Toni Collette & Merritt Wever on Doing Justice to the Story of Unbelievable
Merritt Wever and Toni Collette are not big fans of true crime. But if you’ve seen Wever’s work in films like Charlie Says, in which she plays a criminologist who helps the women of the Manson Family understand their accountability, or Hereditary, in which Collette is a mother grappling with grief and mental illness, you know that empathy is at the root of all their performances. And it’s what led them to take part in the new Netflix series Unbelievable. Inspired by the real-life events documented in The Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and the This American Life radio episode, “Anatomy of Doubt,” Unbelievable tells the horrifying, unflinching, and ultimately moving story of two detectives (Wever and Collette) who bring a serial rapist to justice, and the parallel narrative of a survivor (the transformative Kaitlyn Dever) who is accused of lying about her experience years before Wever and Collette’s characters take the case. As Marie recounts the disturbing details of what happened to her over and over—with her foster parents, the male detectives assigned to the case, and even her friends—Marie goes from perceived victim to branded liar and is ultimately charged with filing a false police report.
It’s the type of story that’s become all too familiar as movements like #MeToo and #BelieveWomen continue to dominate the news cycle. But in Unbelievable, helmed by showrunner Susannah Grant, there are no hashtags or army of supporters demanding justice for Adler. Instead, there’s Wever’s Detective Karen Duvall and Collette’s Detective Grace Rasmussen, two very different women who identify a pattern of crimes and are bonded by a shared commitment to tracking down their perpetrator. Taking on these roles at a time of much social and political reckoning was a heavy responsibility for Wever and Collette, but the actresses felt a deep desire to not only represent the heroes they play, but explore the complexities of law enforcement, gender, female vulnerability, and the human experience onscreen. And as they tell BAZAAR.com in a joint interview, those issues aren’t always black and white.
What attracted you to this project?
Merritt Wever: The first three scripts. We also got the Pro Publica article and the “This American Life” podcast. It was very easy to care about the story and all of the people involved. As actors, we don’t have a lot of control over the parts that come our way. But I feel lucky to be a part of a job that actually matters.
Toni Collette: It has real meaning and felt hugely important. But not in any kind of weird, dogmatic way. It’s just that I too am female, and there is an existing law that is imbalanced. It’s unbelievable that something like this could happen and continues to happen. I really loved my character so much. I love all of the characters. It’s handled so deftly and honestly. Everything about it is tactical and respectful. And I love that at 46 years of age, I can be offered a part like this. She doesn’t take any shit and fucking drives a muscle car and swaggers through life. She’s her own boss and I love that. I love how complicated they both are. It feels real because it is real.
At this stage in your careers and during this era in our political climate, do you feel a greater sense of responsibility in taking on projects like this?
Collette: I just want good roles and I want to be part of great storytelling. I know this is more than that. It’s those [factors] plus the fact that it’s several people’s real experiences, and it is reflective of problems that need to be carefully looked at and amended.
Wever: And with that responsibility comes pressure. But it’s only because you care. I’d like to do it justice.
How do you navigate that pressure?
Wever: My relationship to pressure is to learn and take notes. In retrospect, I wish that I’d been able to step away from that, especially as I’m still finding my way. It’s not helpful to feel like you have to represent the right way that my destination is [reached]. It’s not really actable. Even if you do all your research, at the end of the day, you need to show up and play the part.
Collette: It’s going to be on TV, so it is, quote end quote, entertainment—no matter the content. I have to get to a certain point where I am relying on what’s on the page and what’s happening on set, and I can’t carry the rest of it. I honor that. It’s already imbued with all the good, so I just have to make it as real as possible, then my job is done. Otherwise, it could be too much if you’re constantly holding those ideas. I also think being an actress who’s usually reactive and emotional, playing this character whose emotions are internal, was a very different experience for me. That helped me.
Wever: That’s interesting. It’s that whole thing where it’s like, how many times as an actress have you been asked to weep at an audition? We’re already asked to carry that burden. It’s nice that you get to experience a part where you don’t have to do this typical gender heavy lifting.
That reminds me of the scene when Grace is frustrated with having to bargain with her husband, who works at the attorney general’s office, to get a file on her suspect. She asks him if he would give it to her if she was crying about it.
Collette: There are societal expectations and ideas that we’ve all subscribed to. And my God, it’s so exciting to live in a time where that’s changing. Because it is so necessary, and it’s about fucking time. Grace doesn’t subscribe to that. She’s her own person.
There is some vulnerability that both she and Karen reveal when they’re home, in a more intimate space, versus when they’re navigating their male-dominated workspace. Like when Karen comforts her daughter who’s scared, and Grace reaffirms her husband’s love for her despite how much she brings work home. What were you hoping to convey with that dichotomy?
Collette: My character doesn’t allow herself to be very vulnerable. Even allowing this incredible detective into her space to work [with her] is hugely confronting for her. But you don’t see my character really being vulnerable until the very end. The great thing is Karen talks to her husband, and Grace has to block everything else out in order to focus and get it done. She’s relentless. There’s one tiny moment at the end where they finally get the fucking guy, and she cracks a bit with her husband. It’s almost like she can’t let anything else in because it feels like it’ll [ruin her focus].
Wever: I don’t think I thought about it so intellectually as that. I just played the moments as they came to me and trusted them. But it does make me think about how the real Karen, Stacy Galbraith, called the real Grace, Edna Hendershot, years before they started working on this case together. Karen saw her at a bust when Grace worked undercover. In the book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which is the expanded version of the article, I think Karen says that Grace was an example of a way to be a woman in law enforcement, meaning just be a person. Just do the job. She showed her the way. It’s moving to me that she was such a meaningful person in her life, even before she met her. Grace is a big deal to Karen.
