If anything, ABC's television series The River only confirms there are some dark corners of the Earth that are better left uncharted. Six months after explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) mysteriously vanished, his wife Tess (Leslie Hope), son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and a ragtag team of friends and crew members descend on the Amazon to search for him. What they soon discover is that sinister forces are at work, ones that may not only be responsible for Emmet's disappearance, but have now targeted them as well. With only two unnerving episodes remaining, Hope spoke exclusively to me about taking this supernatural adventure, contending with phobias and getting real-life heebie-jeebies.
Surely, the writers and producers didn't map out every twist and turn for The River. What grabbed you about the project?
From the beginning, you're certainly right. I didn't know what the endgame was for The River. I got onboard specifically because of Michael Green, who had done the show Kings, which I loved, and also Heroes. There was Bruce Greenwood, who was a friend of mine, and a fellow Canadian. The notion of being stuck anywhere with anybody... I knew as long as I had Bruce I would be okay. That being said, it's not a genre that I have worked in very much, although this world is somewhat familiar to me. I have traveled all over and in fact, lived in the Amazon. I haven't been in those scary places, but I have traveled rough. That idea made sense to me and the notion of playing a documentary filmmaker, let's say bossy, because that's what I do too in my real life. But, the big sort of caveat with all of this was I was nervous about the level of "operatic playing" you have to do to make this stuff fly. It's sort of a "go-big-or-go-home" set-up. I don't think you can be terrified or run for your life in a casual way. You have to do it big, in my world anyway. That was the scary part for me in this ensemble. Am I being ridiculous? I hope not, and I'm laughing, because I'm not sure how else to do it. We got schooled when Kate Featherson did an episode last week with Bruce. That girl knows how to do the genre and scream and invoke this hair-raising type of terror.
They really put your character Tess through the ringer. As an actress, how challenging is it to be the devoted wife, the loving mother and the freaked-out leader, all in one episode?
Again, I was hinging some of that stuff on my real life. My husband, Adam, who was working on a show in Montreal, could not have been further away. It takes 16 hours to get from Montreal to Hawaii. I did feel isolated and far away from what I knew, even though I was surrounded by a great cast. I didn't find it hard to cry and break down or fall apart in a scene. I didn't find it hard to be bossy, because that comes natural to me. Sometimes it was hard gauging the freak-out.
You have a bit of an aquaphobia and they dragged you under the water early on. Were there any other instances where you thought "What have I gotten myself into?"
No, what I think my bosses have been so masterful about is picking those things that somebody, somewhere, has a phobia of. For episode two, they had the doll scene. I, myself, don't find that scary or creepy. I find it interesting and beautiful with all those dolls hanging from the trees. I've talked about the thing with the water. The other one we had was with the cockroaches. I also have a phobia of bugs with antennas on them. In Hawaii, there are cockroaches everywhere. It's a jungle climate, so of course there's going to be bugs. But I was so freaked out with the notion of having to be covered by them. I said to the guys "If you need me to be covered with cockroaches and be brave, you have to fire me, because I can't do it. If you need me to be covered with cockroaches and scream for my life, I can do that. No acting will be required." Thankfully, the cockroaches that are particular in the Amazon environment are not particular to Hawaii. They are too expensive to bring the right ones in, so it was all done with CG, thank God!
Between the aquaphobia and the bugs, it's almost like they wanted to torture you...
Here's another story for you. When I was doing the pilot, I had a lot of pain in my lower back and my hip. It was weird and mysterious and it wouldn't go away. It was getting worse and worse. I went to the doctor, to the osteopath and to the chiropractor. I was doing the right exercises, but nothing was making it better. My boss, Zack Estrin, was having the exact same problem. Out of desperation, I finally went to a shaman. This is the short version of the story. Basically, I felt this energy surge through my leg and grab onto my ankle really tight and I heard a child's voice say "Don't let me go! Don't let me go!" Weird. Scary. Ultimately, I'm cured of my back pain. I'm telling Zack this story at Comic-Con and he goes white. He says "That's exactly what I've written in that first episode. This child is going to grab you by the ankles and pull you under the water. ‘Don't let me go! Don't let me go!' is what you are going to hear." Freaky, freaky, weird, but nevertheless, as it get closer to doing that, I don't know how to tell you how terrified I was. Not against going up to my waist, that's no big deal, but when they actually pulled me under the water... The reality of that is I had a cable around my ankle and some guy with tanks under the water. I'm supposed to skim across the water and get yanked under.
