When Danielle Macdonald was first approached to join Netflix’s Unbelievable, there wasn’t a whole lot of info. But after reading the first episode that follows a young woman named Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) who reports being raped by a masked home intruder, the Dumplin’ star was ready to be a part of the series in any was possible.
“They reached out through my rep about the role and there wasn't anything about the character yet and there was no script past the pilot. I read it and was like, ‘Yeah, I'm in. I don't really care in what capacity you want me,’ because it was so well told,” Danielle tells Teen Vogue. “They knew exactly how they wanted to tell the story and wanted to tell it in the right way. That instantly had me join in.”
Inspired by true events covered in the Pulitzer-winning ProPublica and The Marshall Project investigation “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” Unbelievable splits into two timelines. The first one takes place in 2008, following the fallout Marie faces after recanting her statement of being raped after being asked repeatedly by apathetic detectives. Danielle’s character Amber introduces the second timeline set in 2011, a college student in Colorado who also reports being sexually assaulted by someone who enters her apartment late at night. Unbelievable’s first episode centers solely on Marie, an extremely jolting debut showing how traumatic not only being sexually assaulted is, but also the challenges faced throughout the reporting process with the police and hospital. Danielle acknowledges that it can be hard for some viewers to stomach, but it’s necessary to show the grisly reality that survivors face, all of which is done without idealizing the story.
“I did worry about it a little because I know that people want to be in a certain mindset before they watch something very difficult. But at the same time, Kaitlyn is so incredibly captivating, I can't look away, no matter how difficult it is,” Danielle tells Teen Vogue. “And the thing is, this is what people go through. It's important to understand that before you get to see the rest of the series. At the end of the first episode, you need to know what happens. They really did justice to the story because it was never gratuitous. It always felt like this was just purely understanding what a survivor goes through and the trauma.”
The two timelines showcase the disparity in resources provided to rape survivors. For Marie, the cards were stacked against her to get the justice and support she needed following the assault. In Amber’s case, she’s approached by the extremely compassionate Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) who delicately yet attentively listens to Amber’s account of the crime. She accompanies her to the hospital and even takes her to a friend’s house. Eventually, Karen starts working with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) after they realize they’re both investigating rapes in different towns but with extremely similar strange details.
“It made me understand that sexual assault is one of the few times where you're almost treated like a suspect, at least in Marie's case. It’s like, how do people go through this? Something needs to change,” Danielle says. “As you watch the series, you realize that is not always the case. My character's experience versus Kaitlyn's character is so incredibly different. It really made me understand how important training is and understanding a situation.”
And although it’s painful to watch Marie face these hurdles, there’s a point to showing that the system is broken. Danielle hopes that people can learn from seeing the challenges of navigating the system as a rape survivor depicted in Unbelievable and why it’s important to see that other cases are treated with the tact they deserve — because that can and does happen in the real world.
Danielle was also lucky to have an industry pro like Merritt as her scene partner in those difficult scenes where Amber recounts what she can remember about the rapist. Merritt’s “calming energy” helped center things for Danielle.
“I felt very taken care of because clearly my headspace is different going into this project. My character has just been through something incredibly traumatic, so your brain is in a different place. Then Merritt comes in,” Danielle says. “I was walking through base camp, going to a makeup trailer and Merritt comes out, sees me, and then rushes over and gives me a big hug. I instantly felt very comfortable. She's really, really great; you feel heard, you feel taken care of. She’s incredibly respectful, really knows the character, asks all the right questions. She's pretty brilliant.”
Unbelievable also makes it a point to center the series on the survivors instead of making it another voyeuristic true crime drama. That conscientiousness is present in everything from how the assault scenes are shot to the conversations between the women on screen. Never are they used as props to salaciously create suspense or tension; they’re candidly presented to tell the stories of real people.
“We never really get a glimpse into [the rapist’s] world, which I really liked. You barely even know who he is because it wasn't about that. In this case, it was ‘this is what people have to go through,’ let's focus on that,” she says. “What was really interesting to me is showing that people react to trauma in so many ways. Knowing that people process things differently and that's OK. That is where the focus should lie.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue