Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by ProPublica and the Marshall project, and an episode of the podcast This American Life, limited series Unbelievable follows the true story of a group of sexual assault survivors and the two detectives (Merrit Wever and Toni Collette) who track down their attacker. Danielle Macdonald’s portrayal of key witness Amber Stevenson expertly conveys the unexpected aspects of trauma response, in that many people dissociate and are apparently fine instead of breaking down. Deciding to play Amber as smiling and ‘pulled-together’ post-assault, Macdonald leaned into a powerful desire to give a realistic voice to those survivors whose stories are so often disbelieved.
DEADLINE: What made you really want this role?
DANIELLE MACDONALD: When it first came to me through my agents, I hadn’t heard about this case at all. So, the first thing I did was read the ProPublica article and then listened to the podcast. And I was so incredibly fascinated, moved, enraged, all of the things, by the case. I feel like the
amount of emotions that brought up truly had me hooked instantly, because you know it’s a real story. You know this actually happened to people and I instantly wanted to see where this was going. But obviously, it is such a delicate subject matter. I read the pilot scripts that they sent out because that’s all they had at the time. Then I spoke to them about it because my character’s not even in the pilot script. I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of it after talking to them, because they knew exactly what they were doing. They really wanted to tell the story in the right way. I think that when you do this kind of subject matter, it is really difficult to make sure that you’re telling the story in the right light, and you’re really giving a voice to the survivors and not trying to put your own opinion on it. And I think that that was really key in me wanting to do this.
DEADLINE: I talked to creator Susannah Grant and director Lisa Cholodenko about their aim to portray realistic trauma response, and getting away from the expectation that you’re supposed to look upset post-assault for it to have been real. It makes you wonder how many people you know who’ve experienced this and been disbelieved. Did you have that thought?
MACDONALD: Yeah. Honestly, yeah. I think that’s one of the terrifying things is I think everyone I know, knows someone that has been sexually assaulted, and I know multiple people that have. So, the fact that that is a reality, the fact that we all know that, we know that there are all these untold stories. We know people that this has happened to. That’s really scary. The sheer volume and the fact that nothing really happens. Out of all the people I know, I know about one person that came forward and someone is in jail for that. Only one. And I am so incredibly inspired by her, truly, for the fact that she did come forward and did speak up. I was definitely thinking about her honestly, throughout filming. And honestly, it was one of those crazy moments where I had a conversation with a friend about her experience while I was in the middle of shooting this show. She knew I was shooting a show, she didn’t know the subject matter. And we had briefly spoken about this before, but never in this kind of depth. And I was just truly inspired by her. That meant a lot to me, to have that trust placed in me, and a lot to hear someone’s story, and just know that people listened to her and she did get justice. I think it’s really important to know that, if you want to come forward—and it has to be your choice—people will listen. And I think that that was what I really loved about this story, is there are people that are out there fighting, which is important.
DEADLINE: There’s a scene where Amber’s describing the rapist to Merritt Wever’s character in absolute, calm detail. She almost seems to be apologetic for making a fuss and it feels like such a thing that’s been ingrained in women, to downplay their pain, to always be helpful. Tell me about the decisions you made to play her that way? Were there conversations with Lisa, or with Susannah? It’s so important to show her smiling because that’s what people often do.
MACDONALD: Yeah. I agree. I think that when I first came onto this, from the podcast, you hear, “She was fine.” I was like, “What does that
mean?” Like, you’re not fine when stuff like this happens. You’re not fine. And it truly, really did perplex me, and that’s what actually spurred me on to do a lot of research into the effects of trauma, because I think that’s the thing that I learned the most about from Unbelievable. I truly had to wrap my head around how someone is “fine”. I was like, “Wait, why doesn’t this make sense? Should this make sense? Shouldn’t everyone’s reaction to trauma just automatically make sense?” And it doesn’t. So, I had to research, and now I truly understand if anyone has a reaction that doesn’t instantly appeal, if that’s not how I would react, it doesn’t matter. Because I get it. I read a lot of stories about how different women reacted to this. And that was the best thing I think I could have done, because I went into the role after that saying, “Okay, this is exactly what’s going through Amber’s head.” And I made that choice and I spoke to everyone involved. We just collaborated on set and went from there. And Merritt is so incredible. You come onto set and you have an idea of where your head is at, and where Amber’s head is at, and then you get in the car with Merritt and she just brings out so many other sides of you because she’s Merritt and she’s incredible. I just remember that was my first day on set shooting that scene, and it was like 105 degrees in the valley. We were in that car and we couldn’t have the AC on because of sound, and then you’re like, “Okay, we’re in the right circumstances for this.”
DEADLINE: Was it important that this show was made by women? I can’t imagine it otherwise.
MACDONALD: I guess I can’t really either because that wasn’t my experience. It was with women, and that felt right for the story. And maybe it also just felt right because they were so involved about this, and they knew exactly what they wanted to do with this, that you felt safe going into it and you knew it was going to be told the right way, and you felt safe and taken care of within that. We obviously had a lot of male crew members as well and they were great, but it really was a female-oriented production and I have never actually had—I hope this is correct—I don’t think I’ve actually ever had a female DP until I worked on Unbelievable. And that was actually the biggest change for me, because I have worked with a lot of female directors and I love it, but that was a new experience for me working with a female DP and I really was so incredibly grateful for it during the really tough scenes, during the flashback actual rape. That was an incredibly difficult scene to film. It took a really long time because we were doing it in flashes, and she was just so incredible about explaining exactly was coming up in the shot for that segment of the scene… I was like, Oh, this is a different experience. And I loved having that energy there.
DEADLINE: There’s that scene where Amber is with her boyfriend Eric and we can tell you’re silently nervous Eric will judge you for being raped, like it’s your fault. How did you convey that?
MACDONALD: From what little I knew about the relationship with Eric, I know how she didn’t want to tell anyone at first. And so, telling someone
that you love and care about and being worried about their reaction of you is something that people really do face. And that’s so heartbreaking if you think about it, because being worried that someone’s going to see you differently because of something that happened to you against your will is horrifying. That shouldn’t be something that even crosses someone’s mind, but it does. It crosses everyone’s mind. And that’s another level of what people have to deal with after a sexual assault. And that actually spoke volumes to me. I think that really broke my heart. I think I completely understood that being in that terrifying place where you’re maybe a little bit on eggshells now, because you’re just a little bit scared that now someone sees you differently.
DEADLINE: I know Kaitlyn Dever, who plays the lead role of Marie Adler, heard Marie got some closure from seeing the show. You didn’t get to meet the real Amber, but have you heard any reactions at all?
MACDONALD: I haven’t actually. I’m okay with that. I know that Amber is not her real name. And I know that they were very much about protecting the identity of these people and I know that Susannah didn’t get to talk to Amber in real life. They were able to talk through a counselor to her about her experiences. So, I didn’t expect to hear anything, and I completely understand and respect that because this is such a personal situation. I think that when you put a personal situation like this on television for the whole world to see, that would be incredibly terrifying. And I think it’s incredible that she allowed that in the first place. I think all we can do after that is protect her identity and just really go with the facts of the story and what happened.
DEADLINE: Kaitlyn told me she was so grateful to know that having it on screen had actually served as some form of healing. Hopefully that has been the experience for everyone that was portrayed.
MACDONALD: I hope so. I have had people reach out and say they’ve gone through similar experiences, and they were incredibly moved or grateful for the show because it just felt like they understood it. It gave them some kind of peace or some kind of voice in it. And that was incredibly touching to hear from people that reached out.
MACDONALD: Yes, they’re in post-production. Obviously, I have no idea when anything’s coming out right now because we’re in a very interesting time period essentially. But yeah, just Falling for Figaro and French Exit right now. I guess we’ll see them when we see them.
DEADLINE: Can you tell us anything about your French Exit character?
MACDONALD: I’m not entirely sure how much I’m allowed to say, but it was a fun role for me to get to come in and play. It was a lot of fun to do and Michelle and Lucas are incredible.
DEADLINE: And singing with Joanna Lumley in Falling For Figaro?
MACDONALD: That was a lot of fun. It was honestly very fun to film and funny, and Jo is hilarious, and Hugh Skinner is amazing. It was such a fun one.