Netflix’s lavish sci-fi thriller Altered Carbon contains several innovative action sequences, from a zero-gravity duel to the death to a struggle within a virtual-reality torture chamber. Yet arguably the most powerful and buzzworthy moment is when Det. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) squares off against a nude, sword-wielding near-immortal, Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), and her many deadly clones.
“Societally we associate female nudity with shame, vulnerability, and with sex,” says showrunner Laeta Kalogridis. “In this sequence, I wanted to do an expression of something that isn’t often associated with female nudity in the present day United States, and that’s power — not sexual power, but physical ownership of the power of your body in a way that women are not really allowed to show. In our story, Meths [wealthy people who live hundreds of years by occupying new bodies] believe they have become gods. You want to buy in this scene that Reileen feels like a god on every level — right down the point where you can’t kill her. Every time you kill her, she comes back, and she comes back perfect each time. Dichen is a mom and an incredible consummate professional actor who trained herself to the point where she felt on every level that she was otherworldly.… What’s terrifying and beautiful about her is she’s utterly un-self-conscious, and because of that, her power is even more striking. It’s meant to be — and I hope that it is — something different than anything you’ve seen before.”
Below, Lachman (The 100, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) candidly discusses how she pulled off the daring sequence and gives some rather humorous behind-the-scenes anecdotes as well (for those concerned about spoilers, we don’t reveal the fight’s outcome).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how much did you know about this role going in?
DICHEN LACHMAN: I knew very little when I first auditioned on tape at home. I didn’t have a script, I just had temporary sides. I forgot about it, and three months later they called and asked if I would like to do it. I asked to read the script and they only sent one episode, and Reileen wasn’t really in it. So I didn’t know much about my character, but the script and the people working on the project got me excited.
Did you do any preparations for the fight scenes or otherwise to ready yourself physically for a role where you’re playing a person who’s hundreds of years old?
Yes, there was a lot of preparation. At the time, my daughter was 2 and I was back in shape, but I wasn’t in shape the way Reileen needs to be in shape. I started training immediately on my own, and then they started training me in sword-fighting techniques and the physical stuff I was going to be required to do. That was very intense. I’ve never worked with a sword to this extent, only a little bit on The 100. The way a TV network does stuff, there’s not a lot of time and they have a stunt person do a lot of your stuff. But [Altered Carbon producers] were intent on making the fight scenes amazing, the best they could be, they wanted us to do as much as possible ourselves. It was about three months of training, hours and hours a day, getting that choreography down, getting the lines of the sword right, and learning how to react to being hit when somebody’s hitting you.
I never really thought of that, but pretending to get hit in a realistic manner must be a bit tricky to do.
Yeah, and you feel like such an idiot! If you’re just doing the choreography by yourself, you feel really silly. But on the screen, it looks amazing.
So when you first heard about the “attack of the clones” scene, what went through your mind?
I had only gotten four scripts at that point. And I was driving back from training and one of the producers called me and very delicately told me there was going to be a naked sword fight. I remember leaning forward in shock and going, “Oh!” I didn’t know about it prior to signing on. And of course, they were asking me if I was comfortable with it. They weren’t telling me to do it. They were asking if I was comfortable doing it because this is how the story is unfolding and this is a really great moment.
And what was your response?
Initially, when someone asks you to be completely naked, your insecurities come to the surface — every little thing you don’t like about yourself. I’m sure even people who have incredible, enviable bodies are insecure about them in some way. That’s the first thing that went through my mind. Then they sent me the script and I was still nervous, but I also started to get excited. Because as a woman — and maybe this is one of the problems in our society — I assumed if I was ever going to be naked on screen it would be in a different way, like in a sex scene, or being manipulated. But in this scene, Reileen was fighting. And she was fighting another woman, and that got me excited too. I talked to my family and thought about it and started feeling empowered by the opportunity. I started training harder and pushing myself. By the time we got to do it I’d been training about four or five months and felt confident. I still had insecurities but the character helped me move through that — because Reileen doesn’t have any insecurity in that sense.
It seems like one of those sequences where you have to shoot every clone separately from so many angles that it could take a long time to shoot.
It took a long time. It was a very complicated scene. When you’re walking around naked for four days, it gets a bit tiring. We first had to find eight girls who looked like me physically. They’d come in and we’d discuss if they felt comfortable with the idea, and all the men would have to leave the room. I had to stand next to them and [female crew members] would decide if we were the right shape, if our skin tones matched, and that sort of thing.
That had to be bizarre.
