The first time we see Alison Pill as Betty Wendell in Them, she’s decidedly unthreatening. Clad in a belted, full-skirted blue dress that’s colour-coordinated with her stylish living room wallpaper, she’s the poster girl for 1950s womanhood, cheerfully giving cooking advice to her friend. By the end of the hour, she’s leading a vicious, racist campaign against the Emorys, a Black family that has just moved to her white California suburb from North Carolina. Underneath that smooth veneer and polite smile lies a rotten core of white supremacy. Betty is a villain, and don’t you forget it.
Created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe, the first season of the horror anthology series explores the systemic racism of white suburbia and restrictive real estate covenants designed to keep neighbourhoods segregated. Alongside the real-life historical horrors, the Emorys — Henry (Ashley Thomas), Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd) — also encounter supernatural and paranormal forces that threaten their lives and sanity. The show will almost certainly spark debate — already, Them’s moody trailer has been criticised for using Black pain as entertainment, and early reviews have called out the series for conflating depth in storytelling with violence and fear.
Still, while the ghosts are scary, it’s the unrelenting racism of Betty and her community that is the most terrifying. Like many Black families who relocated during the period known as the Great Migration, the Emorys are searching for a better life, one free from the oppressive Jim Crow system of the South. But the racism they encounter in their new home is no less traumatic — it just wears a very-well applied shade of red lipstick.
“White women’s role in racism and the policing of Black people in [the United States] is often overlooked because we are historically seen as the victims, as people to be protected,” Toronto-born Pill told Refinery29 over Zoom ahead of Them’s April 9 release on Amazon Prime Video. “[Betty] is a victim of the patriarchy — and she’s enacting violence through her own white supremacy.”
It’s that duality — white women’s ability to both be the oppressed and the oppressors — that initially drew Pill to the controversial role. And yet, how do you portray a woman like Betty without making her sympathetic to the audience? Ahead, Pill explains how she got into her character’s mindset, and what she hopes people will take away from the series — love it or hate it.
This interview contains references to violent racism.
Refinery29: Was there any hesitation on your part in taking on a role like this?
Alison Pill: “The hesitancy from me came more from having to trust the creators that the violence against this Black family wouldn’t be sensationalised. Because of the historical context of violence against Black bodies in [the United States], how do you do horror and make it real and grounded enough that it’s not made part of the aesthetic? It was more of a concern about the storytelling elements and making sure that it says the right thing. I didn’t really hesitate over the character; I did this short film with Janicza Bravo called Woman in Deep (she directed an episode of this show as well) and her framing of it was similar: the privilege that white women don’t know they have, and the navel-gazing of whiteness generally. I was really into the idea of looking very deeply and clearly at this woman, because she’s around, she’s common, she’s everywhere. And also not to separate myself from her and say that I’m better, for some reason.
There’s a fascinating scene where Betty makes a big speech to the community that’s essentially a call to arms in defence of whiteness. It’s a moment of empowerment for her — she only does it because her husband forgets to show up — but it comes at the expense of the safety of this Black family that she is persecuting.
“That’s why the investigation of white feminism is so essential, and the interrogation of how whiteness superseded womanhood. She feels proximity to power and can taste it, and finds a way in. And it’s also about the way that selling us versus them and selling this scarcity mindset is really a lot easier than selling nuance and dismantling systems.”
How did you prepare to play her?
“Through smiling, politeness, and jealousy. I know for myself in moments of feeling unsafe, I am my most polite. It is this interesting thing of her resorting to a very quiet voice, speaking to the police like very matter of fact: ‘This isn’t me who’s saying this, it’s for the safety of everybody.’ She genuinely believes that if everybody just stayed in their place, the world would be peaceful and good. In terms of jealousy, I think racial capitalism breeds that. If somebody has something, that means that I don’t. And I think the reflection of this beautiful family, this loving husband and wife, these gorgeous children, make her aware of things that she doesn’t have. Her awareness of that means that instead of a mindset of wow, that’s so nice, it becomes that family — who have nothing to do with her marriage, or anything — suddenly become the reason for all of her unhappiness. So, if she can get rid of this reminder of her feelings of unworthiness, fear, and insecurity, then all of her problems will be solved. And that’s why you see the consistency of her racism.”
How much did you know about the Great Migration before embarking on this project?
“I knew more about the Harlem Renaissance in terms of the Great Migration, I knew less about the California experience. I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s an amazing work of history in that it takes the individual and personalizes policy decisions and historical context on a human level. I knew about redlining and covenants as ideas. I had not totally thought through: Banks are racist, the Department of Housing is racist, there are racist communities. Banks wouldn’t lend to Black families, so the loans that they got were predatory. And then suddenly, you’re like, Oh, shit, 2008. You see the echoes. Suddenly, the people who hadn’t gotten loans from banks for centuries are suddenly able to get loans, and you realize that it’s the same setup for failure that has been happening. You see the tentacles of white supremacy reaching out into every single aspect of every interaction with any government system or neighbourhood system or legal system.
As a Canadian, do you feel like you have a different perspective on this? We’re often taught that Canada’s hands are clean when it comes to the legacies of slavery because it was the final stop on the Underground Railroad. Obviously, it’s a lot more complex than that.
“Right, and there were enslaved people in Canada. I was fed the same line: We’re so much better, we didn’t have a Civil War. Yeah, but there was still genocide in the country and there were still wars against other colonial powers. We’re not better. What’s interesting in thinking about Betty as this polite person — she’s still saying the same hateful things, but puts herself in this position of I’m a little more vulnerable, and I’m saying it with a smile. That’s kind of worse! I think Canada does that a lot — we’re a very polite culture, so of course it couldn’t be us being racist. Were you in brown face, Prime Minister? Oh yeah, you were? Cool. And residential schools, the erasure of other identities, and this clinging to the cultural mosaic model…
“The big difference in Canada is that there is less income inequality [than in the U.S.]. There is still systemic racism but your doctor might have two cars, not 16 cars. Income inequality and the implications of racial capitalism without a social safety net, without any kind of community buy-in to government turns the notch way up.”
What would you say to those who have misgivings about the show veering into the supernatural, for fear that it might discount the impact of real-world horrors?
“In a country where white people sent postcards of lynched bodies and saved body parts from the Black bodies they hung on trees, it is hard to overstate the level of violence that white people have enacted on Black people. There is nothing that we could put on the screen that would encompass the amount of violence that in real life happened. At the same time, I think art can provide context and distance in measures that we need in order to really be able to hear and see something. The way it happens in Them is [that on the one hand,] there is the real world terror and violence of living in a white community as Black people, and then there are the ghost elements that are all psychological trauma embodied and personified. It’s just another way to explain how it feels to live in these systems. It goes for a more visceral exploration in a way white people have been able to avoid a lot of the time.”
Betty is pretty unredeemable as a character — was it important for you to play her that as a pure villain?
“I think it’s really important for women to be able to be unlikable. It’s important [for audiences] to see in terms of knocking down the weird white woman pedestal of ‘she can only be the victim, and we have to protect her.’ She is capable and horrible, just like everybody else. There’s no pedestal for Betty. It is important to not see her reduced. You see the fullness of this creature, and we go to the grocery store with her. The ease with which we can encounter Bettys is really important to acknowledge and explore and not lessen.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Them is streaming on Amazon Prime from April 9th