The Apple TV+ original drama Truth Be Told follows Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer, who’s also an executive producer on the series), a podcaster who has dug back into a murder case that made her a national sensation. While coming face-to-face with the man (Aaron Paul) she may have mistakenly helped to put behind bars, in order to figure out the truth in her pursuit of justice, she must also deal with demons in her own family.
During the show’s Los Angeles press day, co-stars Lizzy Caplan (who plays both Lanie Buhrman Dunn, the daughter of the murder victim, and her twin sister Josie Buhrman, who never recovered from the loss of their father) and Elizabeth Perkins (who plays Melanie Cave, the mother of convicted murderer Warren) talked about bringing such broken characters to life, the special challenges with playing twins, the themes of the story that they found most interesting, why they felt this was an important story to tell, shaking off their characters and leaving them at work, and how having more women behind the scenes changes the atmosphere on set. Caplan also talked about what it was like to explore a character like Annie Wilkes within the world of the Hulu TV series Castle Rock.
Question: This production is full of broken characters, whether it be physically, mentally, emotionally, or whatever. How did you find that element for your character, and how did you want to bring that to life?
ELIZABETH PERKINS: For me, it was, I lost my best friend to cancer at 42, almost 20 years ago. From the beginning, to the very moment she passed, I was with her, every step of the way. It was the same diagnosis, too, so for me, that was pretty personal. And I have three stepsons, so the investment there, as a mother, was also pretty personal. And the thought of one of my children being incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit was really the dark place that you have to go. How do you move on from that? How do you go, “I’m gonna get together with friends for coffee,” or “I think I’m gonna go buy myself a new dress.” How do you go to work? So, it was a pretty dark place to be, actually.
LIZZY CAPLAN: As an actress, I’m not particularly drawn to characters that seem to have everything figured out. I like the ones that are having trouble making their way through life. I also think that, as you get a little older, luckily, those really aren’t roles you see as much, as you do when you’re on a teen show and everybody is playing this archetypal thing. So, I’m drawn to these types of characters, anyway, but I also don’t consider it my job to judge them or their behavior. I just need to figure out why, in this moment, this person thinks that their actions or what they’re saying is correct. Everybody is the hero of their own story. Nobody sees themselves as the villain. So, it’s figuring out how to make their journeys make sense, in their own minds. I feel like that’s the name of the game.
Lizzy, were there special challenges to doing that twice, to play twins?
CAPLAN: Yeah. It takes twice as long. The days are really, really long. If you’re playing twins, you miss out on the magic that can happen with another person in a scene. It’s a little lonely and it’s a lot more technical. You have to think about it like, “Okay, I remember that I did that this way. I wanted to do it that way, so this person needs to have that reaction, even though the person I am now acting opposite is a stand-in and not what will be on the screen.” It just takes a lot of preparation, beforehand. There was no learning lines in the make-up chair, on this job. Not that I’ve ever done that, ever.
PERKINS: I definitely did that, on this one.
This show is written and produced by females, and it stars really powerful females. What was it like working on such a female-centered project?
PERKINS: I’ve been really lucky, this past couple of years. I did Sharp Objects with Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson, and it was created by Marti Noxon and Gilian Flynn. And I went straight from that into this, with Octavia [Spencer] and Nichelle [D. Tramble], and a really strong woman’s presence. It would be nice if that wasn’t so novel. It would be a great feeling, if that was just common place and it didn’t stand out so much. But it was great to see the female perspective on the written page, which we don’t get to see very often. Also, to have a really strong leader, like Octavia, she’s incredibly grounded and, for her, it’s very much about the work. I was blessed again.
CAPLAN: It will be very exciting to not get asked that question, but I do think progress is being made. Yes, it’s slow, but it felt really slow for a long time. Now, it feels like it’s actually picking up. It’s something that people care about, partly because they know they’re gonna be asked this question, honestly.
PERKINS: There’s accountability now, as well, and that’s really helpful because we have important stories to tell. I’m 59, and there’s just not a lot of people who are writing stories for women my age, even though there’s a huge market and it’s an untapped market man. If you want to really look at it from a fiscal standpoint, I think it would behove many studios to embrace older women’s stories. I really do. You see these movies with Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas, and they’re going on some road trip. And then, they do Book Club, and we don’t all just sit around and read. We go on road trips and get lap dances, too.
Do you think having more women behind the scenes changes the atmosphere on set?
PERKINS: Oh, 100%. I can tell, by reading a script, whether it’s been written by a woman or by a man. They’ll give the female character a lot to say, but it’s usually about him. Even when she’s talking about the relationship, it’s about him, instead of talking about their own hopes and dreams and desires. I’ve noticed that, big time.
