'Reprisal': Abigail Spencer Was Ready to Transform Into a Monster After 'Timeless' (Exclusive)

Fred Norris/Hulu

The actress talks to ET about playing a femme fatale with a purpose in Hulu's new series.

Abigail Spencer takes a turn playing a femme fatale with a mean streak.

On Hulu's noirish revenge drama, Reprisal, Spencer retires her time-traveling Lifeboat (R.I.P. Timeless) and transforms into Katherine Harlow, a woman left for dead by her brother and his gang, who later reemerges as the charmingly deceptive and cunning Doris Quinn. Years after staying away, she finds her quiet, comfortable lifestyle on the precipice of unraveling, forcing her to embark on a dangerous journey to exact her revenge on those who have wronged her in the past.

It's a vastly different role for Spencer, who -- she'd be the first to admit -- was ready to portray someone other than the polished, bookish, quietly confident women she's already become so adept at bringing to life for years. "I had never played anyone like her before and I was really ready for a transformation," Spencer told ET of Doris. "I kept using the word monster. I've got to play a monster." But it ultimately came down to one thing in her post-Timeless chapter: "I wanted to be unrecognizable."

And unrecognizable she is. Violence is the name of the game on Reprisal and Doris' unapologetic nature (and ever-changing looks) unspools something new every time as the mystery of who she is (and was) gradually comes to light. When ET sat down with Spencer in July, she was halfway through filming the 10-episode season, and over the course of a 15-minute conversation, the actress got candid about what she was looking for in her next project following Timeless, why she used her mother as inspiration in bringing this character to life and why Doris' feminine rage is as timely as ever.

ET: After two seasons as Lucy Preston on Timeless, we're seeing you take on a very different role with Reprisal. What was it about this world and this character, Doris, that drew you in? 

Abigail Spencer: I had never played anyone like her before and I was really ready for a transformation. I kept using the word monster. I've got to play a monster. But I just... I wanted to be unrecognizable. I wanted to be transformative, I wanted to exercise a different part of myself. I wanted to do something I thought was part of the collective consciousness that was in line with what's happening in the world with the feminine and the masculine. I wanted to be a part of something fun. This is a reverse graphic novel. I was surprised there wasn't a graphic novel, but maybe if [creator] Josh [Corbin] gets around to writing it, we'll have one.

I was looking for something [after Timeless] and the beautiful writing that I love from Rectify and Mad Men -- really precise and intentional, but mixed with something that was really broad, in a way that I felt like people could get into on another level. And I had never seen anything like it. If everyone does their jobs, we can make something really special. 

Fred Norris/Hulu

Your breadth of work has featured characters who are often passionate, intelligent and incredibly self-aware. Doris is a complete departure from that. Was there something within you that you were dying to push to the forefront?

Yeah. I wanted to see if there was a way to just completely shift the energy. I'm so amazed at how astute everyone is. I'm like, "Are you guys following me around and listening to me?" I wanted to see if it were possible to play a character where you could feel everything and know nothing. I wanted to [explore] this inner rage of the feminine -- if you could feel that, but she doesn't do anything or say anything about it. So I was very interested to have a 180 of energies because I very fortunately have been playing super verbose, super intellectual women. I wanted to play someone where you didn't know anything about her, and how does that unravel and reveal itself? Honestly, I hadn't thought about those things and then the pilot came along.

Because she starts out as a blank slate and a mystery, what gave you insight into the potential of what she could become?

I was really drawn to her sense of humor because I think under the surface, she's got a really wily wit about her. And that's something I'm always really interested in. It's so interesting. I feel... it's really challenging in a wonderful way to put language around it because I was like, I don't know, I just have a feeling. Every day I show up, I'm like, "Hmm, I wonder what will happen today?" And then I felt like I heard the way she talked. I wanted it to feel like her words got caught in her throat, she couldn't get it all out. And there was a different tone. A lot of my characters have a deeper register to their voice so I wanted to use her upper register with her voice. I was researching a lot about victims of violence and there is a commonality that their voices stay in the upper register and they can't get their words out and speak very quietly. I thought that that might be something interesting to progress, but also I think it has a nod to the film noir component. 

