How Toni Collette and Merritt Wever Prepared to Play Badass Detectives in Unbelievable
If you watch Unbelievable, the Netflix limited series starring Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, and Merritt Wever, and find yourself dream-casting Collette and Wever’s characters in True Detective season 4, you’re not alone. “Oh my God, everybody keeps saying that!” Collette tells OprahMag.com. “Given the darkness of this show, maybe that’s why they’re enjoying Merritt and I so much. They’re kind of an odd couple, and it’s entertaining.” Collette and Wever play Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall, detectives from two Colorado towns who merge investigations upon realizing they’re looking for the same rape suspect. Inspired by true events, Unbelievable is both a gripping narrative and an incisive look at the way American rape survivors are treated—and, too often, mistreated. Any viewer who cares to self-examine will be left considering the myth that false claims of rape are a pervasive problem: In reality, only about 2 percent of rape and sexual assault claims are found to be false, per FBI statistics. Meanwhile, RAINN estimates that only 1 in 4 rapes are reported, with fear of retaliation and belief that the police can’t or won’t help them cited as reasons many survivors say they didn’t. But what happens to Marie (played by Dever) is proof that long-held cultural biases leave little room for facts. The show interweaves Marie’s story in 2008 with the 2011 search for a serial rapist in Colorado, mirroring the structure of the Pulitzer Prize-winning article that inspired it, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s storytelling choice is even more effective onscreen; just as Marie faces yet another infuriating setback from one of the many people who failed her in the wake of her rape, the action shifts to the forward momentum of Detectives Rasmussen and Duvall’s investigation (thus saving the viewer from sinking into the depths alongside Marie).
Collette credits showrunner Susannah Grant, who also produced, directed, and wrote several episodes, with replicating that interplay onscreen. “It’s her hand in there that really created as such a beautiful balance in that regard.” Rasmussen and Duvall are loosely based on two real Colorado investigators involved in catching the serial rapist who attacked Marie, Sergeant Edna Hendershot and Detective Stacy Galbraith. Neither Collette nor Wever met their real-life counterparts, in part due to life-rights issues—but that doesn’t mean they weren’t inspired by them. “There was a request from [Hendershot] that I’d be ‘bitching and badass,'” Collette says. “So I took that in my stride.” “There is a toughness there, and she doesn’t allow stuff in or out, but she’s quite closed in a way,” Collette notes of Grace Rasmussen. Coming off of movies like 2018’s horror hit Hereditary, “it was really fun to play someone with that kind of wit and swagger, and just some really fantastic zinger lines.”
Wever says reading what Galbraith had to say in A False Report, the book that developed from Miller and Armstrong’s 2015 article, informed the way she played the somber, spiritual Karen Duvall. “In the book, [Galbraith] says that she was actually drawn to sexual assault cases,” Wever tells OprahMag.com. “Regarding the job, she says something along the lines of, ‘Someone’s got to do it, and someone’s got to do it well.'” Wever was also moved by the Bible quote on Duvall’s dashboard, which is directly drawn from Galbraith in real life: “Here I am, send me,” from Isaiah 6:8. “I think that defines deep purpose, being able to hold that space and be that person for whoever’s sitting in her car on that day that she gets that awful call,” Wever muses. The two Emmy-winning actresses can’t say enough good things about each other, either. “She’s brilliant,” Collette says of Wever, adding that working with her was the highlight of the job. Of Rasmussen and Duvall’s infinitely watchable rapport, “It was very easy and just felt natural, you know? We didn’t have to reach too far to make it feel authentic.”
Wever calls Collette, whose starring roles date back to the ’90s, “someone whose body of work is part of my artistic makeup and DNA,” and admits to a fangirl moment on set. “I actually accidentally quoted Muriel’s Wedding to her face one day, and thought she was gonna think I was the biggest dork. Instead, she received it with like, great affection and forgiveness and patience,” Wever says, laughing. “I got to tell Muriel, ‘You’re terrible, Muriel.’ And you know what? There aren’t too many people in the world who can say that, so I’ll take it.” The responsibility of helping to tell the fictionalized version of Marie’s true story was one Collette and Wever took seriously.
“It took a lot of guts for her to come forward,” Colette says. “The fact that she actually came forward and sought help from the cops was one big leap. For them to turn around and treat her as a suspect instead of a victim, it was just so wrong. It ends up being like experiencing ongoing trauma.” “I don’t like to be dogmatic about what people take away from any piece of art,” she continues, “but it is really important story, and I think every human should watch it.” Wever also bristles at the idea of prescribing a “takeaway” for anyone watching her work, but, she says, not this time. “If this is able to open up, in an informative or illuminating way, things about how we can— as community members, family members, friends, and law enforcement – support and work for people who’ve been through these kinds of traumas? And not re-traumatize them? That’s only a good thing.”