CAPLAN: Television has always been a better place for women’s roles. You can look back and see, for decades, that women have been allowed to be complicated on television, in a way that I still don’t fully think they are in film. Of course, you still have the numerous thankless wife roles in TV sitcoms. That still exist, but people are moving away from that. They want to see flawed and interesting women, as much as they want to see flawed and interesting men. That’s always been the case, but now we’re starting to see the content reflect that.
Were there themes in this that were particularly interesting for you guys?
CAPLAN: When we listen to podcasts, one of the messages that we’re trying to get across is that it’s very easy to forget that these are real human beings that we’re talking about, and these murdered people that we all gossip about, around the water cooler, have families and people that love them, and they’ve lived full lives. It’s worth taking a minute to consider everybody, as a fully formed human being. Obviously, right now, it seems like our culture is moving so far away from that, that if you’re on my team, you’re a human being, but if you’re on the other team, you’re really not. You can see the changes happening. I think we’re in a period of super uncomfortable growth right now, but I’m hoping that we ended up growing, as a culture, and there’s another side to this. Totally unrelated, but if you think about what America and the world did to Monica Lewinsky, when she was a child, or a really young woman, now I do believe that at least there would be some segment of the population that would be like, “Hold on a second, let’s see this as a person.” And it does feel like things are moving in that direction, but before we get there, we’ve gotta go through the worst possible time and version of this tribalism.
PERKINS: It’s a reckoning. That phrase alternate facts.
CAPLAN: Alternate facts. What the fuck?!
PERKINS: There are times, during the course of the eight episodes, where Poppy maybe doesn’t have it right. She’ll land on something and say, “Yeah, this is it.” But then, she’ll be like, “Now, wait a minute. What about this?” It’s all about, how far do you push it, to get to the truth? This show examines, when this murder happens, there’s this ripple effect. And when you reopen the case, that ripple starts all over again. What each family and each individual goes through, in terms of trauma, is all opened up again, including for Poppy. You see how this case has played out, over the years, and is playing out again, right now.
CAPLAN: It’s about what you inherit from your family, and how you take that trauma and move through the world. There’s a lot of victims in this show, and a lot of people who perceive themselves as victims who aren’t necessarily.
Why did you feel it was important to tell this specific story?
PERKINS: For me, it was Octavia Spencer. I definitely was drawn to it because they said, “Octavia is producing this.” And then, once I read it, I said, “This is a great story to tell.” It’s tapping into the zeitgeist of podcasts, but it’s also presenting it from a much more human standpoint because you’re not just listening to it, you’re actually seeing what these people are living through, and what they’re living through, as it’s being reopened. So, I was attracted to it for that. Plus, I had Aaron Paul, Lizzy, Michael [Beach], Ron [Cephas Jones], and just a great group of people. You just don’t get a cast like this very often.
CAPLAN: We’ve got a very solid cast, for sure. My answer is the same. It was Octavia, and the script was really good. It was exciting because we really had no idea what Apple was gonna be. It felt like it could have some real broad appeal, on top of being something that I found personally interesting. That doesn’t often occur.
PERKINS: I feel like this show could keep going, if Poppy does a different podcast, every year, or re-examines different cases, every year. I think it could actually work for different stories.
What do you hope this show will say about re-litigating some of these crimes in public?
CAPLAN: It’s tricky. It’s a case by case thing. There are so many falsely accused people who are sitting behind bars right now, and you would hope that eventually somebody would shine some kind of light on each case and bring the attention that needs to be brought to it, to right all of these wrongs, but that’s not really a realistic possibility. Anytime you can reopen a case that wasn’t a hundred percent cut and dry, you should do it because, when you think about all of these people sitting there, who haven’t done anything, it’s really heartbreaking.
PERKINS: It’s a double-edged sword, in that it’s traumatizing for every person that’s involved. In our specific case, my character knows that her son is innocent, and every person has their own personal story through this. For my character, he’s innocent, period. But for Lizzy’s character, he’s not, he’s guilty. It’s traumatic, regardless of who really did it.
CAPLAN: When a family gone through something as horrific as one of the members of the family getting murdered, people want answers and closure, and sometimes they’d rather have that closure than the truth. If there’s decades between that first conviction and reopening a case, there’s this weird purgatory that you can’t get out of, and you can’t enjoy your own life, but if you knew for sure that he did it, maybe you could. So, lots of things that need to happen, in order for the free members of the family to move on with their lives. I wouldn’t be surprised, if they didn’t want to reopen whatever the case is.