Doris has a very specific way about the way she puts herself together. How did you land on that?

So much of what I'm putting together is inspired by watching my mother. The way she dresses, a lot of the things that she does. But we're pulling from so many different places. We're pulling from Lauren Bacall. We're pulling from the past and pulling from the present to try and make something new. "OK, here's the vintage hairstyle of that. Here's the contemporary hairstyle. How do we match them up to make this other thing?" I was curious about that too. "I wonder if that's possible? Can we do that?"

How quickly did you say "yes" to this project?

I read the first five pages and knew I was going to do it, and so I said no. I said no because I had just finished Timeless; I was so tired and also we weren't sure if Timeless... we didn't know if we were getting canceled or picked up. And I needed a little bit of a break. Luckily, they didn't find anyone else while they were waiting to hear if Timeless had gotten canceled and I had gone to do an episode of this YouTube show called Waynewhere I play a low-class, Boston drug addict, ex-beauty queen, mess of a woman. And I felt like Doris has so many women inside her. So I thought, if this were to go onto series, I would never be bored. That's always something I'm looking for -- to be continually interested in uncovering and unraveling who this woman is. She's a mystery to me. I'm still learning about her and we're in the midst of shooting season one. Something will happen in a scene and I'll be like, "That wasn't... I didn't know... Where did that come from?" There's a lot of room for discovery.

Fred Norris/Hulu

How clued into Doris' arc are you?

Josh told me everything -- the whole story; he told me all of the seasons. But who she is, I feel like we keep discovering as we go along. And there's real-life people in his life she's based on. I've talked to the woman that a lot of her is based on, so it's just an amalgamation of different things and you have to keep putting it in. 

Another avenue into discovering who this woman is is the various looks you get to put on via wigs, makeup and costumes. How helpful was it to have those tools at your disposal?

It's really great and I feel like as I'm getting older, these opportunities are coming up more and more for me and the women are getting more interesting. It creates a ritual every morning. Getting my hair wrapped, putting the tattoo on, putting on the scar and putting together a look -- and then I get to be Doris all day. It's so hot in Wilmington, [North Carolina,] so there are a lot of undergarment situations. Sometimes those get changed quite a few times, but then taking her off at the end of the day... It's a really beautiful ritual I haven't experienced in an ongoing fashion to this degree before.

Are there elements of Doris where you're like, "I want to take this part of her and insert this into my own life"?

No, no, no. I'm so fulfilled by exploring and the role that I don't necessarily feel that way. But I am very curious. I think she's a cautionary tale. I do. I think she's triumphant and incredible in what she's doing and what she's putting together is incredible. But do I want to be consumed by revenge? No. But I do think it's really interesting to see when it gets out of control on every level, you know? 

I also think for the culture and for the world, once people get their hands on this, I hope that there's a release because she's doing things that we might feel that we should not be doing or we can't do, but she's doing it. And I think we need that release and I think the collective feminine needs that release. So hopefully it will be satisfying. When she can't pull that trigger at the beginning of the [first] episode and then she pulls that trigger at the end, you are excited by that point. The tension I'm really interested in too.

You mentioned that as you're getting older -- and other actors have expressed a similar sentiment too -- that as your career has progressed, you find there to be more fully fleshed-out, complicated characters coming your way. Why do you think that's the case?

You've lived through more, you've survived more, you've lost more. I feel like that starts to reflect in the age and stage of the characters. You get armored with more responsibility, more believability and I think you can... As you progress in life, you just become more interesting. And so, the characters that you write that reflect that, become more interesting too.

All 10 episodes of Reprisal are available to stream Friday, Dec. 6 on Hulu.

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