12 Monkeys: Alisen Down On Why We Love Olivia
No matter how vehemently Olivia fights to bring down the heroes in 12 Monkeys, fans love Alisen Down's quiet intensity in the role.
This interview contains spoilers for 12 Monkeys season 4.
With 12 Monkeys airing its series finale tonight, fans of the show are aching to know whether the ending will be happy, sad, or at least satisfying as the time travel tale comes to a close. The Witness is poised to bring about the prophesied Red Forest, and Alisen Down has continued her expert portrayal of Olivia as she has grown into the villain’s role over the past four seasons. But even as her character battles the protagonists of the show, fans find themselves appreciating the intensity and intelligence of Down’s acting, and they can’t wait to see how the Witness will be defeated in the end.
Down, for one, is relieved that the last of Olivia’s secrets will be known by the end of tonight’s 12 Monkeys season 4 finale. “You’re always worried that you’re going to let something slip and give something away. The story is so guarded and so protected,” Down explains. “I was trying to live tweet last week, and I had so much trouble because I was like ‘Oh man, I don’t want to give anything away for the west coast, and I don’t want to give anything away for the future!’ It fills me with dread, so it’s nice to not have to edit so much anymore.”
Down herself didn’t at first know that the soft-spoken leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys known simply as “Striking Woman” would become the Witness we see in season 4. “I was never quite sure where Olivia stood,” Down admits. “I figured it would be the possibility of maybe a few episodes in season one, and then I didn’t really think beyond that because you just never know… you don’t really have a secure future unless you’re the lead of the show, and even really then you don’t know. I was really happy when she was incarnated into a name… it wasn’t just ‘Striking Woman,’ but I had no idea that it would lead to this.”
That being said, Down had an appropriately prophetic conversation with her husband during 12 Monkeys’ first season. “When I first started in season one,” Down recalls, “the first stuff I shot was in episode 6 of ‘You’re walking through a red forest, and the grass is tall’ where Pallid Man and I have kidnapped Cassie and are forcing the red tea down her throat, and she sees the Witness. I would come home and be talking to my husband about the day and the story, and we kind of joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you were the Witness?’ and it was a very strange prediction that turned out to be true.”
Down took the role of the Witness very seriously in season 4, even staying on set beyond 15-hour days to be behind the mask when a body double could have saved her the extra trouble for scenes where her face wasn’t showing. “I immediately texted Terry, and I was like, ‘No, no doubles!’ That can’t happen because it’s part of Olivia’s story; it’s part of the Witness’ story,” explains Down. “I can’t watch the show and know that that wasn’t me… I feel like you can still tell because there’s emotion that comes through; there’s an energy that comes through even if you can’t see the face or the body… I would’ve just never forgiven myself if I watched the show now and knew that it wasn’t me that did that work. It just wouldn’t have been the same.”
As the Witness has become more and more powerful and evil, Down admits that the evolving role wasn’t always easy for her as an actor. “I had a really hard time. I didn’t really feel good about my work until the stuff with Jones in [season 4] episode 7,” she says. “I couldn’t find the character; I was just feeling off base, but really the irony of that is that the Witness was feeling that way, too. But when I found those villainous aspects, and when I knew that they’d worked, that was exhilarating.”
Part of the success of Down’s performance involves her ability to be equally compelling when speaking with a very soft voice and while giving booming speeches her disciples in Titan. “Having to walk the line between projecting out to them inspiring them to believe in me and trust me, as an actor walking that line between inciting that passion in them and too many theatrics when then suddenly it doesn’t work anymore, that was a bit of a struggle finding that,” Down confesses, “but in the end I think that as long as somebody feels passion and there’s passion behind the words, it doesn’t really matter how loud or soft they are, they’ll reach you.”
The Witness remains oddly sympathetic even as she fails to connect to Emma, a daughter that is revealed midway through season 4. “You go back to Olivia’s own upbringing, and you know she was raised in a box,” Down explains. “She was experimented on; she was essentially turned into a Witness-devoted machine, and I’m not sure that even if you have the best of intentions that you necessarily recover from that no matter if she decided to follow the Witness or not… I think she still would have had trouble connecting to her daughter. It’s not that it’s not in her because I think it’s in every human… it’s the mission that matters, so even a small connection she’s not able to have because she has to focus on the Red Forest.”
Despite her cold nature, fans inexplicably want Olivia to be reformed and see the error of her ways, even this late in the series when it becomes increasingly clear that’s never going to happen. “One of the reasons I love Olivia — especially after season 4 because she didn’t really seem like she had flaws in season 3; she kind of was just perfect and enigmatic — is that she’s a very flawed human, and we see her make mistakes,” says Down. “We see her rage, and we see her get up and try again, and we see that emotion in her eyes… Occasionally when she’s upset, you just kind of want to give her a little hug. And then she does something, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why I don’t hug you.’
Whatever happens to Olivia in the 12 Monkeys series finale tonight, fans will always be appreciative of Down’s wonderful performance as a key ingredient in their enjoyment of the time travel tale. “I must give kudos to the writers and the directors and always Terry Matalas because Olivia is not just my creation. It’s definitely a combined effort,” Down says. “12 Monkeys walks a fine line between what is right and what is wrong, and I think it’s questionable sometimes. So I think they’s maybe why [we love Olivia] because it’s not always so black and white.”
12 Monkeys ends its four-season run tonight in a two-hour series finale airing at 9pm ET on Syfy. Check out our reviews for the final season, most of which have been 5-stars, as well as the 12 Monkeys Uncaged podcast, hosted by the author of this interview.