references, all of the film noir, and all of these things that we want to resurrect. I love a world where you’re winking at the camera and it’s supposed to be fun. I like that undertone to it. You have to watch it to know what draws you in. There’s enough Coen brothers references and Quentin Tarantino. It’s been nice to go back and learn about the history of film and this genre of filmmaking.
You’ve gone from Rectify to Timeless to Reprisal, with some Grey’s Anatomy and Suits in the mix. Did you ever want to take a break, or were they all just projects that were impossible to not do?
SPENCER: That’s the dream. My mother would drop me off at Sunday school at church, when I was little, and she said when she’d come back to pick me up, she didn’t recognize me because I’d taken on all of the different personalities of all the other kids. She was like, “I think she might be an actor.” As I’m getting older, I actually feel like more of those opportunities are opening up to me. I’m getting to play different roles because they’re being written, which is great, and they’re being supported. I don’t care where something lives, as long as its good and the story is good. I just did this show, called Wayne, on YouTube, and it’s like one of the best things that I’ve ever done. It was this low-class, Boston drug addict, beauty queen, wreck of a woman, and it was incredible. I feel like something is opening up, not only in my work, but in the collective, in the world right now. I’m just happy to be a part of it. I always say that I caught the wave of the Golden Age of Television and came in at the right time. I had 10 years of experience when I got Mad Men, and I’ve just been riding this wave.
What was it that really drew you to this character?
SPENCER: I felt like Lucy, from Timeless, wore her heart on her sleeve. Scottie (from Suits) was very outspoken. And Amantha (from Rectify) was very outspoken. So, I was really looking for the opposite energy, of someone who had to keep it all hidden. This felt like that.
What can you say about who this woman is?
SPENCER: She is a woman who, from a very young age, was brought in my her brother, into the Brawlers world. This is all she new, this family and this infrastructure, and she was the star of it, and the representation of woman and femininity. And then, when she stood up to the masculine, they tied her to a track and dragged her through a field and left her for dead. That’s what we’re going through, in the world. The feminine is rising up. I do think that we have to go to the depths of what has been done to the feminine, and then to see it rise up is very real. What I like about it is that we’re gonna watch it in a way where it feels like another world, so we can have some separation from it, but we’re dealing with something that’s happening right now. But Josh Corbin thought of this nine years ago. It’s just so interesting, how the wave of this is rising at the same time. You’re gonna learn more about her history and past. She was the star of the burlesque club before. You will peel back the layers of her journey, and then see how she totally remade herself. I do believe that there is nothing more powerful than a woman who has been broken and rebuilt herself. This is that, completely and utterly actualized. I really appreciate that he chose burlesque because that is an art form, and it’s an art from of entertaining. On our show, we’ll explore different genders and gender play, and I think that will be really interesting.
I love how we get dropped into these people’s lives without really knowing what’s going on, initially. How much were you told, at the beginning?
SPENCER: Josh Corbin always joked, “Oh, yeah, I wrote a 20-page backstory for you,” and then he never sent it to me. We talked about it a lot, but a lot of it is imagination and taking the little seeds and planting it and seeing what blooms. I like that you pick up in the middle of the action and then you have to come back again to learn more. I was looking for a great story, and I like Hulu and I like cable pacing. I like that they’re artist-centric and filmmaker-driven, and you get that freedom on a network like Hulu, who allows you to do that. But Josh told me the whole story. I know the whole story. I know everything. He told it all to me, at our first meeting. Part of me is like, “I don’t need to know all of this. I already wanna do it.” He has it all in his brain. He’s been thinking about it and living in it and dreaming about it. He’s been thinking about these characters for years.I really care about what he thinks. He’s very encouraging, when I discover something or if I’m experimenting with something that isn’t scripted. We’re constantly bouncing ideas off of each other.
What can you say about characters that are in her life now?
SPENCER: There are some characters that are really important. W. Earl Brown’s character, Witt, is really important. He’s her safe space and he’s helping her devise this entire plan. He’s walking both edges. Brown and I both did True Detective, Rectify, and a movie but we’ve never had any scenes together. Now we’re working together a lot and he’s such a great actor. The backstory for her and Mena Massoud’s character, Ethan, is that they work together. I run this catering and restaurant empire for my husband, Tommy, in Detroit and Ethan works there. He was working towards being a sous-chef, and he got into a fight and something happened, and I used that to get him out of town. That’s a really pivotal relationship. Then, I commingle with Burt, my brother, and Joel, my best friend, and Bash, who was my husband. They all think she’s dead.
Are there challenges specific to playing someone who does have to keep things so internal because she doesn’t want to reveal what she’s doing?
SPENCER: It’s just a lot of energy and it’s managing the energy. It’s fun to play with. I don’t know the answer to this, but how does the audience member feel what she’s feeling without anything going on and without external tells? I’m just playing with that challenge and we’ll see if it works.
Do you then have to throw away the notion of worrying about whether or not she’s sympathetic to an audience?
SPENCER: I gave that up a long time ago, trying to control anybody else’s perception. There are important storytelling moments where you have to reveal what’s going on just so you know what’s going on. It’s about how to measure that out.
Reprisal is available to stream now on Hulu.