Tell Me Your Secrets finally drops its first season on February 19, through Amazon Prime. The mystery thriller, which was written and produced by Harriet Warner (Call The Midwife), follows three people with troubled pasts on an intersecting path to resolution and redemption.
One of them, Mary Barlow (Amy Brenneman, The Leftovers), is a mother who has not yet given up on finding her missing daughter alive, and who will get revenge on those she believes harmed her at any costs. John Tyler (Hamish Linklater, Legion) is a supposedly reformed predator that Mary employs as a weapon to hunt down the last clue to her daughter’s whereabouts.
Brenneman and Linklater spoke to Screen Rant, along with several other press outlets, about the cat-and-mouse dynamic between their characters and the way they lightened the tone of the heavy material off set.
The dynamic between Mary and John was so fascinating to watch. He idolizes her and she hates him, yet she uses him to further her cause. Can you guys talk about what it was like working together and building that dynamic?
Amy Brenneman: I think that was true offscreen as well.
Hamish Linklater: I could have predicted that would be your answer. I just knew it. That’s how close the bond got between the hate and the love, like how Velcro works.
Amy Brenneman: Honestly, I don’t want to say this, because I feel like Hamish will just use it against me. But I’ve just been a fan of his for so long that when I found out I got to do a lot of stuff with him, I just knew it would be very lively.
Hamish Linklater: I would use that against you, that you said something nice about me?
Amy Brenneman: I’ll be criticizing you, and you’re like, “You know you’ve always looked up to me.” You remember everything!
It was fantastic in every way. I think Mary loves John and hates him. But he mirrors her darkness, and it’s probably the most intimate connection she’s had.
What did you find the most challenging about playing these roles compared to some of your previous roles?
Hamish Linklater: I was really determined going into this to be a very serious actor and take my work very seriously. Unfortunately, my first scene was with Amy, and she immediately was like, “Hey, let’s talk, let’s joke, let’s be friends.” And I was like, “I’m a serial predator. I need my space to focus.”
I quickly learned that the chemistry comes first sometimes, and character will follow. Look, these are these are dark, damaged characters, and you need to take a shower at the end of the day.
Amy Brenneman: I will say that, and I’m sure Hamish would agree, that when you’re given a thing or a piece or a character that’s very dark, you could boohoo in the heaviness. But I always felt – and obviously he mentioned I like to play around – that both of these characters have this dark wit. To me as a viewer, first of all, that’s real to human beings.
When people are feeling sad and frustrated, they don’t just feel sad and frustrated. They crack jokes. They’re cruel to one another. They build houses. They do weird things, but it also makes it watchable. I feel like it was in that diner scene, where suddenly it got really funny. Not in a way that was against the material, but in a way that’s like, “I think that’s who these people are.”
John’s story is so interesting, as he’s trying to gain some sort of recovery. But at what point do you think those efforts to heal himself disappeared? Were they there to begin with, and was Mary expecting to fall down that intense hole with him?
Hamish Linklater: I think John sees Mary is his means to salvation, and actually, she turns out to be a fast train to his destruction. I do think, at the beginning, he’s trying to make his way out of his character and history as best he can. But he loses control. I mean, it’s on the road.
Amy Brenneman: I think Mary does not expect [the end] of Episode 4. That was a Rubicon that she crosses. And I think that even, she thinks nobody knows. And then when John says that he knows, it’s like, she’s judged the drunks at the pub and suddenly she is one – and very much so. But with that, there’s a certain exhalation where she doesn’t have to pretend to be good anymore.
What do you think the show says about redemption and forgiveness? Do you think everybody who sincerely seeks a second chance deserves it?
Amy Brenneman: I don’t know, man. I’m so moved at the very beginning of Mary and John to that question, because my father was sober 35 years and I have deep belief in people changing. And what a powerful thing to have a serial predator be able to change. I mean, everything he says at the beginning.
It’s not until the end of the pilot where I’m like, “I don’t think people change, so why don’t you work for me and at least put your disease to some use.”
Hamish Linklater: I definitely think that question would be well answered by a morality play. We’re playing with morality in the piece, and I think all of these characters want to do what’s moral, but inevitably end up doing probably the human thing given the cards that they’ve been dealt nature-wise at the beginning of the piece.
