Interview: Olivia Williams talks Counterpart, doppelgängers and juggling identities with J.K. Simmons
Ivan Radford | On 09, Dec 2018
This weekend sees the return of Counterpart for a second season. Named “the best TV show of the year you haven’t seen” in our review of Season 1, the thriller weaves spy conspiracies and parallel dimensions to stunning effect.
J.K. Simmons stars as Howard Silk, an employee at the Office of Interchange in Berlin, which manages and monitors the bridge between two versions of our world – the other being a place where identical counterparts of each character live their own lives. In the main world, Howard Silk is a clueless office worker married to Emily Silk, who is comatose following a car crash. In the second world, Howard Prime is divorced from Emily Burton, and both of them are high-ranking spies in the organisation, crossing the boundary between worlds, interacting with their partner’s doppelgängers and carrying out their own missions. As the Howards become more like each other, the Emilys are fascinating because they seem so far apart – and as we wait for the first Emily to eventually wake up (as dramatic conventions dictate she must one day), Season 1 becomes a wonderful showcase not only for Counterpart’s layered, gripping storytelling, but also the phenomenal talents of Olivia Williams, who plays Emily and Emily with wit, style, danger, emotion and no end of gumption.
We caught up with Olivia to talk juggling different worlds and identities, acting with J.K. Simmons, and the changing world of TV. Some spoilers do follow, but they are clearly marked.
Congratulations on the excellent TV series. You were very good at lying down in bed as the comatose Emily Silk in the opening episodes
Was there any trepidation about taking on that role, give you start off unconscious? How much of an idea did you have of Emily’s future trajectory?
Well, I knew that Emily Burton would have a lot to do, and, from a purely lazy actor’s point-of-view, that half of my time was spent lying in a hospital bed! Anything for an easy life – I flew in with jet lag! The only problem was that J.K. insisted that on his best take, I was snoring! (Laughs) But no, they assured me that I would wake up.
Given the constant twists and turns, how far in advance did you get the scripts?
We’d get sort of batches of three, and Justin [Marks, the showrunner] absolutely insists – against all logistical likelihood – on having table reads where he gets everyone around a table at the same time. They’re either in LA or Berlin, and those who aren’t present are there speaking through a box, and there’s a slight delay, or some don’t turn up and have others reading their lines for them. It’s profoundly flawed! But it means that there’s a different voice for each character and you get to look each actor in the eye when you hear them speak, and you understand so much more. On the page, it’s virtually impossible! And all the stuff in German is written in German and I can never remember people’s names anyway… (Laughs) The table reads are vital to us understanding what’s going on!
How does the filming work? Do you do blocks for each character?
Oh, it’s completely defined by location, so you have to do everything that happens at Tempelhof Airport! Fortunately, Charles Martin, who is the director of the first episode of Season 2, started this really brilliant tradition where he would gather the actors together and say ‘You have just come from the Office of Interchange, your best friends have been shot, you’ve had a bacon sandwich for breakfast and you haven’t taken a shit for three days…’ and that’s invaluable! You can walk across a courtyard in February in Berlin and not walk into the building until August in Los Angeles! So I know that you would say the actors should’ve done the homework or themselves, but you are just hauled by the collar, by the costume, you know, and quite often, I work things out just by the fact that I look down and see that my shoes are brown and think ‘Ok, I’m that Emily’. It looks like a movie, but it’s shot like a TV show. It’s mad! Mad, mad, mad.
“The layers of possibility are fucking endless!”
Does that get tougher when you’re having to react to J.K. Simmons, who is also switching characters constantly?
I mean, he’s just extraordinary. You’re never in any doubt with him… it’s like, I don’t know if you were ever taught to play tennis? I had this amazing tennis teacher, who, whatever shit shot (Laughs) I would bat over the net, he would hit it back and would make me feel like I could hit it and I was Martina Navratilova! And that’s what it’s like acting with J.K.. Whatever duff forehand I would hit over the net to him, he would deftly spin it back in a way that I could hit it and make me feel like I could play. So he’s a dream. And it’s only watching it back that I see the brilliance of him, you know. A scene where he shows me around the apartment and see him both being a loving husband and being Howard Prime pretending to be Howard Silk and developing feelings for this woman for whom he has profound resentment for so many reasons. The layers of possibility are fucking endless!
