Merritt Wever knows showbiz can be ‘poison’ for women. But complaining now feels wrong
Merritt Wever was supposed to be on the promotional circuit for her HBO comedy “Run” this month, hitting the red carpet and dutifully fielding questions at press junkets. Instead, she’s at home and, like the rest of us, struggling to adjust to the bizarre reality of life in a pandemic.
“There are a lot of sirens, and I can’t pretend I’ve been out of the house recently,” she says by phone from her Brooklyn apartment. “And even though this is happening all over the world, I’m homesick and heartsick for my city.”
In “Run,” Wever stars as Ruby, a dissatisfied housewife who reunites with college boyfriend Billy (Domnhall Gleeson) for a spontaneous cross-country adventure. When she was first asked to audition for the part, she remembers telling her agents, “I’d love to go in for it. But girls like me don’t get parts like this.”
Turns out she was wrong.
Created by Vicky Jones, who directed the original stage version of “Fleabag,” and executive produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the series represents another milestone in what has already been a remarkable creative period for Wever. She won her second Emmy in 2018 for her turn as a pistol-packing leader of an all-female frontier town in the Netflix western “Godless.” Last fall, she earned raves for her understated but steely performance as Karen Duvall, a Colorado detective investigating a serial rapist in the groundbreaking Netflix series “Unbelievable,” and she provided some brief but vital flashes of comic relief in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.”
“I’ve appreciated a lot of what has come my way,” she says. “But it’s truly strange to be even trying to remember before right now. It feels like another time.”
Plugging a show would be tricky for any actor right now. But for Wever, a modest, deeply humane performer who has long seemed allergic to self-promotion of any kind — remember when she won an Emmy for “Nurse Jackie,” then fled the stage after a stunned, 11-word instant classic of an acceptance speech? — it’s an absolute minefield.
As she notes several times over the course of an hourlong phone call, the gravity of the headlines has made it even harder for her to discuss her work and its challenges. “I’m struggling to feel appropriate taking up space right now — you know what I mean? — with anything other than the big thing,” she says. “I figure we’ll just find our way together, but I almost feel embarrassed.”
Performances we love: In Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable,’ Merritt Wever delivers not so much a performance as a near-spiritual service to the message of the series.
Is there anything you’ve been able to watch or listen to during this time that’s been helpful?
I’ve been having a hard time focusing. So my experience is not one of using this time to read the books that I haven’t read. I don’t mean at all that you shouldn’t. I can only speak to my own experience, which has been one of incredible emotional, mental and physical disorientation and grief and anger.
When we meet Ruby, your character in “Run,” she’s in a moment of crisis. How did she get there?
I thought of her as somebody who was starving for something. When somebody is finally offered what it is that they crave or they need or they’ve denied themselves of for a long time, they are not going to be able to keep themselves from taking it. As much as this is a return to Billy, I wanted it to also be a return to herself. I know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone and feel like your best self with them. And then when the relationship ends, it feels like you don’t have access to it anymore. As much as she wants Billy, I think that she also wants to feel like that person again.
Why did you think it was unlikely that you would get cast in “Run?”
There was something about this audition process that sadly, and even upsettingly, forced me to come to terms with how much I’d internalized certain ideas of who can be what. I finally found myself in a room of people who weren’t telling me that I couldn’t do this or couldn’t be that. The person screaming, “I can’t get cast in this” was me and not them, but… I don’t know. Anything that’s like, “Woe is me” is, like, turning my stomach right now.
So playing a romantic lead felt new to you?
It did. I’d always been told, explicitly and implicitly, that that wasn’t an option for me. I think I internalized that maybe more than I had ever understood before this audition process.
You’d been told that a part like this wasn’t an option for you?
I don’t think I get any messages that women in other professions don’t get all the time. I think we all get the same poison. But there’s something about the way that our business works, and the way that as actors we’re dependent on other people seeing us a certain way and choosing us, allowing us to do our work, that can sometimes make it OK for people to tell you those things very directly to your face.
I started doing this professionally when I was 15, and my first agent told me, “Well, if you don’t lose X amount of pounds, you’ll only ever play the best friend.” And I remember thinking, “Well, I’d be lucky to play a best friend.” Because I knew that stuff was bull... and because I came from a community and an environment that didn’t subscribe to those kinds of ideas, I thought that I could somehow participate in this business without having it affect me. And there was something about making “Run” that brought into focus how I had internalized those messages more than I realized. I told Vicky once, “I never drink the Kool-Aid, but it’s in the water.”
But again, talking about anything else than what’s going on right now feels like some kind of inappropriate human betrayal. I almost regret sharing that right now because it feels so silly and insignificant.
