Hulu’s freshly released Reprisal comes out of the gate with verve. The show (which is now streaming) leans into its neo-noir labeling and an era-ambiguous look defined more by the pursuit of cool than letters and numbers on a calendar as it openly courts the “ohs,” “ahs,” and “oh yeahs” inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s raid on the under-remembered jewels of ’60s and ’70s cinema. It knows exactly what it’s going for, in other words, but while it was an idea nurtured in the mind of creator Josh Corbin, the end result has a lot of names on its birth certificate. Director Jonathan van Tulleken is one and so too is Abigail Spencer, who plays the winding story’s main femme fatale with icy and determined fury. And with just a little bit of restrained glee.
Spencer, who you’ve probably seen front and center on Timeless, Rectify, and in a lengthy arc on Mad Men, didn’t approach Reprisal as a mere acting job. When we spoke with her earlier this week, she painted a portrait of a collaborative environment where she was able to participate in the construction of a character that is the composite of several creative decisions. From her hair color to the tone of her voice, the turn and twist of a teabag in her cup, her wardrobe, and the way she doles out punishment, Doris’ power and presence is explicitly and well-chosen.
“Abigail has been able to take the clay I gave her to create a character that is wholly her own,” said Corbin by email, explaining Spencer’s ability to surprise and impress in the show’s first season. This all should count as a blowout victory for an actress who confides that she wanted to experience a “transformation” with this part, sidestepping other people’s opinions of what she was capable of on-screen, especially as she ponders a future that includes more chances to showcase her range, including work behind the camera.
Can you tell me a little bit about the challenges of playing a character like this?
I think part of the challenge with Doris is that because she’s so mysterious because every episode begins with a flashback, it’s finding those moments where you really get to know more about her as it unfolds, so you can really be with her on her journey.
It’s interesting because I feel like we have to tap into what’s happening in the world collectively. There’s an energy that comes through her that is part of the feminine rage, but she’s also pulling from the masculine. She’s also pulling from the wounds of what happened to her: her husband, her best friend, and her brother tried to kill her. I really kept referring to the Hannah Gadsby quote, “There’s nothing stronger than a broken woman who rebuilds herself.” So then what happens to a woman during that time? And also what happens when you are engaging with the energy of revenge? What does it do to you? And then also, how does Doris hold true to this deeper part of herself that might be really sweet and very empathetic? I feel like nothing was off the table, so it was just inviting all of it. And also, she’s very funny. So how do we hold the humor of the show and where does that come through? And what does it feel like to be underestimated your whole life? What does it feel like to have that release of violence? I think it’s going to be really fun and entertaining and a release for the audience. And I think it’s going to be surprisingly moving. I mean, honestly, I have never seen anything like it on television. So I’ll be curious to start getting feedback on what people think.
Are there any books or any movies, or anything that you threw yourself into to try and put yourself into her headspace?
It’s so funny, I actually felt when I was shooting that I had to watch comedies and stuff that I felt so far from. I was watching The Three Amigos. [Laughs] Rhythm And Flow on Netflix. Like, I was watching things so far removed from that, because to engage with that energy, beyond how much I was already, was going to be too much.
Now, I was definitely looking at a lot of Lauren Bacall. I watched Laura, which had its 75th anniversary this year, which was like the original film noir, in my opinion. I mean there’s The Killers. Lots of stuff, but just trusting the material and the scripts and the things that would come up. And Josh had those specific tone references, so if he wanted me to watch some things from a Tarantino film or something like that, then I would definitely engage with that. But I do find when I’m shooting a really intense drama, that I have to watch really silly comedy. Really silly. And I think it keeps it more in balance.
I’ve heard other people say that. That sometimes you’ve got to just leave it on the hook when you walk off the set.
I’m sure it’s easier said than done when it’s something all-encompassing like this.
For sure. But that’s part of the work, you know, opening and closing it.
Can you talk a little about the fight choreography and going through that process and how that was handled?
Yeah, there’s a lot of choreography. There’s this really big fight. It’s one of the most incredible fights I’ve ever seen on camera in episode ten, and it’s basically like a one-shot. It all really starts with the filmmakers. Josh will have a vision and then Jonathan will take it, work with a cinematographer to ask, “How do we need to shoot this? What is the intent?” And I was, in all of my, things really involved in that conversation with Jonathan. He and I work really well together. Finding a different way to do something… so, if we’re engaging with the energy of violence or brutality, the show isn’t about that. So how do we find our own tone with it? And really, it was working with the camera angle, finding something different, like “I’ve never seen that before. What if I did that?”
