In the aftermath, Marie and Amber are surrounded by people who sympathise (at best) or who doubt them (at worst). But the two women — and the serial rapist’s other victims — are separated from one another. And they’re only people who can intimately understand their specific experience. The women are effectively alone.
Like their characters, Dever and Macdonald were on parallel but separate tracks while filming Unbelievable. Both women read and re-read the ProPublica article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which inspired the show. They sunk into the emotions of their characters, and found it hard to emerge. They recreate their characters’ assault scenes. Yet they never spent time on set together.
“The show isolated Amber and Marie’s moments, which really is how Marie was. She was isolated from the entire investigation,” Macdonald told Refinery29 during a phone interview. Whereas Amber’s allegations were immediately taken seriously by Colorado police in 2011, Marie was called a liar when reporting a near identical crime in Washington in 2008.
Doing press for the show, Macdonald and Dever are finally in conversation — but still apart, to a degree. Macdonald and Dever called in from separate lines for the interview. But all these miles apart, it was obvious how much they had in common. The same can be said about Amber and Marie.
We spoke to the women about their characters’ real-life inspirations, Unbelievable’s approach to assault scenes, and the show’s impact on viewers.
Refinery29: Your characters are on these parallel journeys. Were you two in touch during filming?
Kaitlyn Dever: “We approached it separately because our storylines were separate. There's a sense of pressure telling a true story like this. We were pretty focused on what was in our hands. I was only concerned about Marie and getting her story right.
Danielle Macdonald: “I think we got so lucky having such amazing creatives because they knew everything that was going on the whole time. They were connecting the pieces.”
Did you speak to the women on whom your characters are based?
Dever: “It’s not that it wasn’t possible to speak to Marie. I spoke to Lisa [Cholodenko], our director, and producer Sunsannah [Grant] about the potential of doing that. We came to the conclusion that I only wanted to do what she was comfortable with. I wanted to respect her privacy. It was already a privilege that we were allowed to tell her story. I realised it wasn’t necessary for telling the story we were telling. Which is just the facts, the truth. We weren’t trying to create a copy of Marie.”
Macdonald: “I didn’t have much information about who I was playing. All I could go off was her process. How she immediately reacted and the facts that she gave. I built from her trauma.”
The tone of the show is very matter-of-fact, and that applies to those scenes that are harder to watch, like the assault scenes. Can you talk to me about how you have worked with the director to approach those scenes? They were rape scenes, not sex scenes.
Dever: “Thank you for saying that. That’s what we were going for. I talked to Lisa about the scenes before, since it’s something I hadn’t done before. From day one, Lisa told me about her idea of shooting it from Marie’s point of view. I knew immediately it wasn’t going to be objectifying. We needed to not be too melodramatic about it while not making it sexy, ever. The story was in the right hands — but these scenes, in particular, were definitely in the right hands. We had a full day carved out for Marie’s assault to commit and make it right.
Macdonald: “The idea that everything is shot from our characters’ perspectives really made a difference. Rather than exploiting it in any way, it was about the panic of the experience. How you focus and get through it.”
Is now the right time for this show?
Dever: “It’s great that this show is being introduced in this era, but I also feel like with or without the era, it’s an important story. It’s a problem that has been occurring forever. I say it’s ‘timely’ lightly. It’s not really timely. Now, we’re getting to a place where we’re really listening to each other. I’ve learned a lot from this. I didn’t know the protocol for sexual assault victims. I didn’t know that you had to literally retell the story six times within 24 hours of being assaulted. That was mind-blowing to me. I think it’s definitely important and informative.”
What else do you hope people take away from this show?
Macdonald: “This show teaches without meaning to. I learned so much just from filming. It’s not just the event itself that is traumatic. Now I understand what people go through in the aftermath. I hope authorities understand how to deal with a cause like this and understand how trauma works. There were no villains within the police department. It was people who were not trained properly.”
How did you get out of the mindset of your role after filming?
Dever: “It was a little unexpected when I stayed in the emotional state so much during the shoot. That was unexpected — I’m not method at all. I’ve done darker roles in the past, but nothing has affected me in this way. This sounds cheesy, but it really is unbelievable that this thing happened to someone.”If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.