Abigail Spencer on Hulu's Reprisal and her relentless, archetype-breaking femme fatale
Abigail Spencer’s take on the typical femme fatale is here to shake things up.
In Hulu’s new hyper-noir drama Reprisal — created by Josh Corbin and executive-produced by The Handmaid’s Tale’s Warren Littlefield — Spencer stars as Katherine/Doris, a relentless, revenge-seeking woman out to right the wrongs done to her by her brother and his gang of gearheads. They chained her to a truck, dragged her through a field, and left her for dead, but there’s no keeping Doris down. Soon she’s recruiting allies (Ethan, played by Mena Massoud, and Witt, played by W. Earl Brown) to help her exact vengeance, and let’s just say her assailants should watch their backs.
Ahead of the show’s Dec. 6 premiere, we chatted with Spencer about the lengths she went to in order to bring the character to life — right down to rethinking how she spoke — and why it’s important to play complicated characters who challenge archetypes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in Reprisal, and what was your first impression of the script?
ABIGAIL SPENCER: I had just finished Timeless season 2 — like, literally had just wrapped it — and my team had sent me the script and said, “They’re very interested in you for this series by The Handmaid’s Tale producers.” I’m a huge fan of Warren Littlefield and his company, Fargo, and everything that he’d done. I was like, “Wow, this looks and sounds really great,” and then I read the first five pages and I was like, “Yeah, no, I’m not doing this.” I was like, “I can’t take the lead of another show. This is good; I’m going to want to do it.” But I was just so tired. I was technically available — Timeless was hanging in the balance. The day that it got officially canceled, but got picked up to do a movie, I was flying back from London and was super-jet-lagged. Then I woke up to an offer and they wanted to meet with me that day. I’d had some time away so I was little bit more open, and I read it that day and I just got it. I grew up watching old movies, classic movies, and I just got Josh’s vision on the page. I felt like I understood what was underneath, what he was trying to do, and I loved the era ambiguity. For me, I was looking for a departure from anything I’d done before. I felt like it was an important project for the moment, for the time. I felt like it was important that 10 years ago this part would’ve been written for a man. I keep saying, “A vote for Doris is a vote for all women!” If you watch Reprisal, if you go on Doris’ journey, then we get to make more shows about complicated, intelligent, archetype-breaking, human women. To me, it’s part of my larger plight to bring life to these complex humans so we get to make more of them. That’s the deeper goal.
Your character goes through a horrific trauma and then comes out the other side a transformed woman, both mentally and physically. Something that struck me was her voice: It’s so calm and controlled, but you can almost hear the rage bubbling underneath. Was that something you brought to the character?
It’s so interesting because we never talked about it. I just kind of started doing it. A few things go into it. When you think about what happened to her — before she was very in her body, and a dancer, and the king of the gang ring and outspoken and unbridled, and then she has this horrible thing happen to her. She’s chained to a truck by people she loves and trusts, dragged through a field, and left for dead. When you really start to imagine what that feels like and the trauma… Josh I talked about just what her life was like between that and moment and becoming Doris. She’s also totally cloaking herself too, so her voice is affected by every aspect: She’s sweet and she’s kind, but she experiences this trauma so her voice probably shoots up into her throat. She’s also trying to hide because she doesn’t want anyone to know she survived. So it was thinking about what would that do to her voice? As the season goes on, the energy of Katherine comes back, so then it’s how you try to merge those things. As she starts to get more in touch with the Katherine side of her and heal the wound, her voice starts to come back. I don’t even know if I ever talked about it. I think we were shooting episode 7 or 8 when I brought it up with Jonathan [van Tulleken], the director, and Warren, and they were like, “Oh, yeah!” I was already several episodes in, so I was like, “We’re doing this now! We’re committed.” Every character has their own range of voices, their own register, and I really enjoy playing with that.
Was it also fun to play with her suppressed rage? I love those moments in the first few episode when it simmers to the top — especially in episode 3, when she kind of snaps.
That was not scripted. It was written the way it was, but we had been shooting that scene for so long and I had started to play with it. In some takes, she’d really snap and then pull it back. The scene at the end of episode 3, we’d been shooting that one scene for 14 hours that day, and it’s basically the first time that we hear her reveal what’s going on and she keeps getting interrupted. For the first three episodes she keeps getting interrupted, actually. If she could just get a word out! I felt for her because she couldn’t finish a sentence and no one would listen to her. Part of the larger collective is that there’s this energy that the women want to scream because they’re constantly interrupted and we can’t say our thoughts and truths. I think that’s where a lot of rage and violence comes from: just not being heard and feeling like you’re not valued or seen. It is very difficult to contain that energy all the time, but it was really important to carry that in her body to ground her. I’m not immune to the potential tropes of the typical femme fatale, so part of the challenge was to play with some of these archetypes and shift the perspective. I walked away from season 1 being like, “Well, it’s all there.” I think by the time you get to the end of season 1, you’re like, “What’s going to happen next?!”
Is there one particular moment or episode you’re excited for people to see?
There’s so many moments. I think personally for me, the beginning of episode 8. I actually dance as Katherine. There’s a whole burlesque dance that I helped co-choreograph with our incredible choreographer, Dany [Lofgren]. I used to be a dancer, so that was fun to re-engage with that part of myself and the costume! Our costume designer made me a couture burlesque bunny suit. Nicole Kidman, eat your heart out! It was so gorgeous. The hair and the makeup! Once the show premieres, look out for my social media because there’s going to be so many behind-the-scenes photos. Then also in episode 9, Bash [played by Gilbert Owuor] and Doris finally have their meeting near the end. All I’ll say is look out for “Dammit Janet,” from Rocky Horror Picture Show.