Inside Kaitlyn Dever’s ‘Unbelievable’ Journey From ‘Booksmart’ to Emmy Contender
A version of this story on Kaitlyn Dever first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.
When Kaitlyn Dever was a little girl, Hollywood seemed like a simple place. “When I first wanted to do acting, I thought you could just do it and be on the Disney Channel like Christie Carlson Romano and Raven-Simoné,” she said with a laugh from the guest house she occupies behind her parents’ home in Los Angeles. “Those women on the Disney Channel were my idols growing up. At first, I just wanted to make people laugh. I remember distinctly (that) the feeling of making my parents laugh was the best thing in the world.”
Of course there was something special in her parents’ laughter: Her dad, after all, had a stint as the voice of Barney, the Purple Dinosaur. But Dever’s ambitions moved beyond kids’ TV, she said, when she saw “The Sixth Sense,” M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 psychological thriller starring Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and a then-11-year-old Haley Joel Osment. (It had come out when she was 2, so she caught up to it a little later.) “That’s when I realized that you can also move people in a different way, instead of just making them laugh.”
Clearly, the Disney Channel’s loss is our gain. Since she was in barely in her teens, Dever has worked steadily, turning in a string of unaffected perfomances for such directors as Kathryn Bigelow (“Detroit”), Jason Reitman (“Men, Women & Children” and “The Front Runner”), Lynn Shelton (“Laggies” and “Outside In”), Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”), Dustin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and Olivia Wilde (“Booksmart”). Her characters all feel lived-in, grounded in reality whether she’s playing comedy or tragedy or (most often) something in between.
On television, meanwhile, Dever has played a teen pot dealer in “Justified,” the noir Western series based on a hardboiled Elmore Leonard short story, and a scholarly overachiever in “Last Man Standing”, a Tim Allen sitcom — and for four years, she did them both at the same time. Plus she and her sister Mady write and perform ethereal pop music in a duo called Beulahbelle; if her performances always feel grounded, the music floats away, lighter than air.
“She’s a natural,” said Jason Reitman, who has directed Dever in two movies, used Beulabelle’s music in a third film and cast her in a couple of his live script readings. “You can’t teach honesty. She feels what her characters feel. We lean into Kaitlyn because of her overwhelming empathy and curiosity. Her eyes seem to be always searching for an answer that we all want, but rarely get.”
When he first worked with Dever on 2014’s “Men, Women & Children,” Reitman said he was surprised by the gap between the performance and the person. “Like most people, I saw ‘Short Term 12’ and was immediately taken by this young woman with access to a deep well of pain that carried nothing but authenticity,” he said. “And then like most people, I actually met Kaitlyn Dever, and found a deep well of openhearted kindness that made her onscreen abilities mystifying.”
He added, “Few actors make authenticity and realism look as easy as Kaitlyn Dever. She’s got a tuning fork for truth that any actor would be envious of.”
Susannah Grant, the showrunner of “Unbelievable,” said she’d first seen Dever in “Justified.” “She’s been working since she was 13 — so she’s quite young, but she also has a tremendous amount of experience, a tremendous mastery of her craft,” Grant said. “I’m not sure how much of a believer I am in the 10,000-hours theory, but she has a lot of work under her belt, and is an utter, utter professional.”
Dever’s believability, of course, came in handy as the star of the Netflix limited series called “Unbelievable.” The eight-part series is based on the true story of a teenage girl in Washington state who was raped, but who then recanted her police report under heavy pressure and harassment from detectives who didn’t believe her. The episodes divide their time between following Dever’s character, Marie, as her troubled life unravels even further, and watching other detectives played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever painstakingly track a serial rapist who is also responsible for the assault that the Lynnwood police had written off as a false report.
The 2008 case and the subsequent detective work led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration between T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of the Marshall Project, as well as an episode of “This American Life” and a book. “When I read the script and listened to the podcast and the article about Marie, it was immediately so heartbreaking,” Dever said from a kitchen where an electric guitar was propped between the refrigerator and a stack of LPs. ‘It was such a painful read, but it was also a story of hope to me.”