It was, but it was a wonderful bonding experience as well. They also had to find two stunt doubles who were willing to do the scene naked — and that was exceptionally hard. Stuntwomen have it tough because you normally can’t put as many pads on a woman due to the way their characters tend to be dressed. And when you’re naked you can’t put on any padding, so if you don’t fall correctly, you can seriously injure yourself. Stuntwomen are tough but also modest, and this is a big leap for them. It was difficult to find a girl who was proficient with a sword, who was willing to do the scene naked and had a similar body type to me. Even though I do the majority of the fight, they couldn’t have me jumping out of the glass pods because it’s not safe, and a liability. There was also a flip that the stunt girls had to do.
And this is funny: We also had to design the merkin — a wig for “down there.” We had to decide how it looked and how much I needed to feel comfortable. I discussed the design with the stunt girls too because I didn’t want to be the only person who was comfortable with it. There was a lot of people who had to be naked and in all sorts of positions and doing different things. One of the best wigmakers in the business made the merkin, and I remember first seeing it and it was just ridiculously long. I spent an hour and a half in the trailer with the makeup girls trying to shape and trim it so it wouldn’t be distracting. Otherwise, I would look like I was wearing a small animal.
Yeah, this show is set 300 years in the future, you wouldn’t think that would be a popular look.
It was like something from the ’70s! I wanted to do a rehearsal of the scene first and be naked [on that set] in front of a couple people I trusted. That way, on the day we starting shooting I had already done it — I had already gotten the nudity out of the way. So I was standing there naked and combing at [the merkin] with my fingers and telling everyone we had to do something about this because it was distracting. So on the actual day, it was fine. It wasn’t fine-fine, but some of my nerves had washed away and were replaced by: How are we going to do this in the time that we have to do it?
I assume all the broken glass you were walking on wasn’t real?
It was made of silicone. It was fake and when you stepped on it, it turned into sand and then became incredibly slippery, like walking on black ice. So when you’re doing a fight scene with no shoes and everybody is sliding it’s dangerous for everyone. And then you have the bodies all over the ground.
One of the silly things is that when I eat I get a belly; a belly pops out. Reileen can’t have a belly like she just ate a couple burgers, it doesn’t suit the character. So the amount of food I consumed over those days was so small, so I was hungry, I was emotional, I was tired. And yet I felt so grateful I got to do this and the people around me couldn’t be more supportive. Once I did it — and I didn’t think this would happen — I felt like I could do anything, like I was really powerful. That was really a gift.
Have you seen the finished cut of the scene with it all put together?
I think I saw the finished cut. I hide behind my hands when watching, it’s hard for me to be objective. I feel like it goes by so quickly. I’m not sure if that’s because for me it felt like an eternity [to shoot]. I feel like I went through this battle and then on screen, it goes by so fast, though I suppose that’s just my perception. I hope people like it and don’t judge it harshly because so many people worked so hard on it and it cost a lot to do in terms of emotionally. It’s an important scene too because it’s the only scene where Reileen really talks to somebody other than her brother. She’s a recluse, she’s always hiding, she uses the Ghost to be her eyes and ears, she doesn’t really interact with a lot of people.
What was the most challenging or fun scene overall to film? [Warning: Finale spoilers below]
Obviously the naked fight. But in terms of the character, that final scene where she tells Kovacs she backed up Quellcrist before the explosion is really a pivotal moment. It really shows how much she loves her brother despite how jealous she is of Quell. Reileen would rather have her brother to herself in an incestuous way. She knows and understands how much he loves Quell and knows he needs her to be happy. So the fact she backed her up is huge to me. It shows how loyal she is and she truly believes people should be able to choose if they live forever or not. To her, it’s like freedom of speech.
So that’s interesting because after talking to Laeta, that moment is meant to be ambiguous as to whether Reileen is lying to her brother or telling the truth, but in terms of performing that character, you’re playing it as she’s being honest.
I guess you’re right, it’s open to interpretation. But I always wanted to believe she was telling the truth because that’s how I rooted the little bit of humanity she had left.
What is she thinking in those final moments?
It appears that he’s blown her stack out. Ultimately she’s happy she died with him. That’s what she’s been fighting for centuries. One of the reasons I think she left him on ice so long and didn’t go and get him — she’s had a lot of power for a long time — is she was terrified of telling him [what she’s done]. It’s like when you have a kid who looks up to you who might be angry with you for something you did and you’re terrified of telling them because they won’t understand.
Any chance we’ll be seeing Reileen somehow in season 2?
I’m not sure. We’re not really kept in the loop. I hope so. I enjoyed playing Reileen very much and she’s an incredibly complicated character and there’s so much there. I hope I get the opportunity, but it remains to be seen. Another thing I liked is that the women in this story are really driving it. Kovacs is reluctant when he comes back. The show is really like a theatrical experience that goes for 10 hours where the women are driving the story, and that excites me. And as a person of Asian descent, it’s also exciting to play such a pivotal role. We’re seeing more of that, and it’s welcome to see more balance.
Altered Carbon is available for streaming on Netflix now.