Say what you will about The River, but it's one of the most radical television shows ever to appear on primetime television. It's as though ABC turned to its cable counterparts and said, "You think you create original programming? Check this out." And while viewers' reactions have varied, it's impossible to deny The River's often incredibly effective scares and imagery. That doll tree! Flammable ghosts! Eyeless natives! Human cocoons!
Tying all these insane scenarios together is the central mother-son team of Tess and Lincoln, two intense characters with the single-minded intention of tracking down their missing husband and father, respectively. Actors Joe Anderson and Leslie Hope may not be strangers to the horror genre, but The River is nothing like they—or really anyone on TV—have ever been a part of. Recently the two actors (who are, fun fact! only 17 years apart in age) took the time to answer some questions about the challenges of performing in such an interesting TV experiment.
Leslie, you're too young to be playing Joe's mom. Was Tess a teen mom?
Leslie Hope: Bless you, Price. That's not actually true, but I'm going to take it anyway! In real life my son's 19 and I was nowhere near a teen mom. What are you playing, Joe? 25?
Joe Anderson: I'm 30.
LH: In real life you're 30, but aren't you on the show playing 25?
JA: Oh right, yeah, I'm 24 or 25!
LH: Price, it's not even creepy for me to be his mom, but thanks for the compliment.
Found footage is a new thing for television but it's been around for a while in movies. In preparing for this project did you guys go back and watch all the classics, like Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust, or did you try to come to the project fresh?
LH: I tried to come to it fresh, but maybe I didn't have a clear understanding of what that meant. But certainly what it offered right away was an opportunity to, in the truest sense, always be acting. Which is to say there are so many cameras everywhere, you never know how or where you're going to be caught by a lens. And for me it was very freeing as an actor, to not have to go up, down, up, down, or take a turn, take a turn, you would be on all the time. So my experience was like doing a big play, and I really responded to that. I think it's going to be weird to go back to a more traditional style of working again as an actor.
Is that style faster to film?
JA: Yes, it is faster, and also you're dealing with the idea that—sure, it's a character-driven show, but they're also trying to achieve things through technical devices a lot of the time. Like jumps, scares, panic moments, how the camera moves, and what-have-you. So it's very different because the energy of the scene requires everything else to be quick, therefore it moves quickly because you have so many cameras covering it as well. You're not using a single camera, and you're not tailoring things to a single camera. You're just rocking and rolling and instead of playing a scene, it's kind of more free-flow, you know? There's less marks to hit, there's less things to do like that. And so it's freeing in some degree.
LH: I would suggest that it probably takes a little bit longer in the editing room, though. You know? They've got 13 cameras going.
JA: And the angles that they use are very much angles you don't really see that often when you're shooting a movie, you know? You're not going to see a wide-angle lens at your foot looking up at you. Sometimes it's interesting to just sort of notice those things [during the scene] and play with them. It's different.
The flipside is that it actually looks pretty exhausting. A lot of running and screaming and just high levels of intensity for long stretches of time. Do you guys sleep really well at night?
LH: [Laughs] I felt that way. That's where I knew I was old enough to be Joe's mom, at the end of a day. I would be very tired by the end of the day. There's no faking it. We really are huffin' through the jungle. We really are slashing at things with machetes. We really are on a boat going up and down the water in blazing heat. There are real bugs. All that sort of stuff, I think, just helps hopefully generate some authenticity for the piece, but certainly as an actor, in some ways it's almost less work for you to do because you're not having to fake all these trials and tribulations. You're actually going through them.
JA: Right. It definitely makes it tough. You become more athletic, your approach to it. Especially when you're at home. Your time at home is super valuable. How quickly do you eat, how quickly do you get to bed, wake up and do it again? And it goes on week after week after week. And so if you slip somewhere or you get sick or something happens, you've got to be on top of things because the train doesn't stop. You have to keep up with it.
LH: It's not like a more traditional ensemble show where you have to just sort of pass off scenes. I mean certainly the focus changes from week to week on whose story you're leaning into but the reality is that it's still that number of you on a boat together, so we're all together all the time. Which means there's no rest for the wicked.
You can't just sit out scenes when you have to be each others' extras.
JA: Because there aren't any!
I'm really impressed by how The River really goes there with regard to shocking imagery. I still can't believe that walk-in freezer scene and Leslie, you crawling out of an open grave was really something. As actors have you ever had to do anything that genuinely disturbed you in real life?
JA: On The River, not necessarily. But I have had to do things that dealt with race, manhandling women, and icky or uncomfortable things like that. You hope you're lucky enough to find another actor who might find it hilarious and kind of joke about it and you both approach it that way, but there are times definitely where as an actor you're thrown things that kind of go against the core of your being to do it. But that's the kind of thing you say, "Yeah, I'll do it." Unless it's gratuitous and that's when you get into a debate with the director, but other than that you always sort of step up to the challenge and sort of step up to those fears.
JH: I can tell you in terms of The River that I'm terrified of the water. I think it's in Episode 2, the doll episode, where I have to be drowned not once but twice. I wasn't afraid at all of being in the grave—I don't know, I found that kind of comforting to be in a quiet place. But the water is always something that's been very scary for me and there was certainly that moment where I was waiting for my character to be dragged into that pool the second time to be drowned in that episode and I was terrified. And I thought, "I'm going to die on a television show, which is a stupid way to die. Or I'm going going to be fired, because I can't do it." So that was really my scariest moment on the show.
There's currently a big question-mark hanging over the fate of The River and everybody's waiting to hear whether it'll get another season. Do you have any insight about what fans could expect of a second season?
JA: One of the things that attracted me to this project in the first place was the fact that it is limitless and you're dealing with this real jungle world but at the same time you're dealing with magic, metaphysical things that can really twist and change, and therefore anything is possible. Yes, there's the exploration of a family dynamic on a boat, and how people resolve those situations. But I think we can also maybe see other characters become different people, become different players within this game and it might shift quite a lot. And seeing as they've surprised me so far with every episode and especially the last couple, I would really sort of expect them to keep going in that vein. And I think knowing the show creators, they've got plenty of ammo. They're slightly crazy, so they'll go there.
The River's Season 1 finale airs tonight at 9pm on ABC.