Kaitlyn Dever On ‘Unbelievable’: “I Was Feeling A Lot Of Anger & My Heart Was Breaking” For Survivors Of Sexual Assault

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, and an episode of the podcast This American Life, Netflix’s limited series Unbelievable follows the true story of teenager Marie Adler, played by Kaitlyn Dever, as she tries to report being raped in her home, only to find herself disbelieved, denied, and even prosecuted for lying. Toni Collette and Merritt Wever co-star as the dogged detectives who ultimately give Adler her life back. For Dever, this harrowing role was truly a 180-degree switch from her comedic turn in the film Booksmart, further proving the breadth and depth of her talent.

DEADLINE: You’ve called this show the hardest thing you’ve done in your career.

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Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable'
Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable'

KAITLYN DEVER: When I say that, I think about not only me, but all of the hard work that everyone put into it. It was such a team effort. And I really do mean it when I say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think it was a lot of things combined that made it difficult, one being that when I first read the script and read about the story and listened to podcast and read the article, I was angry. I was feeling a lot of anger but at the same time, my heart was breaking for Marie and all of the other survivors that are talked about in the article and in our show. I think that those emotions overtook my body and my brain the whole duration of the shoot.

I read the first script for the first episode, and then I listened to the podcast and read the article. That was before I had even gone and auditioned for it, so by the time I was given the opportunity to play Marie, and we started a prep process, I was already kind of upset and frustrated by it. It’s just such a tragic, tragic story. All those emotions coupled with the fact I was really putting so much pressure on myself, because I felt like this kind of opportunity doesn’t come around that often. You rarely get an opportunity to really do some real, real good, and give a voice to the voiceless. I didn’t want to take advantage of that ever and I didn’t want to do it half-way. It was really, really tough but it definitely felt like we were all coming together to make something really, really important, and that felt worth it.

DEADLINE: What sort of interaction, if any, have you had with Marie?

Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable'
Kaitlyn Dever in 'Unbelievable'

DEVER: When I was given this opportunity, it was the first thing I thought of, to talk to her and maybe meet her. But I also, at the same time, was having conflicting feelings because I knew that the circumstances on this project were very, very different, and I quickly learned that this kind of trauma affects someone for the rest of their life, so I wanted to be extra, extra, extra careful with that. It was a conversation that I had with [showrunner] Susannah Grant and [director] Lisa Cholodenko when we were in our prep stages. I asked them what the right thing to do was, because obviously I knew I had all of this amazing journalism to refer to, and all of this great source material. I thought that I had enough information just based off of that, and I just wanted to ultimately respect her privacy, and that was something that was very important to them and to Netflix. Then, after the show came out, I was doing a Q&A somewhere. Susannah Grant came up to me and said, “I forwarded you an email. You should really take a look at it.” And I went and looked at it and that was from Ken Armstrong, who had spoken to Marie, and she said that she found a lot of closure from the show, and that she thought it was amazing.

DEADLINE: What was that like, hearing that?

DEVER: I was just sort of speechless. I don’t even know. It’s so overwhelming. The only thing I could think of is, what more do I need? Hearing from her is all that really matters because we were all given such a privilege that she was giving us her story to tell to the world. Hearing her reaction, hearing her thoughts, and knowing that she saw it, watched it and ended up loving it and got closure from it, is just really, really overwhelming, because we all came together to do this for her and for survivors everywhere. It really meant a lot to me.

DEADLINE: When Marie acts happy in the weeks following the rape, even her foster mom Shannon tells the cops Marie made the whole thing up. There’s this expectation of an ‘appropriate’ response to being raped or abused. What did this show teach you about it?

Kaitlyn Dever and Eric Lange in 'Unbelievable'
Kaitlyn Dever and Eric Lange in 'Unbelievable'

DEVER: I learned so much about sexual assault and trauma and the aftermath. All of it has been such an extreme learning experience for me. I think what the series does so well is that it really shows that no one can really know how someone will react, not only with trauma, the experience, but also the trauma of retelling the experience multiple times. And the show really walks us through the process of what it’s like post-assault. How people respond to trauma is not always the same. The police in Marie’s case make a series of mistakes and they cast a lot of doubt around her. Even doing those scenes with the detectives, it was so, so tragic. And throughout the process she encounters police that really just didn’t have the proper training to ask her the questions that were needed. She just completely shuts down. She uses her on-and-off switch and she just shuts everything off, understandably. It was really, really incredible to learn all of this through this show. And it’s been incredible to see that people are learning from watching it as well, which is really, really moving.

DEADLINE: That awful scene where the male detectives are saying, “Are you sure you didn’t imagine it? Your story doesn’t add up.” We see the self-doubt creep across your face, because Marie even starts to question her own memory of what happened. Where did you go in your head to show that?

DEVER: What I realized about acting with this show is that you can’t necessarily plan for everything all the time. I mean literally. Everything could go in the exact opposite direction you thought it would on set. It’s funny because I always think about Olivia Wilde. Working with her [on Booksmart], she always refers to sets as construction sites. There’s just so much going on all the time and moving things and there’s a lot of noise, and it’s sometimes really hard to concentrate. All of the things that were going on in my head doing that scene, I had thought it was going to go a certain way and then it didn’t. And I think it was because of how great those actors are. I had done all of this prep and I had all this prep in my head, and then I decided to just let go and trust the preparation that I had done and trust that I knew the character. Then in that scene, I ended up feeling like a little kid, and I didn’t expect to feel that way at all. I think it was when I got into the room with those two actors… I know that Marie knows what the truth is and yet for some reason everything is so foggy and confusing, and I feel like I’m in trouble because I’m telling the truth and that doesn’t feel right. That was a really surprising feeling that I had.

DEADLINE: Does doing something like Booksmart and then going straight into this help you to stay balanced?

DEVER: Yeah. It’s interesting because I feel like if you were just doing one type of movie, or type of TV show for an extended period of time, you would think that that would maybe keep you more sane. But for me, I think the jumping into playing different types of people and telling different stories, and also telling stories that feel very grounded to me, and stories that I feel are very, very important, are actually the most fulfilling for me. And when I feel that fulfilled, I think that that is exactly what keeps me going. And it makes me so, so happy knowing that I get to do something so fun, which is acting. And I will always think acting is the most fun thing in the world, and any type of acting for me is fun. But being able to bring stories to life, Booksmart and Unbelievable, I believe both of those projects are very, very different, but both are important and were very vital for people to see.

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