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LOS ANGELES, CA – “Really?” Jodie Foster asked, totally surprised when she heard that True Detective: Night Country marks her first starring role in a TV series since 1975. That’s almost half a century ago.
The actress-filmmaker was in front of us in a meeting room at The London West Hollywood Hotel with her costar, Kali Reis, and the HBO drama series’ season 4 showrunner, writer, and director, Issa Lopez.
In this recent press conference (a hybrid one – a group of us were there in person while other journalists were online), it was interesting to watch and listen to the occasionally playful banter between Jodie, Kali, and Issa.
But the teasing exchanges were the exceptions in the Q&A moderated by Variety editor Jenelle Riley with the trio behind True Detective: Night Country, the best season of the series since that epic first one with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
The Oscar and Golden Globe-winning Jodie, the former world boxing champion turned actress Kali, and the veteran Mexican writer and filmmaker Issa talked more about how they created a new season that harks back to the original’s supernatural twist, but at the same time introduces a welcome feminine slant.
This time, instead of the humid swamps of the South, Issa takes us to the endless winter nights of Ennis, Alaska where eight men who man the Tsalal Arctic Research Station have vanished without a trace.
In this freezing setting (Iceland subbed for Alaska), detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali) must solve the mystery as they also try to grapple with the darkness haunting their souls.
As Issa told Vanity Fair, “Where True Detective is male and it’s sweaty, Night Country is cold and it’s dark and it’s female.”
In this welcome return to form, Night Country is easily one of 2024’s best TV shows so far. Aside from the two compelling leads, the anthology series’ new season cast includes Academy and Golden Globe nominee John Hawkes, Fiona Shaw, Finn Bennet, Isabella Star LaBlanc, and Christopher Eccleston.
On what lured her back to television after nearly five decades, Jodie confessed, “That is really surprising – ’75 was a long time ago, yeah. I lived in the feature world. We’ve come to an amazing moment in cinema history.”
“And that’s the time that real narrative is really on streaming. So that’s where some of the best work is being done. And it gives you an opportunity to explore characters without necessarily having it be a slave to the genre.”
“And also having six episodes allows you to bring in other voices than the traditional voices that we might see and that we have seen in features.”
“So yeah, I’m super excited. Of course, I’ve directed and produced in the television world a lot.”
Issa, whose credits include Tigers Are Not Afraid and 600 Miles, recounted how she crafted the narrative with two strong women as the leads.
“I’ve heard that people just write themselves over and over,” she began. “It might be true. Honestly, there are a lot of wishes that go into this.”
“These are the women that I wish I was, in strength, resilience, and complexity. These are also the women that I fear I am. They have flaws that I see in myself and the people I love around me.”
“So you use all of that, you put it in a pot, and let it either brew or rot or both. And bubble to the surface and they speak to you. And these are my characters.”
Jodie talked about collaborating as an actor and the series’ executive producer with Issa.
“It really is a blessing,” said the star of many film classics, from Taxi Driver to The Silence of the Lambs.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people. But I guess it’s kismet. You finally find a person who understands how you can do your best.”
“And I feel like she was able to bring that out in me. I got to see her do it with all sorts of other people in different ways.”
“That was really the great draw of the collaboration. And that really happened from the beginning.”
“When we first met, I had seen Issa’s work. I’d seen one movie of Issa’s. And I wasn’t really convinced but I was like, but I love True Detective. So we’ll meet up. And I said some scary things.”
Issa quipped, “You were terrifying, you were.”
“Yes, I was, whatever,” Jodie admitted with a smile. “I said some scary things like, I don’t like that. What about this? And then I left town.”
“And it was just amazing to see a brand-new character emerge that was more than I could have ever hoped for or anticipated and that really helps the dynamic between Danvers and Navarro.”
“For Navarro as the central character and as the voice of the film. To really be able to support that journey of Navarro, by using Danvers’ peccadillos in order to support her journey.”
Asked if she did rewrites based on her conversation with Jodie, Issa replied, “The two characters that I had written originally, one was an absolute badass and the other one was a woman on the verge of breaking down, not holding it together.”
“Because she’s been trying too hard for too long to keep it together. And they were perfect opposites.”
“And I sat down in front of Jodie and she had really loved the script. I will say that she said very beautiful things.”
“But then the first nasty thing she said was, this is beautiful and it’s great. She’s moving and honest. She absolutely doesn’t bullshit you, which I learned very fast.”
“Because the next question was, I don’t see myself in this, though. And I went like, why?”
