SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Interview,” the first season finale of “The Morning Show.”
Apple TV Plus’ “The Morning Show” began with beloved fictional morning news anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) getting fired amid sexual misconduct allegations. The veteran media industry professional felt himself to be a casualty in a war on powerful men, post-#MeToo movement. But the true causality of the situation, and the show, was Hannah Schoenfeld (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a talent booker who Mitch assaulted.
When she first attempted to talk to someone about it, it was network executive Fred (Tom Irwin), who offered her a promotion before she could even say what happened. She took the promotion and buried her trauma by focusing on work and numbing her pain with drinking and drugs. In the first season finale, Hannah finally did tell her truth — to Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) — and she also accepted another promotion, this time in Los Angeles, where she wouldn’t have daily physical reminders of what she went through. But she couldn’t really run from her trauma, and she ended up overdosing and dying.
“I always looked at it as sort of a morality tale for Hannah in terms of what she went through. In a sense, consciously or not, she sold her soul in accepting that promotion after that incident with Mitch. And really the consequences for her are very tragic, but I really hope audiences will look at it as examples of what not to do — how not to end up like Hannah — by sharing these experiences and really talking about it and trying to heal from it before it eats you up,” Mbatha-Raw tells Variety.
Here, Mbatha-Raw talks with Variety about getting inside Hannah’s trauma, if she believes Hannah purposely ended her own life and how she hopes her character’s tragic ending will motivate change both on the show and in the real world.
Hannah’s death really is an inciting incident in the finale of “The Morning Show,” in the sense that it’s an event that kicks Alex into action and even has Mitch seemingly reconsidering what he thought about his actions and their relationship.
Like she’s a sacrificial lamb?
Yes. So how concerned were you with making sure the story and the shots were evenly weighted so it wasn’t just about propelling other characters forward but also ensuring there is time and respect paid to Hannah?
I certainly think for the world of the show, I hope it propels them to evolve — especially Mitch. Listen, if something like that doesn’t, I think there’s not much hope for us in the world. Without being so crass as to say that’s the character’s function — I hope that it’s something that is a sobering, grounding catalyst for them. Obviously it’s a drama; it’s very tragic and it’s very dramatic — but in the world of the show, I hope it forces them to grow.
So what were the conversations around paying proper respect to Hannah in her final moments from a story and visual standpoint?
It’s always very delicate when you’re dealing with suicide, which is a very difficult issue — and dealing with Hannah’s journey since Episode 8, the flashback scene where we really learn what she’s been through and have a bit of the context for why she’s so hardened and what her motivations are and really this trauma that she hasn’t dealt with. We really talked about whether it was intentional or not. It was a big question I had for [showrunner] Kerry [Ehrin] because on the page it certainly was ambiguous. When we see she accepts the job in LA on the phone, really talking with [director] Mimi [Leder] was about the idea that that didn’t fix it for her. She’s making these moves in terms of a new life, but we really talked about that moment where she puts the phone down, having accepted the job and how the camera is on her face really feeling this emptiness still. This job idea just didn’t fix the pain that she has inside. We talked about the idea that whether or not she intended to end her life, she certainly intended to numb this pain, and that ended up in her death.
You just used the word “incident” to describe Mitch’s assault of Hannah, and the show does not use the word rape. Why is that?
I’ve used “the incident,” I’ve used the word “rape,” I’ve used “sexual assault.” Rape is such an emotive word, and I think to be able to show the nuances of actually how a situation like that could unfold, there are moments, there are thought processes, not everything is black and white — not everything is predator/victim. It’s not always that cut and dry. And I was interested in exploring something that had all of that complexity, which I think is what real life is; sometimes those situations are. And really to understand how that might play out from Hannah’s point of view, and then how somebody like Mitch in their bubble of power and influence and celebrity just might completely misread a situation, I think we were all just keen to make it as nuanced as possible and as human as possible.
In order to play the emotion in the moments before she is revealed to have overdosed, what did you determine about the nature of her death?
I had to make the decision for myself that it was accidental. I felt like she intended to numb, but she didn’t leave a note. There were all of the signs that this was a sort of drunken binge gone wrong, but I don’t think she really intended to leave her life, personally. As the actor, I made that choice.
Do you think it’s more or less tragic an ending if she did purposely kill herself, versus accidentally taking too many drugs?
I don’t know. I’m sort of an optimist about life. It really has shaken the foundation and really grounded this world that is full of so much narcissism and egos and professional corporate one-upmanship. To see the personal, very human cost, it will be interesting to see how characters like Mitch evolve or not and recover or not.
What did you feel like you needed for closure for the character?
Not being a producer, I didn’t necessarily have influence on how it was written. But certainly that scene where Reese’s character interviews Hannah, and Hannah relives that experience, that was such an epic scene to read and to play, in terms of the arc of her opening up for the first time ever, and how that arced from defensive to a complete meltdown. That was really fascinating. But we jump on the ride of the show in terms of episodes being written and how we would get the scripts as we went along. It was such a fast pace. There were conversations as things got more intense for Hannah, but I didn’t make any demands. I had a huge trust in how Kerry and Mimi were wanting to handle the story.
