In Netflix’s Altered Carbon, the body is an accessory, no different than a fancy blazer or new skirt. When we first see the consciousness of Takeshi Kovacs inherit a freshly chiseled anatomy (of actor Joel Kinnaman), it slides out of a sealed bag and smacks the floor in a gooey plop. Kovacs is shaken, as if blistering cold water suddenly attacked every pore on his body, and snaps into animal-like aggression against the people tasked with digitally transferring his consciousness from one body to the next. For those who are ready to jump into Netflix’s ambitious new sci-fi series, based on Richard K. Morgan’s trilogy of novels, trying to understand this world and its rules could be a fresh-out-of-gooey-bag experience. And unraveling the mysteries of the 25th century starts with the series’ protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs.
Kovacs’ backstory is entrenched in his death on an offworld planet called Harlan’s World. He awakens in a new body, called a “sleeve,” summoned to Earth by an unfathomably wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy) to help solve a murder. As most depictions of futuristic societies go, those who can afford it become future proof. Kovacs, as an ex-military man and rogue outlaw, is gifted a generous new sleeve by Bancroft: It’s fit, roughly early 40s, swimmer’s build, and some military skill carved into the nervous system. It’s not the first sleeve for Kovac, but you can never really prepare to take on another person’s body.
In the novels, Kovacs is slightly more reserved, with a rough-around-the-edges attitude. Altered Carbon’s showrunner Laeta Kalogridis opened up the character for the TV series, allowing Kinnaman to show off his range in the role.
“Kovacs in this version is more verbal, quick-witted, and has a little old school Humphrey Bogart in him,” Kinnaman told Den of Geek on the set in back in June. “It’s that kind of quick dialogue and has a quick retort. There was a levity in that I didn’t really see [in the novel]. At first I was a little bit opposed to it, and then I felt that I was actually really helped by getting pushed a little bit in that direction. It pulled my performance in a way that I didn’t expect, and I was really happy that it did.”
Altered Carbon explores some grim themes, and Kinnaman believes he was able to go darker and deeper to find the emotional core of a man struggling to discover a purpose.
“I think it was really healthy for me to be sort of pulled in a lighter direction as well, because then you really create that contrast of having the emotional depth but also having the lightness. I think it’s a mistake as an actor to—even though it’s a character that is depressed or not happy about the circumstances that they find themselves in, even if they’re pulling in one direction—it’s really good for the performance when you have something that creates a contrast to that. I think it actually just gives it more depth.”
Some of the most stark contrast and complex questions in the series come from the relationship between Kovacs, who’s true age is roughly around his mid-40s, and the fabulously wealthy Bancroft, who’s lived for over 300 years. People like Bancroft can afford multiple clones, virtually ensuring his preservation on Earth. He could also travel across the universe by needlecast, which digitally puts a person’s consciousness, called a “stack,” into a clone on another planet. With that kind of power, and a wealth of life experience, the rich have a chilling outlook on the lower class.
“They have pretty much become a different species. They almost see themselves as gods,” Kinnaman said. “They have fortunes that are incomprehensible. Nothing means anything to them. That’s why they have also the perversions of what happens to the sexuality when you’ve lived 300 years. The perversions become pretty twisted, what gets you off after 300 years.”
Mind and body are constantly at war as Morgan’s opening chapters depict the slow adjustment to a new sleeve. But what happens when you’re constantly changing sleeves over hundreds of years like Bancroft and his wife Miriam?
“Everyone who’s been in love knows that something chemical happens when you’re close to the person that you love,” Kinnaman said. “What happens if the body that you love comes close to you, but it’s someone else in there? Your body’s still reacting to that body, but there’s someone else in there. That’s a very difficult and complicated dilemma. It’s a conflict. That’s something that happens a lot on Altered Carbon.”
And then there’s the issue of race. Kovacs, at the opening of the novel, is of Asian descent. When he’s transferred into his new sleeve, he describes his new look as “basically” caucasian. Kalogridis was careful to respect the novel without sacrificing an opportunity for Asian representation, which is still lacking in Hollywood today.
“I did not want to violate that paradigm, because that is what the book is, and it does actually matter,” she said. “I did something that I’m almost 100 percent sure nobody has ever done before. You see this character in three different bodies. Two of them are Asian. They are both Asian males, and they both have very significant parts.”
Throughout the series, we’ll get flashbacks of Kovacs in his previous sleeves, played by Asian American actors Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann. These scenes are not only action-heavy, but Kalogridis says they hold important emotional exposition. It’s a lesson learned from the whitewashing fallout of Ghost in the Shell. Kalogridis worked on early drafts of the Ghost in the Shell but did not receive writing credit when the controversial film hit theaters. She said the response to Paramount’s whitewashing blunder hit her hard.
“I take great pride in the fact that we have honored the fact that Kovacs, up until the point that he is re-sleeved by Bancroft and into Riker’s body, chooses people of Asian descent because that’s what he chooses, and so you see it twice.”
Kinnaman communicated with his co-stars, sharing some mannerisms for the character.
“It’s an interesting experiment, this whole thing, where you have a lot of different actors playing the same characters,” Kinnaman said. “I think there’s a lot of ways to do that. We’re figuring it out. I think it’s going to be really fascinating to watch.”
Altered Carbon’s premise could allow Takeshi Kovacs to go anywhere if Netflix renews the show for future seasons—potentially even with new performers fitting like a glove (or its sleeve). We’ll see Kovacs in his latest pricy wares, however, when Altered Carbon drops on Netflix on Feb. 2nd.