Warning: Spoilers for Season 1 follow
Season 2 sets up those layers incredibly well with so much complexity to explore…
They assured me that I would wake up and actually, what transpires is that she is this brilliantly duplicitous double-agent – what a wonderful thing to wake up to! And then, to have her wake up to having absolutely no memory adds another phenomenal layer – really, it’s three characters. There’s Emily Burton, Emily Silk, she’s hit by a car, who’s a brilliant double-agent masquerading as a boring housewife, and then to play a third person, who is a sort-of new-born 50-year-old woman. She has an instinctive sense of whether she trusts someone, but absolutely no experience of judgement, nothing to hold on to, no rock from which to measure… you know, anything! It was just a completely mind-blowing series of things to play. The fact that the woman they’re all in search of, Emily Silk, holds information that is the sort of lynchpin for Season 2 makes it so intriguing.
There’s this amazing scene I just did the ADR for, where both Emily Burton and Emily Silk, who’s woken up, start to close in on who this woman is and I was watching the ADR and I’m standing in a studio adding the dialogue and I’m going ‘Oh my God, that’s so extraordinary!’ – and it’s not often when an actor is standing in an ADR session going ‘That’s so fucking cool!’ So it is thrilling, but the other thing I was thinking while watching it was ‘Oh please God let enough people have followed this closely enough to get the layers on which this is extraordinary.
End of spoilers
The series airs on STARZPLAY in the UK, which is an online service. What are your thoughts on that?
You have to be quite sophisticated to realise that it’s not only on Amazon, but once you’ve got Amazon Prime, you then have to find STARZPLAY and pay again – I think I’m going to have to do it for my mum, because she won’t be able to work it out for herself!
My parents have switched over to BBC iPlayer and everything now.
Great! You’re giving me hope!
How have you found the transformation of the media landscape over the last, say, 10 years?
It is crazy. Listen, I have been blessed. It was like the last days of the Roman Empire when I made my first movie. I did The Postman in the days when Warner Bros. would give a million quid to Kevin Costner to make an original sci-fi drama. You just don’t get that now. And then I’ve seen this transition to long-form, episodic TV where I don’t think, as a 50-year-old woman, I could have conceived of playing this range of roles over the time period to develop character, the time to develop philosophically and, in terms of the science fiction, the constructs that we’re achieving. They all take time to invent situations like the one that Emily walks into in the first episode of Season 2. It took 10 episodes to set that up and you can’t do that in a movie, you know?
And I was there, I’ve been there. The first time I did this was Dollhouse, and that was Joss Whedon, those are the fucking early days of this. I’ve been there as it grew and changed. And on the way, I made a TV show called Manhattan which I’m incredibly proud of, this thing where you weave documentary and real events with fictional events that match the time of history – in a way, we’re doing that with Counterpart as well. There are events that are taken from a story that happened in the Berlin Wall, when someone trying to escape from East to West died and neither side would go to reclaim his body. And so he just rotted there in the middle of No Man’s Land.
So I feel it’s just an incredibly privileged time to do what I do. I just feel very sorry for people of my parents’ generation who may not know what button to press! They do this wonderful scheme at my old school, where they send the sixth formers out to an old peoples’ home to explain how their phones work. We need a sort of task force to show people how to find STARZPLAY! Note: STARZPLAY is now available on Virgin Media as well as through Amazon Prime Video Channels. For more information see below.
What was the last thing you watched on-demand?
I have to say I watched on an airplane this fucking extraordinary film: have you seen A Quiet Place? It just took my breath away! How annoyingly talented and clever are those people?! I didn’t have my noise-cancelling headphones on, so the fact that there wasn’t any dialogue was quiet handy. Just brilliant… and when you see what she’s dealing with, you just think ‘Oh my word, how the fuck are they going to sort that one out?!’ So, yeah, brilliant.
Finally, out of curiosity, what would you do if you met your doppelgänger in real life?
Yeah, it’s an interesting one! If it’s the recent Cambridge graduate who decided to go to law school instead of drama school, or the one that married the boyfriend I had at 25 instead of the husband that I now have when I’m 50, you know, which person would I be? I don’t know… I don’t think I’d like either of them! I think it’s really lucky I didn’t become a barrister and I think it’s really lucky I didn’t marry that other bloke! (Laughs)
Counterpart Season 1 is available to watch online in the UK on STARZPLAY, a streaming service that costs £4.99 a month. The platform is available on Virgin Media On Demand or through Amazon Prime Video, both as an add-on subscription to your existing account. New episodes of Season 2 arrive weekly on the same day as their US broadcast, starting from Sunday 9th December.