Julia Roberts in Amazon's 'Homecoming'
Sam Esmail and Julia Roberts (Photo credit: Courtesy of Amazon)

Television

Why Julia Roberts Picked Thriller 'Homecoming' for Her TV Debut

For decades, the role of the television director was typically seen as far less crucial than that of the writer. They were guns for hire—technically proficient journeymen who were adept at task management without any of the creative vision of their big-screen counterparts. But with the rise of Peak TV, we’ve seen a steady influx of top-tier directors like Cary Fukunaga (Maniac), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) and Jane Campion (Top of the Lake) make the leap from film to television—the allure of long-form storytelling, complete creative control and endless resources just too enticing to pass up.

But of all the career filmmakers shifting gears, Sam Esmail is somewhere in the middle. The genesis of his first show—the Golden Globe-winning cyber-thriller Mr. Robot—is already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Originally written as a feature, Esmail adapted it into a pilot after growing disillusioned with the challenges of getting a low-budget indie not only made but seen. After Netflix passed, the USA Network pounced, and the result was a visually ambitious, thematically complex series that earned near-unanimous critical praise and became a cultural phenomenon to boot. Suddenly, the man who never envisioned himself working in television, became one of the format’s most exciting new voices.
For his next act, Esmail turned to another medium in the throes of a creative boom. His new Amazon series, Homecoming, is based on Gimlet’s eponymous scripted podcast about a mysterious program that helps traumatized war veterans reintegrate into civilian life. While none of the podcast’s original star-studded cast—which included Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer—reprise their roles, Esmail managed to enlist the services of none other than Julia Roberts, who makes her television debut. Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which is owned by a sinister company called the Geist Group. The show jumps between timelines, from Heidi’s time at the center, where she spends her days in therapy sessions with disgruntled patient Walter (Stephan James), to her life several years later, working as a waitress with no recollection of her past.

As he did with the second and third seasons of Mr. Robot, Esmail directed each of Homecoming’s 10 30-minute episodes, and boy, does it show. With its sweeping, dramatic camera movements and meticulously composed frames, Homecoming might just be the most visually arresting show of the year. It’s also brimming with the same sense of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that made Mr. Robot such an addictive binge-watch, once again proving that Esmail is an auteur working at the height of his powers.

In terms of research, did you spend any time with actual soldiers who were trying to process what it means to be a civilian again? 
In the writers’ room, we had a consultant who we would talk to about what the process is of coming back home and what that looks like. We did research on these kinds of facilities—these privately contracted companies that help veterans come back into civilian life. We did a lot of research into that and how companies do that, and how that operates, and how they get those contracts from the DOD [Department of Defense]. A lot of that happened in the writing phase. 

Are any of them as sinister as the Geist Group? 
I don’t know, but I’m always skeptical of corporations, as you can probably guess. 

With Mr. Robot and now Homecoming, paranoia seems to be a major theme in your work. Why do you gravitate toward that?
Honestly, I’ve been trying to figure that out. I know I’m a paranoid guy. I try and keep things on lockdown, and I assume everyone’s listening to everything and recording everything.

So you must have been conflicted making this show for a corporation like Amazon.
Oh, yeah—and by the way, I have an Alexa, and in Mr. Robot, the Don character has one, too. I love the technology, but I’m always suspicious about it.

What were the major benefits of working with Amazon?
They couldn’t have been more supportive. Even if we disagreed creatively on things, it was always coming from a smart place. It was never coming from a place of trying to spoon-feed things to the audience, or trying to market things to the audience. Some of the choices we made up front, like not hiring a composer and using all old film scores, were so risky and so expensive, but Amazon just believed in it.

I recently read that Cary Fukunaga faced a lot of pushback from HBO when he conceived of the infamous tracking shot in the first season of True Detective. Did you face similar hurdles for some of your more ambitious creative flourishes?
They were totally on board, which I was so humbled by. When a network stands behind your creative vision—which USA also did with Mr. Robot—it lets you experiment and flourish. It’s nice to have that bigger budget and more time, so it’s not just a 14-hour-day grind. Having said that, in terms of support, both USA and Amazon have been behind me 100 percent.

