Warning: spoilers for The Innocents episodes 1-8.
As a mysterious doctor conducting even more mysterious research on a remote Nordic island, Guy Pearce [L.A. Confidential, Memento] gives a compelling and nuanced performance in Netflix’s The Innocents. His character opens the series, and is a continual presence through the eight episodes, keeping viewers guessing almost throughout. Is Dr Halvorson a cult leader? A tyrant? Or simply a scientist trying to help people desperately in need of support? What are we to make of his relationship with shifter Runa, or her jealousy of the time he devotes to his other patients on the island?
We chatted to The Innocents creator-writers Hania Elkington and Simon Duric, and producer Elaine Pyke, about all things Guy Pearce…
What was your approach to revealing the true nature of Guy Pearce’s character over the eight episodes? At what point do you think the viewer knows for certain that he’s no good? It it when he snaps the neck of that deer?
Simon Duric: I think it’s earlier than that. I think it’s episode two.
Hania Elkington: I think it’s episode four! You go first.
SD: For me, it’s the scene with Elena during her ‘treatment’ in episode two. The way he leaves her in there—is he doing it because he’s scared or is he doing it because he wants to? If he’s doing it because he’s scared then yeah, maybe you can give him a wave for it. If he does it because he wants to, that’s torture. It’s just a little look between him and Runa. What’s that look about? Why is Runa looking at him like that? I think that’s where he shows his hand, as much as we show hands.
When I really knew, I think, was the moment he was talking to Sigrid and he uses the phrase from her memory of her dad leaving…
HE Oh yes [shudders]. For me, it’s episode four, the scene that Simon and I always talked about as ‘the sex scene’ between Halvorson and Runa. The sex never happens but it’s the climax in their emotional and physical relationship, when he sedates her and she’s almost wilfully heading for shift state. The moment for me is when he’s watching her and talking to her and he’s rolling up his sleeves, unfastening the buttons and he’s going to the drawer and getting out the gloves and he’s talking to her and you just think ‘No, this is not love. Or it is love, but it’s strategic’.
SD: In both of those scenes, there are really, really black and white villainous ways of playing them and Guy was a huge advocate of not doing that. All great actors say it about villain characters – they have to understand the reason they’re doing it and Guy really, really, really committed to that. If you asked him that question [at what point is the audience sure he’s a villain], he’d probably tell you it’s the final moment of episode eight.
There’s that line when Halvorson tells Harry ‘I don’t have any secrets’ and when I was writing my notes I just put a big HA!
SD: He has all the secrets!
So, there’s be no Guy Pearce for series two?
HE: We’ll have to wait and see! We did actually talk to Guy when we went out onto set and he’d read all the scripts and he was like ‘So, is Halvorson really dead?’ and we’re like ‘He got shot in the head’ and he said ‘oh right, well I suppose it’s going to have to be a prequel then!’
SD: Halvorson: the wonder years!
HE: To discuss! What’s interesting is that every character is driven by love. John, Ryan, Harry, June, Halvorson… Love can make you do very good things and it can make you do very bad things.
Was love for Runa always going to be Halvorson’s motivation? Early on, I was thinking there’s bound to be some shady multinational corporation behind him wanting his research for warfare or something.
Elaine Pyke: That’s right, yeah, you might expect a big white, concrete building.
You swerved that though?
HE: We didn’t want to go down the blacked-out windows, men in black suits, facility… it’s a family story. It’s a story about families and what you’ll do for love and we wanted that to be true for every element of it. I can’t pretend we didn’t go through different incarnations of Sanctum.
SD: We went through different iterations.
HE: I remember the day when we snapped together Runa and Kam and said ‘what if Kam were Runa’s daughter’ bang! That connection was made. It’s a process of layering. We were very sure that we didn’t want a hospital.
SD: We always knew there was a partnership of some sort between Halvorson and Runa, but I don’t think the romantic part of it came until we really started getting into the process. But it made sense because you’ve got Harry and June’s pure love story up against Halvorson and Runa, a really fucked-up, poisonous love story, and one of them has got to give.
HE: Both of them can’t survive.
SD: I hope that when people see the way that love story, the poisonous one, pans out, I hope there’s actually a bit of heartbreak in that.
A very easy way for the viewer to find out about Halvorson’s true motivation would be for June or Kam to shift into him and read him, as it were. Was that ever in the plan?
SD: I don’t think they ever shifted into him. At one point, we had the possibility of Runa doing it, but he was quite a shift-free character for some reason. He’d have been up for it. He’d have been up for anything. He’s very game, very game. He really committed to it.
EP: I suppose Halvorson knows, doesn’t he, he holds such enormous knowledge. He knows how vulnerable you are when you’re shifted into.
HE: Also, we wanted to keep the menace of him right to the end, and having him shifted into by June or Kam would put him on the back foot and we wanted to believe that he was capable of really terrible things right until the end.
The Innocents is available on Netflix now.