Meanwhile, in Another World
The making of a psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant
Nicole kidman gets it. She knows that you’re bored in month seven of the pandemic and that portion control can be challenging. She knows The Undoing— HBO’s six-part thriller set among Manhattan’s not always terribly sympathetic elites, which she produced and stars in— is the kind of TV dessert that is hard to stop eating after just one bite, especially given parts one through five all end with some form of a “What happens next?!” moment that will frustrate viewers who want fast answers. And, yes, she knows some of you may decide to solve this problem by letting the entire run of the show stack up before even taking a taste. “Well,” Kidman says, calling from Australia, “I do hear that people now don’t tune in until it’s all been released, because they’re like, ‘I don’t want to wait.’ I hope people don’t do that. I hope that they go, ‘Okay, I’ll dip my toe in and I’ll take the hour.’ One of the great benefits of doing television with a thriller is that you get to go, ‘No, you have to wait.’ Because the state of waiting is a good state to exist in, isn’t it?”
Debatable! Anyway, Kidman is not antibinge. She hastens to say she’s okay with your gulping down the next miniseries she’s making, Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers (currently shooting in Byron Bay, Australia), all at once. But The Undoing is different. Even though it is set in (almost) con
temporary Manhattan—specifically, the ultraluxe Upper East Side of brownstones, private schools, and benefit dinners—it has been consciously shaped as ever-soslightly retro, one-episode-at-a-time television, a psychological thriller scheduled to give viewers a month or so to feel anxiety about something other than the election results. (Which, of course, may or may not be established by the time the series ends on November 29. We’ll see.)
There’s almost a nostalgic pleasure in that, and The Undoing is a throwback in another way as well: Shot entirely in and around Manhattan and Long Island over six months in 2019, it may be New York City’s last big television production of the pre-covid days. Think of it as a time capsule of that era’s innocent obsessions. The drama—which focuses on a woman who happens to look like Kidman and be married to a doctor who looks like Hugh Grant and who lives in a lovely, light-filled townhouse and is completely oblivious to the fact that her world is about to be upended—unfolds in a metropolis of teeming sidewalks and crowded charity auctions, of long unmasked strolls, complaints about having too many social engagements, kisses in elevators, and other, more intimate encounters. Improbably, the miniseries now plays like a love letter from an Australian actress, a British actor (this is Grant’s first American TV work), and a Danish director, Susanne Bier, to money-flaunting, class-anxious, prelockdown New York. “It was shot just a year ago,” says one of the producers, Stephen Garrett. “There were, I think, 110 productions shooting in New York then, and one of our great struggles [was] to keep other people’s trucks out of the back of our shot.” In other words, it was the good old days, which, at the time, we complained about endlessly.
The process of bringing The Undoing to the screen began several years ago, when its writer-producer, the TV veteran David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal), read You Should Have Known. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel tells the slightly Schadenfreudian story of Grace Sachs, a 40-something therapist about to publish a self-help book reproving women for willfully ignoring all the terrible, completely apparent traits of their romantic partners and then being shocked when it all goes sour. Grace is married to Jonathan, a too-good-to-be-true pediatric oncologist, and, naturally, she soon faces a shrink-thyself moment when she learns that the man she thought she knew has really been … but I can’t go on. That would be telling, something everyone involved in The Undoing is currently pretzeling their language to avoid doing. Suffice it to say that (a) the novel takes an unexpected midpoint turn from terrifying melodrama to portrait of a woman rebuilding her shattered life, and (b) Kelley, who at first didn’t think there was a TV show in it, put the book aside and moved on to two seasons of Big Little Lies. “It went more in the direction of healing and psychological exploration,” he says. “It’s an excellent book, but it emotionally de-escalates, and in television, you kind of need the opposite.”
Nevertheless, the characters stayed with him, as did Korelitz’s sharp eye for the vanities and pretensions of Manhattan’s one percent (and their obsession with Manhattan’s .01 percent). “Their lives are artificial constructs in a certain way,” Kelley says. “The belief that if you get the right job and your kids go to the right school and you jump through the right societal hoops—there’s an illusion to that construct, and what happens when the perpetrators of that illusion begin to believe their own false narratives?”
Kelley and Kidman had already forged a good working relationship, and she liked his instinct to push the material sharply in the direction of suspense—to turn the story into more of a whodunit than the novel is (no spoilers about what the “it” in “whodunit” is). Though some may see the result as The Real Big Little Lies of New York City in its silken blending of very specific wealth porn with crime, Kidman notes that Big Little Lies was about a woman intentionally keeping a secret, not “working off the fear, as this does, that everything I have is not what I really have.” She says, “I love psychological thrillers when they’re well done. I’ve made a few— The Others was probably the last time I did a really powerful one—and that element seemed to be a huge part of this series.” It also feels consistent with much of Kidman’s recent work; from Big Little Lies to The Goldfinch, she has been assembling a gallery of characters who have trouble lurking just beneath the veneer of their perfect lives.