“And she said, I just like strong women. We started talking about who this woman could be. Because I didn’t want to change my script. I believed in the two characters I had.”
“However, Jodie started speaking of a character so full of flaws. When I finished listening to that, I looked at her and said, so you want her to be an asshole?”
“She laughed and she said, yeah. And I said I can do that. I like that. I understand that. And I went and I made an asshole.”
“And a beautiful asshole with a lot of hope in her heart. Then, in turn, Navarro had to change and had to become deeper and more soulful. And the script just became better.”
“What I’ve learned throughout the entire process and working with Jodie and Kali is, every time that you receive a good note is an opportunity to completely overhaul and take the story to the next level.”
Since she is a director too, Jodie was asked if she finds herself giving tips to Issa.
“She does,” Issa said right away.
Jodie said, “The tips usually are always none of my business. So that’s true.”
“It’s usually about other things that have nothing to do with my character or my performance.”
“And as a director, I really love it when other actors are directors because I feel like I’ve got other eyes on the table and they’re looking out for how something’s going to cut together. So hopefully, I’m not a total drag.”
“There are moments when I am drinking cappuccino and I’m like, that’s never gonna work. That kind of thing. That can be really annoying because that’s not right.”
“Like people should be able to be creative and to explore new ways of doing things that aren’t the old ways, that are tried and true ways.”
“I like to have that caveat, where I say like, look, this is just my experience. And maybe you’ve got some new way of doing it but let me just tell you the last 35 times that I’ve seen this tried. This is what happened.”
Issa said, “It was absolutely wonderful. Because it’s terrifying at the beginning when week one, you’re going into that and she says, maybe this is not the best way to do it. And so many times she’s right, which is amazing.
“But sometimes I’m wrong,” Jodie admitted.
Issa said, “Sometimes it works. You know? And the thing is…”
Jodie prompted Issa, “First day…”
Issa finished the sentence: “She immediately was like oh no, no, no, your way is going to work. By the way, she will do it anyway. This is just a conversation.”
“And for me, it was an absolute joy because my way of working is in a team. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me and then take the credit for their intelligence.”
“So my DP, I always pick them with a storytelling eye. And in this case, we have Florian Hoffmeister who is incredible. And he would also come up with an idea of maybe shooting it from there on top of what I was suggesting.”
“And Jodie would also have a point of view from just the way of the story or even how I shoot it. And coming together to the set – and this, I explain to my team from the beginning – guys, we’re going to plan how to shoot this, to the T.”
“And then we’re going to throw it away, when we’re there. And they were like yeah, every director says that. No, I meant it.”
“So we get there and sometimes it would be very straightforward and sometimes we would truly throw the scene away. And rewrite it right there and re-decide how to shoot it.”
“Kali was there and all of us would be like, I know, I know. Or someone would say something and we would like that and we would create something together. It was alive and it was so much better because of that.”
Issa teased, “So every time that she (Jodie) came in with her cappuccino…” Kali added with a grin, “And her glasses…”
Issa said, “It was a joy, it was great.”
Kali, who is matched perfectly with Jodie as the popular series’ first female leads, talked about the challenges she faced going from a pro boxer with numerous titles to an actress. She made her acting debut only in 2021 with Catch the Fair, for which she earned good reviews.
Kali said, “I was going to start by saying you would think it’s two totally different worlds but it’s actually one and the same. There are so many parallels.”
“Boxing is such an entertainment sport or an entertainment industry in itself. We have a ring up there, it’s our stage. We have to perform. There are all kinds of acts. We have to put on a show.”
Jodie shared what impressed her about Kali: “Oh my gosh, everything – the tenacity of spirit, which you talked about a little bit. That doesn’t come from boxing. It’s a discipline that’s within you.”
“That she’s not afraid of doing it over and over again and trying again and again and trying it a different way. There’s just a full disciplined awareness. Plus, I just love her.”
“Yeah, and the whole team. We had such a great group of people. I’ve had this experience of making really long movies.”
“But I’ve never had the experience of making a TV show where it felt so much like a family, all of us in Reykjavík and the snow in this brand-new city, hanging out with each other.”
While the cast and crew bonded well in the freezing cold (sometimes it got to -23 C or -9 F), the arctic night setting served perfectly to keep the series’ brooding tone.
“Tonally is the one thing that we kept, the tone,” Issa explained. “When HBO approached me with the idea, the question of what I would do with True Detective, I immediately thought I have no fucking idea. But I said, I have ideas.”
