Flesh and blood: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell unite for Defending Jacob

By Devan Coggan
April 24, 2020

Like most parents, Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery have some thoughts about Jaeden Martell’s hair.

The trio play the seemingly idyllic Barber family in Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob, and before the show’s April 24 debut, they staged a makeshift family reunion on Zoom, with Dockery calling in from her home in London, Evans from Boston, and Martell from Los Angeles. As soon as the video feed flickered on, all three began waving and grinning at the sight of each other, like any long-distance kin who’ve been separated by quarantine. Evans immediately started peppering the 17-year-old Martell with playful questions about his newly bleached blond hair: “Is that for work, or is that for you?”

“Just for fun,” Martell replied. “Because why not?”

“It looks great!” Dockery gushed, as Martell pointed out Evans’ recent buzz cut. “It’s utilitarian,” Evans said with a shrug, running his hand over his head.

Even separated by several time zones, Evans, Dockery, and Martell have an easy chemistry that makes them particularly believable as a family unit. And at first, Defending Jacob’s Barber family seem to be every bit the close-knit, white-picket-fence suburbanites they present on the outside. Their sense of normalcy shatters, however, when a local boy is found stabbed on a nearby jogging path. The boy, Ben, was a classmate of 14-year-old Jacob (It alum Martell), and the youngest Barber is soon arrested on suspicions of murder. Suddenly, mom Laurie (Downton Abbey's Dockery) and dad Andy (Evans, a.k.a. Captain America) find themselves rushing to defend their son, as they privately question how well they really know him — and each other. 

Writer Mark Bomback and director Morten Tyldum adapted William Landay’s 2012 novel into eight episodes, following the Barbers as they hole up in their house, dodging accusations from law enforcement, inquiries from the media, and dirty looks from neighbors. As an added wrinkle, Andy is an assistant district attorney — specifically the assistant district attorney who was investigating Ben’s murder, up until his own son’s arrest. 

Ahead of the show’s premiere on Apple TV+, Evans, Dockery, and Martell open up about deceit, trust, and family bonding. 

Digital cover production by Good Company; image courtesy Apple.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is such a wild, twisty story. What was it that made each of you want to be a part of this?

MICHELLE DOCKERY: I was really compelled by the scripts that I read initially, which I think were the first three. I just thought it was an amazing story and quite different to most crime dramas, as it focuses more on the effects it has on the family. That certainly was an interest for me. And Mark is just such a brilliant writer. For me, it always starts with the material. 

JAEDEN MARTELL: Chris and I were doing Knives Out, actually. I auditioned for [Defending Jacob] a few times and, eventually, we found out that I was going to be doing it while we were shooting. I was just drawn to Jacob because he felt like such a normal teenager, but he obviously was very layered and very mysterious to the audience. And just because you never are able to get inside his head, you’re never able to fully know whether he [committed murder] or not. So I think that’s why I was attracted to him: because he’s so internal, rather than it being so explanatory what he’s thinking, what’s he feeling.

Chris, what was it about this project that drew you in? I know this is your first TV project since Opposite Sex in 2000, and you’re an executive producer on this.

CHRIS EVANS: It was mostly Mark and Morten. I mean, I loved the writing as well. But you only get to read one script, at least I only read the pilot. So the other seven were pitched to me, and that takes a little bit of a leap of faith. What pushes you over the edge in those circumstances is the people you’re working with, and Mark and Morten had such clear vision. Morten would be directing all eight episodes, and that’s really important to me, having a singular voice to have a vision. And Mark is so clever, and his writing is so accessible; the scenes just flow so well out of his brain. So for me, it was just a couple of guys that I really wanted to collaborate with.

Claire Folger/Apple TV+

Jaeden and Chris, you went from Knives Out, where you played cousins wrapped up in a murder mystery, to this…where you’re playing a father and son wrapped up in a murder mystery.

MARTELL: I remember we were shooting [Knives Out] together and we were passing by each other in a hallway. You looked at me and [said], “Are we going to do this together?”

EVANS: Yeah. “I think you’re going to be my son?”

MARTELL: “I think you’re going to be my son,” yeah! So that was funny. 

EVANS: They had sent me a group of auditions, about five auditions, for actors they were considering for Jacob. The first one I watched was Jaeden’s. I actually didn’t recall the scene off the top of my head, so I was watching the scene and I thought, “Oh wow, he improvised the scene. Good for him. That takes courage.” And then I watched the next kid and it was the same dialogue. I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Was that scripted? That scene that I just watched Jaeden do, was that actually written?" I went back and watched it and said, "Holy s---, this kid made me think he went off page. He's that natural, that effortless." And it really was, at that point, just a no brainer he was that guy.

 Jaeden, you also played a young version of Chris in Playing It Cool in 2014. Are you guys basically family now?

EVANS: Amen! 

