'Revenge' writer Nikki Toscano on the line that had everyone buzzing
As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. Nikki Toscano, a writer on this year’s addictive new drama Revenge, is one of many people behind the scenes at this show whom you might not know by name, but you certainly know her words — particularly because she’s responsible for one of EW.com’s favorite soundbites of the year. Read on as she talks about the season’s 5th episode, “Guilt.” For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com‘s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.
By: Nikki Toscano
“Never underestimate the power of guilt, Amanda. It compels people to some pretty remarkable places.” These were David Clarke’s words to his daughter, and the theme of “Guilt” — the lengths we will go to get rid of guilt, the length we will go to embrace it, and of course, the fun of doing it Revenge-style.
“Guilt” was a rocking episode from the start. You kind of can’t go wrong when you have to craft your episode around one of your main characters doing a swan dive off a building onto a taxicab. Originally, Lydia was just supposed to go splat. No blinking of the eyes. No coma. Nothing. Dead as a Rick Perry’s GOP presidential campaign. It was only later that creator Mike Kelley decided to keep her around in a “What Happened to Baby Jane” kind of way.
“Guilt” was also the first episode where we explored what I believe to be the most compelling aspect of the show: when things go wrong in Emily’s plan. Emily Thorne is a girl who’s done her homework and then some. She makes Sydney Bristow look like June Cleaver. But while Emily can predict most things, she can’t predict everything, least of all Victoria, her worthy and complex adversary, and the lengths Victoria will go for self-preservation.
One of the fun things about this series is that Mike Kelley has set up a mandate that rules are meant to be broken. In “Guilt,” nobody expected Lydia to return Barbara Bad Ass style from her social exile, demanding her house and life back. It’s also one of the first times we see how seasoned Emily is in her plan for revenge. This girl not only devises plans with the shrewdness of a WWII general, but she can also quickly adapt to the changes on the battlefield. As soon as Lydia returns from being excommunicated from the Hamptons, Emily manipulates Victoria into eliminating Lydia a second time by using her as the fall guy for the suspicious things that have been happening since Emily Thorne moved into town. Pass that ball to Victoria and you just know she’s going to run with it, and run, and run. Until eventually she publicly eviscerates Lydia at the Victims United Benefit.
“Understand something, Lydia. Every time I smile at you across a room, run into you at a luncheon, welcome you into my home, let my smile be a reminder of just how much I despise you. And that every time I hug you, that warmth you feel is my hatred burning through.”
Even in the outline stage, everyone in the writers’ room knew this was going to be a big moment in the episode, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what those words were going be. That is, until our co-EP Mark Perry pitched that “Victoria should say something like she ‘hates Lydia with the white hot intensity of a thousands suns.'” And it just sparked the level of evisceration that we were aiming for. The H-bomb, as it were. I couldn’t get away from thinking about incorporating that heat, which is where the line “every time I hug you, that warmth you feel is my hatred burning through.”
As a writer, you hope the actor will elevate the material, and Madeleine Stowe never lets me down. Give her an inch and she gives you back a mile. On the day of the shoot, she rocked that speech. I was sitting behind the monitors watching her take, thinking, “This is not a woman I want to run into in a dark alley.” There’s something about her threats that is so deliciously evil because Madeleine delivers them with a smile.
Madeleine is insanely beautiful but she’s equally as intelligent. She’s a writer/director herself, so she totally gets it. So does Emily VanCamp. Emily comes to work every day, ready to rock. Always knows her lines and always gives you a complex, layered performance. Plus, she’s just so cool. She’s the kind of girl you could grab a beer with or go shopping with. Which is why she’s the perfect girl to play Emily Thorne. Emily VanCamp is the wolf in sheep’s (albeit designer) clothing.
It’s genius that Mike Kelley chose to put that Confucius quote at the top of the pilot. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Emily’s conflict is that her plan may be as destructive to her as it is to the Graysons. And in my opinion, it’s why the series works. You can’t have the revenge without the humanity as its anchor. Emily struggles with her feelings of guilt and compassion, especially when her plan yields unexpected collateral damage via Jack and Daniel. But it’s best when her memories of her father reluctantly transform her from the zenith of her powerful Kill Bill badass to the nadir of a little girl who lost her daddy in a most terrible way. Go figure that one of the most complex female characters on TV was created by a dude. But that’s a different kind of essay.
I worked on Detroit 1-8-7 last year and it was a show that didn’t get the viewers it deserved. So, it’s really nice to be working on a show that I enjoy as much as the audience does. I get what the big whoop is all about. For every person who’s wanted to stick it to someone who’s wronged them and decided against it, Emily Thorne is the answer to our prayers…
For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.