There are so many women behind and in front of the camera on Unbelievable, which is fantastic for this type of material, which is often told through a male lens. You can see the differences from the first episode, with the way Marie is interrogated by male cops versus how Karen and Grace approach their victims. Did that also strike you when you were reading the script?
Collette: Look, it’s probably inevitable. You can’t generalize everything. And I know it was definitely never Susannah’s intention to demonize anybody. It happened to be a male cop who fucked it up at the beginning. And we happen to be female detectives who got it right. But I can’t help but think as a woman, you can’t help but have a deeper understanding and some empathy.
Wever: I think gender certainly has influence. But I think it’s important and perhaps instructive to also remember that the detectives who investigated Marie’s case that day could have been women and could have also done a shit job. There are people who prefer speaking to male detectives, who feel safer with them. There are male detectives who are capable in this way and care in this way and are responsible and thorough in this way. I do not want to let men off the hook somehow, and say that only women can be the ones who will show up at these scenes and hold space and investigate these crimes. I don’t think that is the case, and I don’t think it should be the case. A very interesting nuance of the story is that the first person who does not believe Marie Adler is her foster mother, who happens to also be a sexual assault survivor. It’s really fucking complicated. The way we internalize things and the way we’ve dealt with our trauma or not dealt with our trauma or not processed it can come out sideways. I think that’s a very valuable part of this story. I think gender is important and the way that that lens affects the way we see or don’t see people, the way we treat or don’t treat people, the way we may or may not care. And it can also highlight serious systemic problems within law enforcement, which can be gendered as well. But I also think it’s just as valuable to leave room for complication and nuance, because that’s probably going to get us further.
Collette: People are complicated and complex. Not only are they all individuals in their own way, but they’re affected by their experiences. People keep changing so you can never determine an outcome.
I watch a lot of different types of detective dramas, and—
Collette: You watch them? I don’t. I mean, I watched CHiPs as a kid but that’s it. I don’t read it. I don’t watch it.
Wever: True crime, for whatever reason, is not necessarily my genre.
Collette: Me neither. Sorry to cut you off.
I was surprised to see a detective series weaving religion into the story. Karen often turns to it to process some of the ugliness she’s exposed to in her line of work. That disrupts some things for Grace, who balks at religion. What struck you about Karen’s relationship with religion?
Wever: One of the loveliest and most tender and moving and informative pieces of information about Karen, which is true to the book as well, is the message she keeps on her dashboard from the book of Isaiah. It’s the response to God asking, “Whom shall I send?” It’s, “Here I am, send me.” She sees herself as a person with purpose who was answering the calling. In the book she says something along the lines of being drawn to sexual assault cases: Someone’s got to do it, and someone’s got to do it well. I thought that was a lovely character trait.
Collette: I love Karen’s influence on Grace, because Grace works alone. I think she’s so focused and becomes so consumed and forgets the context of existence. And Karen helps her start to at least scratch the surface of that question and open herself up a bit.
When they’re waiting on the verdict and she prays—I can’t think of a single detective drama that really allows for that kind of nuance.
Collette: That’s good, originality.
I also think a lot of dramas with female detectives really emphasize—
Collette: That they’re in control. Like, they don’t need anybody.
Yeah, there is a lack of vulnerability and—
Wever: That is not Karen’s bag. That’s not what she does. Even in the 20/20 interviews and the podcast, I remember actually being struck by how very open-hearted I found her. She doesn’t come off like a hard, tough cop. She does not seem to be afraid to care.
Collette: I guess Grace cares in a different way. She feels, but she would never show it.
Wever: I think they connect because they both care and are willing to do anything and everything. It may manifest differently, but I feel like it is the exact same drive.
There’s a great scene towards the end of Unbelievable with Karen, who’s worried about all the other cases that remain unsolved—that she hasn’t done enough, even after the rapist is convicted. Then Marie calls from the beach. It’s so unexpected and cathartic for Karen.
Wever: That really happened. Doesn’t that just give you goosebumps? What a thing to receive, but also what a thing for Marie Adler to offer. It’s really quite something.
Collette: Can you imagine? She’d been alone living with all of that, and to know that these women you’ve never met have been supporting you from a distance?
Wever: And looking for you. I’ve always felt like even though my character does not know for most of the series that Marie exists, we are technically searching for the person who has committed the crimes. The way the show is set up, somehow it feels like we’re also trying to make our way to Marie.
Collette: The structures.
Wever: I’ve always been particularly moved by the end of Episode 7, when finding him is intercut with these really devastating, beautifully-played scenes by Kaitlyn with the therapist.
Collette: I love those scenes.
Wever: Where she’s just sitting on that couch, and is like, “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t tell the truth. Fuck people. They ain’t worth it. Even if they say they care, they’re just going to screw you over.” The way it ends is this intercut between her living in that place across space and time. These two women slowly but surely, painstakingly, are making their way towards her. It ends with the shot of her getting her driver’s license. It is incredibly profound and meaningful. I love seeing Marie and Kaitlyn blossom in Episode 8. I really find that incredibly rewarding. It’s tough to watch this stuff but watch until the end. Because—
Collette: There’s an upswing.
We also see her smile again.
Wever: She’s alone, but she knows that it’s a big enough deal. And she values herself enough to ask a stranger to take a picture for her. It’s really beautiful and I love her expression. And I love that moment. Like, halle-fucking-lujah.
We don’t get a lot of those moments.
Wever: Yeah, you have to take them where you can get them. I was very proud of Kaitlyn and Marie.
Collette: Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Wever: That sweet, sweet smile.
Collette: It represents the future.