But when she played Marie, the hope wasn’t always easy to locate. “I put so much pressure on myself,” she said. “I think that’s why it was so tough, because I felt so deeply for her that I had to give my everything to it. There were days that were really emotionally draining and I felt so exhausted, but at the same time that was a rewarding feeling because it was so important for the world to see.”
She credits Grant and director Lisa Cholodenko for filming the sexual assault scenes in a single day at the beginning of the shoot, and then putting all the police interrogation scenes back-to-back over a three-day period. “They were tough days, some of the toughest scenes of the whole show for me,” she said of the interrogations. “In those scenes, the surprising thing is that I was feeling like a little kid. I didn’t expect to feel that way, because playing this real-life person, I know what the truth is. But these two people (the detectives) are manipulating the situation and making me go crazy and feel like I’m wrong for telling the truth. It really felt like I was a little kid who was in trouble or something, and that was the most surprising element of making that whole show.”
Grant remembered one day that was spent entirely on the second interrogation scene, in which the police badger Marie until she breaks down and lies that she was never really raped. The scene was shot during a heat wave in a building that didn’t have air conditioning, making it both emotionally and physically grueling. “The sequence is so distressing to watch,” Grant said. “We shot it over the course of a full day, and Kaitlyn was going through such torture. At one point at the end of the day, I did go up to her and say, ‘Are you OK? That was a very hard day.’ She is such a wildly positive person, and she said, ‘Yeah, you know what? It’s a lot like working out. Afterwards, you feel glad you did it!’ I just thought, ‘Wow.'”
The key, Dever said, came from a quote in which the real Marie referred to “a switch in her head” that she could turn on and off. “It shows you her bravery,” Dever said, remembering another line of Marie’s. “I think it was from a false report. She says, ‘I’m just trying to be the happiest I can be,’ which is so heartbreaking. But while I was focusing on the sadness and the frustration and the anger, I also wanted to pay attention to the lighter moments. Sometimes she was just trying to force a smile as best she could, trying to be the happiest she could be and lead a normal life. She didn’t want this to happen anymore — she wanted it to be over and done with, and put it away and bury it.”
Marie’s backstory, which only comes out in bits and pieces over the course of the miniseries, is a wrenching one: Placed in foster care at the age of 3, she bounced from home to home and was often subjected to abuse. Playing a troubled girl in the foster care system was not new to Dever, whose breakthrough film role had come when she played a similar character in 2013’s “Short Term 12.” “I was able to refer back to what I had learned on ‘Short Term 12’ and take pieces of that on to ‘Unbelievable,'” she said.
But “Short Term 12” was also important to Dever’s career in a different way, because it allowed her to see the impact of her work on others. “That was the first project when I started to realize, ‘Oh, I can not only have fun doing what I love, which is acting, I can also do some good and be part of stories that I think are really important. So when this came around, it was like a dream combination.”
Of course, you could say something similar about Dever’s last film, “Booksmart,” a 2019 indie comedy that put young women (Dever and Beanie Feldstein) at its center. “We don’t have enough female-led comedies,” she said. “And the fact that I was able to play Amy, a queer woman, in the leading role of a comedy, and her sexuality is not put on a pedestal and there’s no coming out story, is so, so, so cool. It was just such a crazy year, with ‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Booksmart,’ because it was so exciting to be part of two projects that are so different but are really impacting people in different ways.”
Dever began to run down the list of great female directors she’s worked with, pausing and shaking her head when she got to Lynn Shelton, who died suddenly in May of a previously unidentified blood disorder. She said she wants to continue to work “with as many women as possible,” and also has other plans that have very little to do with the little girl who envisioned a life as some kind of comedic Disney Channel princess. “I like to work different parts of my acting muscles,” she said. “And I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that if I get out of my comfort zone, that’s where you learn a lot. If you stay in your comfort zone, it’s this nice little bubble that you can get used to really easily. But if I make myself a bit uncomfortable, sometimes I love that feeling.”
To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.