Kaitlyn Dever, who many viewers will remember as Loretta from Justified, had a breakout role in this summer’s Booksmart, a small-scale indie about female friendship that managed to cut through the noise of blockbusters and Disney remakes. Dever played Amy, a young queer woman exploring her sexuality and independence. Amy was funny and relatable and a teen who drove a beat-up car and wore feminist fashion pins and had a semi-consensual sexual relationship with her childhood teddy bear.
It’s important to recognize the actress’ comedic chops in that film, because it only makes her turn as Marie Adler — a young woman who’s raped and experiences a frustrating trauma afterward — more impressive. In Netflix’s Unbelievable, which also stars Toni Collette and Meritt Wever and drops on September 13. Dever plays a teen who survives the horror of a grisly sexual assault, only to have her story disbelieved by the people closest to her and the police. The show is a timely cautionary tale and an almost unbearable look at how society views rape survivors and how judges their stories against their own life experiences. We spoke with Dever about taking on such a serious role, what surprised her most about Marie’s story, and why we have a long way to go when it comes to championing survivors post #MeToo.
This is a complete 180 from your role in Booksmart. Did you have to get into a different headspace to tackle such a heavy story?
I definitely felt like I needed to. I knew that the role itself was so important. The whole show is very compelling and hopeful, but I knew the story that I was going to be telling on my end was going to be difficult and is actually one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as an actor. I was given the opportunity to tell us a true story and play a real person, and that doesn’t happen that often. I already had so much information about Marie, and I just immediately felt emotionally connected to her, and I felt so heartbroken by her story that I knew that if they were going to let me do it, I had to give it my all.
We’re you surprised to learn just how recent this story was?
I read it my last week of shooting Booksmart, which was last year and I just sort of thought to myself, “Whoa, this is a very relevant story. It’s going to be important for people to see this, especially right now.” And it is, but I think it’s not really all that relevant either. This particular story happened back in 2008, but this is an issue that has been going on for so, so long. And it’s not just something women go through, it’s something that women and men go through, it’s a human issue.
The entire first episode is just walking us through the aftermath of what happens to Marie. What was it like filming those scenes in particular?
The thing that was surprising to me was the protocol of an actual assault case. It’s almost invasive. It’s repetitive, and it’s repetitive in such a terrible way. I didn’t know that a survivor, after having been assaulted, at the scene you tell the story once, and then you tell the story again. And then you’re taken from the scene and you go straight to the hospital, and at the hospital you have to tell the story, retell the story to the nurse, and then they proceed to have you take off your clothes, and take pictures of every part of your body for examination, and they examine your body and then they take blood from you and it’s just sort of a take, and take, and take. Then you go straight from there to the police station, and within 24 hours you’ve had to retell that story at least six or seven times. That blew my mind.
I was surprised (in a good way) by how often the word “rape” is used instead of sexual assault. We interchange the two quite a bit but they’re very different terms, especially to hear aloud. Was that intentional?
I think we just didn’t want to sugarcoat it. We also didn’t want to, especially with the assault scenes alone, we didn’t want to overly sexualize any of it. I think a lot of that had to do with the writing of the show. It’s honest and brave storytelling while being respectful, but also saying, “Look, this is what this is really like and this is what actually happens.” Showing that, I think, will ultimately create some sort of cultural shift. And that was our goal at the end of the day is to somehow use this to change that conversation.
After living Marie’s experience while filming this show, why do you think we still have such a tough time believing rape survivors?
I think it starts with the way the detectives are trained. What we see in the show are parallel stories, one story being a rape case that went horribly wrong, and a rape case that went right.Marie tells the truth initially, and she’s incredibly strong and brave for that. I think what the series does is show that no one can really know how someone will react to trauma, to the trauma of the experience itself but also the trauma of retelling the story over and over again, and the show really walks us through that process, and what it’s like post-assault. How people respond to trauma isn’t always the same, and I think the police in Marie’s case, make a series of mistakes, and they cast doubt on her, and it and so she just sort of shuts down. Seeing the show, hopefully, we’ll be able to have a better understanding, because I think that that is the reason why people don’t come forward is that they’re afraid that they won’t be heard and that they won’t be believed. We must start coming at it with compassion, and we have to start listening to each other. I think with the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement, we’re definitely getting to a place where we’re finally doing that, and where people are coming forward, but we have a ways to go.
‘Unbelievable’ is currently streaming on Netflix.