“I went home, sat down, thought about it. I didn’t go home; it was the pandemic. I went to my bedroom, sat down, thought about it and what was it about that first season of True Detective that hit us all so hard?”
“That it stays in our memory despite the deluge of the stories out there. And I thought it was the atmosphere. There was something about that Southern Gothic that stayed with us.”
“Something about these two characters that were so different, in this world that was in itself a third character. This goth of America, in a way, this endless landscape where anything can happen.”
“I kept those. I kept the characters. I kept the landscape. I kept that corner of America that we don’t often see.”
“And I just turned it on its head and I created these two female characters, who are so different, trying to solve this very eerie crime in the backdrop of this endless landscape, a character in itself. And Night Country was born.”
“I’m Mexican so I was not prepared,” Issa admitted about filming in extremely cold weather. “But I wrote it myself, so what can I say?”
Jodie teased Issa, “It’s all your fault.”
“It’s all my fault,” Issa replied with a laugh. “HBO – the only thing comment said was, what would you do in the Arctic? I guess I was a little cheeky in the sense of not coming back with the expected.”
“And then I got my wish and I ended up there. It was beautiful. I fell in love with it. I now love the cold. Go figure.”
“It’s an incredible country. And the absolute presence of nature in everything you do, on a walk, in your thoughts, in the sound, informed the story we were telling.”
“So it turned completely different than if we had shot it in a soundstage with the volume as things are shot now. We were actually there on the ice. And it affected the story we were telling in the best possible way.”
Jodie shared, “Yeah, huge challenges, as you can imagine – working at night, first of all, and trying to light nighttime and in the snow with all the elements.”
“But strangely, we kind of had the gods on our side. Like when we needed all this snow, we got all the snow. And right when we needed it to be calm, it was calm.”
“That being said, Kali and I had a little summer vacation. We went to Alaska, the real Alaska.”
“And obviously, we have this great love for Iceland but Alaska is a whole other absolutely beautiful magical place, where you really do feel the nature and you feel everybody’s connection to nature.”
“And the survival element to that, the kind of pain that comes along with that. You can imagine in places like in the Arctic, northern Alaska, and Greenland, for example, how many hundreds of thousands of people died because they just couldn’t survive it?”
“You really feel like, I got to watch out because if my car breaks down and I don’t have enough gas or whatever, I could die. I think that’s part of the reason why people are so drawn to it. And of course, the extraordinary people that we met there.”
Kali raved, “Iceland was a magical place. People talk about Iceland having such energy and this magic. And that was one thing that I know personally I felt so strongly about.”
“And not having gone to Alaska at first and being in Iceland and then getting a chance to go to Alaska and actually bringing the people from Alaska to Iceland, it all made its own little gumbo pot of this story to tell.”
“And I was really blessed to be able to go to Alaska, visit the land, thank the land, the people, and have the actual people of that land and who were telling their stories.”
“But shooting in Iceland was just such a blessing. I mean, it was economically right. We had good people, good energy around us. Everybody was friendly, happy, and the food was good.”
“The dark – we’re shooting and I’m looking at the Northern Lights. And I’m like oh, I have to pay attention. It was a great experience shooting there.”
“We had one vast quarry during summer. But it was completely covered in ice, where we created a crime scene. And we shot a lot in it.”
“And some nights, the temps dropped to minus 23 Celsius when we were shooting there. And let me tell you, the performances of these characters, going to a crime scene in those temperatures by night, are real.”
“And around them, everything you see is ice to the horizon and then the night sky. And it absolutely changes the narrative. So many beautiful locations.”
Kali also discussed how her character’s indigenous heritage resonated with her: “She comes from two different worlds. She has a Dominican background and an indigenous Iñupiat background, which is something I can personally relate to, being Wampanoag and Cape Verdean and having to kind of not be enough for either side.”
“And she has this journey that she has to go on and also being part of law enforcement and military. That’s also, especially in the indigenous community, it’s like black and white, no pun intended.”
“She wants to help her people but she also wants to help herself and her family. She also has to take care of herself but she also wants to be part of these beautiful people although she has no idea what she is.”
“She ends up finding herself on her journey and it’s a huge part that she didn’t even realize was really at the core of trying to find what she really was. She didn’t even know what she was looking for.”
“And it has a lot to do with the dark. It has a lot to do with the cold. It has a lot to do with Alaska itself that she’s been trying to run away from, or she tries to avoid, by immersing herself in the enemy, so to speak, as well.”
“It’s a back-and-forth battle that she has to deal with all the time, on top of dealing with Danvers who is an asshole.”
