‘The Undoing’: Making TV’s Last (?!) Great New York City Thriller
How “The Undoing” director Susanne Bier captured NYC in its last days of glorious, pre-COVID normalcy—and turned Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant into a psycho-thriller power couple.
Imagine, if you will, a New York City in which there are actually people.
They are everywhere. They’re teeming the streets on their way to work, bumping shoulders as they draw up their jacket collars at a crosswalk on a crisp fall evening. (Remember bumping into people?) They’re on the way to packed cocktail parties, done-up for events, heading to dates, or hurrying to pick up their kids, who are ricocheting off their classmates like carefree pinballs in the school courtyard while they wait.
The New York City of the new HBO thriller series The Undoing is as integral an element to the show’s tapestry of intrigue as stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant’s psychological tango is, or the symphony of gasps composed by its unfolding mystery. But the palpable claustrophobia of what once seemed like the world’s biggest small city is completely unrecognizable at the current moment.
The Undoing, which premieres Sunday on HBO, is one of the last television productions to complete the entirety of its filming in pre-COVID New York.
Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World, The Night Manager), who helmed all six episodes of the series, is known for bringing her camera around the globe and viscerally capturing place, be it in an orphanage in India for 2006’s After the Wedding or traveling to Cairo and Majorca for The Night Manager’s on-location shoots. But she never imagined the New York City she captured in The Undoing would be a nostalgic document of the New York of “before.”
“I think human beings are pretty adaptable,” Bier, speaking from Copenhagen, where the Danish director lives, tells The Daily Beast. She explains that principal photography, which took place in the latter half of 2019, had wrapped and picture editing was in full swing when Europe and the U.S. locked down. That meant finishing edits on the series over FaceTime and Zoom calls with crew members scattered across the globe.
Bier shot the series like a movie, using as many outdoor locations and practical sets as possible: real tony Manhattan apartments, real Central Park strolls, real city sidewalks tangled with pedestrian gridlock. To put things into perspective for what a difference a year makes, producer Stephen Garrett told New York magazine, “There were, I think, 110 productions shooting in New York then, and one of our great struggles [was] to keep other people’s trucks out of the back of our shot.”
The series reteams Kidman and writer-producer David E. Kelley, who had previously worked together on Big Little Lies.
Kidman plays Grace, a relationship therapist working on a book about how people ignore warning signs in plain sight about their partners. Read whatever irony you will into the fact that her marriage to Grant’s Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, appears to be an Upper East Side fairytale. Their apartment might as well have been staged by Architectural Digest. (Who knew wallpaper could be that classy?) Their son, played by Noah Jupe, is gifted and kind, and Grace is a well-liked volunteer at his Ivy-pipeline private school.
In fact, the scratchiest tension in her life stems from the obligation to attend a stuffy, black-tie auction for the school at a luxurious penthouse, which Jonathan has to chivalrously leave early to tend to an emergency with one of his young patients. When he returns home late at night bereaved over the patient’s fate, he and Grace make love.
It should come as no surprise if you’ve seen any of the marketing material, took notice of the Big Little Lies comparisons, or read any of the previous allusions to this being a thriller that, quickly, the walls of this perfect life start to crumble around the couple.
There is commentary on wealth, the delusions of the one percent, and the media’s carnivorous tabloid tendencies. It’s the kind of series that has Bier asking me excitedly over the phone as our conversation ends, “Who do you think did it?”—though to say any more about that “it” would ruin the fun.
Pulling the curtains back on that very specific subset of New York City is one of the major reasons Bier, who was coming off the massive success of directing Bird Box for Netflix, wanted to do the project.
“I, like a lot of other people, would walk through Central Park, staring at those apartments and wondering what it's like up there,” she says. “And what would happen if anybody who belonged to that untouchable part of society is confronted with real tragedy or with real scandal.”
When she was given Kelley’s first script for The Undoing, “it just blew my mind that there was a story that actually dealt with that.”
Kelley had first been given Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known in the pre-Big Little Lies years. He made two seasons of the water-cooler series, which traded in similar themes of secrets and what volatile relationships can drive a person to do, before returning to it and realizing the ways in which its psychological and emotional exposition could be accelerated into a thriller.
