Altered Carbon star Renée Elise Goldsberry talks her expanded season 2 role
Warning: This article contains spoilers about season 2 of Netflix's Altered Carbon.
Quellcrist Falconer lives! Though the Netflix sci-fi series Altered Carbon is mostly focused on the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs, it was clear even in season 1 that the revolutionary leader played by Renée Elise Goldsberry had a powerful impact on the show. Back then, Kovacs (as played by Joel Kinnaman) believed that his former lover and political role model was dead, so she only appeared as a figment of his imagination — a voice from his past reminding him of his training and encouraging him to persevere through difficult times.
Flash forward to season 2, which takes place years after the first and switches out Kinnaman for Anthony Mackie as Kovacs’ new “sleeve.” Quellcrist is no longer a figment of his imagination; she’s back in the flesh. In fact, by the end of the season, she and Kovacs have officially switched places. Now Quellcrist is on her own journey, and Kovacs lingers as a figment of her imagination.
EW caught up with Goldsberry to discuss her expanded role this season and what the future might hold — for fans of both Altered Carbon and Hamilton.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character Quellcrist Falconer was an important part of season 1, but you had a much bigger presence as a character in season 2. How did the two seasons differ for you?
RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY: In season 1 Quell is mostly a figment of Kovacs’ mind. She embodies his Envoy intuition, she is his manifestation of whatever he needs to hear or know to move forward and survive. He really manifests her in a way that moves him forward, and she is a support to him. The tables turn in season 2 in an interesting way. It turns full circle by the end of the season, but through the entire season, his purpose is to support his journey. They really do flip roles in a way. What I love about it is you think you know Quell from season 1, but you really only know what his memory of her is. You realize, as you get to meet her in season 2, she’s suffering from her stack being invaded by this other being and she’s going through more, you do get to know her and you realize you really knew a part of her before.
Throughout season 2, to what degree did you see your role as “Quellcrist Falconer” and to what degree were you playing a mix of Quell and the Elder consciousness invading her mind?
We actually gave her two names. We had “Quell” and “Quellder,” just to be clear on set. We wanted to be very specific about who we were dealing with. The Quell first person who you meet is Quellder, then you meet Quell without her memories who is suffering from her fragged stack, and in the end you meet Quell, when she stands up from the water and she is herself again. We had to be specific, because Quellder fights differently from Quell; she has a different purpose, she sounds different. One of the biggest questions we’re dealing with in season 2 is, what is our identity? Whether we’re human or AI. We’ve already asked, is it our body? But now we’re asking, is it our memories? If I’m separate from my memories, if I can’t remember what I did or who I loved, does that mean I’m not me? These are the questions we’re asking in various ways through season 2. When dealing with Quell, we get to meet different manifestations of who she is.
You are one of the common threads between season 1 and season 2, but a lot of other characters have changed a bit, including the protagonist. How does Anthony Mackie’s interpretation of Takeshi Kovacs compare to Joel Kinnnaman’s, or Will Yun Lee’s?
It’s an embarrassment of riches, they’re all brilliant and so different, which is so unique about our show. That’s the challenge of our show, and the coolest part. It’s something I learned in the theater: When you’re doing really big shows, characters change. I originated the role of Angelica Schuyler [in Hamilton], but now she’s been played by so many actors around the world. So it’s something I know really well: If a character is written well, there can be a million versions of it and they can all be interesting. In Altered Carbon, we have the advantage of a different journey. Each of the different Kovacs are defined by their different goals and intentions. That’s what you see between Will’s and Anthony’s versions of Tak in season 2: Until their intentions align, they are at odds. That’s another way we play with what is identity: What is our purpose, what is our goal? That defines us in a way. When we look at season 1 and season 2, the different versions of Kovacs by Anthony and Joel, they were dealing with different sets of challenges in different worlds. But there was something pure about their pathos, and their loyalty to Reileen, their loyalty to Quell. When you find actors who can capture those highs and lows, you know you’re dealing with the same person, even though they’re different actors.
At the end of season 2, Will’s Kovacs is the one who’s still around, but it’s the version of Kovacs that Quell knows least. How would you describe her relationship with the remaining Kovacs' sleeve?
