Kaitlyn Dever is having a major breakout year thanks to her performance as Amy in the film “Booksmart” and Marie in the Netflix limited series “Unbelievable.” She was previously known for her roles in TV series like “Last Man Standing” and “Justified” alongside the indie film “Short Term 12.”
Dever recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about the heaviness of “Unbelievable,” the refreshing aspects of “Booksmart” and her incredible year overall. Our chat happened before she received her first ever Golden Globe nomination this past week. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Starting with “Unbelievable,” that tells the true story of a serial rape investigation and one victim who, Kaitlyn, you play who wasn’t believed. First off, were you previously familiar with that story or the article or the podcast about it that inspired the series?
Kaitlyn Dever: No, I wasn’t. I don’t think a lot of people know about the story. Now they do ‘cause our story’s on Netflix and word has really gotten out about it, but no, I was not aware of the story, which is a huge reason why I wanted to be a part of it in the first place. I love being part of stories that were somewhat buried or were unknown. It’s a story that definitely deserves to be told and known about. I had just gotten all the material from my agent and read the story from there and that was the first time I was reading it and hearing about it.
GD: The first episode, the way the story is told focuses really centrally on your character as she experiences the assault and then undergoes the experience of reporting and the investigation and being doubted and eventually recanting. It’s such an emotional episode to watch. What was it like to shoot and how long did that episode take?
KD: It was quite the process. It was such a jump for me, first of all. I had just come right from “Booksmart,” actually. I was on my last week filming “Booksmart” and every actor experiences this but I was coming up on a time where I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing for the rest of this year. I have nothing lined up.” It came to me at a time where I was doing a project that was the complete opposite of “Unbelievable.” It was a lot to dive into, especially that first episode I think was the hardest out of all of them. What was so great about everyone involved was that I was able to really take my time on everything and I felt very, very cared for, especially in the assault scenes alone. They were able to carve out an entire day for that specific day, and also the interview scenes took place over the course of two or three days and we just worked on those scenes alone, which was really helpful because a lot of the times when we’re doing something that heavy and that important, you wanna give it your all, but sometimes we are rushed because we have another scene to get done or several scenes to get done that day. It was really, really great that they scheduled that ahead of time, ‘cause it was really, really important and we also had an advisor on-set with us making sure that everything we were doing involving the cops and the case and the interview scenes themselves were done correctly because they wanted to get it really, really right.
GD: It’s such weighty material and your character goes through so much over the course of the series. Did you get a chance to decompress during the production? Is there a way to take off these intense emotional feelings at the end of the day to keep from burning out on it?
KD: Yeah, I don’t know. I think I planned on coming out of it originally. I definitely knew that it was going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it definitely was, looking back on it. I thought that I would be able to come out of it ‘cause that’s what I normally do on everything. I’m not very method. I think it’s really helpful to come out of a character as much as possible to let yourself breathe and give it a break, but with this one, I think I had put so much pressure on myself. I felt the importance of it. My heart immediately broke for Marie when I read her story and I just had to do her justice and I couldn’t see beyond that, so when it came time to really get into it, I almost felt like I completely forgot about myself for a second, because this story felt so much bigger than me and in order to do it right, I really, really needed to stay in it. But it really didn’t happen on purpose. It just happened naturally out of my passion and love and respect for not only the story and Marie but also just the people involved in it, ‘cause I knew immediately that Susannah Grant and Lisa Cholodenko and Sarah Timberman all really cared about the project and really, really wanted to do it right. I guess there were moments of peace I found. We shot in L.A. so I was able to go home and have dinner with my family, which was very, very nice at the end of the days. We were shooting really, really heartbreaking and emotionally taxing scenes so I guess I found my lightness in those moments.
GD: The unique way the story is told, Marie’s story is in parallel to the investigation being conducted by the detectives played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever. Did it feel like you were shooting your own isolated movie in a sense, that story and did you get much time with Toni and Merritt on-set even though you weren’t acting with them primarily?