Julia’s a normal human being, and that, honestly, was the biggest thing when we first talked. The way I saw those reference points, she was all in on that.

What are some of the challenges you faced in adapting a podcast for TV?
The podcast was constructed in such a clever way, especially considering the limitations of audio. [Homecoming podcast creators] Eli [Horowitz] and Micah [Bloomberg] did such a great job creating these really intimate relationships between characters, but you can only hear them. It’s a lot of just two people talking in a room. So, the biggest challenge was, how do you translate that to a visual medium while also honoring the great work that they did with the podcast? The big decision that we made was to keep a similar format, but so as to not make it feel tedious for viewers, we kept the half-hour format.

I don’t ever recall seeing a half-hour prestige drama before.
It had a lot to do with the HBO show In Treatment, which was also a half-hour drama about two people talking in a room. Because we knew we wanted to delve into these therapy sessions between Walter and Heidi, we didn’t want to wear out the audience’s patience by trying to expand it into an hour-long thing, and also the podcast was constructed in that way.

The show owes a lot to a kind of classic paranoid thriller that we don’t see much of anymore. Which directors were you looking at when you were conceiving the show?
The three filmmakers that I cycled through were Kubrick, Hitchcock and de Palma, because to me, their thrillers are all based on characters and their emotions, their interactions with each other and the surprises they reveal, which is such a throwback. I think nowadays, I’m used to watching thrillers that are more about action set pieces and car chases, and what’s so great about the podcast and show is that we keep that character-based foundation of the thriller, and then employ what those old masters of thrillers did to keep the audience engaged.

Nabbing Julia Roberts for her first ever TV role helps with that too. How did she come on board?
She was actually a huge fan of the podcast.

It gives me great comfort knowing that Julia Roberts listens to podcasts.
Yeah, exactly. She’s a normal human being, and that, honestly, was the biggest thing when we first talked. The way I saw those reference points, she was all in on that. She’s also a huge fan of Mr. Robot, which blew my mind. Her insight into the character and how she wanted to visually adapt, it was kind of a match made in heaven. She and I were really on the same page, and we had immediate chemistry. We ended up talking about my wedding [to actress Emmy Rossum] for an hour! She’s such a down-to-earth person and really wanted to be part of the team early on.

I know I’m a paranoid guy. I try and keep things on lockdown, and I assume everyone’s listening to everything and recording everything.

So, there was no intimidation factor?
I was a hundred percent intimidated before, and the minute we started talking, she totally disarmed that. I got totally sucked in, man.

You’ve talked a lot about how the Trump presidency shaped season three of Mr. Robot. Was that on your mind at all when you were conceiving Homecoming as well?
Well, with Mr. Robot, we were going through the election in the writers’ room. I don’t ever want to sound like we were prescient, but our tagline in the first season was “Our democracy was hacked,” and that was in 2015. A year-and-a-half later, that actually happened. In a weird way, as we were writing the third season, a lot of what we were exploring and talking about was in sync with literally what was going on in real time with the election. And obviously, none of us are fans of Trump, and we thought it was a disaster when he won. In fact, when we were in the writers’ room, and we saw the tide turning, I canceled the day and told everyone to go home and be with their loved ones.

It’s common knowledge that you conceived of Mr. Robot as a feature, but you seem to have very much settled in the world of television. Do you still make the distinction between the two?
Well, I was never a movie snob. I think growing up, when I watched TV, I was not as appreciative as I am now because a lot of TV back in the '80s and '90s was a lot of documenting action, getting coverage, and there wasn’t a lot of actual filmmaking involved. But when The Sopranos came around and from then on, you started seeing real filmmakers getting involved, and even the crafting of the story was in concert with the filmmaking, and things started becoming abstract and weird. It wasn’t always spoon-fed like a lot of the shows I watched growing up were. I’ve never been a snob, but I will say that I still think they’re two different mediums, and I don't think that's a bad thing. TV is long-form—it’s episodic. So, when people claim to to make 10-hour movies, that’s a little strange to me because you really have these chapters that you have to break the story down into, and if you’re completely neglecting that, then you should just go ahead and make a movie.

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