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‘Unbelievable’ remains ‘the hardest thing I’ve ever done’ for Kaitlyn Dever

Since her portrayal of a rape victim, Kaitlyn Dever says, “People have reached out to me in so many ways."
Since her portrayal of a rape victim, Kaitlyn Dever says, “People have reached out to me in so many ways — over social media or coming up to me and sharing their stories.”
(Cliff Watts)

Since “Unbelievable” dropped on Netflix last September, Kaitlyn Dever has unexpectedly forged a relationship with survivors of sexual assault. The limited series is based on a true story, with Dever playing Marie Adler, a teen who, after being raped, was shunned by friends, bullied by authorities and even criminally charged with fabricating her harrowing experience.

“People have reached out to me in so many ways — over social media or coming up to me and sharing their stories,” says Dever, adding that her other well-known roles — as the overachieving Amy in “Booksmart” and the backwoods weed dealer Loretta in “Justified” — never provoked such intimate responses. “That’s a testament to the creators of the series and what they wanted out of this. To shed light on Marie and other survivors’ stories, and the amazing detective work that was done.”

If there’s one conversation, however, that Dever has yet to have, it’s with her reclusive real-life counterpart. “I’d love more than anything in the world to be able to call her — but I’m also grateful that she let us tell her story,” says Dever, who heartbreakingly captures a pensive soul stung by her lack of support but determined to find happiness again.

It was in a forwarded email, though, that Dever learned of Adler’s reaction to the Peabody Award-winning “Unbelievable.” “She said she thought it was perfect, that it brought her a lot of closure. I could hear from no one else about the show and if it was just her, that’s enough for me. Because we all did it for her.”

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The Netflix limited series “Unbelievable,” about a young woman accused of making a false rape allegation, shows how the system fails survivors of sexual assault.

What’s it like to have strangers confide in you about such a personal trauma?

I didn’t always know what to do. It’s sometimes intense. I’ve definitely broken down and cried and hugged. But looking back, it makes me happy knowing that I was able to be a small part of someone feeling seen. The amount of love that people have spread about the show is really mind-blowing to me. I’m still getting people reaching out to me.

Had you ever done a scene like the one where Marie is sexually assaulted?

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No. But when I read the script it really stood out to me that they were planning on doing it from the point of view of Marie. I’d never seen that before. Lisa [Cholodenko] directed the first three [episodes], and she’s a very warm, light energy on set. She made it feel effortless. We took our time and shot it in all these little pieces.

It felt like at any point anyone could stop or [ask a question]. It was always a discussion. It was never set in stone. But what I also loved was that they carved out an entire day to shoot it. Sometimes physical scenes are stacked into a day full of other scenes. You’re thinking about that, but you’re also thinking about all this other stuff you’ve got to get done.

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Trailer for the Netflix limited series “Unbelievable.”

Is it true that you never got to actually work with costars Toni Collette or Merritt Wever?

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I’ve been inspired by [Toni] ever since I saw her in “The Sixth Sense.” That was the first scary movie my parents let me watch as a kid, the first time I fell in love with someone’s acting. It seemed so real. She’s the one who inspired me at a young age to become an actor. In fact Netflix put together this dinner right before we started shooting. I sat across from Toni but was too nervous to talk to her.

[When I was cast] Merritt and Toni were already attached to the project, and when I saw their names I freaked out. Then once I got all the [scripts], I realized, “Oh, no! I don’t have any scenes with them.” There was a big phone call [scene] with Merritt. So I worked with Merritt’s voice. I wish I got to work with them. But just being associated with their names was enough for me.

Given that “Unbelievable” was so all-consuming, what was it like to leave Marie behind and move on to a different character?

The last project I worked on was [Hulu’s horror anthology series] “Monsterland.” I play a girl named Toni. She’s 19, a waitress in Louisiana and just trying to make ends meet. We meet her at a point where she’s struggling, really nowhere to turn. She has a 4-year-old girl. “Unbelievable” was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But “Monsterland’ was my first time being a mom, and it really opened my eyes to what [it’s like] in the world for that kind of woman.

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After a string of serious roles, are you ready for something comedic? “Booksmart 2,” perhaps?

[laughs] People keep asking me about [a sequel]. I haven’t heard anything on my end. But I am cheering that idea on always.

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