KD: I was so bummed about this, because Toni Collette is actually a huge inspiration for me. She’s actually one of the reasons why I wanted to be an actor. I fell in love with more character work and really, really diving into a role. I grew up watching Disney Channel. Disney films really shaped me as a person but “The Sixth Sense” was the very first scary movie my parents let me watch and her role in that just blew me away. That sparked so much interest in maybe doing more dramatic roles, ‘cause I was always loving making people laugh but something in her performance just really made me go, “Oh my god, that’s a real person. I really wanna do something like that.” So I was really bummed that I did not get to have any scenes with her but I feel so lucky that I’m even in the same show as her. I was able to tell her my love for her at a Netflix dinner that Netflix put together right before we started shooting, but no, I was always passing Merritt and Toni on-set and I’d be in one side of the makeup trailer and then Toni would be on the other side of the trailer getting her hair done. That was really the only time I got to see her, but they’re really, really lovely people and I just really love the both of them so much. I really, really admire them and look up to them. I’ve really just been getting to know them now in all these interviews and press stuff that we’ve been doing together. It was actually nice though at the end of the day, it was nice for me to be more isolated because Marie in her story is she is a very isolated person. Everyone was turning on her. Everyone that she loved that ever cared about her turned on her, so it was a very isolating experience for her. For me as an actor being in that setting, I guess at the end of the day it was actually pretty helpful.
GD: What do you hope audiences take away from “Unbelievable” when they watch it, from Marie’s story? What’s the most important takeaway that you hope for?
KD: It’s been so incredible, the response it already has been getting. I think you just never know what kind of outcome a show that you do is gonna have, and you can have so much love for it and it may not ever get seen. So the fact that this kind of story is on a platform like Netflix and people are actually watching it and a ton of people have seen it already and those people are actually really, really moved by it has been really overwhelming, because I know how hard everybody worked on it. There’s so much to take away from it. If you are a survivor, I hope that you at least feel seen by the show and if you never experienced this or you know someone who has, I think it’s important to see the show because it really can be eye-opening. It can really show you how sexual assault really affects someone, not only in that moment but pretty much for the rest of their life. It’s a very traumatic experience. What’s so beautiful about the show is that it really shows the different reactions one can have to trauma. I think that the show beautifully demonstrates that and I think it’s a really important thing that I learned from being a part of the show is that everybody has a different upbringing and therefore, it affects how they react to trauma, so we really have to start listening to each other and believing survivors and not treating them as suspects from the get-go. That’s a really important thing that I learned and I think a lot of people should know that.
GD: On a much lighter note, “Booksmart,” your other project this year, which you mentioned you made right before going into “Unbelievable,” it’s a high school comedy about overachievers trying to have one big party experience before they graduate. It’s a rare teen comedy, it’s got female protagonists, female director, Olivia Wilde, female writers, most of the producers are women, too. What did you think about that and of the story and the script when you read it?
KD: Oh my god, so many things. What a jump, by the way (laughs). I love “Booksmart” with every fiber of my being and will for the rest of my life, and I can’t believe that “Unbelievable” and “Booksmart” happened within the same year and I was able to shoot both of them in the same year. Both of them are such incredible projects to be a part of. Those kinds of projects don’t come around that often and the fact that they both shot in the same year blows my mind. The fact that they all wanted me to be a part of it was also insane. “Booksmart,” I think I’ve learned that being on a set with so many women has been so incredible and it’s just amazing. I feel like I’ve realized that women are just naturally more comfortable around women, so the fact that Beanie and I had Olivia and Katie Silberman, our writer, with us at all times, I think being surrounded by their friendship, ‘cause Olivia and Katie are best friends in real life, having that relationship right in front of us every single day was definitely really, really important for the both of us. I almost am at a loss for words when I talk about this group of people because they’re just really good at their job. All of them are just really, really good at their job. Jessica Elbaum is an incredible producer and we had an amazing production designer who is a woman and our costume designer, April [Napier]. Every woman at every corner was really really passionate about the story.
