Kaitlyn Dever On Her New Mini-Series ‘Unbelievable’
“Our dream is that people can feel a little bit of hope at the end of the day watching this, and that it can change the conversation as well”
I was honored to executive produce the new Netflix mini-series Unbelievable based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Propublica article, An Unbelievable Story of Rape. The series stars Kaitlyn Dever as Marie, an 18 year old woman who reports that she is raped, and then recants her statement under immense police pressure and is charged with making a false report. Only years later when a serial rapist is caught in Colorado does it become clear that Marie was telling the truth all along. I spoke with Kaitlyn about the immense sense of responsibility she felt to do justice to Marie’s story, and why she feels that this project is so important.
Katie Couric: Marie really goes through two huge traumas over the course of this — she is raped, and then she is accused of being a liar. When you read this script, why did you feel like you needed to help tell this story?
Kaitlyn Dever: I knew that I had to be a part of it, because I knew it was a story that mattered. This is a story that people need to know. The creators behind it were so passionate, and wanted to tell it in the most honest way possible. So I felt drawn to it from the very beginning. When I read the ProPublica story that the series is based off of — it was so heartbreaking to think that this could happen to someone, and that it happens to people every single day. I immediately felt emotionally connected to Marie. And the script… it’s incredible to get a script like this to your email inbox! I was finishing up Booksmart when I auditioned for Unbelievable. As an actor you don’t really have control over what stories come to you, but all you can hope for is that the story speaks to you in a big way, and that you feel connected to it. And so when I read the script, I wanted this part so badly. I loved everything about it and it felt really right, and I felt so lucky that I was given the opportunity to audition. It’s incredible as an actor to audition for a role that you connect with so wholeheartedly, and then to have the creators say yeah, we trust you to pour your heart out into this. So after I was given that opportunity I said ok, now I’ve really gotta dive in.
This series is based off of a true story. Did that put a different sort of pressure on you when you were playing this role?
I have played real people before, but nothing like this. There was definitely a sense of pressure because I know that it’s a really difficult story to take on, and I had to get it right in order for it to resonate with people. The first thought that goes through your mind when you get a story about a real person is, “Oh I should call that person.” But I only wanted to do what Marie was comfortable with. I knew that it was such a privilege that she was even allowing us to tell her story. So I talked to showrunner Susannah Grant, and we ultimately decided that it was best if I didn’t talk to Marie beforehand. Because this wasn’t something where we intended to create a carbon copy of her for the series. The goal was to capture the trauma that she went through and the emotions she felt. It was really helpful going into shooting with such strong source material from the ProPublica article. It helped me realize how strong and brave she is. I was astounded by the fact that she had such a traumatic life even before the assault. She refers to her “on and off switch,” and the fact that she was able to turn off her feelings and emotions when she was feeling so low and so sad. I really wanted that to come across in my performance. My hope is that I did her justice because I did the best I could. She deserves my very best efforts.
I met you when I visited the set, and you were shooting a very intense scene from the first episode in which Marie is being questioned by detectives. In real life you seem to have such a big, happy personality, but over the course of the first episode we see you make yourself smaller and smaller as authority figures keep doubting Marie’s story. Was that draining for you? Was it hard to shake off that feeling of isolation at the end of shooting?
I don’t think I shook it off until we wrapped. I wasn’t really able to get out of that headspace at the end of the day, because I poured everything I had into the role. That wasn’t something I expected to happen, I didn’t plan on doing that, but sometimes you just can’t help it. That is the first time that had ever happened to me while acting. We shot for four months, and I knew the kind of scenes we would be doing day to day, and I realized it wouldn’t feel right to try to shake the character off at the end of the day. And it really helped my performance to stay in it the whole time. I’m really not a method actor, and on set I would try to lighten the mood by joking around, but what I was feeling inside and at my core during that time, was an underlying grief that stayed with me. It was like I had a constant headache, or that feeling you have after you’ve been crying all day. But it didn’t even matter because I knew that by feeling uncomfortable, I was doing my best for Marie. Nothing I was feeling could remotely compare to what she had to go through. So I was always reminding myself of that, and keeping myself in check. When we wrapped the show, I got to spend some time with family, and mellow out, and reflect on everyone’s hard work, and that felt really good. And I felt really proud of what we accomplished.
Your performance in this series is absolutely heart-wrenching, and it’s a stark contrast to your wonderfully silly breakout role in “Booksmart”. So much of what made “Booksmart” such a joy was your watching you work with co-star Beanie Feldstein.
I was just talking to her yesterday, because I’m in New York and we wanted to meet up, but she’s such a busy lady! She’s always workin’! But I am so proud of her. We are always trying to see each other as much as we can. I love her to death. I love my Booksmart family so, so much.
I’d be curious to ask you this question after the show premieres, but have you heard from any survivors of sexual assault about what the show means to them?
I think I will have a better understanding of the show’s impact once it premieres, but I do know that the general reaction has been really gratifying and beautiful. I have heard from a couple of survivors, and they feel like the story was told truthfully and honestly and from a place of respect, and that’s all I can ask for. As an actor you can only try your best to make it as respectful as possible, but you never know what people will think of it. So the positive response so far has been really overwhelming, and moving, and gratifying. I think that to be a part of that, and to know that our show is making other survivors feel seen, that is a huge victory. That’s the best thing in the world, when art can do that. Our dream is that people can feel a little bit of hope at the end of the day watching this, and that it can change the conversation as well.
Unbelievable is available now on Netflix.
This originally appeared in the September 13, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.