It’s interesting because it reminds me of the end of season 1 with Kristin Ortega. She has her love back, but now she has the person who inhabited the sleeve through the season back. And it’s kind of like who am I going with, what am I going to do? This technology, and our exploration of it in our show, allows us to really explore love. We’re looking at these two beings. Quell, as you can see in s2, gives them both the same rope, trusts them both in certain situations when everyone else would consider them untrustworthy. They basically fall in love with her because of her ability to see the boy inside the man with both of them. When one of them holds her back while the other one is burned alive, what would you hold onto if you lost the love of your life? Wouldn’t you go to any version of them to ease your pain? I think that’s what defines Quell and her strength: She could definitely go to Kovacs Prime, because she knows better than anybody who’s there, that it’s the same person, but she chooses not to because she’s on a mission again. She knows that she loves that person, but she is clear that to go there is what puts the entire world at risk. She’s defined by her purpose again, she’s back. The only thing that separates the two of them at this point is the end of Stronghold. You know, can see clearly, that every Kovacs would make the same decisions. She doesn’t allow Kovacs Prime to make those decisions for her, because she knows what would be inevitable, and that’s in her mind risking humanity in favor of enjoying their love for each other.
Quell has a line toward the end where she tells her vision of Kovacs, "The Uprising here has dried up, so I'll find a new world. With the right conditions, it'll grow again." Do you find that line depressing, in that there have been so many failed tries at the revolution, or is it more inspiring, that she’ll never give up fighting for the chance to make it real?
I love what she says to Kovacs in the last line: "I’m going to live." She’s been so defined by the sacrifice, being the one who needs to make the sacrifice because of the guilt she feels for this technology she brought into the world. She does not let herself off the hook with the intention that it was supposed to be for good. That’s the Quell we’ve always known, but she learns something in season 2 from watching her love die: She learns that sacrifice has to be for something, and she’s going to live. She says to the governor, when she says the revolution is dead or not alive, it is now. She recognizes in herself that she is the revolution, she is the person who will make it right, that her life does have value and sacrificing it would make Kovacs’ sacrifice would be in vain. To me, it’s extremely hopeful. She’s back, she’s herself, and now on point to bring down the Protectorate. We don’t know yet what else she learned from her time with the Elder and their technology. We don’t know if she’ll be bringing something new to the fight that will change the game. It’s an extremely hopeful ending to me, it says a lot about surviving something. She learned a lot from what seems like failures. I believe when she gets into that cryo, I believe that they’re gonna have a fight on their hands.
It was recently announced that the filmed version of you and the original cast's performance of Hamilton will soon be in theaters. What are you interested or excited for more people to see about your guys’ original version of Hamilton?
I was in the filmed version of the staged production of Rent. Jeffrey Seller was the producer of both Rent and Hamilton. Radical Media teamed up with Sony and they filmed our last show. That was remarkable to me, because it was the first time I had seen a filmed version of a stage show that I thought did any justice to the staged work. I have not seen the filmed version of Hamilton, but I think the greatest gift I received as a cast member was that they spent the money and took that time to do that and capture that moment. People always ask me, "What do you like better, film/TV or theater?" I like them both for different reasons, but the only thing about theater that gives it any competition at all for me is that it was a moment that existed and if you weren’t in the room where it happened, you missed it. For them to have captured in a bottle what it felt like at that time and share it with the world, that to me is a huge gift.
Theater sometimes becomes so inaccessible. Lin[-Manuel Miranda] actually said this in an interview, that people always come up and tell us they saw the original company so-and-so amount of times, which they mean in a complimentary way but also to demonstrate how exclusive their access is. But we want to make theater available to everybody. And so I’m really excited by the fact that everyone will get to see what it was like in that moment. They’ll also see that the production they saw in Chicago or wherever was also great. There was no huge mystique. They’ll learn it was a unique special time, but they’ll also realize the show is also just as good right now in the theater. We’ll get to see ourselves, because what we don’t get to do in the theater is that. I love Altered Carbon because I love getting to see the work of people who were doing things on days I was not shooting. Like now I’m watching season 2 and going "oh my god, Chris Conner!" I'm looking at all these actors like "Oh, you guys are brilliant. I just didn't see you doing that work." That’s what happens in theater; we don't see our own work or anyone else's, but if you film it now I get to see what everybody was so excited about. I get to share in the joy that the audience gets, and I’m excited about that too.