MARTELL: It’s pretty funny. That was my first ever movie, Playing It Cool. I played a younger Chris, and I worked one day. We never met, but I remember seeing Chris from afar in the van. I was like [points], “I play younger you.” I had really long blond hair, and they shaved it. They buzzed it, like, “By the way, we’re buzzing it today to make it look more like Chris.” That was hard to deal with. [Laughs]

This show has a lot of the hallmarks of your traditional murder mystery thriller — red herrings, cliffhangers, hidden secrets. But it’s uniquely centered on this family relationship and the idea of trust. What was it about that theme of family that you guys wanted to explore?

EVANS: I think it starts with trust and [whether you] can ever really know anybody. But I think the downstream impact is a little more interesting to me. Once you are confronted with the realization that someone is not who they presented, [that’s something] I think a lot of people have probably experienced in their lives. But typically, it’s someone that you can shed, whether it’s an associate or an ex or something like that. When it’s your family, when it’s your blood, it’s someone that you’ve invested time and love into, and your identity has become entangled with this idea of who they are.

DOCKERY: They differ in their journey so much, Andy and Laurie. So much of the struggle for her is the guilt that she carries: “Is this true? Is this my fault? Did I do something wrong?” And I think it really highlights what parents go through, the anxieties that come from being a parent, how you create this person. 

Jacob is obviously the most cryptic character in the whole show. Jaeden, how did you approach playing such a secretive, internal figure?

MARTELL: For me, it was just figuring out who he was and using my imagination, figuring out exactly what happened the day of Ben’s murder. Just to give myself a background story and just something to keep me grounded throughout the whole thing because the process was so long. It was essentially like shooting an eight-hour-long movie. It was easy to forget where we were as characters.

Basically, when I first met with Mark and Morten, I asked whether he did it or not, and Morten said that I was able to decide if he did it. He said he didn’t want to know, and I shouldn’t tell anybody. I just had to figure that out. 

This feels like a little bit of a departure for each of you. Did you get to try any new skills or explore any new territory?  

DOCKERY: I mean, it’s always challenging playing Americans. I’m having to play them a lot at the moment. I had to work just that little bit harder because with an accent, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I learned with this one that it does take a bit more homework.

MARTELL: I think what we talked about — the character being so internal — that was definitely a learning experience for me. A lot of the actors that I look up to, they put so much work and so much effort into becoming their characters. I definitely didn’t. I didn’t go that far as to become my character, but I definitely took a step forward. I feel like as a child actor, you always have to be natural and be yourself in a way, so when you make a transition into becoming an adult, you have to be able to play people that aren’t like you, and you have to change. So I definitely learned how to change for this because I was so different from Jacob.

EVANS: This may be boring, but I got to play a dad. I think it’s really interesting to examine that type of love, that kind of unconditional expression, which I think is very different than other forms of love. You have a character who otherwise would be a very pragmatic, rational thinker, and [he] can almost become blinded by that conviction. 

There’s something really sweet about your source being your own relationship with your father. That’s a nice place to tap into if you have to. I mean, then you’ve got to pour a lot of nasty s--- on top of it, but it’s still a nice place to start.

Was there anything particular about your own dad that you used as inspiration?

EVANS: This is turning into a therapy session now. [Laughs] I have a wonderful relationship with my father. His, what do they call it, love language is… It’s not like my father is necessarily comfortable saying the words “I love you” or hugging, but it’s expressed in many ways. I think Andy has a similar representation of how he expresses his love, and that changes and evolves over the course of the show. So it’s all coming from that place of unconditional purity.

What do you think was your biggest challenge on this show overall?

EVANS: I think what Jaeden said is really accurate. It was a long shoot, four or five months, and I’m sure we’ve all been a part of shoots like that. But typically, those are shoots for two-hour films. So even though it’s long work days, you’re still only accessing a two-hour story arc, so you only have to keep so much in your head. But an eight-hour movie, which is ostensibly what this is, there’s so much of a journey that one day, you might shoot something from episode 1, and in the afternoon shoot something from episode 8. Every night before you go to work the next day, it really is important to map out where you are in that journey because it’s such a long one.

DOCKERY: For me, it was how emotional the role was. There were moments where I would have to say to Morten, “How far should I go in the scene?” As we were piecing it together, I was always thinking to myself, “Am I crying in every scene?” [Laughs] It was important to strike a balance with Laurie [where] she wasn’t a complete wreck the whole time. That was a challenge, trying to find the moments where she really holds it together and the times where she was allowed to fall apart and be vulnerable. 

MARTELL: To be honest, it was just figuring out whether he did it or not. That was so hard for me. It took a while through pre-production, and even through production, I wasn’t sure for a little bit. It was a tough decision.

Did you ever tell anyone, or did you keep that close to your vest? 

MARTELL: Only I know! Maybe one day I’ll tell somebody. Maybe. 

Defending Jacob premieres April 24 on Apple TV+.