What have you found more effective? Those subtle, unnerving boos such as the shadows or dolls, or the more visceral in-your-face shocks like discovering Manning skinned alive?
I don't know the answer to that. I've had the good fortune to see the shows in a piece, which is without commercial. They screened the shows for us and so I saw them back-to-back without interruption. I found the stuff you can't quite see out of the corner of your eye disturbing. I would suspect it's harder to sustain those things you can't quite see with commercial breaks and easier to make things scary that jump out at you like the monkey and the body skinned alive.
What they talked to us about, should we be so lucky to head into a season two, and what they are sort of working with the further we get into the series, is the secrets and scares within these characters. I think the psychological scares may be where we have a different life. In terms of sustainability, that would be a good area to go. There are a lot of great actors on the show who can handle anything you throw at them.
They use multiple cameras to capture everything when filming. How does that affect you when you're trying to focus?
For me, it's easier. I love it because the reality of shooting a more traditional TV show is you're going to hit the mark, make sure the light is on you in a certain way, take time to do your hair and makeup.... That's usually the way it goes, right? If it's traditional coverage, it's your turn and now my turn. In our show, it runs more like a play, because you can be seen at any time, which does two things. It ratchets up the tension and you're aware that you are never not being filmed. There's something about that which keeps you committed and involved in a different way than you just doing your thing and relaxing. I also liked what it looks like. It's a really apt stylistic translation of what those characters are going through. You can't see everything all the time and there's no beauty lighting. It feels fucked up because the situation is fucked up.
And unlike traditional TV, there's a little bit less time taken in this show for information to sink in, for those dramatic moments, for those breaths, which is a more structured traditional way of doing drama. You see somebody's silent reaction to something that has just been said to them. We don't use a lot of that in the show. What I think that does to you, as a viewer, is you're catching up a bit. You don't have those emotional cues or music or from the actor's reaction to help you along with the story. You always have to jump with the next piece of plot, as opposed to what you're viewing on the character's face emotionally.
Looking ahead, The Magus is still searching for Emmet. What are some of the obstacles they face in the final two episodes?
Without giving too much away, we get off The Magus and arrive at the compound where all evidence from the tapes point to Emmet being. The best way I can say it is everything you see, especially in those last two episodes, is not what you think it is. I can tell you it's a definitive finale, that again if we're lucky enough to go to season two, it's all going to make sense. But it could be completed at the end of season one without thinking "That's no answer!" There are answers.
The producers have basically been making a mini-horror movie every week. Can you tease us about any "holy crap!" instances coming up?
There's the discovery of Emmet and what kind of shape we find that person in. I can tell you the work Joe Anderson does in the very last episode is "holy crap!" from beginning to end!
Finally, Emmet went out to prove magic existed. In what ways does filming a series like this make you question your own belief in the unknown?
A lot of us have been talking about this. The episode we're heading into, and then continues into the finale, was shot in a real hospital for abandoned, unwanted, mentally challenged kids in Hawaii. Those grounds were so riddled with bad mojo, and what felt like grieving spirits, that we were all freaked out to be there. Some of the Hawaiians were refusing to go into the building. Apparently, there's a graveyard beside the hospital where the kids were buried. The doctor who used to run the place was apparently decapitated by two of the head nurses there. There were kiddie-sized isolation rooms and kiddie-sized restraints. None of this was built by us. Four people on the show, three crew and one cast, broke bones in the four days we were shooting there. You walked into this place and you spent the whole time brushing off your body as if it was covered in cobwebs. That's what it felt like. It was a bad feeling and for real, you could see things out of the corner of your eye. I'm sure there's an argument about how groups of people together getting scared whip each other into a frenzy. All I can say is if you walked into that place, you'd know exactly what I was talking about. That's something I probably wouldn't have put a lot of credence in if I hadn't been there myself. Hawaii, or at least that island, is rich with spirit life, and you just can't deny it while you're there. And hopefully that translates onto the screen.