Spoiler Alert!

Joan Allen on ‘The Killing’ Finale and That Mother of a Twist

The Oscar-nominated actress talks about her phenomenal turn on the final season of The Killing—including that killer twist and the polarizing ending. Warning: SPOILERS!

Carole Segal/Netflix

It seems like just yesterday that we were raging over the fact that we still didn’t know who killed Rosie Larsen. Since the controversial end of the first season of AMC’s once-hit drama The Killing, a lot has happened. The show was canceled by AMC and rescued by Netflix, for instance, and the streaming giant released the series’ fourth and final season this past Friday.

The show’s swan song has a lot to talk about: a brand new murder mystery, more fan outrage, and, most of all, a brilliant supporting turn by a thrilling new cast member: Oscar nominee Joan Allen.

Joan Allen, you’ll remember, crushed the ’90s.

Allen was to that decade what Amy Adams is to the current one, the go-to thesp for Hollywood’s top directors searching to cast their films’ most complex, crucial female roles. There was Pat Nixon in Nixon (Oscar nom), Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible (Oscar nom), Dr. Eve Archer in Face/Off, Betty Parker in Pleasantvillle, and Laine Hanson in Contender (Oscar nom).

Her work has been equally as transfixing, if a bit more sporadic, post-2000, with memorable turns in The Notebook and the Jason Bourne franchise leading way to what’s ultimately been a fruitful transition to television. She starred in HBO’s acclaimed Georgia O’Keefe biopic as the famous painter, and was excellent in the network’s doomed horseracing drama Luck, which only lasted one season.

Now, she’s embracing the industry’s new frontier, taking on a plum supporting role in Netflix’s revival of The Killing, the crime drama that was canceled by AMC after three seasons before being resuscitated by the streaming service. In the six-episode final season, Allen plays Colonel Margaret Rayne, a headmaster at an all-boys military school with a maternal affinity for one cadet in particular, Kyle. Those feelings are complicated when Kyle is suspected of murdering his entire family and Col. Rayne’s own personal family secrets begin coming out.

Now that enough time has passed for The Killing fans to watch, digest, and maybe fume a little bit about the show’s last season, we chatted with Allen about her character’s wild arc; her transition from film to TV; that one big, huge, crazy twist; and the polarizing reaction to the show’s ending.

There’s a big “spoiler alert” being splashed at the top of this article so we have free rein to discuss everything.

Oh good!

So let’s start then with that twist. How much did you know about your arc and all its twists before shooting? At one point did you find out that Col. Rayne was Kyle’s mother? I’d imagine that would affect how you played certain scenes throughout the season.

Veena Sud [the show’s creator] parsed it out a little bit. I hadn’t done much television so I’m not that familiar with the form. People often don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m used to doing film and theatre where you know everything that’s going on and your amp your performance up based on the information that you have. So it was a unique experience. But I did know from the beginning that Kyle was my son.

So you knew!

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She did share that with me, but I didn’t really know—she said she was involved with the murders with the family. She said it all in a vague way, that it was a hazing incident gone awry. I didn’t know super specifically, but I knew that Kyle was involved somehow. But I wasn’t really sure what happened and that he had actually pulled the trigger. So it was a little vague! But I did feel that it was important to ask Veena a lot of questions when I got the scripts about what I know and what I don’t know. So she fed me some information to help me, because I wanted to know what it was I was covering up. So I did know from the beginning that Kyle was actually my son. But he didn’t know!

Oh, he didn’t know! That’s a good twist!

He didn’t know! She gave different information to different people.

What was Tyler Ross’ [who plays Kyle] reaction when he found out?

We were on set together. He’s so sweet. We did talk about it a little bit. He was kind of surprised. There were discussions, like, when I was in the hair and makeup trailer. The hair woman would say, “I think I figured it out! I think she could be his mother!” And I would just sit in the hair chair and say, “Really? You think so?”

So you didn’t spoil it for anyone?

I didn’t want to ruin it for anybody. So I would say, “Yeah, I think that may be because she lost a son. You lost somebody very dear to her once…” So it was kind of fun being on the set with people knowing different things at different times.

The scene I was most curious to find out if you knew ahead of time if she was Kyle’s mother was when she invites him to the residence to have dinner together. It’s such a touching scene.

It’s really sweet. It’s a big thing that she did, to walk away from her child. It’s a very sweet scene, but she doesn’t really want to let him know. She doesn’t know how he’ll take it.

What goes through her mind in a scene like that, where she so clearly is feeling maternal towards him, but has to remain guarded about all of that to protect him?

It’s a tricky situation because she also is sort of protecting a family legacy. This school, her grandfather started it, her father was part of it, and now she’s part of it. Times have changed and attendance is down. People are sending kids more to military school because it’s a boarding school and their kids are struggling. So she also feels like she has a big reputation to uphold in the community. Plus, based on having abandoned him, she really would do everything in her power trying to protect him. I think I said in the last scene, “Don’t tell him, because he’ll never understand.” He’ll think that I didn’t want him, when it was the opposite. I wanted him so much. It’s treading around all that stuff, showing that she’s there to care for him without coming on too strong.

Let’s talk about that monologue, where she’s pleading for Linden not to tell him.

She’s been pushed to such an extreme now. The other boys had gone rogue. She’s at a place now—me and Veena talked about this a lot—where she obviously got to the point that she could kill these boys. It was to protect her son. She has a sense of having failed him. There is some reference to that she would go to his piano concerts and would watch him as he was growing up. I think she felt that, at that point, she just had to say how she really felt and the lengths that she would go to protect him and recognize the really strong motherly love that she did have for him.

Does she surprise herself by pulling the trigger on those two cadets?