That Kidman would play Grace makes great sense. There are few greater pleasures in the current TV and film landscape than watching Kidman play a steely, settled force whose facade cracks until the emotional levee breaks. While on display in recent roles including Big Little Lies, The Goldfinch, Boy Erased, and Bombshell, it’s not entirely accurate to call it a type, as that would suggest a lack of singularity she ends up bringing to each character’s, well, undoing.
“She's like a medium,” Bier says. “Like in the old days, when you have those spiritual sessions where the mediums kind of became spirits, she's like that. She just becomes someone else. And everything she does is this other person. After you say cut, you almost expect her to wake up in some sort of trance-like state.”
While celebrated for the ways in which she has documented the Third World and global class divides in films like In a World and After the Wedding, Bier has also proven adept at capitalizing on the celebrity image of A-list performers—the perception that is so often outside their control—to great effect.
Sandra Bullock was perfect for Bird Box, a movie that required a star so compelling audiences could believe she would lead them to safety even without one of her senses at her disposal. The Night Manager proved the appeal of both leaning into and completely flipping audience expectations for an actor’s “type,” with Tom Hiddleston as close to playing James Bond, a role he’s frequently campaigned for, without actually being 007, and his foil Hugh Laurie as someone almost unilaterally evil, rather than endearingly cantankerous.
There’s a bit of that to The Undoing, in which Kidman is playing that aforementioned Nicole Kidman type. At the same time, here is Grant back trying on the charming persona that still fits like an old blazer, and then setting the garment on fire.
“I always think about audiences,” Bier says. “Part of the fun of casting is to embrace whatever the expectations are, and then possibly tweak it or turn it upside down.”
It was her idea to cast Grant as Jonathan. Despite his and Kidman's shared status as icons in the Paddington Cinematic Universe—they respectively played villains in the two beloved films, which they’ve taken great pleasure in joking about on the Undoing press tour—the actors had never worked together before. Kidman loved the idea, but was certain Grant would never go for it, with the rom-com legend notoriously cantankerous about what roles he agrees to lately, by his own admission.
Then there was the matter of what happened the last time he and Bier were supposed to work together. As he told Kidman in an interview with Marie Claire, “I was amazed that she wanted me, because I ruined her life, you know, about 10 years ago, when we were developing a film together. I kept saying, ‘This script doesn't work,’ and she kept saying, ‘I think it does.’ And in the end, I walked away, and by then she'd sort of turned down every other job in the world.”
For Bier, however, it was water under the bridge. As she saw it, how could you not want Kidman and Grant together in these roles?
“It’s just really obvious that they should be a couple!” she says. “They're both really sexy and they're both really charming. And yet Hugh Grant has a sadness, a darkness to him, which adds depth, but is also slightly uncontrollable. So I think there is that sense of ease but also a potential danger.”
The idea of danger lurking joins the list of ways in which The Undoing could be seen as another go at replicating the Big Little Lies success: Kidman and Kelley on HBO, privileged school politics, the interplay of violence and sex, betrayal and secrets.
They spoke about all of that on set, sometimes at length and especially when Kidman was in a scene that felt too similar to the previous goings on in Monterey. “It was important for this show to be its own and to not be an extension of Big Little Lies,” Bier says. “So I was quite keen for it to be almost like more of a straight thriller.”
When we talk, Bier has just completed directing her first project—a commercial shot in London—since COVID restrictions were lifted and filming around the globe could safely take place again. She was anxious about it, but also surprised by how quickly the safety protocols became second nature and, aside from things taking longer to shoot, normal it started to feel.
It’s interesting to look at The Undoing, only her second series after her John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager, and how different those two are. And in turn how distinct they are in just about every way from the horror film Bird Box, which in turn was in a completely different genre from her Danish-language repertoire and their examinations of European interlopers in the Third World.
The variation is purposeful, she says. And also, it turns out, fruitful. She’s the first female director to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, and a European Film Award. One might wonder how she feels about being a trailblazer.
“I feel I have something where I'm not going to be stopped by a wall,” she says. “I will tear it down if I need to go there. So I think I've always felt that I had a very strong will to accomplish whatever I set out to do. That one landmark was never a conscious landmark.” She laughs: “But it's a very satisfying one.”