That element also appealed to Bier, who won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 for In a Better World and an Emmy in 2016 for her direction of the John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager. On some limited series, the writerproducer is king (or queen) and the directors are treated as high-end hired guns. That isn’t the case with Bier, who not only directed all six hours of The Undoing, but insisted on shooting the episodes as if they were one big movie, partly out of a conviction that working on wildly different parts of the story in a single week—or sometimes a single day—would infuse the production with energy and keep everyone on their toes.
“I came in as David had finished the first draft of the first episode,” Bier says, “when it could still go in the direction of either thriller or drama. I said, ‘I’m very intrigued by the potential of a thriller.’ I find it incredibly interesting, that whole thing of
‘Who can I trust?’ and that deep, intangible, unsettling sense of nothing being quite what it seems—that sexy, seductive no-man’sland. That was one of the biggest draws for me.” When she brought up Grant as a possible husband, Kidman, who had met him socially over the years, said, “Ask him, but he’ll never do it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a wonderful role—he just doesn’t want to work.”
“It’s true,” Grant says, laughing. “I do turn down a lot of things as I get older and crankier. And I’d never worked with Nicole, though I’d teased her a lot at parties. I’m sure you’re a great fan of the Paddington films—as real cinephiles are! And some people who have seen those think that we’re in them together, but we’re not. She has spent her career doing rarefied, Oscarwinning pieces, while I’ve done romantic comedies. Our paths were never destined to cross much.” To everyone’s surprise, Grant, who says “it has been lovely in the past seven or eight years to be playing people with dark psyches,” came onboard, eager to portray “someone who 100 percent believes what he’s saying at every moment. So if he is lying, he’s one of those liars who believe their lies. Do you know those people? They’re the scariest.” (As an example, he cites the current United States president.) Grant’s sole proviso was that he wanted to know how things would end for his character before he committed himself.
As Kelley worked through subsequent drafts, many elements of the original novel (including Grace’s self-help book) fell away. What survived was, among other things, the specificity of the New York locations. All the creative principals agreed that Manhattan should be a character as much as a backdrop. “Susanne had a vision for a fairy tale kind of feel,” says Per Saari, one of Kidman’s producing partners. Taking full advantage of New York in the final year of the Before Times, they used multiple outdoor locations and, whenever possible, real interiors. Kidman and Grant’s cozy (meaning amazing) brownstone is an actual Upper East Side residence—“Very hot and very wet to shoot in,” says Garrett. And other crucial settings seamlessly combine studio sets with actual locations; a vast glass-walled penthouse, the venue of a private-school fund-raiser for scholarship students that ignites the plot in episode one, was partly created in the sightseeing floor atop One World Trade Center. “The most challenging thing is accessing some of those really high-end apartments,” says producer Bruna Papandrea. “When you’re in that world and trying to get a deal done to film in someone’s home, they don’t necessarily need your money.”
A further complication was Bier’s commitment to rehearsing the actors every morning on set before the shooting day started, sometimes for as long as 90 minutes—an unheard-of luxury in television. “Having ownership of the scenes on the set, rehearsing quite freely and radically, is very helpful,” Bier says. “The actors get to ask all the questions. I get to be provocative. We get to a point where we know what the scene is about and then the craziness of whatever is going on on the set becomes a tool, as opposed to something that’s in the way.”
“Almost always, there’s a thing called the lineup, where you’re dragged out of makeup with the curlers still in your hair,” says Grant, “and you stand on the cold set with the directors and heads of department so they can light it and set up dollies and things. Susanne did warn me that she liked to do more than that, and sometimes you could watch the producers inject themselves with arsenic in the background over how much money it was costing.”
“She can send people to the edge of destruction in the nicest possible way,” says
Garrett. “But she always makes her day.”
“One of the reasons I took the job,” says Grant, “was I’m old and I have small children and I love them, but I thought, Great, I get to get away from them for a bit and get some sleep. But, ironically, the moment I landed at JFK each time, I was overwhelmed with homesickness. I don’t know who I’ve turned into. Scenes where I’m just asking for a cup of coffee would make me burst into tears, and they’d have to say, ‘Maybe not in this scene, Hugh.’ It was just me missing my kids. I was doing the whole thing on jet lag—and, I now see, sugar. I watched the series the other day. I thought it was about a dark secret in a privileged family. It turns out it’s just about a fat man married to Nicole Kidman. I’ve never seen such weight on an actor—you can barely get me in the widescreen.”
By the end, the shoot left both stars feeling ragged. “I was pretty much working every day,” says Kidman, whose character’s increasing unsteadiness Bier filmed in unnervingly tight, sustained close-ups. “By the time you’re three months in, there’s a sort of exhaustion level that helps with the disorientation my character was supposed to be feeling. I tried to use it, because that’s what you do. I got quite sick when I was making it. I did feel like I was going a bit insane, to be honest. By the end, I was just very, very … I sort of staggered out of there.”
“But at the same time,” she adds, “Susanne and I really joined psychically. When you’ve got Donald Sutherland and Hugh Grant and all of these powerful males, to be really based in female psychology was important to me. The whole thing orbits around this woman and her relationships with these people. Susanne said, ‘You have to be so careful, because when you act, you give something that’s so much a part of you that you shouldn’t give it up too often.’ I heard her loud and clear.”