You know, I think she’s just in such protective mode that at that point things are going awry and she’s so worried about him and worried that they’ve harmed him that she’s almost in the zone. I will do anything to protect my son. It’s not very logical. I mean, she’s going to go to prison, right? She just reached that point based on things going awry that she feels she’s capable of doing anything to protect him. I didn’t know until the week before that I killed these boys. I was like, “Oh. OK!” (Laughs) We got the scripts about a week before we would shoot them.

Did that change your opinion of her?

Yeah. I thought that she’s kind of undone there. It’s a pretty extreme act. Very extreme act. What else can you say? I was maybe more sad for her than anything, that it got to that point. She couldn’t have had him in her life. It’s pretty sad that she killed these other two boys, and it just made me feel that she’s—I don’t know—maybe a little pathetic. It’s a shame. It’s kind of tragic that it would get to that extreme.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did this all come to you, being on the show?

They approached me! I guess it was maybe three months before they were starting to shoot. I talked to Veena, but I wasn’t able to even read the first episode. But I knew of the show and had watched it some, and they sent me links to watch other episodes. I knew it was a very well regarded, respected, kind of edgy series. And I had never played a military person before. That process was…interesting. [Laughs] And then about a month or a little more than that before shooting Veena called me and said, “Oh we decided to make her a ballroom dancer.”

You literally dance on screen the first time we see you.

Yeah! You really don’t know anything about her. That’s really the first time. Then cut to the fact that she’s a military person.

It really was a surprise to see, after that dancing scene, that she was the rigid headmaster of a military school.

It was really interesting when they would do the big group scenes with all these kids. I sat and talked to some of them and a lot of them knew me from—I did a voice over for a video game called Skyrim. I played this character Delphine. It was really funny because a lot of the boys would shout, “You’re Delphine!”

It’s a riot how different demographics recognize you from such wildly different projects, isn’t it?

Oh yeah. It just tickled me. That’s where most of them knew me from. It’s so funny.

So you mentioned that you were familiar with The Killing and had watched a little bit before joining this season. How much of that first season did you watch? Were you part of that chorus of outrage when fans didn’t find out who actually killed Rosie Larsen?

I wasn’t! I’m not a big television person. I’m a big public radio person, I listen to it all the time. But my sister and her husband have very specific series that they really watch religiously. That was one of them. So I was with them for the first four or five episodes and then came back to New York and went back to public radio. But I knew there was an issue with audience members. I have a niece who said, “We were so disappointed that we didn’t know at the end of the first season what actually happened!”

Oh, she’s not the only one.

But I think maybe—I don’t know the trajectory of how they made their decision—but perhaps the first season was so successful that they decided to carry it on for a second season. Because I believe the original Scandinavian series it was based on was originally meant to be just one season. So maybe it became so successful here that they decided to extend it. I’m just guessing.

Outside of your character’s storyline this season, I’m curious what you thought of Holder and Linden’s arc. Because they get a little happily ever after that seems to have polarized fans, too.

One of my closest friends was very avid. Last Friday night when it came out on Netflix she watched all the episodes between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m. All of them. She said she was very glad they got together and it made her cry, because she really wanted them to get together. But I could see that it could be polarizing. I’m sure you’re hearing feedback from stuff out there. I’m not a big social media person, so I don’t know how much buzz there is going around about it.

There seems to be two camps. Some are like your friend and are happy that Holder and Linden got some sunshine in the end, but others feel like the show was always bleak and that it would be more fitting for their ending to be bleak, too.

Well, it is bleak for a while! They have a few years of bleakness before they reunite. [Laughs]

A lot of times actors who are known for their film work, when they make the transition to TV talk about making the move because the roles being offered to them in movies are nowhere near as rich or juicy as the ones on television. Was any of that behind your decision to join The Killing?

I completely agree. I just got The Hollywood Reporter the other day and there was the American Horror Story For Your Consideration ad. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson and Frances Conroy. Particularly Jessica and Kathy have been around a while and done a tremendous amount of, primarily, film work. I just think there seems to much more interesting material on television, with the explosion of cable and streaming and original series. I just think that there are better roles. I watched last night for the first time an episode of Orange Is the New Black.

It’s soooo good!

I just thought, “Look at all these women getting really great roles! It’s fantastic!” You know? It’s so great. I think men struggle, too, with interesting roles but it’s probably still harder for film. I felt so good. Like, look: There’s only one man in this. And look at all these women who are playing really unique, specific, deep kinds of roles. It was really refreshing. I’m just really glad that this breakdown has happened. Starting to work in film in the ’80s and ’90s, I remember feeling this sense of “don’t do television.” There was this real divide. I love that that’s getting blurred and broken down.

It about how hard it is to get indie films and adult dramas made.

It’s hard. Really hard. The era of doing an independent film and having it for a theatrical release and letting it build up in time, those days are sort of gone. It’s much, much harder. I want to see Boyhood and aim to see it very soon. And I live in New York and even New Yorkers just don’t go to films as much, or they’ll say that unless it’s a big action extravaganza they’re going to wait to watch it at home. So it’s harder. It’s harder to finance those films. And the theatrical releases have diminished dramatically. But I think these other viewing options aren’t a bad thing, because a lot of times more people will end up seeing things.

So now that this season of The Killing is out there, are there other shows you’d be up for joining the cast of?

I couldn’t name them specifically, but I certainly would keep my eye open. My agent, I know, is looking. I actually was offered a couple of months ago a role on Homeland. I haven’t watched it much—only a couple of episodes—but I have friends that are completely devoted. But unfortunately it’s shooting in South Africa, which at a certain time of my life might have been OK but my daughter is starting at USC in August. And the actor had to go to six months to Cape Town. And I just couldn’t be that far away from my daughter her first year of college. As it is I’m going to be across the country from her, but I can’t be on the other side of the world. So I certainly will consider television roles as they come along, absolutely.