Sundance made a name for itself last year when it debuted Rectify, a series that many people who get paid to write about television considered to be one of the best shows of the year. The network also made waves with the award-winning New Zealand-set miniseries Top of the Lake and the critically acclaimed French drama The Returned, both of which it imported to the U.S. And now it's hoping to continue that trend with The Red Road, its second original scripted series, which premieres tonight at 9pm.
Starring Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones' Khal Drogo) and Martin Henderson (The Ring), The Red Road explores the tense relationships between the Lenape Mountain Indians, a federally unrecognized Native American tribe in the mountains of New Jersey, and the neighboring blue-collar town of Walpole. Harold Jensen (Henderson) is a sheriff who's struggling to keep his family together while policing both communities; said family is made up of Harold's schizophrenic wife Jean (Julianne Nicholson) and their two daughters, Rachel and Kate. Phillip Kopus (Momoa) is a dangerous and unpredictable member of the Lenape tribe who's just returned home after six years in jail for drug trafficking. And when Harold and Jean's daughter Rachel (Allie Gonino) begins a relationship with Junior Van Der Deen (Kiowa Gordon), a Lenape teenager who was raised by Kopus's mother Marie (Tamara Tunie), Jean begins to spiral out of control. Harold and Kopus eventually find themselves bound together by the shared secrets of their respective pasts, and the lines between hero and villain eventually blur as the puzzle unfolds over six episodes.
Created by Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners), The Red Road is based on a real Native American tribe called the Ramapo Mountain Indians who live in the Ramapo Mountains located 26 miles outside Manhattan. Guzikowski did a great deal of research into the tribe and the real issues that've plagued its members for years, including the controversy of the tribe's true origins that has prevented it from being recognized by the federal government. Guzikowski also worked with the Ramapo during production. "We actually had a consultant from that tribe working with us when we were writing the script," he said. "She would read them and flag stuff that didn't ring true. Even though we weren't really making a documentary, we just wanted to feel authentic."
Nicholson's character Jean is a schizophrenic who's been hearing voices for years but has masked her disorder by pretending to suffer from alcohol dependency. Prior to filming, Nicholson also did extensive research on schizophrenia in order to understand it and portray it on screen. "I read a lot about it and was quite relieved to find that it looks differently on everyone," Nicholson said. "There isn't a checklist of, if you have A, B, and C, you're schizophrenic. I wanted to be as honest as I could to what that might feel like to one person and I kind of picked and chose from the things that I read and the things that I heard and what Aaron had written and created."
Unsurprisingly, the real star of the series is Momoa, who is branching out of the sci-fi and fantasy realm that he's called home for the last several years. Although he's not Native American (he was born in Hawaii and raised in Iowa, which often surprises people who haven't read as much on Wikipedia), he landed the role of Phillip Kopus after he starred as a Native American in Road to Paloma, a film he directed and submitted to Sundance. Kopus is an intimidating man in part because Momoa is nearly double the size of every single other person in The Red Road's cast, but also because the character is relatively quiet, and it's not always easy to tell what he's thinking or what move he's going to make. His eerie silences are often what speak the loudest in The Red Road.
Momoa said he was attracted to the part because the character of Kopus is very layered; he's definitely seen as a villain at the outset of the series, but there's more to him than that. Momoa describes Kopus as a man who was "sucker-punched in life" after being abandoned by his mother and raised by a drug-addicted father (played by Tom Sizemore): "Some people we know in our lives come up to a crossroads—you go left, you go right—[and] we can be in totally different places. It's those definitive moments in life where you could have changed a little bit and he definitely got side-swiped."
The Red Road premieres Thursday, February 27 at 9pm on Sundance.
AIRED ON 5/7/2015
Season 2 : Episode 6