The actress and helmer discuss bringing the twisty murder mystery — which became HBO’s most watched show of 2020 — to the screen
Director Susanne Bier vividly remembers her first meeting with Nicole Kidman to discuss collaborating on The Undoing, the pair’s nail-biter of an HBO limited series. The director walked into the Sunset Marquis to find the star seated beneath a giant black-and-white portrait of herself. “It was almost mythical,” says Bier, who needed little convincing to sign on to the project. Kidman, for her part, was completely unaware of the placement. “I didn’t see it!” she insists. “I just remember that we clicked and that she really wanted the show to be a thriller, not a character study, and that was exciting to me.” The two went on to bring David E. Kelley’s scripts to life in the compelling, six-episode limited series, which became the network’s most watched show of 2020.
Nicole, you collaborated with David on Big Little Lies. What did you feel he was doing differently in this script that made you excited to work with him again?
NICOLE KIDMAN Well, this is primarily about a marriage and about a family, so it’s very much the couple front and center. I loved that. That’s what David had not done in Big Little Lies. He was shaping it to so many different storylines and so many different women, and so to be the focus of his attention through the whole show was really, really exciting to me. And I just get his rhythms and I can speak his rhythms, and it’s just rare that you get that kind of connection with a writer where you feel that whatever they write, you can grasp.
Susanne, not having worked with David before, what was your reaction to the initial scripts?
SUSANNE BIER I wanted more. David’s writing is very precise and very compelling. It could really go both ways because he can go very deep in character studies, but I think he got very excited about the thrill of it all. I felt that making it more of a thriller would allow for the character stories but would give the characters a very clear direction, which I felt was needed.
The show is based on a novel called You Should Have Known. How much liberty did you feel you could take with the adaptation?
BIER David had made it very clear to the author early on that he felt the novel only really worked in terms of making it into TV for the first couple of episodes. So that was a clear agreement between them that he would use the novel for the first two episodes and then he would shape the series in the way that he felt was right. And it is very different — one of the biggest differences being that the character of Jonathan [played by Hugh Grant] is a huge part of the series and not so much in the novel.
KIDMAN Novels work as novels. I think what happens sometimes is there’s such reverence for every single part of it, but there’s a reason a book works as a book. You’ve then got to go and re-create it, whether it’s for a two-hour film or for a six-hour limited series or an ongoing show. There’s a process that has to happen where you shed. You use what you can and then you carry it forward. David’s very good at that. And we obviously couldn’t even use the book title because why would you sit through six hours if you know the title? It gives you the whole story!
BIER It’s an interesting thing because the book was out there, but it still generated deep interest because the storylines quite early on, like already in episode two, were different. And because it was so remarkably different, it still generated that huge discussion about who did it and who didn’t do it. I was kind of worried, and I think David was worried, too, that people who might’ve read the book would kind of go back — but they didn’t. I think audiences anticipated that anything was possible.
Susanne, what made you want to direct all the episodes of the series? Did you worry about being overextended?
BIER It’s like a six-hour-long movie, and as a director it’s hugely interesting to have much more real estate to play with. I didn’t really have any doubts about it. I mean, yeah, you can go, “Do I really want to shoot for 90 days?” (Laughs.) Of course there is an element of that, but the creative undertaking is hugely exciting. You could compare it to a short story or a novel, a short story being a feature film and a novel being a series. And that is really rewarding to do.
KIDMAN If I can add, too, it’s not like you’re shooting each episode separately. We were having to jump back and forth. And when you’ve got the person who has it all in their head, shaping it that way, you can do that. If you’re mixing directors, I don’t think we could do it because it’s too difficult. As actors, we could just inhabit [our characters] rather than waste any time on, “My God, does somebody know what’s happening here?”
So much of the show is centered on notions of belief. Why was that an appealing concept for both of you to explore?
BIER It’s incredibly timely. We have a pandemic and we still have people not actually thinking it’s true. I feel that at this moment in time there is so much discussion and conversation and unease about the actual truth — and it comes right back to your own perception of your own life, where you kind of go, “Is what I’m observing the actual truth or do I somewhat filter my own observations?” So we all felt it was critically relevant to tell that story and to point to the huge gap between what we believe in and what is really there.
KIDMAN For me playing it, it was really fascinating how much I was willing to let go or choose not to see because I want my life back. Even if there’s a 95 percent chance that [Jonathan] did it, I’ll believe in the 5 percent. There are so many people who live like that. I’ve lived like that. I know that feeling. David always said the series is about what we choose to believe. That’s why it had to be that he did it. Because if you took a cheap shot and made it Lily [Rabe]’s character or made it Donald [Sutherland], that to me is a cheap twist because the actual metaphor for what it’s about is it’s right in front of you, and look how we choose not to see what is right in front of us. It was fascinating how culturally that’s what happened when [the show was airing]. I couldn’t believe it, people were wanting it to be me more than they wanted it to be him!
BIER I had my 90-year-old dad calling me, going, “OK, just tell me. It’s her. I know it’s her.”
KIDMAN I was kind of offended by everyone. I was always like, “Aw, you’re hurting my feelings.” (Laughs.)
With such heavy material, how did you unwind after shooting?
KIDMAN I don’t think we did unwind, did we, Susanne?
BIER No, we would text each other about [the show].
KIDMAN I don’t think there is an unwinding. It’s months and months of trying to stay in a very taut, emotional state as a director and as an actor. You’re not doing comedy. Occasionally we’d all go out to dinner, but there was so little time, and even though we shot for what seemed like a really long time, the schedule was still jammed. But it’s really interesting as an actor to be able to maintain that sort of state of being slightly strung-out emotionally. Exhaustion can work really well for actors, and not having time and having to sort of push, push, push through because it takes a lot of the thought out of it and you don’t overthink things. You kind of just exist because you have to — and that’s quite good.
BIER But you do that anyway. That’s how you work. Nicole enters into some kind of altered state of mind …
KIDMAN For me, it’s a very good way to work. You need an understanding family, but if someone gets me — Susanne got me — then it’s just a wonderful working existence. You get to really be understood. And that was particularly important playing Grace because there’s a lot of interior emotional thoughts. It’s like a pressure cooker, and that’s a really hard thing to act. You’ve got to bring that energy and just be that.
The series comes to what feels like a conclusion end. But given the appetite for it, is there any chance of doing a second season?
KIDMAN In our dreams. I think that there is a desire for us all to work together again in some shape or form. There’s always that thing where you go, “Oh my gosh, this was good.” And when there’s that sense where you go, “God, I’d love to go back there.” We would have no idea what the story would be though, so that’s a problem.
BIER We would love to do it. I think everybody, including David, would be happy for a great storyline.