An unexpected fire alarm puts paid to the first time I’m supposed to chat to Reprisal star Abigail Spencer. By the time we tee up a second shot, the whole of Hollywood is in lockdown in response to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 crisis. “We need to do this before the locusts arrive,” she suggests, with gallows humour commonplace in these strange and unnerving days.
Popping up in a raft of hit shows from True Detective to Mad Men, Rectify to Grey’s Anatomy, and even alongside a certain ex-royal in Suits, Spencer notes that what looks like permanent employment on paper is anything but in reality. “My joke is that as actors, we’ve been trained for this pandemic,” she says. “Now the whole world knows what it’s like to be an actor between jobs.”
If it gets to her, then Spencer’s relentlessly upbeat good humour betrays no sign. Wearing her producer cap, she’s wiling away the hours by working on a feature project with Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman’s co-director on Oscar-nominated stop-motion genius Anomalisa. She’s also home-schooling her 11-year-old son and then clocking off by binge-watching old Scorsese movies.
Awaiting news on green-lighting a second season, Spencer had fun anchoring Reprisal, a revenge drama from Hulu, the home of The Handmaid’s Tale. She assumes both sides of the noir playbook. Playing gang moll Katherine, when we first meet her she’s a classic femme fatale in dark locks and black leather. Betrayed by her brother Burt (Rory Cochrane), the leader of a gang of rockabilly gearheads dubbed the Banished Brawlers, she’s dragged in chains and left for dead.
With the scene set for straight-up Kill Bill mayhem, instead the plot leaps forward a few years, with Katherine now going by the name Doris, seemingly transformed into innocent ingenue. All blonde wig, glasses and tweed skirts, she’s the very picture of 1950s domesticity. But nothing is quite what it seems, including the discombobulating presence of admittedly old-school mobile phones piercing the show’s vintage stylings.
All that’s certain is that she’s out for bloody justice, descending on the Bang-a-Rang club’s den of bristling bikers, as overseen by Westworld actor Rodrigo Santoro, willing to do whatever it takes to reclaim power.
“There’s a part of her that’s a monster,” Spencer says. “She stuffed down the rage and the pain and the fear and this is her having to deal with the demons of her past. And so she creates this woman, Doris. Changes her hair colour, voice, everything about her to take on this other persona that’s very non-threatening, that then becomes the most threatening.”
A wolf in sheep’s clothing, Spencer relished the moments she gets to bare her teeth. “The journey of Doris is not only to correct the sins of the past from the men that inflicted pain and harm on her life. It’s also for her to become herself again, to reconnect with the deeper part of herself.”
Though Reprisal grapples with twisted masculinity, as Spencer sees it, it’s all about complex women. They include Sharp Object’s Madison Davenport as a burlesque dancer and Orange is the New Black star Lea DeLaria as Bang-a-Rang MC Queenie. “They have really interesting storylines that kind of mirror who Doris used to be when she was Katherine, and what they’re still dealing with.”
Reprisal is also an excellent showcase for Ozark’s Bethany Anne Lind, playing Doris’ daughter-in-law Molly, who’s also not as innocent as she appears. “She ends up becoming my happenstance sidekick,” Spencer says. “I kind of love that it’s the two most demure, early ’50s housewife-looking characters who become the leaders of this game.”
Comparing the show’s feel to David Lynch’s seminal movie Mulholland Drive, Spencer says she loved latching onto the undercurrent of dark humour sown by showrunner Josh Corbin. “That’s always my thing,” she says. “What’s the game the show is playing, and how do we teach the audience to play along?”
A wicked game, Reprisal’s surreal, stylised realm of duplicitous double-crossing also features Aladdin star Mena Massoud and Australian Rhys Wakefield, as Brawler members caught up in Katherine’s plot. “I think this is his breakout role,” Spencer tips of our local lad.
Cameo appearances by the craggy brilliance of Sons of Anarchy’s menacing Ron Perlman bookend the first season. “He plays a really difficult role, because he beats my character up and that’s hard to watch and to feel, as an actor playing that,” Spencer says. “But it’s so important, at the beginning, to see what she’s up against, because Katherine’s got a real Ben-Hur path before her.”
Hopefully there are brighter days ahead for Spencer, and for all of us. For now, she’s taking lockdown one day at a time. “There’s nothing beautiful about a pandemic. It’s devastating. Hopefully, if we all do our part and stay home, we can get through this sooner.”
She’s using the time to catch up on reading and, with any luck, more meaty roles will follow when normal service resumes. “I keep saying I’m having a film career on television,” she says. “That’s where all the filmmakers have gone, and where the really interesting, complex roles for women are. These past ten years I’ve been lucky to catch that wave. And now look where we are.”
Stuck at home, watching TV. “Everyone’s like, ‘what shows are you bingeing?’ People aren’t like, ‘what movies are you watching?’ Somehow I got to play all of these diverse characters, and I feel really grateful to all the creators and showrunners who called me up. I don’t have a plan, I just go off instinct.”
Just like Reprisal’s Katherine/Doris, Spencer’s instincts are pretty darn smart.
Reprisal premieres with a double episode on SBS on Wednesday 22 April at 8:30pm. Episodes will also be at SBS On Demand same day as broadcast.
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