Rape on TV is difficult enough to watch: Here's how — and why — those harrowing scenes are made

Artists from "Downton Abbey," "True Detective," "Rectify" and "Hand of God" reflect on TV sexual assault

Published September 20, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

  (Carnival Film & Television Limited)
(Carnival Film & Television Limited)

This is the third of a three-part series on actors, writers and directors in today’s Hollywood, reported at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, California, in July and August of this year.

There’s a lot to look forward to in the 2015-2016 television season. With more TV than ever comes even more female characters than ever; with more streaming platforms, tech companies and niche cable networks moving into programming, there’s more wannabe-prestige shows available. And based on what we know about the Golden Age of television—and the last few years of television, in particular—that means one thing is for certain: We will be watching sexual assault, again, for the next several months. It is not something I am exactly looking forward to, even if I’ve made my peace with it.

But for all that my job transforms, at times, from TV Critic to “Senior Rape Correspondent,” it does not quite compare to the immersion in sexual assault that the actors cast in these TV shows take on in order to play their parts. Performance in the era of prestige television, especially for women, often entails the possibility of acting extreme trauma. It might be hard to watch these scenes; to perform them is to attempt to inhabit the desolation and suffering of victims.

One of the most viewed and discussed rape scenes on television was on the wildly popular British costume drama “Downton Abbey,” when Anna Bates was brutally attacked by a too-friendly visitor at the beginning of season four. Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates on “Downton Abbey,” described a process around filming that demonstrated a lot of consideration.

“What was shown was very slightly more than what Julian wrote, actually,” Froggatt said. “There was a discussion about how much to show and how much not to show, and Julian was adamant that no show that he was involved with would depict violence against women actually on the screen.”

Fellowes wrote the portion where Anna’s rapist, Mr. Green, slaps her in the face. But that was where his script left off. The remaining scene-setting was contributed by director Catherine Morshead—who became, with that episode, the first female director of “Downton Abbey” (she’s done several episodes since then)—and producer Gareth Neame. In Froggatt’s words, “It sort of needed to feel like she was cut off. It wasn’t about showing more of the attack. It was about shutting her off in this room away from her safety net, away from the safety of somebody possibly coming in… without showing the physicality of the attack.”

“As an experiment, we actually shot a little bit more of the attack,” she said. “It was never shown on the screen. That, in a weird way, did inform my performance to an extent. It didn’t go extremely far, but we did shoot a little bit more than was on-screen.”

Froggatt is a diminutive woman, even in the stilettos she was wearing for the PBS cocktail. She is also Hollywood-thin, and in the way that becomes standard for performers in Los Angeles, immaculately put together, in a dress that was knee-length on the model but nearly ankle-length on her. Nigel Harman, the actor who played her rapist, is a broad-shouldered man with a steely gaze. His IMDb profile lists him as 5-foot-10.

“It just felt right having a female directing those scenes, for some reason — for obvious reasons,” Froggatt said.

* * *

Abigail Spencer was a regular on two shows with sexual assault in the story line—the second season of “True Detective,” where she plays Ray Velcoro’s ex-wife Gena, a woman whose years-ago rape precipitates the emotional tailspin we find Ray in at the beginning of the show, and Sundance’s “Rectify,” which is preoccupied with the aftermath of many kinds of assault and trauma.

With “True Detective,” she told me, she and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto “talked at length about the back story. We knew every single thing about Gena and Ray before you ever meet them on the show. So I knew everything about the dates and the timing, and we discussed point-of-view, and what she did since, and why she did this. You maybe get one word of it on the show. But, I think, if you make a lot of really detailed and internal and very specific choices, then even if you never talk about it, hopefully it’s felt and it’s seen. I think Colin and I just knew.”

“It was really important to Nic that, yes, she was a victim of this thing, but that wasn’t what destroyed them. He went and killed someone; he became a killer. She was a victim, but he took vengeance.”

