At the end of “Tigers and Bears,” the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Outsider, I audibly gasped. If you’ve watched the episode—if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and skip to the next paragraph—you know why: Sniper shots are fired. One cop goes down (kids, always trust that metallic taste in your mouth). And then the screen goes black, and we’re left listening to more bullets being discharged, unsure of where they’ll land.
It’s a naturally hair-raising moment, but it’s made all the more so because, in the course of nine episodes, we’ve grown so invested in these people. The Outsider, with all its brooding adults and mangled children, isn’t exactly Friends or Cheers. But on the other hand, maybe it... is? As a paranormal murder-mystery adapted from a Stephen King book by Richard Price, the mini-series is working towards a definitive conclusion this Sunday. But when you get past all the intrigue around the mysterious devil monster El Cuco, the show’s characters have also made it an improbably good hang—case in point, the fried chicken odyssey Howard (Bill Camp) and Claude (Paddy Considine) take earlier in the episode (HBO, give these two a travelogue spin-off!).
But don’t let “good hang” sell short the work this cast has done. The performances on The Outsider aren’t the sort that typically win awards—they’re not big or showy enough—but they’re as good as the small screen gets. For fear of reverting to all the crutch words critics like to throw around when complimenting acting—understated, lived-in, naturalistic, moving—I’ll refer you to a clip from the show:
Despite occasional violence, most of The Outsider is in the style of that scene: characters talking, trying to get to the bottom of what’s happening. They grapple with each others’ interpretation of mind-boggling events, and wrestle with their own preconceived notions of what’s possible in the world. The brilliance is in the smallest choices: the awkward stiltedness of savant private detective Holly Gibney’s (Cynthia Erivo) joke delivery; the way the grizzled cop Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) grows restless and scratches his ear as he listens to Holly; the knowing nod Ralph’s partner Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) gives Ralph as Holly details her supernatural theory. Everything’s virtuosic, but nothing’s conspicuously so.
Quiet believability is important in almost any show, but it’s crucial in The Outsider. As a show about people suspending disbelief in the supernatural, it only works if the actors’ reactions are subtle and credible. With the exception of Jason Bateman, who only appears in the first two episodes, it’s a show full of recognizable faces who aren’t necessarily household names—and that was a result of the show’s priorities. “The goal is to tell the story, focus on character, and people the world with great actors who aren't going to take you out of that,” says casting director Alexa Fogel.
It helped that Mendelsohn, who can disappear as well as any actor, was the first name attached to the series. Fogel was then tasked with building a tapestry around his hangdog eyes and weighty certainty. No casting director has a more intimate relationship with prestige TV than Fogel, who has served as casting director for era-defining shows like Atlanta, The Deuce, True Detective, Ozark, Banshee, Generation Kill, and The Wire. And while fans of those shows will spot a few Fogel favorites in The Outsider (Marc Menchaca, who plays the bad-tempered police officer Jack, was in Ozark and Generation Kill; Derek Cecil, who plays Holly’s love interest Andy, was in Banshee), her overriding focus was experienced actors, and especially ones with theater backgrounds.
The reason Fogel erred towards actors who were theatrically trained, she says, was because of the versatility the material required. Actors like The Ferryman’s Paddy Considine or Menchaca, for instance, had to be able to play dual roles: a character, and then a version of that character that’s been touched by—or is—El Cuco. “The real challenge [for Considine, for instance,] is how you can play an everyman from Tennessee and someone transformed to something scary, controlling, and carnivorous,” says Fogel. “When you've seen someone do a bunch of plays, you have an understanding that the instrument can do more than one thing.”
For the actors’ part, the lift was made easier by the material, which was adapted from a Stephen King book by the great crime fiction author, Richard Price. “Richard's dialogue flows so easily and so well,” says Menchaca. “His writing style is easy for actors to work with, and it helps in bringing about a natural and understated performance.” Bill Camp, who also appeared in Price’s The Night Of, attributes the ease to the “cadence and rhythm” of Price’s dialogue: “There's a certain kind of music. [Richard]'s tapped into a natural form of expression we have somewhere.”
The naturalness of the dialogue helped Menchaca, Camp, and the rest of the cast sink into their roles seamlessly—but so much so that the show’s performances largely aren’t what fans of the show are talking about. Redditors are more consumed with predictions and theories. And Camp says that when he gets stopped on the street by fans of the show, it’s usually to ask him what happens next. But make no mistake: that’s how he prefers it. “I like the anonymity of that a lot,” says Camp. “If somebody does see me, it's great that they're so into the story because that's really all I am ever—a very tiny part of a much bigger story.”
The Stephen King adaptation is a smart blend of crime fiction and the supernatural.
Originally Appeared on GQ