'The Undoing' Director on Creating a World of Paranoia and Casting Hugh Grant (Exclusive)
Now halfway through its run, The Undoing is a stylish HBO thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a privileged couple living in New York City whose marriage is upended by a shocking death and the many revelations that follow. While adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known, by David E. Kelley, who previously teamed up with Kidman on Big Little Lies, it is Emmy-winning director Susanne Bier who brings a sense of paranoia to the limited series that makes it such a standout.
While the opportunity to work with Kelley and Kidman was compelling enough, it was the script for the first episode that really drew Bier in. “I enjoyed this sort of elegance of this world and then this undercurrent of something very uncomfortable and uneasy,” she tells ET, adding what really spoke to her “was that very recognizable sense of how well do we actually know another human being? How well do we know someone whom we are incredibly close to and who we think we know inside out?”
To capture the overall experience of answering those questions, Bier says she intentionally made The Undoing more of a thriller than a straightforward drama. This feeling of “this is so not what I anticipated,” which can be very unsettling and paranoia-inducing, is very much what she thinks the series is about.
“At some point, you kind of go, ‘Who do I trust now?’” the director says, adding that the beauty of human nature is “that you do want to trust, you do want to rely on them, you do want to believe what people are saying.”
And that’s what Grace is going through, questioning whether her husband, who suddenly revealed that he had an affair with Elena (Matilda De Angelis), is also responsible for her death. And it’s no coincidence that Jonathan is played by one of film’s most beloved romantic leads, known for his charm and wit and “who is as beautiful as Nicole.” Bier says that they needed someone who Grace and audiences alike might believe is innocent, despite the mounting evidence against him, and even be willing to take him back.
“I thought Hugh should play Jonathan for exactly those reasons,” she says. “Part of what has made him so attractive and compelling is he’s beautiful, he’s handsome, he’s sexy. But underneath that is a darkness.”
But Jonathan is not the only person Grace is struggling to trust or understand. No sooner than her husband disappears after Elena’s murder, Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) arrives. And it's his questions that first chip away at the facade of Grace’s own understanding of her husband and marriage -- and everything she thought to be true about their relationship.
And for Bier, the unspoken tension and paranoia that drives the series is best exemplified by a scene in episode three when Grace goes to the police to report a complaint and ends up being interrogated by Mendoza. In the moment, “she's not being particularly forthcoming,” the director says. “And he’s fed up with people from her world feeling that they don’t have to reveal whatever they need to.”
The longer they speak, however, the more Grace starts to unravel, especially as she demands to know if there is surveillance footage showing Jonathan going in or out of Elena’s studio at the time of her murder. That’s when Mendoza shows Grace a video of herself walking toward the apartment that same night.
“I feel like you understand a lot of things, which are not just the words,” Bier says of the cliffhanger that ends the episode, adding that the reason why it works so well is that it’s playing with “the space between” what is fact and what is emotional. And for the director, it hits on all registers.
The Undoing airs Sundays on HBO and is now streaming on HBO Max.
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