At that point, we were interrupted by Spencer’s co-star on “Rectify,” Aden Young — Spencer, Young and creator Ray McKinnon were trying to eat lunch while I was asking questions — “You’re giving me all the fucking spoilers!” Young’s character, Daniel Holden, is both accused of rape and then, in prison, a victim of it. I asked him, as well, how he prepares.

"Well, you do horror. You take the moments of horror in your life, where you’ve experienced something, and you amplify it and you what if, and it’s as if," he said. "But also, you take your own human empathy that you feel for people who’ve survived that mutilation, and bring it forward as an artist, to portray—and in order to perhaps welcome them back into themselves, when they’ve been so brutally ejected from themselves, because of that act. You want them to feel as whole as possible, even though your main focus is the entertainment of this concept."

I asked—who is “them”? He elaborated: “The victims of these crimes, and the families of these perpetrators, and the families of all that have suffered at the hands of a single choice, a single moment in time where the monster came out. Where does that ripple end? Where does that tsunami touch shore?”

“I’ve always said—we have to be very careful with how we measure our fiction against their truths, because their truths are what our stories are about,” he added.

Spencer added, “It really only works well if you tell it through character, and you’re not actually commenting or trying to tell the story of sexual assault. That is impossible to me, with grave danger of mishandling.”

She observed that on “Rectify,” her character, Amantha, Daniel’s sister, has never brought his rape up with him, even though she suspects it happened. It’s not because it’s sexual assault; it’s because in their relationship, Spencer argued, Amantha is trying to preserve and restore her brother’s dignity. “It only can cut through the surface of the shallow end of the pool if it’s through character.”

McKinnon offered his perspective on the story lines he himself wrote. Without intending to, a sexualized assault from season one has reverberated in the story through to season three, he said. “I didn’t not plan for it to,” he hastened to add. “It just, when you think about them as real human beings, that’s what’s going to happen. … When you have had trauma done to you, it doesn’t ever go away.”

He reflected, too, on the way rape is depicted in other television shows — often through forensic cases, studying rape through studying the dead.

"It takes away from the individuality of the victim, and a lot of it came on the edge of questionable titillation. That’s where it gets murky, because you think, 'What are you attempting to do with this sensationalizing?'" he said. "Part of me says, 'Why do I want to watch a show about children who are assaulted? What part of me wants to take that home, or take that into tomorrow and then follow it?' That to me is not entertainment. I’m trying to keep my life away from that experience.

"And yet, we are creatures who are drawn to the morbid and macabre, and drawn toward the instinctive terror and instinctive horror," he added. "It’s part of us because without that shadow, we don’t have the light."

Much as cave paintings were a way to process fear—drawing a beast to warn others, to record its unexpected size—television is “our story, it’s our fear,” McKinnon argued. “For whatever reason, they drew our stories. We’re not using a camera to redraw, but it’s the same story. Part of that story is its horror. When that line gets blurred by somebody without that respect for the individual and only uses it as a sensational tool in order to up the ratings, then that’s when you go, What are you doing?

* * *

The most uncomfortable I felt while conducting interviews on this topic was neither at the cocktail party nor over lunch, despite the severity of my questions in the otherwise festive environments. It was instead in the most press-friendly location possible that the press tour has to offer—the scrum right after the session, when the talent happily answers a few questions before the next panel is brought on. It was a moment where I knew I’d gone a little too far—and forgot, for a moment, that the world of fiction is not always that distant from the world we live in.

Alona Tal is best known for her turn on “Supernatural,” and after that, the gone but beloved “Veronica Mars.” But I was interviewing her for her Amazon Studios show “Hand of God,” a wannabe gritty drama (that ends up being rather too gritty). Tal is hands down the best element of the show; both on-screen and off-, she is warm and expressive. In the pilot, she goes toe-to-toe with no less than Ron Perlman’s lead character, and ends up spitting in his face. It’s magnificent, even if the rest of the show isn’t.

