Hulu’s new series Shut Eye follows two married grifters played by Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) and KaDee Strickland (Private Practice) living in Los Angeles. Though they make their living pretending to be psychics in the service of a powerful and dangerous Romani family, things take a turn when an accident leaves Donvan’s character Charlie wondering if he might actually be clairvoyant.
We sat down with creator Les Bohem (Extant, Dante’s Peak) and star Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) ahead of the show’s debut on December 7th to talk psychics, how a Hulu series is different from movies and the importance of proper Romani representation.
So how is doing a TV show on a streaming network like Hulu different from doing a movie or a show on a traditional network?
LB: The fundamental difference is that a movie is 90 to 120 minutes [while] a series is a long short story or novel, but who publishes your novel doesn’t affect how you write.
How about in terms of how people watch it? Say, watching on a device versus a big television screen?
IR: That may be a consideration for the cinematographer or the directors, but in terms of acting and writing, I think it’s the same. At the end of the day, the writing is the same and you act the same whether you do it for a television series or a feature film. Really, Hulu is a great revolution in distribution and somewhat in promoting. So this is the first time, for example, that I’ve been here [to NYCC]. [To Bohem] Is it the first time for you too?
LB: Yes, first time here.
IR: Bloggers and social media have become incredibly important very fast and we have to sort of navigate that. But it’s all about the distribution of the film. I do think, but I don’t know if it’s true, because I’m not a sociologist, but I think that when you can download the film, watch it at home on your own time…. I had two children and I was a single mom and it’s really difficult to go to the movies because you had to get a babysitter. And then television series, “Oh, it’s 9 o’clock on Wednesday, ah! the baby woke up and didn’t go back to sleep until 9:30. I could only tape the tail end.” So, I think there might be a whole new audience and I wondered if all of us actors are working right now. Yes, there is an explosion of series, but also there is the ability to engage a bigger audience because of this format, it makes it more available.
As a creative person then, does it feel like you’re reaching more people than ever before? Especially people who may not have known your work?
IR: I don’t know. It’s more marketing research and all this at the end. In your head, you hope to be successful, but when you work and you think of your audience, I only think of my friends, how to please them and…
LB: Yeah, everything has such a crazy long life now. People discover things, it’s true with music, it’s true with television. You’ll be having a conversation with somebody and the show they’ll be watching is something you watched four years ago.
So let’s talk about psychics for a second.
LB: I knew you were gonna say that.
What is your actual opinion on psychics?
LB: I stand firmly in both camps. In other words, I will go out on a limb and say 90-some percent of the parlors in any given city are con-men and women working scams. A lot of them also believe in their abilities. They can hold both of those things. The Romani community, for example, firmly believes all of this, but there is a long tradition of scamming. And I think, let me wax pretentious and quote Carl Jung, in his introduction to the I Ching, he said (at least the translation that in my hippy days we all had) that the difference between an eastern mind and the western mind would be that the western mind would say, “how can a bunch of sticks tell you anything about your future?” and the eastern answer would be, “did you learn anything from the answer?” I don’t think it honestly matters whether that stuff is real or not.
IR: It’s the power of influence
LB: Right, it’s actually kind of more fascinating if it’s internally true than if it’s really your dead grandmother talking to you. But the line for me is, are you being taken advantage of or not?
Did you change your mind during the course of making the show?
LB: I did another show that was about alien abduction (Extant) and the same thing happened to me: the further into it I got, the less I believed. I just learned more and more about the scams.
So you turned from a Mulder into a Scully?
LB: Yeah. A Mully or a Sculder.
Ms. Rosselini, you’ve done a lot of TV work before and this is sort a tough character. Is that what drew you to this role, being this big matriarch?
IR: I think that it was sort of wonderful to play a matriarch, a godfather, but this time it was a godmother. In fact, I looked at Marlon Brando in The Godfather for inspiration for my role. I come from an old civilization, Italians, and I know that in a lot of these, a modern eye, like an American eye, might look and say, “it’s a society that is machista and the men rule and the women are submissive.” [Shakes head] The women rule, but in the family. The grandmother is the boss. So, I knew that very well and I’m playing Romani (an old civilization), though I’m not a Romani, I felt a great empathy because I know that person. I know that person that is warm, kind, attentive to everybody and terrifying—the grandma.
Do you guys have someone you talk to about Romani representation? For instance, the term “gypsy” can be very offensive.
IR: Didn’t you notice we didn’t use it?
LB: In Romani culture, there’s a divide over that. But I find it a deep and fascinating culture. [To Rosselini] Were you offended by The Sopranos?
IR: No, I find it very funny.
LB: I became very close with the Romani family that we met in Vancouver. We had a Romani advisor on set. I spent years before I put the script out doing a lot of research. There’s a professor of Romani Studies in Texas, Anne Sutherland, who was also one of our advisors. I’m extremely cognizant of the fact that it’s a deep, rich culture, second only to Jews for people killed in the Holocaust. They’ve had a rough time of it. My family on my father’s side was Transylvanian, Hungarian, and he grew up with “the gypsies” and his dad was a musician so it was all about when they were going to come to town there was going to be music. So, what I always heard about the music and the food. I never heard all the “steal your children” or “they’re hiding under the bridge for you” or anything. I sort of backed into it in the story as I said in the panel. I was just writing about psychics and I found out who really and truly ran the psychic world and it became really important to me to paint a fair picture. You’ll see as you get further into the show that there are other aspects.
You guys get pretty in depth into the culture even in the first episode.
IR: And more so now. Marriages, traditions, those are very fun to discover.
LB: And I’ll be really optimistic and spoil five years down the line: for Charlie (Jeffrey Donovan) to ultimately become the saint that I hope he will be, to do the right thing. Doing the right thing, may be killing his wife (KaDee Strickland) to save Rita. The importance of a people with traditions and things that they believe in will become infinitely more important.
IR: But also, I think it’s the story of America. We all come in, whether we are Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, we come with a set of traditions. And here, there is another set of traditions and that clash is very interesting. When you first arrive, you’re looked down [upon]. So, to me, the Romani, it could have been anybody. It happened to be that they are in the world of clairvoyants and all this, but it is that conflict that is repeated over and over again in becoming an American.