The latest AppleTV+ psychological thriller, Surface, has its star, and executive producer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, working through questions around what happens when you can’t trust your own mind anymore.
“The whole show really came out of this one question of what do you do if you don't know your own secrets?” showrunner Veronica West told Yahoo Canada.
Mbatha-Raw plays Sophie, who is experiencing extreme memory loss after a traumatic head injury, believed to be the result of a suicide attempt. Sophie is now trying to put the pieces of her life back together, with the help of her husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her friends and therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste), but things aren’t adding up, some connections to people who were in her life pre-injury, the things people are telling her, and even the circumstances around her injury, aren’t making sense.
“If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?” we hear Sophie say at the beginning of the series.
“[Sophie] wakes up into this really seemingly perfect life,...her house is phenomenal and gorgeous, her husband is handsome and loves her, her friends seem cool,...but from the very get-go, she can sense that something's off,” West explained.
“In the pilot, when someone tells her things aren't what they seem, she starts to realize there's a whole other side to ourselves. Here's my secrets, there's my deepest, darkest thoughts, the messy emotions I didn't share with anybody else, how can she get those things back? Or is she starting from scratch? And that's really the predicament that she finds herself in.”
The fascinating part about Surface, which really keeps the mysteries intact by, as West highlights, Sophie being “the ultimate unreliable narrator.”
“Instead of having an agenda or trying to purposely mislead the audience, she really just can't trust herself,” West said.
“She doesn't know if the intrusive thoughts that come through in the show, and in her mind, can be trusted, if they're real, if they're false, and that really drives her story through this season of trying to find out the truth.”
While Sophie is certainly at a disadvantage from her injury, Surface doesn’t play into any “damsel in distress” trope, but rather, Gugu Mbatha-Raw displays a real balance of fragility and determination to take control of her own life in her quest for the truth.
Surface also exemplifies how, even though Sophie is leading a personal investigation, we can still put a character at the centre of the story who lives in a beautiful house, and has an amazing closet of clothes and accessories. She can still be strong and determined, and smart, with a beautiful Chanel bag over her shoulder.
“This show is, in a way, a call back to those classic noir films, but the female characters in those were usually, maybe more the damsel in distress, or the Femme Fatale, we were never seeing the story from their point of view and Sophie, we always say, is the investigator, but she's also the investigation,” Veronica West said. “Everything she's trying to find out is about her secrets, her past, her mistakes, why she's in danger now, so we're getting to see her take control of the narrative from the very beginning.”
“Also, having the show be unapologetically feminine, having it be eye candy, in a sense, having it be this escapist world that we want to visit every week, that was really important to me. I feel like there aren't a lot of shows out there that allow the female heroine to not occupy a traditionally masculine space,...like be the CIA agent or be the detective. I love all those shows, by the way, but that's what makes this one different.”
Mbatha-Raw's portrayal of Sophie is certainly a highlight in the show, handling the complexity of this character in a way that is incredibly enticing.
“Gugu came on board at the very beginning, before we even set up the show with a network,” West explained. “So she's been a part of this creative process the whole way.”
“It's just been such a joy to see her embody all the different sides of Sophie. I knew from the beginning that this was a really challenging role, that it was almost like playing multiple characters,...Sophie before the accident, Sophie after the accident, and Gugu embodies all those sides of her with such emotion and such artistry. It's really a pleasure to watch.”
'The stakes are life and death'
Some of the most interesting scenes in Surface are actually the simplest. Sophie is seeing a therapist, Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste), and there is a lot of tension between the two characters, when they’re just sitting across from each other talking. Hannah sees Sophie’s quest for the truth as just her patient taping into these augmented memories and thoughts in her mind.
"The moment that your injury essentially rebooted your brain, when you opened your eyes in that water, you were reborn, anything that comes back before that moment, you can’t trust," Hannah tells her.
“Continuing to deny your own agency in this, it only disempowers you."
“That was actually one of my favourite scenes in the pilot, also the first scene with Hannah, where we realize what's really going on with Sophie,” West said. “The convention of a therapist on TV has been used so many times, but this is a psychological thriller, the stakes are life and death.”
“The theme is paranoia, and I think Sophie doesn't necessarily trust anyone around her, and that might extend to Hannah as well.”
Making Vancouver look like San Francisco
While the series is set in San Francisco, much of Surface was filmed in Vancouver, including a lot of the restaurants, streets, coastlines and waterfront homes you see throughout the show.
“My husband is Canadian and we have family in Canada, we brought our two little boys up for the summer, and we got to experience all the amazing things that Vancouver has to offer,” showrunner Veronica West said.
“Beyond that, the crew that we had in Canada was so incredible, so devoted, so artistic, and it's just amazing to see people show up every day and devote their whole creative energy to one show, and I think it becomes more than the sum of its parts, and we'll we'll always be grateful to that crew.”