In her first leading TV role, Unbelievable's Merritt Wever gave everything she had
Created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Unbelievable is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article co-published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, which begins with the story of Marie (played by Kaitlyn Dever in the series), an 18-year-old reeling from a difficult childhood in the foster care system. She reports being sexually assaulted, but as (male) detectives poke holes in her story, forcing her to repeatedly relive her trauma, the process wears on her — and she recants her report. She admits to lying, takes a deal to avoid criminal charges, and tries to move on. Her story is paralleled with that of two female detectives working a separate investigation into a serial rapist. Their intersection offers devastating insight into the social mechanisms that too often prevent rape victims from being believed.
Wever plays Karen Duvall, one of the detectives in the later timeline: an empathic, methodical cop who partners up with her once-role model, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), after realizing they could be chasing the same guy. Wever didn’t know the story before she was sent the series’ first three scripts. She read through them — as well as the original article — on a long cross-country flight. Her cheeks got red. She kept getting up to pace in the aisle “like a weirdo.” She adds, “It felt like it ignited something in me.”
As Unbelievable begins, Duvall is experienced in handling several sexual assault cases — at least, relative to the men who worked on Marie’s — and pursues the truth for her victims vigorously if, at times, imperfectly. Wever felt the pressure to get that story right, in all of its nuances. “I did all the usual things,” she says of her preparation. She read books, listened to podcasts, talked to various people who could inform her process. But no amount of material could ease the experience of living inside this painful, fact-based saga for three-plus months of filming. That goes for all of Unbelievable’s principals. “It was hard work,” Collette tells EW. “Some days felt like a bit of a slog.” Adds Dever, who’s handed the toughest material in the show: “I have to say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career, the hardest project I’ve ever done, just because I was putting myself in these [intense] emotional spaces every single day.”
As for Wever? “The responsibility of the material weighed on me heavily,” she says. “And I felt like Toni and I were this engine that had to keep going, keep looking. This relentless energy honestly started to break me down after a while.”
In the fall of 2013, Wever introduced her “baseline” nervousness to a national audience. She was on her second consecutive Emmy nomination for Nurse Jackie in the comedy supporting actress category — she’d been on the show for five seasons — when, against a field including previous winners like Julie Bowen (Modern Family) and Jane Lynch (Glee), she was named the surprise winner. In shock, Wever reached the stage, gushed “Thank you so much” a few times, and then said, without missing a beat, “I gotta go, bye,” before scooting away, the audience hooting in amused admiration. Last year, when she won her second Emmy for another meaty supporting turn, in Netflix’s Western limited drama Godless, she cracked on stage, “I wanted to be a grown-up about this” while fumbling her thank-yous. But this time, she didn’t abruptly say goodbye. Addressing her peers in the crowd, she said, “I’m still shocked you’ve made a space for me.” It’s about as genuine an awards-show moment as you’ll see.
And made a space they have. It’s been a long road for Wever, 39, a graduate of LaGuardia High School and Sarah Lawrence College. She got into the film business when she was just 18, and worked steadily under-the-radar for over a decade — recurring on shows like The Wire, taking bit parts in prestige films like Michael Clayton — before her breakout opposite Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie, where she played sunny and wide-eyed nursing student Zoe Barkow. Wever brings a radical sincerity to her acting, rooted in bone-deep empathy and a subtle conviction that often eludes Hollywood. In Unbelievable, she’s never been better. It’s a generous, loving embodiment of a detective doing her job as best she can, while shaken by the case at hand — by the victims for whom she’s seeking justice, the monster(s) getting away with rape, the dangerous culture of sexism coming into harrowing focus.
Karen marks Wever’s debut in a leading TV role; alongside Collette, a prior lead actress Emmy winner (and Oscar nominee), Wever anchors the series and propels it forward. She felt nervous about that, too. “All of a sudden it was very new territory to have the responsibility of a larger part,” she explains. “It ended up somehow exacerbating a lot of anxiety. I experienced it as a burden. What I would like to learn how to do is find more space and joy, instead of it being a burden. Instead of it being something that I’m not going to be able to live up to, it’s an opportunity.”
She continues, her voice slightly sharpened. “I think it also might speak to a lot of the messages that I’ve been given, having done this for a long time, and having started doing this young,” she explains. “It’s a strange thing to be a young girl and walk into rooms and have people tell you what you are and what you can and can’t do and what you can and can’t be like. As strong as I thought I was, it’s very difficult not to have those messages seep into you.”
It’s a theme that overlaps considerably with Unbelievable, and particularly Marie, whose arc extends to being scorned as a liar by her community. Filming the series, Wever found herself thinking about — even consumed by — Marie, even though Karen doesn’t know Marie exists as the narrative hurtles forward. “There’s a part of me as an actor that knew I was making my way towards Marie,” she explains. “We’re also trying to find Marie across space and time, three years later. I felt like I was operating without my heart…. I was pushing and pushing, going and going, and missing something. I was probably feeling as an actor like I was missing the other half of my story.”
She cuts herself off. “Now I feel like I’m rambling. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.” Yet it’s at the very heart of what makes her performance so special and true: that pervading sense of loss, that moral imperative.
It’s fair to say that Wever and Collette’s half of the drama is less intense than Dever’s. The pair are thrown into a slickly produced and sharply written procedural, and with that, buddy-comedy banter and propulsive plotting naturally find their way into the telling. Wever and Collette, particularly, work wonders together. “It was all Merritt for me,” Collette says. “She and I were very much a team. United. We often focused and supported each other. She alone made me laugh, in her own laconic way.”
“I really craved and appreciated those scenes where we got to relate to each other — it was like my shoulders could come down for a second,” Wever adds. “The ways that a person is complicated or a weirdo or human are always going to be the most interesting thing to me.”
Wever took a long break after filming Unbelievable last summer. “I don’t feel particularly ready for anything,” she says now. “I kind of can’t believe some of my good fortune, and I’m always afraid that it’s going to be snatched away.” (She’ll next star as the lead in Run, HBO’s upcoming half-hour executive-produced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge.) This is, she acknowledges, not an uncommon feeling for actors, freelancers “at the mercy of what other people think of us and what other people think we are, or think we can do.”
She returns to the idea that she needs to learn how to enjoy — or perhaps just accept — her undeniable success. “What I’m trying to work on, in an achingly slow way, is enjoying the good things when they happen, because good things don’t always happen,” she says. “If I keep pushing them away and not experiencing them, it’s just a waste of a life.”
As Wever reflects on her time during the Unbelievable shoot in Los Angeles, she keeps coming back to one of her few “blessed” days off. She took advantage by going to the dentist. (“I really needed to go to the dentist!”) On her way back, in an Uber, Wever was inundated with phone calls and texts. It was the day of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony during the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Men and women in my life [were telling me] what it was doing to them and their own histories, what it was kicking up in their own life, and their own processing — or lack of processing,” she says. She took these calls in the back of the car; the driver never referenced them. Of the end of her trip, Wever says, “I literally got out and gave him a five-star f—ing rating.”
This recounting, in a nutshell, answers why this matters to Wever. “I needed to [do] a good-enough job for these people and for this story,” she reiterates. “It matters to me, because — well, I’m not sure how it could not matter.”
All eight episodes of Unbelievable stream on Netflix beginning Friday.