'Lovecraft Country': Inside The Transformative Horror of "Strange Case" | Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter speaks with series stars Wunmi Mosaku and Abbey Lee about the Jekyll and Hyde inspired twist.by Richard Newby
The fifth episode of Lovecraft Country, "Strange Case," is all about metamorphoses, some more traumatic than others, but all equally powerful in setting the stage for several central characters as they enter the second half of the season.
What's interesting about "Strange Case," directed by Cheryl Dunye and written by Misha Green and Jonathan Kidd & Sonya Winton, is that it indirectly deals with Yahima's (Monique Candelaria) legacy and the idea of two-spiritedness. Following Montrose's murder of Yahima at the end of the fourth episode, a controversial move for viewers who view the character as transgender or intersex, two-spiritedness, and all the numerous readings of that term, come to define these characters. Michael K. Williams spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Montrose's process of discovering the little boy inside of himself through embracing queerness. Tic (Jonathan Majors) and Leti (Jurnee Smollett) have found themselves in each other. And most surprising, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) and Christina (Abbey Lee) have tapped into another side of themselves through their personas, Hillary (Jamie Neumann) and William (Jordan Patrick Smith), while also connecting with each other, emotionally and sexually.
When asked about her influences for the episode, showrunner Misha Green told THR that she and the writers room "looked at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and at a lot of body horror." Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an oft-referenced text when it comes to horror transformations, and themes of good and evil, public and private identities, and even class divisions. Ruby steps into each of those themes when she transforms into Hillary, a white woman whose body is identical to Ardhem groundskeeper Dell, via a potion. And Christina, who has been living a dual life for even longer, is able to navigate the world as a white man, the equivalent of the son her father so clearly desired. For these characters, their strange case involves the duality of race and gender, and how those aspects of identity enable or prevent them from moving about the world in the way they please.
The episode sticks relatively close to the chapter in Matt Ruff's novel, "Jekyll in Hyde Park," which also sees Ruby exploring the privileges of life as a white woman. But the episode has a chance to dig deeper into those experiences, exploring how racial tourism can breed racist thinking as Ruby's view of her own superiority compared to a Black co-worker with less experience is heightened when she's in the body of a white woman and surrounded by white co-workers who embrace her. Christina's arc, much like the character herself, was created for the show, and hinges on the end episode reveal that she has been William the whole time. But her arc is no less acute a look at privilege, particularly when looking back at how William has been able to operate throughout the season.
As for the body horror, Ruby gets the full taste of that. Her regressions from Hillary back to Ruby are grotesque and bloody, yet powerful and revealing. There is a Cronenbergian element to Ruby's transformations, not only in bone crunching and skin shedding, but in the psychology of Ruby and the freedom she has as Hillary, not afforded to her as a Black woman. At the same time, Ruby's passionate affair with William, in her own body, is also freeing for the character, providing her with the opportunity to push back against taboos associated with race.
So what is Ruby and Christina's relationship? There's not exactly a label for it. There is a romantic element, but for Ruby it's perceived from underneath a falsehood, given that she does not know William is actually Christina until the end of the episode. And for Christina, through William, there is clearly an investment in Ruby. But whether it's another aspect of manipulation, a result of her finding pleasure in using the body of a man, or if there's a queer identity within her, remains to be seen. But what is clear is a connection between the two, one that transcends bodies and can be viewed on a spiritual level.
Wunmi Mosaku and Abbey Lee couldn't detail much about the future of Ruby and Christina's relationship, or their alter egos, but in their conversation with The Hollywood Reporter the actors revealed their insights into the characters, the challenges of tracking multiple roles, and how family informs their characters' decisions in the fifth episode and the rest of the season.
Ruby's choices in the fifth episode are heavily dictated by her relationship with her sister Leti. Could you talk about that relationship in terms of its impact on Ruby?
Wunmi Mosaku: Ruby and Leti had a difficult relationship with their mother, and we don't really know much about their father, but they have such a different way of interacting with the world. They're both artists in their own right – Leti's a photographer, Ruby's a singer. But Ruby has her feet firmly on the ground and she is not disillusioned by anything. She's wily, she code-switches, she's aspirational and intelligent. But she's willing to play the game to succeed as much as she can. And Leti is someone who is more impulsive, and goes more on feeling. She's not someone who's responsible in Ruby's opinion. Ruby's purpose is to succeed and break through barriers in order to be exceptional. She never wants to give anyone a reason to say no to her. But she and Leti have a very different idea of family, of loyalty, of duty and responsibility. They're not in harmony at all.
Christina is the central antagonist of the series, even if characters like Ruby don't yet know that. But what's interesting about her is that there's a likeable quality to her where you want her to be on the side of these Black characters. How did you go about crafting that character?
