‘The Undoing’ Director Susanne Bier on Getting ‘Seduced’ by Nicole Kidman + Hugh Grant

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Like romance itself, director Susanne Bier knows great casting sessions are the result of something indefinable. “When actors come into the room, I want to be seduced by them. I want to kind of feel that I’m falling in love with them,” she says. “It’s also that sort of intangible [question], Am I fascinated by this person?”

“If you cast one person in a particular role, it asks lots of questions of the other roles, and you need to cast accordingly.”

But Bier, who directed every episode of HBO’s upcoming limited series “The Undoing,” also knows that a single magnetic performer cannot bring a project to life. Any palpable spark, she argues, depends on near-molecular connections among all those onscreen. 

“If you cast one person in a particular role, it asks lots of questions of the other roles, and you need to cast accordingly,” she says. “When I see a weak movie or a weak television show, I see it in all the smaller bits. You have a star here, but you haven’t actually focused on all the smaller bits, and it just doesn’t work. Every single role needs to be accurately and very finely tuned in terms of cast.”

Fortunately for “The Undoing,” which comes from “Big Little Lies” creator David E. Kelly and premieres Oct. 25, the cast’s magnetism wasn’t an issue; the leads are Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, and the ensemble is rounded out by Donald Sutherland, Lily Rabe, Michael Devine, and Noma Dumezweni.  

“It’s also about: Who do you think is a sexy couple? There is an intuitive sense of whether people make a great couple, because you can see amazing actors, and sometimes there isn’t really any energy between them,” Bier says. “And I felt there would be that [chemistry] with the two of them [Kidman and Grant].

“You can see her as coming from a very privileged background, but you can also see that she’s someone with huge secrets,” she says of Kidman, who was already attached when Bier joined the project. “And Hugh Grant—he wanted to do something very different. It’s one of those things where you have this incredible charm, and you also have a strong sense there’s a lot of other things going on. But you are always seduced by the charm.”

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Based on the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel “You Should Have Known,” the series follows a high-powered Manhattan therapist (Kidman) who is forced to take drastic measures after her husband goes missing and her life begins to unravel. After reading a draft of the first episode, Bier—best known for directing the 2018 Netflix thriller “Bird Box” and the Emmy-winning 2016 BBC miniseries “The Night Manager”—met with Kelley and gave him a creative ultimatum of sorts.

“I was like, ‘Look, I think this could go two ways: It could either be more drama or more thriller, and I’d be very keen to do this if it becomes more thriller,’ ” she recalls. “And he totally agreed. David is super collaborative. He clearly has an opinion, but he is also incredibly curious and open, and very keen. He’s so confident in what he does that he’s not at all about power games. Once he feels comfortable that we have the same show in our heads, he is very respectful and kind of steps aside and just enjoys watching.” 

Her relationship with Kelley and her work on “The Undoing” in general exemplifies Bier’s advice for emerging directors, particularly those who are women: Make a decision, and it will become the right one.

“A lot of decisions for a director are arbitrary, and sometimes it’s just more important to be able to trust that decision,” she insists. “I want to own my own thing. Don’t let anybody frighten your own trust in yourself, ever.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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