Tell me more about the environment you grew up in.
I was raised by my mother, who was a single mother by choice. She was a feminist and a political activist and a caseworker for the city of New York and did not subscribe to a lot of what mainstream culture is. I grew up in lefty circles, going to a summer camp called Camp Kinderland — that was a red-diaper baby camp started by Jewish labor organizers as a way to get their kids out of the city in the summer. I loved it very much. I feel like it’s probably one of the biggest shapers of who I am. I’ve actually thought about that place a lot over the last few weeks, as what’s happening has exposed more and more. The reason it’s so bad right now is because of the way our society is set up.
“Unbelievable” tells such a powerful story. What personally interested you in that part?
It was very easy to read that story [about a young woman wrongfully accused of making a false rape accusation] and care very deeply about it. That’s all stuff from the outside. When it came to what was going on inside, it was strange — I had recently said to someone that I wanted to play a detective. It was one of those strange things where you put something out and it comes back to you. I think I was also interested in how somebody balances or manages extremities of their job with the demands of being a person.
Karen is such a profoundly compassionate character. When she shows up in the second episode, it feels revelatory.
I really have a strong suspicion that appreciation of Karen is a result of how much people care about Marie. It’s an indication of how exceptional Kaitlyn Dever [who plays the rape survivor] is within the whole show. I think after people watch that first episode they are very relieved to see someone show up who might do her justice. I feel like anything that comes my way is actually a side effect of both Kaitlyn as an actor and Marie — the real Marie — and it’s my gravest and deepest hope that Marie somehow knows that any of the light that gets shined on this project is really borne of a deep care for and validation of her.
“Run” is a very different kind of show.
That pilot [of “Run”] was… I’d never read anything like it. It’s such an exceptional premise and was almost overburdened with possibility and potential. “Unbelievable” was so driven and relentless, the energy was so tight and contained, that when “Run” came along, something in my body and something in my psyche was craving room and space to play.
My experience of playing Ruby, frustratingly at the time, was one of chasing her down. There were a lot of shifts and a lot of turns, and I think I had to give in to always feeling like I was behind her. At the end of the day, it just had to become an exercise in preparing as much as I could and then just showing up and hoping that the whole thing just strung together and that she would be believable.
It reminds me of an email I wrote Vicky after she cast me. Vicky is really lovely and really wonderful and she believed in me throughout all this, even when I truly didn’t believe in myself. When they cast me, I wanted to make sure that they weren’t mistaking me for someone else. I wrote her something along the lines of “I can’t be that girl for you. I can’t be that thing.” She wrote back at length and what I took from it was, she can be all the things. And I tried to embrace that permission.
What did you mean by “that girl?”
It goes back to really me hitting up against a wall during the audition process of realizing how much I was like, “Are you mistaking me for someone else? How could you cast me as as this?”
The truth is when the world was different and promoting a show like “Run” was going to involve talk shows and stuff like that, there’s a a funny version of this story of how I got flustered and scared and tried to get out of the audition. I remember getting uncomfortable with that because I think the truth is a little more complicated and a little sadder. And it felt almost like betraying that truth, if I were to present it that way.
I might regret saying, but I told someone that being in this business, doing this job meant that I had to agree to get hit over the head with a hammer and I had said, “That’s OK. I have a really thick skull and I can take it. It’s not going to hurt me.” And then 25 years later, I woke up and I was like, “Why am I bleeding? Why do I have bumps all over my head? Why am I wrapped in bandages?” And someone was like, “Because you’ve been letting someone hit you over the head with a hammer for 25 years.” But again, I don’t think that that is unique to what I do for a living. I think that what I do for a living just sometimes brings it into stark relief in certain moments.
It sounds like you are wary of the promotional aspects of this job.
I don’t want to say “wary” because that feels judgmental of people who are more comfortable with it. But it’s new to me. I’m lucky in that I got to be a working actor for many years and didn’t have to do a lot of this. And that probably has to do with the kind of parts that I was getting. Promoting a show wasn’t my responsibility. I got to live in this sweet spot where I was able to pay my bills and get some really fulfilling, amazing jobs, but didn’t really have to participate in this sidecar.
I’m also a bit of an introvert in an extrovert’s profession. So this would be a challenge for me anyway, but right now it is very hard for me to find my footing.
But I understand the value of the show coming out, because I know what it’s like to need another place to put your head and your heart for 30 minutes. I understand what it’s like to attempt to go somewhere else for a little while. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and if this show that we made not long ago at all, but at a very different time and in a very different world, can provide that to people, that’s our pleasure. And our privilege.
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