M. Night Shyamalan is the biggest name attached to Servant, the new thriller premiering on Apple TV+ this Thanksgiving. Though the series was written and created by Tony Basgallop, Shyamalan came on as a director and executive producer. But to hear him tell it, the real name to pay attention to in Servant is onetime Harry Potter star Rupert Grint.
“He came in and auditioned, and I just saw a different person,” Shyamalan told the audience at the Servant premiere in New York last week. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this kind of reinvention from child actor to adult actor in my life, it’s amazing.”
Grint plays Julian Pearce, the brother of Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose). Before the events of Servant, Julian worked with Dorothy’s husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), to introduce a baby doll into the house to help Dorothy recover from the loss of their son, Jericho. Over the course of the series, Julian checks in at the Turner home (where Servant is almost entirely set) to drink with Sean and see how things are going with the fake baby’s new nanny (Nell Tiger Free).
“I was sent one scene, and it was very out of context. I had no idea what was going on. It was two guys having this intense conversation about a doll,” Grint tells EW. “There was just something very intriguing about this story. I loved the language, the dialogue was great. And, it was just this incredible surreal, deeply upsetting subject matter.”
One way Servant manages to unsettle the viewer is by doing extreme close-ups where you wouldn’t expect them. During an early conversation between Julian and Sean, Shyamalan’s camera is focused on the table where Julian slams down one drink after another. (On the drinking, Grint says: “They’re both quite hedonistic, particularly Julian. He’s all about seeking different kinds of pleasure. There’s pot or other substances or there’s always some sort of drink. You question, can we fully trust these people?”) When Sean cooks, the camera zooms in on the disgusting violence of skinning an eel. At the New York Comic Con panel about Servant, Shyamalan said he would often ask for multiple takes, even if a line seemed banal, in order to pull a deeper emotion out of the performers.
“We were always reinventing it, thinking about it from a different way. Sometimes Night would have these notes too, but they would sound so obscure,” Grint says. “I remember he said, about one of the first scenes I was sent, ‘Make me think about your mum.’ And weirdly that made so much sense, in a way. I can’t actually think what the scene was, but I remember being like, ‘Wow, yeah, that’s really helpful.’ There was a lot of that, we did do a lot of takes, and it really did feel quite theater-like.”
Then there’s Jericho, Baby Yoda’s dark opposite if ever there was one. Considering how much positive emotion can be aroused by seeing a cute baby, replacing the infant with a doll creates a very sinister uncanny-valley effect that haunts not just the viewers but the characters themselves — all of whom spend some time the doll over the course of Servant. Grint says they even came up with a nickname for it.
“It has this thing where you want to take care of it and whenever you hold it, it’s weighted in such a way that it feels so realistic. But looking into its eyes is just pure hell,” he says. “We sort of see babies with a purity, but seeing them in this context is very scary. It’s very disturbing. I found it very stressful being near it. So we nicknamed it Scary Jerry. It was this amazing object, but it’s quite scary.”