Michelle Forbes' Good Grief
Michelle Forbes has been a TV mainstay since the mid-'90s when she was on Homicide: Life on the Street—she's appeared on 24, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, In Treatment, and True Blood. But her role on the AMC mystery The Killing as the destroyed-by-grief mother of the dead girl at the center of the story has gotten her more attention than ever. Jace Lacob talked to Forbes about her career, playing the anguished Mitch Larsen, and why committing to a TV show is like an arranged marriage.
Few actors can hope to have as varied a career as Michelle Forbes, the chameleonic thespian who is stealing scenes (and viewers’ collective breath) as Mitch Larsen, the grief-stricken mother on AMC’s addictive whodunit The Killing (based on Søren Sveistrup’s Danish drama Forbrydelsen), and previously as savage, power-mad villainess Maryann on HBO’s True Blood. Her life in acting, which spans nearly 25 years and two continents, reads like a list of top critical picks: Homicide, Lost, In Treatment, Messiah, True Blood, Battlestar Galactica. (Seriously, her credits go on and on, ad infinitum.) Where some actors dream of signing seven-year contracts, Forbes has a penchant for stepping into the role of sociopaths or ice-cold authoritarians for a season-long arc and then moving on to the next thing.
“For a while there, people thought I was psychotic because I kept playing troubled people,” said Forbes, laughing. “And people would ask if I was psychotic. God, I hope not!”
Dressed in a white trenchcoat thrown over her black clothes and rushing hurriedly into the crowded midday lunch service at Hollywood restaurant Ammo, Forbes does not appear to be crazy. Polite and articulate, she apologized profusely for being two minutes late, described herself as “a pretty happy, goofy person” and an Anglophile who is obsessed with British comedies and NBC’s absurdist sitcom Community. Over a four-hour lunch, she is endearingly charming (“Coffee is my truth serum”), passionate (whether discussing Osama bin Laden, the British monarchy, or the Japan disaster), and quirky, admitting what she misses most since going vegan in January is dairy. (A discussion of a London cheese shop sends her into paroxysms of rueful joy.)
It’s a stark contrast from her searing performance on The Killing, where she plays the mother of slain teenager Rosie Larsen in a marathon of grief and emptiness. Spoiler ahead: On last night’s shocking episode, Forbes’ character, working-class mother Mitch, railed against her husband Stan ( Brent Sexton) for not “dealing with” Rosie’s possible killer, teacher Bennet Ahmed ( Brandon Jay McLaren), when he had the chance. In a twist, Mitch later realizes, to her horror, that Stan is likely killing the wrong man, but cannot reach her husband on the phone.
“I always felt that it was a rather subconscious plea, an existential plea from Mitch,” said Forbes of the pivotal scene, “rather than a targeted, malicious intent.”
“If someone pulled her aside and asked, is it exactly what you want? She would say, absolutely not… There is absolute horror and panic and that is an interesting thing to look at in the process of grief: the confusion of it all. You’re not in your right mind. It’s a strange thing because the ions in the air change, the colors, the textures all change and so moments like that when you’re almost taken to a place of madness, things can be misunderstood and… when you’re dealing with two people who are confused by their grief, that’s an interesting scenario.”
Forbes’ instincts were honed by working on such films as Kalifornia and Swimming With Sharks and she has been a TV mainstay since the mid-1990s, appearing in such groundbreaking shows as Tom Fontana’s Homicide: Life on the Street, where she played chief medical examiner Dr. Julianna Cox, In Treatment, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, and 24, to name a few. Forbes, whose Welsh-Scottish mother has recently moved back to England, has worked extensively both in the U.S. and in the U.K., where she garnered attention for a number of roles, including deaf-mute Susan Metcalfe in Messiah, for which she had to learn British sign language in just six days (it took a bottle of Champagne and a tireless tutor to get the “conceptual and beautiful” language to click in her head; she now only remembers “the naughty bits”) and Waking the Dead, where she played an Israeli Mossad agent. (She also recently co-starred as Dr. Pen Verrity in Season 2 of Canadian crime drama Durham County, playing—yes—another psychotic.)
“It was like in some science-fiction show where I went ‘whoosh’ and wiped it,” said Forbes about erasing her memory after being on The Killing.
“There’s a more relaxed mentality to it,” said Forbes of working in the U.K., where there is less of a reliance on 22-episode procedurals than in American television. “They don’t have the same success-failure attached to every project, so that stress is alleviated and it can just be about the work.”
The role of Mitch Larsen in The Killing is earning her more critical acclaim and attention than ever for her nuanced and moving portrayal of a woman psychologically unraveling before our eyes—leaving the kids in a running car in a closed garage, forcing herself under the water of a bath in order to experience her daughter’s final moments of life—in a drama that’s truly about not just the investigation of a crime, but about the psychic damage visited on the family of a murder victim. Forbes’ performance becomes intoxicating to watch; in her hands, the small, lonely moments of grief become emblematic of deep loss, compounding week after week until even a trip to the grocery store becomes an ordeal for Mitch.
“The luxury for me is that I got to step out of it,” said Forbes of how she coped with the strain. “The people who are actually going through this, they don’t have that luxury and it’s a true nightmare that does not go away. Every day, I was able to take Mitch’s wellies off and just go about my business, even though it stayed with me like a low-grade toothache.”
Don’t go looking for spoilers from Forbes, or clues to Rosie’s true killer. Forbes said she “imposed a form of amnesia” on herself after production on the first season of The Killing wrapped. “It was like some weird dream I had,” she said. “It was like in some science-fiction show where I went ‘whoosh’ and wiped it. Honestly, that’s self-preservation. I got home and felt like I crash-landed from another planet.”
What has remained with Forbes is the original lure that Mitch had for her: that brazen, passionate woman who is stopped in her tracks by her daughter’s untimely death and the notion that she didn’t know her child at all.
“I was trying to bring a truthfulness to the working class,” said Forbes. “A lot of time when we were discussing Mitch, it was in an intellectual way. And I kept saying, she’s not an intellectual. There’s no therapy. … I really fought for those uncomfortable moments because it’s ugly: Grief is ugly, death is ugly.”
“Another thing that I really wanted to bring to her was this innocence,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter how tough somebody is on the outside, how tough she’s had to be… but there’s a ripe innocence to her. And that’s what I became protective about… When she becomes this ghost of herself, her innocence consumes her. It’s almost like she becomes this piece of glass that, if touched too hard, would just break.”
Despite the praise that keeps pouring in from critics for her performance on The Killing—which she indicated she is finished with at the end of the season—don’t expect Forbes to sign a seven-year contract to become the lead on a new television drama any time soon.
“I’m such a commitment-phobe,” said Forbes. “The one thing I realize—and it’s more about my fear than anything, maybe distrusting the universe—it really is an arranged marriage. Unless you’re familiar with the people, you really have no way of knowing what you’re getting involved with. You could end up with some ancient, old, fat, mean man that forces you into the kitchen and hits you. You don’t know what you’re getting… My cunning trick is to come in [during] the second season and let them figure everything out. I let them shoot the pilot, do the retooling, go through the waiting period, work the kinks out in the first season.”
“Then I’ll say, ‘OK, you guys done? Now I’ll come in,’” she said, laughing. “I’ll let you do all the heavy lifting. It’s very cheeky of me.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.