Issa acknowledged the inspiration she drew from certain horror writers, including H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers: “As a true geek, one of the things that I adored about that first season of True Detective is how it tapped very subtly into that mythology. And so there was Carcosa, there was a Yellow King.”
“And when I was a child, I devoured all of that. All of that – Poe, all the classics in horror. And it sounded familiar. I immediately went and looked it up and I remember what it was.”
“I went like, this is insane that very real, deeply rooted who-done-it has this tiny whiff of cosmic horror. And I want more of it. And the other seasons which were great in their own way, moved away from it.”
“So when HBO came back to me and I was like, no, let’s leave it – give them the same. And then HBO came back to me and they said, what will you do?”
“I said I would bring back the horror element. So there is a little bit of it in this.”
“There is a little bit of things that are older than the stars and the ice that are hiding and waiting in the dark, if you want to believe that. If not, it’s just a who-done-it in the ice.”
Jodie quickly shot down any role kinship between her famous Clarice Starling detective and Liz Danvers, and if she sometimes feel Liz is Clarice, after many years, now tackling a very tough case in Alaska.
“Not really,” the actress immediately answered. “I don’t think the two are comparable. But I think that there’s something underneath the comparison that is very welcome.”
“And that this show does exist in genre, whether it’s horror, supernatural, thriller genre. But so much of how that horror is explored is through the psychological drama, the intimate drama of these people.”
“And that’s something that I loved – honestly, just because it’s well written. I think that’s the number one reason that the characters’ brokenness – how the tapestry of the two of them together in some ways, how they heal each other, has this backdrop of psychological spiritual horror.”
“And then once again, set against this backdrop of the Alaskan traditions and our very centered indigenous story. I think that’s true of the Alaskans that we’ve met as well. I think that’s the part that they connect to.”
“They feel like we live with the dead as part of our culture in our lives every day. They walk among us. And the strength or the eeriness of that also contributes to the depth of the show.”
For the three principals behind the series, Night Country’s portrayal of indigenous spirituality and mythology especially appealed to them.
Jodie said, “For me, my draw in the story was to really have the opportunity to learn about it and for the audience to learn about the genuinely centered indigenous story, as opposed to some of the lip service that we get in films that come out.”
“And I just wanted to know more. It’s not my voice. It’s their voice and I wanted to support and make sure that their stories were center.”
“So I wish we had some of the Iñupiat people here to be able to speak their truth. But we have Kali.”
Kali remarked, “I’m not the spokeswoman for all Iñupiat people but I am proudly indigenous and it’s really important for me in everything I do, especially getting to the film industry, being such an unfamiliar face we see on screens now.”
“And to be someone new in this industry, that’s like at the top of my list. So I was really happy with the representation in the show.”
Issa, for her part, shared, “I created a fictional town that is a mix of three towns in Northwestern Alaska. And the more I understood of these towns, the more I understood that the presence of Yupik, Iñupiat voices is central to the experience and identity of these towns.”
“I can watch all the YouTube videos in the world. It’s not going to do the trick. So once the first pass of the script was ready, two producers came on board and went through everything with us.”
“This is after I had been in Alaska. I met the people and I made friends there. And they came on board and they went through everything and changed a bunch of things, for the best, no doubt.”
Jodie, who made her acting debut at the age of two, looked back on her career. At 61, she is earning another round of acclaim for Night Country and is highly visible in this awards season, thanks to her performance in Nyad.
“It has been a long, fantastic adventure,” she reflected. “I’ve worked for 58 years in the film business.”
“And there are things I don’t want to repeat. There are some stories that I’ve already told. And I’m really surprised that at 61, I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
“Something about recognizing that it isn’t my time, that it’s someone else’s time and being there to support them and bringing whatever knowledge, wisdom that I’ve accrued over the years and being able to apply that and help a team.”
“And it’s just so much more fun. It’s so much more fun being a part of a team than being all by yourself getting pelted. And being so proud of a team and watching other actors who have different strengths than you have.”
“Also, having enough experience technically in the film industry to be able to be supportive and have something to give.”
“Maybe it’s just me that changed, that my approach has changed now where what I was looking at by being an actor, I’m approaching it differently and I want something different from it.”
“I think now I’ve accomplished so many of the goals that I had, I can kind of put those aside and now it’s really about saying what gets me excited? And sometimes it’s a sliver of something. It can be a small thing.” – Rappler.com
Watch True Detective: Night Country on HBO and HBO GO.