We had a bit of rehearsal and Larkin Seiple, our cinematographer [who shot Childish Gambino’s This Is America video], was a huge part of that. He did the first two episodes. And then David Greene came on after him. It was like a dance and I started out as a dancer. That was what was so cool for me. I really loved the choreography, and I really loved the choreography with the camera. I love dancing with it, so part of it is like how is this surprising? How do we build tension? Something that we found in the moment with Doris was her drinking tea, which was the total opposite of what you would think the Tony Soprano of the show would be doing. [Laughs] And then the teabag started spinning and I was like, “what if that’s like in Jurassic Park with the water?” Like, you hear the dinosaurs before you see them and that’s what makes it so scary. It’s like, what if the tea bag spinning starts to feel like danger is coming, but it’s like the sweetest, most demure thing that you’ve seen. So just playing with the opposites of that and finding it. And that became a huge theme in the show with Doris.
This is somewhat of a different role for you. You’ve also done some broad comedy. I love Burning Love, specifically. I’m curious if there’s a strategy behind your choices, or is it just about what kind of feels right for you in the moment?
I love Burning Love too and I do want to do more comedy! I actually feel like that’s why I do so many dramas because I bring comedy to everything. To me, I’m not looking at it like, “Oh it’s a comedy. It’s a drama.” I’m just like, “Oh, life is a tragic comedy.” [Laughs] I feel like that. On Rectify, Amantha held a lot of the humor of the show and I really liked playing with that. With everything, that’s really important to me. For example, before Reprisal, I kept saying, “I want to play a monster. I want to have a transformation. I want to play a monster.” And I didn’t know what that meant, but after Timeless and being on a network show, a family-friendly, time travel show playing someone really plucky, I was like, I want it to swing the other way.
Is that to challenge yourself to see how far you can go in that direction?
Maybe? I don’t necessarily have anything to prove to myself. I think it’s just more what I’m interested in. I feel this is what I want to engage with. For whatever reason, this is what I want to engage with. And part of me wanting to be an actor is to completely disappear in the role. Even though I’ve played various roles as an actor, I felt like up until this point… I do think there’s something to the permission of the industry and the business. There’s a reflection going on. Like, up until this point, people weren’t coming to me with transformations. They wanted me to be a certain version of what I look like in myself. And I think I’m just at an age and stage… And the industry is showing up and saying we have more roles that we want women to show. We want this. And that’s why I feel like people watching Reprisal is a win for more female leads. It’s shows that are more transformational, that are more like quote-unquote the Tony Soprano of the show. Like we need more of those roles. And I think I have worked long enough and I’m at an age and stage where I’m matching up with what the industry is providing and looking for as well. I’ve noticed that those roles are becoming more available to me as I get further along in my career.
So I think it’s twofold. There’s the world component and the industry component of it. That’s how I approach my artistry. I’m like, “I don’t want to repeat myself.” After Timeless season one, I went and did a play. Probably now, I’m longing to do a big comedy, like a big comedy-musical variety. Like that’s what I want to do next. Just to play with the energy and to keep myself interested and engaged, and to use all of my self and also do things I’ve never done before. You know, that’s something that’s really interesting to me too. I guess my comfort zone is not being in my comfort zone. [Laughs].
The people that I look up to are the women that have gone before me that are doing it, that I just admire: Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett. It’s like every time they do something, it’s all of it. There isn’t one thing that they’re doing. They’re constantly transforming themselves and I’m just interested in that and I love every facet of storytelling, so I’m interested in sharing it and all of that. I think that the next thing for me is getting behind the camera. I feel like that’s next. I’m producing a film. I’ve written a film. I sold a pilot that I co-wrote years ago, and I feel like we need that. In the industry, we need more women behind the camera and hopefully, these opportunities will lead to that, which can just create more roles for women and more representation. I do love that about the show. There’s a lot of representation on our show and I love that. I think it’s a really… I feel very honored to be a part of that and putting this on screen.
Everything you’re saying about your interest in contrasts and things that speak to comedy and drama all at once makes me very excited to see what you do behind the camera at some point.
Thank you. I’m excited too. I can feel it and probably if Timeless had gone on, I probably would have started doing that on that show. A couple of directors pulled me aside and asked me if I had thought about directing. I think about the whole. I mean, I’m coming up on 20 years of acting and I’m just as invested in another character’s journey. Like with Reprisal, I cared just as much about what was happening when I was off-camera as when I was on camera. To me, it is the painting. And so every single person has got to play their part. I just love watching other actors. I love watching everyone do their jobs. I’m really interested in this medium, so I’m excited for more.
‘Reprisal’ is currently streaming on Hulu.