By Samantha Highfill
April 16, 2021 at 02:09 PM EDT
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Mare Sheehan isn't like other detectives. At least not other detectives often seen on television. For one thing, she's not showing up to a crime scene in a freshly pressed suit, ready to find the perfect clue that will magically bring together all the missing pieces of a case. With Mare (Kate Winslet), you're lucky if she shows up to the crime scene having showered. "Mare is the opposite of pulled together," Winslet says. "She's falling apart. We decided that she only looked in the mirror twice a day: once in the morning when she brushes her teeth, and once in the evening when she brushes her teeth. And that's it."

In the small Pennsylvania town where Mare grew up — and where she's lauded for making the winning shot in her high school basketball team's state championship game — she works hard. But her days are filled with calls from locals bugging her about everything from suspicious Peeping Toms to their own family dramas. So when a young girl has been missing for nearly a year, Mare isn't the type to spend every waking moment retracing the girl's steps in the hopes that she'll find a new clue. She understands that it's a long shot, and she goes home to her family. "This is a subversion of the Luthers and the Sherlocks," says creator Brad Ingelsby. "This is a woman who doesn't have any superpowers at all."

Mare of Easttown
Credit: HBO

She's also a woman who doesn't have time for any BS. Mare is a mother and a grandmother who gets home after a day's work, kicks her feet up on the dining-room table, and spreads some spray cheese on a cheese ball for dinner. "She's a strange, lovable grump," director Craig Zobel says of Mare. "I hadn't seen a recent version of that, especially not a female version of it."

It's a role that doesn't inherently scream Kate Winslet. The Oscar winner best known for films including Titanic and The Reader has never been scared to transform herself for a role, but Mare gave Winslet a career first: wielding a gun for a role. "You know what was even more shocking than the fact that I'd never held a gun was how shocked everyone was that I'd never held a gun," Winslet says with a laugh, adding that it was her least favorite part of the job. The spray cheese, however, was much more fun to squeeze the trigger on.

"I never expected Kate to want to do it," says Ingelsby. "Mare is a tough person to like at times, and it's a tricky character to play. Kate embraced that and wanted to dive in and eat the cheese balls and the cheesesteaks and really play against some of the roles she'd done before." Winslet spent months with local Pennsylvania police, even loosely modeling Mare after a real-life sergeant detective she met. And because Ingelsby is from Pennsylvania, geographic accuracy was a huge part of the shoot, which meant that there was a lot of Wawa talk. "Wawa, the local pizzeria, the Eagles, that was all part of it," Ingelsby says. One thing that didn't make the cut? A murder board. One of Hollywood's favorite crime-solving devices proved too far-fetched for the local cops.

Mare of Easttown
Credit: HBO

Altogether, the seven-episode limited series is a murder mystery, the story of how that mystery affects a small town, and a family drama, following Mare as her missing-persons case gets more complicated when a local teen shows up dead in the series' first episode. "The show is really about her waking up as a detective and also [as] a mother," Ingelsby says. Part of that wake-up call comes in the form of Evan Peters' Colin Zabel, a detective who's brought in to help Mare on the case. "It's an arranged marriage," Ingelsby says of their dynamic. "Mare is given this case, but the town is like, 'You're not going to be able to do this yourself.' So they bring in a hired gun." Naturally, the two butt heads at first, but according to Ingelsby, Colin eventually wins Mare over. (As does Richard, a local creative-writing professor played by Winslet's Mildred Pierce costar Guy Pearce.)

But there isn't just one question at the center of the show. Mare herself is keeping a secret or two from the town that knows her so well. "She's in an emotional crisis," says Winslet. "Something happened [in her past] that resulted in her being really quite broken down, and she's hiding it all."

So, yeah, Mare isn't like other small-screen detectives — not in her approach, her wardrobe, or her circumstances. She has a town to answer to, a family to take care of, and she doesn't care how she looks. "It does make the atmosphere of the story quite unique," says Winslet. "You can't just call it a whodunit. It isn't about that. It's about community, it's about mercy, it's about loss and grief and friendship and courage and struggle." And, of course, it's at least a little about spray cheese.

Mare of Easttown premieres Sunday, April 18 on HBO.

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