Abbey Lee: There was a decision that I had the freedom to make about how I wanted to address the terror in Christina, and how terrifying she can be. I decided to lean into the brilliance of the writing really. There was so much space for her to be as multi-faceted as I wanted her to be. On top of her being this kind of deranged villain, agent of chaos, and a woman who really takes advantage of her privilege and utilizes it in really awful ways sometimes, she's also very simply a woman who's trying to get her needs met. She's trying to liberate herself, get ahead in life and take agency. She still desires relationships, intimate, personal, loving relationships, even though they're a little more skewed than other people's in the show's might be. So it wasn't like I went in with the intention to make you like her. I just wanted to make her as complex as she is. And in doing that it then meant that vulnerabilities were coming out that then say dare you love her, dare you relate to her, dare you maybe see parts of her in yourself in ways that you wouldn't expect. The fact that so many people are going to be able to relate to her is going to potentially be uncomfortable at times. I didn't want you to just hate her because we see that all the time. The villains in most things that we see are so easily defined as psychopaths and they do what they do because they don't feel human empathy. And that's boring isn't it? It's much more terrifying if you can relate.
Wunmi, let's talk about Hillary. How closely did you work with Jamie Neumann in terms of developing this white persona for Ruby and the insights we get from that perspective?
Mosaku: Jamie and I spent a lot of time together talking about Ruby and who I think she is. I kind of shared my vocal and physical journey with her, even teaching her the dance that Leti and I did in episode one. We spoke a lot about the emotional journey of Ruby and how I felt in those particular scenes. We spent a lot of time together in and outside of set, and we read our lines together. I had already established Ruby so it was more of Jamie kind of following my lead, while taking what she needed from me for her performance. Episode five was quite an emotional journey. That transformation scene was very charged for the both of us. We were both very shaken doing the scene and we realized how in-sync we were on set.
Abbey, Christina has her own similar transformation in the fifth episode with William, which having read the book, I did not see coming. Was that twist something that you knew about ahead of time?
Lee: I was in London when I got the audition, and I sent a tape in, and some things happened and I ended up having to re-tape a few weeks later. I sort of got thrown on a plane and sent to L.A. to do a screen test, and it all happened very quickly. It was like a 48-hour turnaround. And I was in the room with Misha and the casting director and in-between one of the audition scenes Misha said 'I'm going to give you a hint, a little bit of information that might inform the way you play this scene.' And that's when she told me that I was also William and I was like, "Damn." (Laughs.) And yeah, it's not in the book either. Christina is an amalgamation of these two male characters, but the metamorphosis doesn't happen in the book. So I didn't know until that day when I booked the job. It was quite a shock.
I'd love to know about the actual transformation scenes which are gory but strangely beautiful. What was the process in terms of the VFX involved and getting into that headspace?
Mosaku: The transformation was… uncomfortable. (Laughs.) There is a lot of blood and gunk everywhere, from head to toe. There's also a vulnerability because you barely have anything on and you're being soaked. The more the blood is exposed to the air the more sticky it gets, but then if you cover up it sticks to the thing you're covering up with. So you're just kind of generally uncomfortable, cold, and naked. (Laughs.) It was…different. I've never experienced anything like it on set. And to spend my birthday covered in gunk was something. Even just getting it off at the end of the day was just a lot. And sometimes you have to go back and forth between being gunked up, getting cleaned up for another scene, and then getting gunked up again. That happened a couple of times for me. But it looks really cool. I was really impressed with the special effects.
Lee: I think from a text perspective too, having to track two characters, you really have to be on point. It's not just about where did Christina just come from and where is she going, but what did William just do? You had to be really on your toes about what William is doing and what Hillary is doing. It was something that I hadn't done before, having to keep track of two characters in a script who are both you but they're not because you're not the one doing it. When I'm not there with Wunmi working that day I have to sneak on set and have a look at what's going on just to keep track of what my character's experiencing when it's not me, which is bizarre.
To go back to familial relationships, even though Ruby's relationship with Leti is fractured she still has family. Yet Christina is really alone in that sense, being the last member of her immediate family. How does that drive her actions?
Lee: It's complicated because there's this dynamic of a love-hate relationship with a parent, [Samuel Braithwhite], the person who is supposed to love and nourish you, protect and guide you. And when that person didn't do that job and do what a child needs, it becomes this tearing that creates a hole in your heart. So I think that when that happens, you're constantly trying to get that need met as an adult. Christina is trying to fill that space. But even then the strength of the family tie is unbreakable. You carry the trauma of that broken relationship with you even when your parent is not physically in your realm. The presence of Christina's father carries throughout every decision that she makes. It's a theme that comes up in the show quite a lot. You see it with Ruby and Leti and the loss of their father. And with Tic through his damaged relationship with his father, which very much mirrors Christina's relationship with her father. That's something Tic and Christina, I don't want to say bond over, but they have an understanding of each other in that sense. You see them play off that with each other. There's a look between the two of them where there's something they understand about each other. There's a quote in the book that I really had in my mind while I was working on Christina and it was written on a lot of my pages when I was working. You don't hear it in the show, but it's "we cannot refuse our fathers" and it's such a poignant quote that I think really runs through the whole show, and is definitely embedded in the makeup of Christina. I think that even in the killing of her father, she's still trying to be him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.