Poppy is a woman whose career was really set in motion because of a decision that she made. In your own lives, was there a moment that you feel really changed your own career?
PERKINS: When I did the show Weeds, it was a big shift for me because I’d always played really nice girls before that. It was really an opportunity for me to play somebody who was just out of her mind, dangerous, and crazy. That was a real shift for me. Then, I started getting drunk alcoholic offers.
CAPLAN: Probably doing Masters of Sex, just because I was doing primarily comedy before then. Even True Blood, right before then, I was trying out being a dramatic actress. That just opened up what I personally thought I could do.
Lizzy, the work you did in the second season of Castle Rock was just tremendous, but it also seems like a very different experience, as an actor, to find a way to stay true to what we know of a familiar character while also not being beholden to it because it’s a different time in her life. How did that whole process feel, for you, to find your own take on Annie Wilkes?
CAPLAN: I was scared to take that job, which part of the reason why I knew I was going to do it was because it scared me so much. I love Misery. I love what Kathy Bates did, as Annie Wilkes. To me, that is Annie Wilkes. But with Castle Rock, a lot of the work was done for me, just based on what happens, with the story, the plot of each individual episode, and the series, as a whole. You don’t see the Misery Annie Wilkes particularly terrified. At the very end of that movie, you see that she’s scared, but before then, she’s in total control. She’s very isolated. She doesn’t interact with the outside world or with society. In our show, Annie is trying to keep her illnesses at bay. She’s self-medicating. She’s working. She’s taking care of a daughter. And she’s scared shitless, based on all of this crazy stuff that’s happening around her, in the town of Castle Rock. So, the actual plot of the story makes it feel like a different Annie, hopefully. Also, I’m a different person, so that also does the work. But I knew I wanted to tip my hat to her performance and, hopefully, have it feasibly work, that my version of Annie could become that Annie, down the line.
How much time was there between shooting Castle Rock and shooting Truth Be Told?
CAPLAN: Truth Be Told, we shot over a year ago. And then, Castle Rock wrapped three weeks ago.
How do you shake off these dark characters?
CAPLAN: I don’t have such an issue with that, to be honest. I fully respect every actor’s version of the process, and we all have to do whatever we need to do to mean it, in the moments that we are on camera. In the middle of a take, you have to just be telling the truth. For me, I can focus that into the space of time between the director saying, “Action!,” and the director saying, “Cut!” I don’t like to walk around the set, holding onto it. I don’t like to go home with it. Sometimes it creeps in. For Castle Rock, it was easy because the way she spoke, the way she was, and the way she thinks about the world is so separate from my own that it was easy to change back into my own clothes and just be myself again. With Truth Be Told, playing two characters, because I was constantly switching back and forth, shook off any of those cobwebs that I might have been driving home, thinking about. Lanie and Annie are two of the most disturbed women I’ve ever played, and I found it the easiest to shake them off, at the end of the day.
Elizabeth, since you were recalling such a personal moment, when it came to playing your character, was it harder for you to shake it off, or was it cathartic?
PERKINS: To be honest with you, taking the bald cap off, every night, which took about 45 minutes, really allowed me the opportunity to shed that. Once I walked out of the make-up trailer, it was gone. They would wash my hair for me, and that was definitely enough time to walk away from it.
Were you happy to leave the bald cap behind and never have to see it again?
PERKINS: Yeah, although there was something really freeing about not wearing any make-up. If she went out, she put a little lipstick on, but that was about it. For a lot of us, it’s so much time and so much work. I really envy the men come in the make-up trailer and be good.
CAPLAN: They’ll shave and have a burrito.
PERKINS: And then, they’ll walk around, while you’re an hour and a half. Even though it took three and a half hours to put on, I really got along with the make-up artist. I’d put my headphones on and relax into it. I envy that the men can come in, and then walk right out. It was totally vanity free. To be on film without anything on your face is really fun. I’d like to do it a lot more. And not because I’m dying, but because that’s how people are.
With all of the characters that you’ve already played, are there any that you really want to pursue?
CAPLAN: Yeah. I think there’s way more that I haven’t done than I have. There’s a million. Right now, everything’s changing so much. We’re getting so many talented female writers and doing these limited series, and it feels like a really luxurious movie. You get all of the best parts of TV, where you get a new script, every week, and your characters do a bunch of different stuff.
PERKINS: But you’re not stuck doing the same thing for 23 episodes.
CAPLAN: Exactly. So, getting to bounce around and do that is good. Variation feels like the name of the game. Not many actresses get to do totally different types of stuff, so for that, I’m forever grateful.
Truth Be Told is available to stream at Apple TV+.