Black Mirror producers on that Miley Cyrus episode and a creepy pop star trend
WARNING: This interview contains spoilers about Black Mirror season 5 episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too.”
Miley Cyrus made her TV return in Netflix’s Black Mirror season 5 where she played a pop star named Ashley O who launches a robotic doll based on her own personality. Yet things take a wild turn when she’s poisoned into a coma by her greedy aunt (Susan Pourfar) intent on substituting the real Ashley for a hologram.
Below, creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones take some burning questions in one part in our three-part season 5 interview (also read our chats about “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens”).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Even though this is a media interview I hope you’re not only going to put a limiter on yourself so you only use 4% of your minds to answer my questions like the Ashley doll.
CHARLIE BROOKER: Unfortunately, I can only ever use a maximum of 6% of my mind.
ANNABEL JONES: You should tell us at the end!
I loved this one because it felt like you guys struck an entirely new tone for the show with some characters that were unlike any I had on seen on the show before. What was your inspiration for this one?
BROOKER: I’m glad you said that, because the tone of this one is quite nuts. It starts one place and accelerates into insanity by the end. Often with Black Mirror, there are two ideas that collide. Years ago I wrote a sitcom about a punk band from 1977 and all the members died, they’re killed in a mass hanging — it’s a long story, it was a comedy, they were hanged by a Tory minister. They miraculously come back in the future and discover their manager has been exploiting their back catalog and selling them out.
And we were discussing the rise of holographic versions of artists — Prince and Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It’s notable these people often pass away in extremely tragic circumstances. They’ve been chewed up by the fame industry and now they’re being resurrected. It’s extremely ghoulish. And we were thinking of A.I. too — what if you could program something that could write like John Lennon? And Alexa, all those virtual assistants, and how they provide companionship of a kind. That led to a conversation of, what if you had a virtual assistant based on a celebrity’s personality, and then I started jumping up and down, and thought, “Oh that connects to the hologram performer idea!” and it sort of spun out from there.
At first, I thought this was going to be the Black Mirror version of Twilight Zone’s “Living Doll,” but then it went a more interesting and fun direction, almost like one of those after-school kids shows. I half expected the evil aunt to somehow be literally unmasked at the end.
BROOKER: It’s funny you say that. At one point I proposed her face should fall off and show all sorts of circuits and cogs. I said she should disappear in a puff of smoke. I was down for that. I think she almost does that because she looks down the lens and acknowledges the viewer. That’s as close as we get.
You mentioned before you had a very short list for the lead role, and after seeing the episode it’s obvious why as it requires somebody who can convincingly play a pop star in performance scenes plus dramatically deliver off stage. But what did Miley Cyrus specifically bring to the part?
JONES: Probably more attitude. The whole film is about an artist and how they’re trying to find their own identity and break out from the commercial machine. And as we talked about, the tone gets increasing heightened and sarcastic and satirical, and Miley is all of those things. She has that attitude. She isn’t afraid to step aside and do something edgy. But what I love about the film is the vulnerability she brought amongst all of this. And then, of course, her observations about the world and her personal experiences and what it’s like to live that life and the demands that social media places on you and her relationships with her fans and how she tries to responsibly manage that. And she drew on all of that.
Was there anything she pushed back on in terms of portraying a pop star, in terms of realism or other reasons?
JONES: I don’t think she pushed back on anything. She had some thoughts on the costume and the look. She’s been through that role and we just fed off her.
BROOKER: Some of Miley’s observations ended up when the aunt is giving her presentation. During our initial conversation, she described recently supporting another act — an act for an older generation where she did a cameo. And Miley stepped on stage and saw their faces because they weren’t all filming her on their phone and she really enjoyed it and hadn’t realized how much she missed that. There were lines about that that ended up in [the episode]. She also has such a good sense of humor for somebody with that life; she doesn’t take the world too seriously.
Also while I have you: Any update on doing a spin-off series from the Black Mirror universe? I continue to think a “Metalhead” series would work.
BROOKER: That’s one we can’t answer.
But you said that in an arch kind of way that makes me think there’s something there.
BROOKER: Or is it a triple bluff?
UPDATE: All 23 Black Mirror episodes ranked (including season 5)