SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Tell Me Your Secrets,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
When first meeting the trio of characters at the center of Amazon Prime Video’s “Tell Me Your Secrets,” it may be easy for some audience members to make assumptions about who they are and how their stories will unfold. Emma (Lily Rabe) is in prison for crimes not immediately known to the audience or fully understood to her, given the gaps in her memory; Mary (Amy Brenneman) sits down behind a plexiglass window to plead for answers about Emma’s part in her daughter Theresa’s (Stella Baker) disappearance; and John (Hamish Linklater) comes to Mary to ask her for a job in her foundation, which fights for missing and exploited young women, claiming that he is in recovery from being a predator himself. But as the 10-episode season of Harriet Warner’s dramatic thriller unfolds no one is left without both their light and shadow sides exposed — including the missing woman at the center of it all.
“Everybody’s a victim and a villain,” says Brenneman. “All of this comes from terrible pain and when trauma is not handled correctly. In terms of storytelling I think it’s the best kind of bait and switch.”
Emma’s journey is primarily one of discovery as she — a woman formerly known as Karen — assumes a new life and identity in the bayou after being released from prison and struggles to recall what exactly happened with Theresa. When she was younger, she fell in love with a man who happened to be a serial predator. Karen didn’t know just how deep his depravity ran, though she did know he had start a relationship with Theresa when she was just a teenager. These memories come back to Karen-now-Emma in flashback fragments while she is also fighting to get to the bottom of a present-day missing girl case in her new hometown.
“Something that was very important to me is the Karen is someone who I feel could be easily dismissed as someone who had made choices that were thoughtless, that were unintelligent, that were naive, that were blind. And I don’t believe that. I believe she made choices from a place of love, from a place of having an incredibly open heart and from believing in the inherent good of people,” Rabe says. “It was very important to me in the playing of her in the flashbacks that we really got a sense of that — that this wasn’t a person who had been operating from a place of absolute naivete. She was making active choices and they were choices that were led by her heart.”
Unfortunately, her heart was broken by who the man she loved turned out to be and after that, she became “someone who moves through the world at a completely different frequency,” Rabe says. “All of her decisions are based on fear and mistrust. I think Karen is someone who would hold your hand and jump off a cliff into the ocean without asking how deep the water was — she just trusted people — and Emma trusts no one, including herself.”
While Emma is busy trying to keep her guard up, Mary is on a mission to find out what happened to her daughter, who she refuses to believe is dead. She is so focused on this mission that she hires John, not for the office job he wants but to play private detective for her. From the jump this has him reverting to criminal ways, starting with breaking his parole by crossing state lines, but it’s soon a slippery slope into succumbing to his darker urges.
“Where John thinks he’s at at the beginning of the show is he’s been in recovery for a serious addiction and he’s trying to take it one day at a time and working his steps and things like that, but also with higher aspirations than just to keep clean, as it were — also to make amends. I 1,000% believed he was fighting with the devil with all humility,” says Linklater. “She sets him up so he is in situations he should not be in, but he thinks he’s doing it because he’s an apostle to this righteous warrior who is fighting the crusade against people like himself.”
Although initially Linklater says John believed Mary was “going to give him salvation through light [and] he’s going to give her salvation through darkness, ultimately she turns out to be a lot darker and he doesn’t have anything to hang onto anymore.”
Mary’s drive doesn’t stop with hiring John; she gets her own hands dirty by visiting Emma’s maternal figure to get some answers, but ultimately leaves with that woman’s death on her hands — literally.
“I’ve played sociopaths before and very amoral people, and I don’t think Mary is that. Desperate is not a wrong word,” says Brenneman. “The more I got into her skin it really felt like a politician to me, and I don’t mean that in a totally pejorative way; she has this incredible way of being able to be present in her own grief and supporting others — the public face is one of dignity and grace and intelligence — and then this is the shadow side.”
While all three of these characters had deeply traumatic backstories, each actor had a different approach to how they let them influence their performances. Linklater, for instance, told Warner he didn’t want to know “exactly how bad whatever I’ve done is, because I also thought the character has compartmentalized his history. So what was nice about that strategy as it happened to turn out was that as the character is going along and circumstances are making it harder and harder for him to control himself, the show is also revealing what his history is and I was learning as it was going on [too].” Brenneman, on the other hand, spent a lot of time thinking about who Mary was in the first days after he daughter’s disappearance based on research she did into similar real-life cases. And Rabe had to flip between Karen in the flashbacks and Emma in present-day on concurrent days, if not back-to-back scenes on the same day.
“While they are on such opposite ends of where a person’s soul can travel, I loved going back and forth because the hope that Karen had, I think I could have lost sight of that with everything that Emma goes through if I hadn’t been able to continue to connect with Karen,” she says. “It was a gift to be able to keep falling in love wth Kit and keep going back to a place where she hadn’t been destroyed — where she thought the world was a relatively safe place. I would feel like a weight had like 1,000-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders when I was going to work to have a day of Karen.”
Eventually Emma’s memory returns and she tells Mary the truth: Although Emma and Theresa did fight, Theresa was the aggressor and left very much alive. Emma was never actively “duping or manipulating” anyone, Rabe points out; when she finally did remember, she shared what she knew, which ended up being to her detriment as Mary then lied to the public about Theresa’s fate.
“I don’t think in the telling of Mary, by any stretch, she is confident of exactly where it will go, but she believes that because of how she feels about human beings in her core and because there is something truly shared with this person, that’s the risk she takes,” Rabe says. “She’s at the end of the road and she’s desperate at that point. But I do think it’s a it is a wonderful thing to speak to that she still does have the soul of Karen, who believes that people can be trusted — not necessarily should be trusted always, but that they can be.”
“We put guilt so easily and so casually we assign, ‘This person is the victim, this person is the perpetrator, this person is evil,’ over and over and over. We just do it. And I think when a show can hold up a mirror and confront an audience about that, it’s so vital,” she continues.
Mary’s hope has paid off — but her daughter has been out there, alive this whole time and just chose to leave her family behind, wondering and grieving for so many years. (She has also been plotting to take her revenge on Emma by abducting her daughter.) Although that complicates any happy family reunion for which Mary hopes, it still fuels her, because her “whole identity is about this one pursuit. So there’s the joy that her heart is still beating out there, a beloved daughter, but it’s also, ‘I was right!’” Brenneman says.
Choosing to lie about what she learned about Theresa, though, Brenneman believes was a “pure mother moment: ‘I drove [Theresa] all across the country to these swim meets and the idea that this man molested her and it could be a little simplistic but she was sexually assaulted and went off the rails and that implicates me in a way that I feel terrible and am not ready to [face].’ That scene was less about Emma, frankly, and more about, ‘There has to be another chapter between me and my daughter. Maybe I’m going to apologize, but she’s out there and I have to find her.’”
Whether there will be another chapter to this show remains to be seen, though, as Amazon has yet to renew it for a second season. But all of these actors feel there is more story to mine from their complex characters. While there is a mother-daughter story left unfinished with Mary and Theresa, for example, there is also one with Emma and Theresa, since the latter claimed to be the former and drove off with her daughter.
“I have a hard time letting go,” Rabe admits. “I’m rarely able to do that if it’s someone who gets their hooks in me, and she certainly did. For sanity’s sake I definitely have to try to put them on a shelf, but that shelf is in my house, it’s not like it’s in a storage unit in another town.”