Kaitlyn Dever on Unbelievable: 'The hardest thing I've ever done in my career'
In the span of a few months, Kaitlyn Dever has proven she’s got serious range. Earlier this year, the young actress triumphed opposite Beanie Feldstein in the critically hailed high-school comedy Booksmart. And now, on the very opposite end of the spectrum, she’s devastatingly good in Unbelievable, playing Marie Adler, a victim of sexual assault who recants her police report after skeptical police detectives repeatedly ask her to relive her trauma. The character’s arc is drawn from a true story that lives up to the show’s name, first unveiled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article co-published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project.
The series’ first episode focuses entirely on Marie’s ordeal, while subsequent installments introduce a timeline three years later, focused on a separate investigation into a serial rapist. Throughout, it’s an intense storyline that Dever plays with respect, nuance, and emotional power. EW caught up with the actress about what amounted to a grueling three-month shoot, filming vulnerable scenes, and more. Unbelievable is now streaming on Netflix.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this project come to you? How familiar were you with this story?
KAITLYN DEVER: I knew that there was the ProPublica article and I’d listened to the podcast. But it was all a new story when it came to me. I was on the set of Booksmart. We were coming on to our last week of filming, and I started getting into that space that I always get into, in doing acting where, all of a sudden, you’re worrying you don’t have work again. This came to my email and I immediately read it and fell in love with this story. It was something I definitely wanted to be a part of telling — this issue that is timely, but at the same time not very timely at all. It’s an issue that’s been going on forever. That’s initially what attracted me to the project. And also I was doing a film like Booksmart; being able to go on the complete other side of the spectrum and do something more dramatic and compelling was really exciting to me. I auditioned for the producers and Lisa Cholodenko and, straight off of the audition, I got it — very quickly. It came into my hands very quickly and the process itself very happened as well. I’m so happy. I’m so excited.
What kind of research did you do?
Going into anything I do, I want to know the story like the back of my hand. I will study the script a bunch and know the beginning, middle, and ends of where my character goes throughout. That was the first thing that I did. Immediately when I got it I went into prep. I felt lucky having a lot of information about Marie already, from just a lot of [material] the producers had given me. Like, “This is all I really need.” We weren’t trying to do a carbon copy of who Marie was in real life, or is. I’m not trying to do the exact mannerisms and copy her accent. I was really focused on her emotional journey and state of mind throughout the process. In terms of her state of mind, there’s really no way to prepare yourself for those kinds of projects. I had just so much sympathy for her, and so much empathy. I felt horrible about what these women went through in the story, but I knew I needed to just do the best that I can to do the best for these people, in telling this story. I needed to forget about myself. It wasn’t about me, Kaitlyn, as a person anymore. It was about Marie and her story.
I wanted to ask you about that first episode, filming it, and what the mood on set was like. I imagine it was quite a difficult process and an emotionally challenging one as well.
It definitely was. It was definitely emotional. It’s a thing that really drains you. Luckily the producers were really supportive. I always felt support. The prop department and costume department people were women, so that automatically made me feel comfortable on set. It was also a closed set [during filming of all of the assault scenes]. We had just the camera operator, boom operator, and then the actor. That was always very helpful. A lot of the times, you’re told it’s a closed set and then you don’t actually get a closed set as an actor; here, [it was] down to the producers and the director really handling it well. 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 emotional spaces every single day for three to four months. But I can’t really compare it to what these people went through in real life. It’s not even close to what they went through. I have to make sure I say that because it’s really unimaginable what these people go through. It was definitely emotional, but at the end of the day, I was able to come out of it and go home. We were shooting in LA, so I was able to go to my house and say hi to my family.
Did you feel there was a sense of mission on set? There’s such a sense of justice to this show, and in telling Marie’s story.
Yeah, definitely. What makes projects so good is when people have passion and drive to make something the best they can possibly be. Everyone was always on a mission on set to make this the best story possible. I knew going into it, even before we started filming, that we really had so much respect for these people. What I loved about how the producers and the writers and the directors came together on it is they never vilify anyone in the show. They’re just telling truth and people’s sides of it. We’re never putting anyone in a bad light, necessarily, which I think is important in telling these kinds of stories.
Having spent so much time on this project, and I know you guys filmed a while ago, how are you reflecting on it?
When I say it was the hardest thing I had to do, I think it’s because in the aftermath, just after we were filming it, I took a little bit of a break and a breather. I spent a lot of time reflecting on Marie. It just broke my heart the entire time. Every scene, she’s just a girl who kept getting punched in the face, even after her assault. Even before her assault, she had a very tough life. My heart was aching for her during and in the aftermath of this show. I’m happy that we’re making these important stories more and more, and we’re bringing it to light, and giving a voice to the voiceless. That is something that makes me feel proud to be an actor. To be a small part in shedding light on stories that were buried.