They have their fatal flaws, and I think Mary’s is her love for her daughter and the trauma of that loss. As for the question of redemption, I think maybe if Mary hadn’t come into John’s life… He was always probably going to be the person he was, but he might well not have caused harm to other people again. He might have been successful in isolating himself, or his demons.
Amy Brenneman: That’s also what Harriet [plays with]. I think anytime you have parts like this, of why are people doing what they’re doing – sociopathy in and of itself is not that interesting. Because then as an audience, you’d go, “They’re totally different. I would never be like that.” But she roots all of these people and their behavior in such humanity; she loves them.
And we can always tell, as actors, when a writer loves the characters. They just love them. Loving means not judging, and it means accepting all of these weird facets. But there’s such humanity in it, which makes it good.
Hamish pointed out that Mary’s hair flaw is her love of her daughter and how far she’ll go for it. At the same time, it makes her lose sight of her son, who is right there. And by the end of it, we wonder if she even knows her daughter. Can you talk about that family dynamic for Mary?
Amy Brenneman: Yeah, I love that. We talked a lot about the family structure that my son and my husband have. In my own life, I have a daughter and a son and a husband. In Mary’s family, the son and the husband have a similar temperament. They’re more even-tempered, and they’re certainly at a more similar point in their grief over Teresa. Then my daughter and I probably have a lot in common: pretty driven, pretty shiny, pretty aggressive. She was an ex-swimmer.
I think that, like any gradation and development of a situation, Mary’s like, “I’m still with my husband. We’re separated, but we’re amicable.” And I think by bringing my son into the work – and it’s certainly his sister as well – it’s like, “Okay, great. I’m staying connected to everybody.” But at a certain point, she’s just using people in a lot of different ways.
I don’t want to have a divorce, because that would look bad for the foundation. I don’t want to lose my son the way I lost my daughter, but to your excellent way of looking at it, am I really expressing love? I’m on my obsession. I mean, that’s the nature of obsession.
This series is very heavy. What was it like staying in such a dark place with these characters for ten episodes?
Hamish Linklater: I don’t know if you feel like this, Amy. But often, for me, when you’re doing a comedy, it can be so much more depressing than doing a serious show. Because you’re like, “How are we going to make them laugh? Is that funny? Is that funny?” I find, on a serious set, a great deal more levity. It’s kind of necessary. I think dramatic actors are a lot funnier in general to be around than comic ones.
Also, the thing about shooting in New Orleans is you don’t get done at the end of the day and go like, “Oh, man, I could really use a stiff drink after that day’s work,” and the city is like, “Tough. It’s Tampa.” New Orleans is like, “We’re ready. We’re ready. Come on over here.” So, the city was a big help.
Amy Brenneman: Also, I don’t know if that’s ever quite happen in the same way, where we had a really fun crew and a fun makeup and hair department. I had a hairpiece, and one of the first days Matthew – who’s a really funny guy who runs the department – said, “Oh, we’ve got to name it. We’ve got to name your hairpiece.” I felt a little bit like Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans, so I called my hairpiece Madeleine.
I had the first experience I’ve had where – I feel like British people have this – you put on the cape and you become the character. It became this running joke about, “I didn’t do it; Madeleine did it.” Matthew would say, “Madeleine is going to the spa,” and they’d wash Madeleine. And it was so silly, but it was really profound to me.
Also, I don’t know how to break it to you. But we are actors, so we’re kind of faking a lot of the time. Hamish isn’t, but I fake a lot. But there was this buoyant, creative feeling. I’ve had times where I’m shooting by myself at 2 in the morning. The whole process is isolating, but I did not feel isolated. Look at my playmate here. He wouldn’t leave me alone.
Is there a scene that you’re the most proud of or feel has the best payoff?
Hamish Linklater: The gum scene. I don’t know how it came out. I haven’t seen it.
Amy Brenneman: Oh, it’s epic. It’s everything. The gum scene was like, does she swallow the gum when he tells her to? Because that would mean she’s afraid of him. Does she spit it out? The network got real involved in whether it should be a spit or swallow, because it just was one of those great behaviors that depending on how you did it, it tells it told a different story.
It tells the entire story, Hamish. it’s like, I swallow. You say, “Good girl.” I spit it in your face, but then you take it and you wrap it. It is so weird, and they included everything.
Tell Me Your Secrets premieres February 19 on Amazon Prime.