“Especially when you’re doing a show with a lot of suspense, the thing that you have to modulate is how to incrementally ask the audience to lean in without giving away too much,” Esmail explained when Rotten Tomatoes met with the series creator and his star to chat about the podcast–turned–TV series. “It’s a tightrope and the half-hour format just lends to that. There’s a lingering effect at the end of every episode. It doesn’t blow your mind with a cliffhanger, we don’t give out every answer, but it just gets you to prop up a little bit and sit up. I think if we tried to drag it out in hour-long episodes, we would just be treading water. The podcast did it so well, and I didn’t see any need to change that when we made the TV show.”
The scripted podcast of the same name, created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, featured Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, and other top-tier talent in the same story as the series: Heidi (played by Roberts in the series) is a caseworker at an experimental facility that hosts a program for returning soldiers to re-assimilate to civilian life. Years later, when a Department of Defense auditor begins looking into why she left the facility, Heidi realizes that there is more to her story than what she’s been telling herself. Stephan James, Bobby Cannavale, Sissy Spacek, and Shea Whigham star alongside Roberts in the Amazon show.
Below, Esmail and Roberts discuss how the series plays with memory, paying homage to classic thrillers, doing more television, and whether Roberts could pop up in the final season of Mr. Robot — as Mrs. Robot, perhaps?
Rotten Tomatoes: How much did you turn to the podcast while you were making the series?
Julia Roberts: It was my jumping-off point. It was my introduction to it, and I loved it. I love Catherine Keener. But from that point it became this new world, this new universe [with a] brand-new captain. It was our inspiration, but it was kind of liberating that we didn’t have to be beholden to duplicating, replicating what Eli and Micah had created for the podcast.
Sam Esmail: We intentionally, I think, from the bottom up, tried to create a different experience for the audience. We deviate a lot from the [podcast] story line. It’s an intentional decision not to cast any of the same people. It was just meant to have its own existence, so that way audiences could enjoy the podcast, which is great on its own, and then come into different experience with the show.
RT: How do you describe the show?
Roberts: I think I can do genre, that’s about as far as I can go. For me it’s a suspense, thriller, terrorizing, paranoid, love story.
Esmail: It’s a throwback to classic thrillers, and that love story aspect is typically in all those Hitchcockian thrillers. That’s the beating pulse underneath all the mystery and suspense. One of the reasons I think we were fans of the podcast is that it felt like this old yarn, and it wasn’t about set pieces or action sequences; it was just about people trying to connect.
Roberts: There’s no filler.
Esmail: There’s no filler, yeah. It’s very succinct.
Roberts: I’ve been wanting to watch Three Days of the Condor suddenly.
Esmail: Wow, that’s such a great movie.
Roberts: Such a good movie.
RT: The show does have a throwback feel. What else can you say about the homages to Hitchcock and other classic thrillers?
Esmail: One thing that I did with the music is we didn’t hire a composer. I intentionally wanted to just license the scores of all these great, classic thrillers. Everyone from Pakula, De Palma, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and specifically Three Days of the Condor was used. There was music from that used in the scene in the Chinese restaurant in episode six when [to Roberts] you were giving your beautiful monologue. The music was there because it felt right. The tone of this was meant to a link to these character-based thrillers that you don’t really see anymore.
RT: What were you able to do in this show that you haven’t been able to do before?
Roberts: Aerobics, the StairMaster! Running around. [A set of stairs in Roberts’ character’s office is a key location.] I mean honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to perform things in real time. There is no, “Oh, just stand up here, and we’ll just cut to driving away in your car, you don’t have to deal with those pesky hallways and staircases and getting all your stuff together and finding your keys, and doing all this stuff.” This was all very much the real talking at your desk, realizing what time it is, collecting all your stuff together, still talking on the phone, trying to act natural, getting out of work, finding your keys, going down the stairs, getting out the front, walking to your car. I mean, it’s a lot of stuff, and it just makes it so real, so convincing. It just seems all very accurate and that’s what [Esmail] wants all the time, from everybody. It’s inspiring and it’s a little exhausting. It’s just a whole lot of great stuff to shape your characters around.
Esmail: My answer is going to be a little different because —
Roberts: — because you’re smarter than me!
Esmail: No, because there is only one Julia Roberts, and I can ask her to do all the things she just described and then give notes in between takes, and I don’t have to parse up my notes that I generally have to do with other people. I can give her a bunch of notes to do on top of that, and she will not only do everything, but then just top it off with something I didn’t even imagine or think of. That’s the new experience — the fact that I had Julia Roberts.
RT: The series plays with memory and gaslighting and what you can believe and trust at any given moment. How do you keep straight which version of your character you’re playing and what she knows at that point in time?
Roberts: It takes a village. Any kind of acting award, they give one statue to one person and you just want to laugh and go, “You think I did this all by myself? You’ve got another thing coming.” [Sam is] my greatest guide, obviously, at all times, for the tone, the content, all of it. But then, just all the facts of the matter: “What time of the day is it?” “What happened yesterday in this scenario and what does she know and not know?” I have Sam, I have the script supervisor. There are so many people that are there. Eli and Micah were there all the time just adding in pieces of information that would really expand my ability to embrace each individual moment, the little tiny things. All the stuff got very, very, very cool for me as a performer, because usually it’s like, “I just want the facts, don’t tell me too much I want to do this myself,” and I just wanted everybody in the pool with me on this one.
Esmail: We just took it one day at a time. Julia asked for this, and this is something I did on Mr. Robot: to get all the scripts written beforehand. Imagine trying to do that on the week to week without knowing where you’re going.
Roberts: We would have been put into a hospital.
Esmail: The fact that we had them all written and the fact that every day, in the morning, we could rehearse, we could reorient ourselves and say, “Here’s what’s happening today and here’s where Heidi is,” that was really helpful.
RT: What’s next? Will either of you do more TV? What are you working on?
Esmail: I’m working on the final season of Mr. Robot.
Roberts: I’m a little tired of hearing about Mr. Robot. Unless there’s a Mrs. Robot out there.
RT: Hello, final season!
Roberts: Rami [Malek] and I are very good friends.
Esmail: You two are making a very good point here.
Roberts: You never know, things might get super interesting. You know, I’m not interested in TV or movies, specifically — I just want good stories. This was such a great story. I felt like I got to play two different characters. I had a playground of castmates to do these scenes with who I just adored. It was near-perfect experience, so do I want to have more of that? Yeah. If that’s TV, OK.
RT: That’s a sentiment we’ve been hearing a lot of lately, which seems like a testament to the interesting things that you can do on TV.
Roberts: Yeah. And I hear you can show your butt on TV. Looking forward to that.
Homecoming season 1 premieres on Friday, November 2 on Amazon Prime Video.