“Hand of God” is built on an event that occurs well before the story starts. Tal’s character Jocelyn was raped a year ago, and the trauma becomes unbearable for her husband, who was forced to watch. He tries to kill himself, and ends up in a coma, which is what Jocelyn is dealing with when the show opens.

Creator Ben Watkins told press that his interest in Jocelyn’s assault as an event that had happened well before the events of the show was to emphasize the “irony” of the male characters’ subsequent breakdowns: “I also like the idea of having a character who has already done all this work to sort of recover from a situation like that and is putting herself together and then now, because of the events that happened in the pilot, in going into the season, now she’s got this other burden to bear. And I wanted to see how she would be able to stand up to that.”

Tal, when asked about preparing for the role, name-checked rape culture. “Sadly, it doesn’t take much to put yourself in that position,” she added. “As a woman in today’s society, we kind of all have to deal with that in one form or another.

“I don’t think there’s an appropriate way of depicting rape, period. I think there’s many different heads to this hydra, and it’s a monster. It doesn’t just begin or end with the way it’s portrayed on television. It’s the way people perceive it in their own life.”

To follow up, quickly, I asked, as others were waiting to ask questions. You’re a petite woman. How do you prepare for a role where you embody trauma?

She gave me an enigmatic and kind of sad smile, woman-to-woman, while sitting on the edge of the stage and fielding questions with a lot of poise. “I don’t want to go too deep into it,” she said. “But I think each and every one of us has had an experience or a brush with that, one way or another.”

I wanted to say something else, or to offer her something. But there was nothing more to say.

* * *

When "Downton Abbey" first aired Anna's rape episode, there was quite a bit of outcry. Though Froggatt’s performance earned rave reviews—and a Golden Globe—the framing of the story took a lot of heat. Many protested the brutality of the scene; others criticized “Downton Abbey” for focusing not on Anna’s recovery but on how the sexual assault affected her husband, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle).

Froggatt denied the suggestion of sensationalism.

“Personally, I haven’t had any negative feedback about that story line,” Froggatt said. “People were obviously shocked by it,” she added, but response was “all positive, and saying that I’m really glad Julian [Fellowes, creator and writer] wrote that story, and I’m really glad that a show like ‘Downton Abbey’ tackled that subject matter.

“It was about the emotional journey. That’s why he wrote it. It wasn’t about a shocking scene for the audience. It wasn’t about gaining viewing figures from a shock."

I asked her how she took the focus on Coyle’s character, especially as his costar and frequent scene-partner.

“What Julian was trying to do was reflect the time,” she said.

"The fact that Anna, within that time period—and even with women now as well—wouldn’t have felt able to talk about what happened to her. People didn’t go to counseling then. There was no such thing as help, in that way. A woman in her position, a working-class woman at that time wouldn’t have been able to talk about what happened to her—in fear of losing her family, her reputation, her job, and losing everything," said Froggatt. "There was no source of security then. It’s that fear of losing your life. You lose everything. That is a real fear, on top of the emotional torture that she’s going through as well."

"The first time I read it, I was like, 'Why doesn’t she tell Mr. Bates?' I just wanted her to tell Mr. Bates. And it was the fear of losing him, the fear of feeling spoiled, which hopefully, in this age, we think is, 'Oh my goodness, that’s ridiculous!'" she added. "But that’s, at that time, unfortunately how she would’ve felt."

“Downton Abbey’s" worldwide audience is something like 120 million viewers. Some of those viewers, like some American viewers, are probably engaged in a discussion about the portrayal of rape on television—and more broadly, the more pressing question of an endemic culture of rape.

Most probably aren’t.

“I’ve received a small number of letters from survivors of rape,” Froggatt said. “Each and every letter I received, the woman had either not felt able to talk about what happened to her or when she had, she’d not been believed,” she said. “One woman had said that even though Anna is in this time gone by, it still feels that difficult, as hard as it feels for Anna.

“That was incredibly saddening and frustrating to learn. In my naive mind, I hoped that we’d moved on so much further than that."

By Sonia Saraiya

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