SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Sister,” streaming now on Hulu.
Although the title of Neil Cross’ new four-part series is “The Sister,” the story actually follows a man named Nathan (Russell Tovey). The audience first meets him when he is completely traumatized and distraught, ready to take his own life, only for him to look to his television screen and see a young woman named Holly (Amrita Acharia) pleading for information about her missing sister Elise (Simone Ashley). As it turns out, Nathan has information, but he does not share it with the family. Instead, he begins dating and eventually marries Holly, becoming a part of the family, all while being haunted by a dark secret.
“We find him in the beginning where he’s about to kill himself and then he sees Holly’s face on the TV, and he realizes in that moment that suddenly there is an opportunity — a channel of life — that he can walk,” Tovey tells Variety. “He makes a decision in that moment to live, and if he’s going to live, he’s going to commit to that,”
But Nathan doesn’t know the full truth about what happened to Elise until the end of the series, 10 years after the events of her going missing. That is when his so-called friend Bob (Bertie Carvel), who believes he is actually being haunted by Elise’s ghost, finally admits to what he did. Determined to create a paranormal event, Bob tried to kill both Elise and Nathan with drugs laced with cyanide, but only Elise partook, leaving Nathan to think it was his fault she died, and to deal with the guilt of covering up the death.
“He was so polarizing, because I see him as the victim — and he is a victim — however, he’s made choices that make him the culprit,” Tovey says of Nathan. “This is a guy who was very ordinary and very average who made a mistake one night when he was drunk, and panicked, and that has affected his choices going forward.”
Although Nathan was innocent of the first murder, he ends up killing Bob — and then makes sure the police find proof of Elise’s murder in Bob’s home. His attempt to make it look like Bob accidentally overdosed doesn’t get past Jacki (Nina Toussaint-White), but because of Bob’s involvement in Elise’s death, “outwardly now he’s a hero,” Tovey says of his character.
Here, Tovey talks with Variety about diving into the complex psychology of a character like Nathan and if he feels the character got what he deserved in the end.
How do you feel about the ending for Nathan in terms of the happiness of it or whether he got what he deserved?
People love Nathan and they’re happy for what happens to him in the show, but in reality, it’s problematic in a massive way. But I was determined, as I am with every character that I play, to find the empathy and the heart and the honesty and the love of Nathan. And Nathan has a huge heart and just wants to be loved. [He] shows you anyone could fuck up. He had 10 years of good living and then suddenly his past catches up to him when Bob turns up on his doorstep.
How good was that living, really, though, when he had so much guilt and such a heavy secret?
It wasn’t 10 years of peace, but on paper. He wanted to make sure he lived for Holly and gave her the best life, and these 10 years, he’s gotten away with it; he’s been able to maintain and enable himself to survive without anything knocking him off course. He was living for Holly, to make sure that she had happiness and that her broken heart could be healed.
How much of his motivation to kill Bob was to protect Holly, versus protect himself, or perhaps even get revenge after learning what Bob had intended for him?
He needed to silence a very loud noise that was starting to permeate everything and affect everything. It felt like, “You’re too loud, you’re too mental and now I’ve discovered you were trying to kill me anyway.” The guilt he would feel or the responsibility in that moment, well he was going to take mine without any remorse, and there’s no remorse now; [Bob] just feels like he’s being haunted, which he deserved to be. I think [Nathan] would have pondered everything, but he just needed to end it.
By introducing the paranormal element to the show, it does leave a bit of wondering about Bob now haunting Nathan.
He was haunting me in life or maybe he’ll haunt me in death, but I can deal with that because I’m haunted by everything. The lesser of two evils is I can bump him off and deal with that.
In stories like these where this is a mystery element, much of the audience watches with deep suspicions about every character. How did you calibrate how and when to show cracks in Nathan’s persona to hint at why he feels guilt, without planting red herrings for what really happened to Elise?
I have a friend who worked at TGIFridays and they had this thing where they’re called swans when they’re servers [because] on the surface they’re gliding and they’re completely calm, but under the surface the swan is kicking its legs. So for Nathan, I wanted him to be a swan: the turmoil inside him, he’s kicking up shit, old bits of metal falling into the river, and that’s what’s happening inside him, but on the surface he’s got to the place where he can maintain this performance.
How did this work, production-wise? Were you able to shoot all of the flashbacks at once, to at least build them linearly in your performance?
Some days we would be filming different stages of his life throughout the day. Sophie Slotover, who’s the makeup artist, is a queen and incredible, and the responsibility for her was to make me look these different ages with hairstyling and makeup and styling and where I’m at. And then for me as an actor I had to find the energy at each point. I wanted him at the beginning to be like a puppy dog — to be very innocent and buoyant, up, shoulders back; he’s bashful, but he’s confident and he’s into girls and sex-positive and uncomplicated and open. I needed that to have something to drop off so when that’s taken away from him, you feel a loss of what could have been — the potential of someone that had that openness, that had that freedom. And then the second one is obviously someone who wants to kill himself and is haunted and is just merely existing, a shell of himself. The last one is a survivor and someone who, as I said about the swan, has established a way of enabling himself to survive and a persona that contains everything, but he’s someone who does not want to be noticed by anyone. So I knew where I was, I had to then feel where I was in my body — what that did to my posture, my shoulders, my mindset — and then I was able to play the three things. I loved playing all three of them because it’s challenging, but I really liked playing him young and fresh and happy because you know where he’s going, so it’s even more important to know what we lost.
At the end of the show, arguably there is a fourth version of Nathan, now as a dad and a man who people know did commit a crime but for a seemingly good reason. If you’re the type of actor who thinks about where the characters go after you stop playing them, what do you envision for this new Nathan?
I imagine the baby starts fucking him up — something is channeling through that that only he can see. Who doesn’t love a haunted baby? He’s a guy that is never going to find rest. I find that he is someone who is doomed to haunt the Earth forever.
Is he a character you’d consider revisiting?
Nathan is someone it took me a while to shake off, but would I let him back under my skin? I guess it would have to be the right reason.
What made him hard to shake?
It was a hard schedule and every single scene was like a panic attack, anxiety, terror, is he going to lose someone; is he going to be found out; is he going to go to prison? You’re tricking your body into having emotions that are not actually real, but your body doesn’t know that because you’re working yourself up. But on the flip side, that’s the whole point of acting. There’s something incredibly rewarding and satisfying about fucking yourself up, basically, emotionally — testing yourself, pushing yourself. That’s what the best art is, when it genuinely affects you.