When Merritt Wever tells me she felt “rusty” filming her new anthology series Roar, I’m a bit surprised. She’s just come off an impressive run of Netflix limited series (Godless and Unbelievable), and she taught audiences the true definition of on-screen chemistry with her work opposite Domhnall Gleeson in HBO’s Run.
But “just” is a relative measurement of time. In reality, it’s been nearly two years since Wever was working on a project – a hiatus in her career caused by the pandemic and by the undeniable fact that Hollywood seems to constantly underrate her. Which will likely seem all the more bizarre to anyone who witnesses her performance in Apple TV+’s new star-studded project helmed by GLOW creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. A series of vignettes that use surrealism and fantastical premises to examine the varied and complicated experiences of a diverse group of women, ROAR is like a feminist acid trip – all Pepto Bismal monochrome mansions and futuristic ruminations on race and campy comedies about women forced to solve their own murders. It’s weird as hell with the kind of off-beat humor that makes one question, “Should I be laughing right now?”
There’s no right answer, especially when it comes to Wever’s episode, which centers on a young woman going through an identity crisis. Instead of wading through her troubled internal waters, she befriends a talking duck named Larry (voiced by Justin Kirk), eventually taking the feathered lothario home and beginning a romantic relationship with him. Larry is kind, attentive, and oddly observant until he’s not, and the painful disillusion of their whirlwind romance – yes, there is a sex scene, no we won’t spoil it here — forces Wever’s character to contend with some harsh truths about who she is and who she wants to be.
The whole thing hinges on its star’s ability to convince audiences that a seemingly mentally stable woman would not only enter into a relationship with this disarmingly suave waterfowl but that she’d stay with him – even when he sh*ts all over her apartment and physically assaults her for going to lunch with her sister. She pulls it off, because she’s Merritt f*cking Wever, but she does it so effortlessly, that it makes the notion that this is her first project in years all the more ridiculous.
And now I’m righteously pissed off on her behalf all over again.
We chatted with Wever about saying yes to ROAR, where she’d rank her animal co-star, and re-discovering her drive to act.
This show is hyper-surreal. Was it hard to ground yourself when you were in the moment, acting out some of the wilder scenes?
I think getting to do that was one of the reasons that I wanted to do the part. To be given such an extraordinary unreal situation and be tasked with making it as real as possible, knowing that the episode in many ways would live or die on the believability of her engaging with a duck this way, which isn’t that different than any old acting job you get. It’s just that usually you’re not being asked to make people believe something so unbelievable. But yeah, it was actually one of the draws.
You felt like you were ready for a challenge?
Yeah. And then, working with a duck, I thought that was going to be different than it was. I thought it was going to be the hurdle of the episode. I imagined that we’d be stealing a sentence here or there before the duck would walk off or be over it, and we’d be kind of faking it a lot. Instead, I mean, the duck was marvelous. The duck would sit, and look at me, listen to me, and respond to the sound of my voice and intonations. It was like having a… I mean, it was a very real live-scene partner to play with.
Then on top of that, it was like I had two scene partners. I had the duck I was talking to, and then I had Justin Kirk, from Angels in America voicing Larry, and being there every day, just off-camera out of sightline, but within earshot, acting each and every scene with me. I thought it would be disorienting, and instead, it was like, “Oh, I love this. This is a really alive way to play.”
Speaking of scene partners, did you have to chemistry read with a bunch of ducks before you got the right one?
[laughs] There was a group of ducks, each named after a member of [NSYNC], but the duck that seemed to really like hanging out was named Justin.
Yeah. The hero duck — front and center, the lead singer. We had Justin, the duck, and then Justin, the actor.
When I was watching this episode, I couldn’t help but think of your HBO show, Run, which had a pitch-perfect pilot. I remembered thinking back then that maybe the show should just end with its first episode, to preserve that kind of lightning in a bottle feel. Did the idea that this project had a contained, completed storyline in a single episode, appeal at all?
I think that there are pros and cons. Certainly, one of the things that you’re doing when you do series television is a game of “yes, and…” You may have an idea of where you think it’s going to go, but each week you’re getting a new script and it’s like you’re already on the treadmill and you’re running that race. This, as you said, was a different beast. It’s a contained open and closed story. I knew what story I was telling when I went in. But that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought much about Run when I was shooting this, because that show came out at such a specific time.
Well you were a romantic lead in Run, and you’re the romantic lead in this episode, so …
[laughs] I guess you have to color it that way.
Before the pandemic, you said you’d never envisioned taking that kind of leading lady role. Has that kind of internalized vision of who you are as an actor changed after doing both of these projects?
Even though it’s been two years, and that sounds like perhaps a long time in normal years, in COVID years, I don’t know that two years feels like, “Oh yes, I’ve had all these experiences and now my perspectives have changed.” I don’t know if that was two years ago or yesterday, and I don’t know what’s heads or tails anymore. I appreciate and understand your question, but even though it’s been two years, it doesn’t feel like maybe I’ve traversed very far since then. I also haven’t worked very much in the last two years. That’s just not been the hand that I’ve been dealt. I think sometimes you learn about yourself, and you learn about yourself in your job and your relationship by going to work. I haven’t had a lot of work experience, so maybe things are a little static at the moment.
Did coming back for this show make you realize anything about yourself that you hadn’t in the past couple of years?
I felt incredibly rusty, and it felt like having to learn to act again. I had like eight days on set and then I didn’t work again. I haven’t really worked again. Now I’m about to start another job, and I’m suddenly in another position where I haven’t worked in a year, so I feel again, like Gumby. That’s a crappy feeling, to feel like you don’t remember how to do your job, like, “What is this? What does this look like? Is this right, because I feel like I’m all elbows.”
I ask myself that every time I write something, thinking I nailed it and then coming back to it like, “Am I even any good at this?”
That’s fascinating that you say that because that was one of my experiences of the last two years. I felt like I had a kind of trial by fire. I was warmed up. I had come off a job and I was like, “I want to do this. I want more chances at-bat. I want to practice what this thing is that I do.” Then the last two years happened and I haven’t been able to.
That sums up the theme of this episode as well, this idea of questioning yourself. Was that relatable for you?
I certainly understood that was part of the journey. This was a character we’re finding at a moment of uncertainty in her life and recent loss. Her sense of self and her connection, not just to the people in her life, but her sense of purpose gets like very purposefully chipped away at by this duck. That part of her journey is coming to have faith in her own mind again. I think that’s one of the reasons that the fact that she’s playing this out with a duck, heightens the situation. Everybody that I spoke to when we were making it, had a different take on why the duck was useful, why it made sense, or what it added to the story. I kind of plotted the episode out by thinking this is a woman who is fed by a duck and she thinks she’s being fed something good, and it turns out that she’s being fed something very bad. By the end of the episode, she learns to feed herself. That’s how I tried to condense it.
Apple TV+’s ‘ROAR’ premieres on April 15.