Ultimately, what I love about Olivia is that she wasn’t necessarily trying to hire as many women as she possibly could. She was just trying to hire the people that were best for the job, who had a lot of drive and a lot of passion and really understood what the story meant. I think that because of that, that is why our crew and the whole entire team was just outstanding. I think she did that with our cast, too. She didn’t wanna go with your normal casting process. She really wanted to dive deep and find people who maybe had never done a movie before and I think ultimately she found the best people for the role. But yeah, also, to answer your question about the first time I read it, I read “Booksmart” about five years ago and it was a script unlike anything I’d ever read before. It was so refreshing and to read a story about female friendship that was so true, these girls were just so smart and the great thing about them is that they aren’t afraid that they are smart. They’re not self-conscious about it. They are so proud and they have so much drive. Their love for each other really, really stood out to me because I think we all have had that friend at one point in time. It’s like a romantic love story. It’s a bond that I think everybody has had and I think that’s what really, really drew me to it first, and also reading a script with two women in the lead that’s a comedy also never really came around that often for me. I really just fell in love with Amy and her kindness and compassion and the fact that I was going to be able to play a character that was queer and her sexuality wasn’t put on a pedestal. Everything across the board was so refreshing and I couldn’t believe that they wanted me to be a part of it.
GD: That was one of the things that struck me the most about the film was that you don’t usually get a queer story in this kind of matter-of-fact way, it’s just part of who she is. It’s not the central part of who she is but also not shying away from what that is as a part of her life. What was that like to explore?
KD: I remember talking to Olivia about Amy in the first meeting I had with Olivia. I remember thinking about Amy’s character bio and it wouldn’t even mention her sexuality in the first sentence. I think there’s so many wonderful things about Amy and her sexuality never defines her and who she is as a person but I think in the past when we’ve seen a queer character, they are solely there to be the gay character in the movie and maybe the butt of the joke or maybe we wouldn’t see it even in a female best friendship because maybe they would start falling for the other character. It was never that from the very beginning, which I just really respect because I don’t think we get to see that very often at all, really. I don’t think we’ve ever seen it. I think that’s something we really need more of, not only having a queer character but having a queer character that explores her sexuality. We don’t just mention that Amy is gay. We explore it. We see her explore it. That just really blew me away and I’m just so happy to have been a part of something like that.
GD: You yourself have been acting since you were a teenager so could you in any way relate to that kind of overachiever aspect of these characters you were playing given that your career has been pretty precocious?
KD: I think so. At the beginning of high school, I was a lot like Amy in my studies and yeah, I think what’s so amazing about these two characters is that they have so much passion and drive and they’re so hard-working and I think that they remind me a lot of the friends that I have. Some of the times we don’t get to see that onscreen so I think seeing that in a character on the page was really, really exciting and to know that I was going to be playing a character that a lot of my friends would relate to is definitely really cool, but I think I definitely am an overachiever in my work. I think that’s what’s so great about Beanie is that she and I share the same work ethic and I think that doesn’t also happen that much. Beanie and I lived together during the process and even that was something that we agreed on 20 minutes into knowing each other. I think right then and there I knew that she had the same love for these two girls as I did and as Olivia did and as Katie did, but you don’t get that that often. You don’t get to work with someone necessarily who has the same way of working as you do, and Beanie and I really wanted to memorize all of our lines and go over it every single day. We were going over it like Molly and Amy would. We were basically doing our homework every night, because Olivia actually told us right before we started shooting, she said she wanted to try to achieve the “No sides on-set” rule, which is basically the little sides you get daily of all the scenes that you’re going to be doing that day. Usually on everything I’ve done, yes I will show up completely memorized but there’s something about having the material with you. I realized I was using it as a crutch and I would stick it under a couch cushion or something and do the scene and then I could refer to it in between takes, but Olivia wanted to completely eliminate that. She wanted us to count ourselves and count on each other to know the scene and trust ourselves, because that’s what Molly and Amy would do. That was really, really helpful but Beanie and I knew, “Okay, we gotta get this right for Olivia,” because she was also saying, “We don’t have to do it. You could totally not do it if you don’t want to.” We’re like, “No, we are doing this. We are doing this for you. We can do it.” It was so cool to share that with Beanie. It was really cool.
GD: Well, congratulations on both “Booksmart” and “Unbelievable.” Thank you so much for joining me. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
KD: Yeah, thank you so much for talking to me and having me! Thank you so much.