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, Aussie actress Toni Collette talked about why she wanted to be a part of telling this story, how meaningful and timely this project is, why it was important to her to be as truthful as possible with the representation of the material, what she loved about playing and exploring this character, what it was like to have Merritt Wever to go through this experience with, and her hope that things will continue to change when it comes the difference between the male and female experience. She also talked about why she signed on for Guillermo del Toro’s next film Nightmare Alley, her experience on Knives Out and what most surprised her about Rian Johnson as a filmmaker, and learning that it’s necessary to find a healthy way to co-exist with the characters that she plays.
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.
TONI COLLETTE: Oh, that’s so nice of you to say. Thank you. Everyone felt a certain amount of responsibility, so that was definitely our intention.
When this came your way, how much did you know about what it would be, about what it would be exploring and who this character would become?
COLLETTE: I hadn’t heard of this woman and her experience. The idea of the project came to me, along with the ProPublica article, so I read that, and then I met with Susannah Grant, the creator, producer, writer, director and showrunner, and her producing partner, and we talked about it, at length. I immediately wanted to do it. It is so important and so meaningful and so timely. I also loved my character. At that point, I hadn’t read any scripts. As they came through, it was really exciting to see how things unfolded, having heard the initial skeleton of the story. I got as much information as possible, but I knew the general thrust of where things were going. It was just an incredible group of people, both on and off the screen, and very exciting to me. I just think there couldn’t be a better time. The conversation has changed. There’s a certain amount of openness to it now. I don’t know whether this would have been made in the past, and I don’t know whether she would’ve been treated in the same way, if she’d experienced what she experienced now. It’s very recent change, and thank god.
What was most important to you, when it came to telling this story and the representation of this material, with these characters?
COLLETTE: That it was as truthful as possible, and that none of it was gratuitous, none of it was sensationalized, none of it would be dramatized, and no one would be demonized, even the guys who got it wrong, at the beginning. There’s a scene at the end, where I meet up with him, and he just can’t believe that he fucked up so grandly. In that scene, there was part of me that just wanted to give him the stink-eye, and Susannah just kept telling me, “No, pull back, pull back, pull back.” As a detective, you don’t always get it right. It was a grave mistake, but mistakes do happen. It just is so horrible, though, that it just really ruined Marie’s life for a substantial period of time.
All of the women in this are so interesting, complex and layered, and it’s fascinating to watch it all peel back throughout the episodes. Even though this is very heavy subject matter, what did you enjoy about playing this woman and getting to explore her life?
COLLETTE: It’s funny, we’re on this press tour and I’ve been listening to Kaitlyn [Dever] talk about her experience and to Danielle Macdonald’s experience, and usually I’m the actress playing that part. I’m the one who’s feeling all of the emotions and reacting to things, emotionally, and there’s a certain amount of struggle. With my character in this, it was almost a relief to be able to play someone who was helping find the resolve. Not one character is cliched in this. I loved just how complicated both Grace and Karen are. I’m 46 years old, and I get to play this ballsy, forthright woman, who says what she thinks and doesn’t take any shit, and has a swagger and a muscle car. It was a complete thrill. What an amazing opportunity.
It’s such a fun balance to watch you and Merritt Wever because the characters are so different. They don’t really know what to make of each other, but they still like each other.
COLLETTE: And my character is such a lone wolf. She’s really resistant to working with anybody. At times, she doesn’t even let her husband in, she’s so consumed by work. So, for this God-loving, softly spoken, woman full of empathy to come in and chase her around for awhile, finally she lets her defenses down and they start working together. I think it really is life-changing for my character.
What it like for you to have Merritt Wever to go through all of this with?
COLLETTE: It was everything. I love her. I have such respect for her. She’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant actress and a brilliant person. I really admire her. I think we had a sense of mutual respect, and I can’t imagine having done it with anybody else. She’s very special.
This is a really solid true crime drama, but at the same time, you really see what the gap between the male and female experience is like. When it came to that aspect of the story, what made you the most heartbroken, sad or angry, when you saw the obvious difference in treatment?