In speaking to that scene with Bradley and Hannah, how did you evolve the line between what Hannah really thought about Mitch assaulting her and what she was willing to say to Bradley, given that she had never told anyone before?
I had a lot of freedom, really. Emotionally the arc of that scene, it’s not really until she is reliving it — actually going there — that in the moment she is allowing herself to really feel. I think she has pushed it down for so long. She’s never really confessed this whole situation to anyone. She hasn’t shared it with anyone; she’s not the kind of girl that’s been to therapy or talked to her girlfriends about this experience. She’s really just been in denial and squished it down. It was nearly an eight-page dialogue scene, and our show has quite a lot of long dialogue scenes in general, but for film and TV, that is a huge, huge scene. It was like theater, having that amount of words and story and emotion to really play, and we did it all in one take, which was amazing for me. Mimi just let me roll with it — and obviously they did different camera angles that they cut together, but every time we did it, it wasn’t pickups; we always did the whole thing. It allowed me to really invest in and really feel what Hannah is feeling in the moment and really get there to a point of a virtual panic attack, really.
That emotional heaviness feels like its own kind of traumatic experience. What did you have to do to get into that headspace to perform, but also then get out of it so the trauma didn’t stay with you when the cameras cut?
Certainly when I read that script, I was like, “Wow,” but I was certainly daunted. It’s the biggest scene I’ve ever acted, in terms of the amount of dialogue and depth of emotional revelations that go on. But I was excited by the challenge. First and foremost, as boring as it sounds, just getting the words down was a huge technical feat, and that was very important to me, so I spent a lot of time making sure I was solid in that. And then the emotional beats is private work. The crew was very sensitive with these long takes. We’d be letting the camera roll for 10, 15 minutes, and Mimi would let it roll at the end as well, so there was huge focus and respect for the fact that it was a huge moment for the character. It was also my last day on “The Morning Show,” so for me, I think just knowing that I could really give it my all and wasn’t going to have to get up at 5 o’clock the next morning to shoot a scene in the newsroom or whatever. That was sort of liberating, emotionally.
And then in terms of getting out of it, emotionally, I was pretty drained by the end of it. And on the same day, when I finished that scene, we were in Hannah’s apartment and did the dead scene. That didn’t really need much acting, but it certainly gave me a sense of closure on the character after all of that emotion. As an actor, I suppose it is my job to let go and go back to a neutral space. I have my own techniques for that that include yoga or a hot bath or a martini or a combination of all of the above.
Did you know this was Hannah’s arc from the start of joining “The Morning Show”?
The scripts weren’t all written, so I had read the first two episodes, and Mimi and Kerry I spoke to on the phone and they pitched me the arc in conversation. So I always knew going in where it was going. Beyond working with this fabulous cast, it was what really made me feel like this was an important show to do. As much as we had been talking about the sexual predatory, ambiguous, gray area moments for the last two years, I had never seen a drama that had really gone there so directly and hopefully with nuance. So that was motivating for me to do it. And then certainly knowing that she had this tragic ending, for me as an actor, I knew this was going to be a psychologically deep journey for me to play. But obviously I didn’t know how it was going to get paced out throughout the episodes.
What was the directive about how much of Hannah’s trauma to parcel out before Episode 8, through the way in which she reacted to other people or situations?
There were certainly conversations with Mimi, going all the way back to Episode 2, going around to Ashley Brown’s hotel room and basically convinces her to come on their show as opposed to the rival show. You could have just thought, “Oh Hannah’s really good at her job” or “She’s really manipulative,” but if you go back and look at that scene now, seeing how intense Hannah is about that, in hindsight, knowing what’s motivating her — is she secretly getting Ashley on the show as a personal catharsis for her, in terms of getting back at Mitch for her own situation? There were lots of layers that we talked about, and there were some takes that would be more, but that’s where it came down to Mimi and the editors to balance it with the rest of the episode. It certainly gave me something to play in those moments where Mitch comes back to the studio, and I think that’s the great thing about the show: Everyone has their own relationship to Mitch and their own secrets and their own conflicting emotions about what is going on.
Is this character closed and behind you, or could you pop up in flashbacks in Season 2?
As far as I know, we’re not going to be seeing much more of Hannah in Season 2. As you say, maybe there will be flashbacks, but I don’t know. I’m pretty much leaving it there for now.
So what are the ways in which you hope the characters speak of her next season when she’s not there to speak for herself?
I think it’s complex in terms of everybody feeling their own responsibility for what happened with Hannah. And certainly in the more intimate, more personal relationships, like in the big sisterly relationship Hannah has with Claire and when she decides to make that move to report Claire to HR, most people probably thought, “Oh that’s not what a friend would do; that’s crossing the line,” but perhaps Claire will view her with more compassion, that she was projecting her own experience there and trying to protect Claire. Sometimes it’s the people who seem like they are so hard-working and ambitious and driven or seemingly just getting on with it that are actually concealing demons. Perhaps there will be, culturally, a shift in the show to be more aware of somebody like that, what they’re struggling with and if they’re in denial. We as a society are evolving culturally, and I hope the show is also able to motivate other conversations around these issues.