From creator/writer Harriet Warner, the Amazon Prime Video crime dramaTell Me Your Secrets follows a trio of intertwined characters – Mary (Amy Brenneman), a grieving mother who’s obsessed with finding her missing daughter, Emma (Lily Rabe), the woman who might have some answers about what happened, and John (Hamish Linklater), a serial predator who’s trying to find some sense of normalcy as he puts his past behind him. Trying to get to the truth is leading Mary to spin out of control with her determination to get to the truth, at any cost, and her actions will have repercussions for everyone around her.
During a virtual junket for the series, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Brenneman about what attracted her to this role, not worrying about playing likable characters, Mary’s motivation throughout the story, and her reaction to the end of the season. She also talked about her time on The Leftovers, the evolution of her character, and collaborating with Damon Lindelof.
COLLIDER: When this came your way, what was the appeal of this project for you? How much did you know about what the journey would be?
AMY BRENNEMAN: I only read the pilot, but then I immediately got on the phone with Harriet [Warner], our wonderful writer. She didn’t have all of the scripts written, but she knew where these characters were gonna go. It was really talking to her and the complexity and these different levels of Mary, and honestly all of the characters. With Mary, on the top level, she’s a very sympathetic character. She suffered this terrible loss that than any of us would go nuts over. That was a way in. But then, where does she go and at what point does she hop off the train?
I just remember that, in the first season of The Leftovers, I really didn’t see myself as the bad guy. I’m like, “Hmm, I think I was the bad guy,” but I remember resisting it. I remember, as an artist, being very aware of needing the audience to understand me and maybe like me. Nobody would ever know and I liked the performance that I rendered, but I remember thinking, “The next bad guy, I’m not going to give a shit,” and then Mary came along and I was like, “I’m freed up. I’m ready to go. I don’t have to protect myself anymore.” That was really good timing.
What was it like to work with Damon Lindelof on The Leftovers? Was he pretty communicative while you were making that?
BRENNEMAN: Yes and no. It’s not that he withheld, but they were really finding it as they went, especially that first season where we had the book, but we burned through the book pretty quickly. It was Episode 5 or 6 of the first season and I just didn’t know why Laurie was doing what she was doing, and I’d reached my limit. I remember feeling like, “You have information and you should give it to me,” and he texted me and was like, “We just figured out where Mary was during The Departure.” I was like, “What is it?” and he was like, “She was pregnant,” and I was like, “Ah, that’s great.” So, he would give you information as it came.
With Harriet, and maybe it’s because she wasn’t adapting a book and this was her brainchild, she really knew who these people were. But like all good writers – and Shonda Rhimes used to do this – when we got cast, you could just see that I was Mary to her. There was no other Mary than me. Ditto with Hamish [Linklater] and Lily [Rabe]. She just loves her characters and she loves collaborating.
Your character has a very clear drive, focus, and motivation in this, and that doesn’t waver throughout the whole thing.
BRENNEMAN: She’s like a zealot. The beautiful thing about that is that she’s a laser toward her purpose. The bad thing is that she will chew up anything, including herself, in the path.
Everyone in this has their own brand of messed up. What is the fun of exploring somebody like that, where you know what’s driving her? Is it freeing to play somebody like that?
BRENNEMAN: Yeah, it’s totally freeing. What’s really fun about all of these characters is they’re very action-oriented. They’re not sitting around philosophizing about their plight. It’s like, what is the next step? I can relate to that. I don’t think I would take the steps that Mary took, but if you’re in distress, you figure out what you can do. To be in that person’s skin is not a bummer. It’s crazy. It’s a crazy ride. It’s very stimulating. It’s not depressing. It’s very active.
And Mary is so motivated on her mission that she hires a serial predator to help her.
BRENNEMAN: It’s a big step, but God forbid, if you find out your kid is a heroin addict, then you have to learn about heroin addiction, so you’re gonna be talking to people that you would never think that you would talk to. She believes that her daughter was abducted by a serial predator, so she’d better learn about that.
There are two women at the center of this story, but you’re both living very parallel lives. You’re not crossing paths much, at all. What was it like to play that relationship, where they so deeply affect each other, but you’re not really directly interacting?
BRENNEMAN: I loved it. I feel like Lily had the lion’s share of the story, in terms of reconstructing the path. Mary’s pretty singularly focused. I would say to Lily, “I’m just thinking about you, every day. How do I get to you? How do I get you to give me some information?”
I loved it. It reminds me of the best parts of Killing Eve. It’s like a love affair. I think she loves Emma, or she knows her as Karen. It’s a really clear drive to play.
When something happens to one family member, it affects everyone in the family and turns all of their worlds upside down. What was it like to also explore that mother-son relationship?
BRENNEMAN: It is a family unit. Some of these dynamics probably were there, even before Teresa got abducted and before the tragedy hit, if you will. I think Mary adores her son, and she’s extremely protective. Her whole life is to find out what happened to Teresa and to protect her son, but because the obsession grows, she starts keeping secrets from him. Her young lover is a secret. Really the only person who knows her by the end is John.
Mary thinks she’s figured things out, but by the end, we learn that things are not what they seem and they’re not what she thinks they are. What was your reaction to learning how the season would end, where things would be left, and what her journey ultimately was?
BRENNEMAN: It’s a heartbreak. It’s a relatable thing. In addition to losing a loved one, you lose your mind, which we all can tap into. Mary has created such a public persona around her pursuit and around her grief, that to have to go public and say, “I was wrong about something,” is just too much for her, by the end of this season.
You’ve been in this business a long time and I would imagine that you’ve read a lot of scripts in that time. Where is your bar set, when it comes to what you’re looking for in a project? Do you feel confident that you can see potential in something, even if it’s not all on the page?
BRENNEMAN: It’s such a good question. I can’t tell, all the time. I feel like I’m not a great script reader, even after all this time. The Leftovers, I read it and I was like, “I don’t really get it,” especially for Laurie. And then, I sit with the writer. The writer is really God. It’s like, “How are you seeing this world?”
I just played the bad guy on a season of Goliath and got to do incredible things. I love that character too. I said, “Why do you think she’s doing what she’s doing?” and the writer, who’s amazing, was like, “I think she wants money and power.” I was like, “That’s not that interesting to me.”
Then, I pitched another thing. I was like, “How about if she does all this stuff because she’s in love with her brother?” and they were like, “Great.”
So, there are the actions, but then there’s also the “why” that somebody’s doing it. If the way is not interesting to me, then I’m a little floaty. If I can root and find the North star, then I’ll go anywhere. In all honesty, coming from network television where we get to be complex, but ultimately likable, I realized that The Leftovers was my transitional object for not caring what the audience thinks. That’s the problem of the editors and the directors. I don’t wanna protect myself anymore. That’s where you also have to make sure you’re with people that are looking out for you so that you can feel free.
Does it feel like understanding the motivation makes more sense than figuring out how to like a character?
BRENNEMAN: Yeah. I’m a human being. I don’t do cruel things to my kids, but if I need them to put on their shoes and they don’t, now I’m yelling, but I don’t think of myself as a yeller. It’s about, what am I trying to do? The emotional stuff comes out of that. People do lots of different things when they’re in emotional distress. They cry, or they go nuts, or they drink, or they build a company. Human beings are complex, so you need a writer who gets that. On network television and in more mainstream culture, when people are sad they cry and when people are mad they’re mean, but people do lots of things.
Tell Me Your Secrets is now available to stream at Amazon Prime Video.
“Just seeing it, we all just sat back like, ‘Wow, are we really doing this?'”
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