Mean­while, in An­other World

The mak­ing of a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller star­ring Nicole Kid­man and Hugh Grant

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - By Mark Har­ris

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.”

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