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Betty Gilpin and Damon Lindelof on their wild new sci-fi show Mrs. Davis

A renegade nun with an innate ability to ride motorcycles undertakes a quest to destroy the Holy Grail. An all-seeing AI communicates to the world via Bluetooth earpiece. A cowboy enters a contest at a Medieval festival called “Excalibattle,” where he must keep his hand on a giant sword for hours on end. These abnormal situations don’t even scratch the surface of the absurdity found in Peacock’s new sci-fi series Mrs. Davis.

Betty Gilpin (GLOW) stars as Simone, a feminist nun by day and horse-riding vigilante at night who sets out to expose con artist magicians. Simone’s biggest enemy is Mrs. Davis, a powerful AI that essentially acts like a god. Mrs. Davis communicates with her followers through Bluetooth and allows people to earn angel wings that can be seen through a virtual app in exchange for good deeds. After refusing to communicate, Simone finally agrees to speak with Mrs. Davis, and the nun is offered an enticing deal. If Simone can find and destroy the Holy Grail, Mrs. Davis will shut itself off.

Along the way, Simone receives help from Wiley (Dopesick’s Jake McDorman), her cowboy ex-boyfriend who also hates Mrs. Davis, and Jay (Outer Banks‘ Andy McQueen), Simone’s charming friend who runs a falafel shop. Written and created by Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof (Watchmen), Mrs. Davis provides a ridiculous, witty, and wild interpretation of the battle between religion and artificial intelligence. McDorman calls the series a game of “Mad Libs that got completely out of control.”

In an interview with Digital Trends, the cast and creators of Mrs. Davis explain how the absurd premise paves the way for an entertaining and thought-provoking series about religion and technology.

Simone in her habit walking through a crowd of people looking angry in a scene from Mrs. Davis on Peacock.
Sophie Kohler / Peacock

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. There will be spoilers for the first four episodes of Mrs. Davis.

Mrs. Davis is a show that will require a lot of viewings to catch all the references, Easter eggs, and metaphors. Tara, when you’re writing something of this nature, are you aware that the audience may not understand what’s going on right away and will need repeat viewings to go back and check things out?

Tara Hernandez: Yeah, absolutely. When we were communicating these ideas, and some of them are quite involved or over-the-top in the writing, we would use the opportunity in the slug lines to say, “If you’re feeling like this is a bit confusing or over the top, that’s the correct feeling. Hang in there.” It was a shorthand to our readers to convey the tone, and that translated into production.

Most importantly, we needed to have a real deep and true understanding of our worlds and our mythology. You don’t just want to do something that’s over-the-top and easy to miss just to do it. It should feel like the viewer is rewarded upon first watch and that it feels very satisfying. And then it should be sort of a treat or a dessert to get to go back and see how all the pieces came together or catch some references or things that were missed the first time around.

Damon, you and Tara have talked about how once you got Betty, a successful dramatic and comedic actor, for the show, you turned the humor up for Simone. Was that a three-way collaboration between you two and Betty to build Simone?

Damon Lindelof: Yeah. I think that once Betty came aboard after we had written the pilot, it did require us, moving forward, to think, OK, this [is a] character who is a little bit more abstract. It was just a costume without someone to inhabit that costume. [nudges Hernandez] You get it?

Hernandez: Boom. Come on, let’s go.

I’ll put that in italics.

Hernandez: Yeah. [laughs]

Lindelof: But once we knew that we had Betty, it’s the equivalent of this is an instrument that is not just a string instrument, but also a woodwind, percussion, an electric guitar, [and] a pair of turntables that can remix everything. We got to a point where we asked ourselves, “Is there anything that we can ask of her that she cannot achieve, let alone elevate?” Again, we put actors into boxes in the same way that we put writers into boxes, which is you’re a comedy person, you’re a sci-fi person, you’re a drama person. You like writing love stories.

I think Betty is basically like, “I’m a person, so create an authentic way where I can understand why I’m a nun. That way I, as Simone, can center myself and ground myself in this performance. Also, I’m a bit of a weirdo because I was raised by these eccentric magicians, and I’m that, too.” She always finds the most honest and authentic way to sort of play these very absurd situations. I would crack up constantly, not because I felt like we wrote a good joke, but because Betty made a choice that’s hilarious.

A man holds a plate of falafels in Mrs. Davis.
MRS. DAVIS -- -- Pictured: Andy McQueen as Jay -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/PEACOCK)

When you’re reading the script, Simone comes off as this exciting, powerful heroine who’s intelligent, witty, and funny. As the series goes on, she starts to peel back more layers to of her character. What was one of the more subtle qualities of Simone that you discovered?

Betty Gilpin: Sometimes, a modern writing overcorrect is that for a woman to be badass, she has to always have the answers and always have status in the scene, and be super-sarcastic and dry all the time. She can have nothing vulnerable about her to make up for all the years of female characters in mass media sobbing in cardigans with no answers and only vulnerability.

Simone, in her backstory as Lizzy, was this hardened, walls-up person. Her faith really dissolved one of those walls, at least, and against the fiber of her being, made her love the world and love Jesus and have this attachment and connection to the things that she had maybe spurned. Finding ways in which she was Simone, Jay’s wife, who had her arms open to the world, and then finding the ways in which she’s still stuck in her ways as Lizzy, was a really fun dance to do throughout the season.

A nun and a man sit on a couch in Mrs. Davis.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When we meet Simone, I think if you asked her in the pilot, she’d be like, “Oh, I’m at the end of my arc. I found the love of my life. I’m going to be in the convent forever. I’m fully evolved. I’m a perfect nun. I’m a woman of faith, nothing to see here.” I think her having to go back out into the world and interact with this AI and Wiley from her past and her mother, she realizes, “Oh, I still had so much work to do.”

What is your faith if you are given proof? There’s no risk for her, actually, like there is for Mother Superior. I think she learns that being alive and loving someone, you have to take in the possibility that they aren’t always going to be there. That it’s not only comfort and only safety. I think that’s being a nun and that’s being a person. I think she learns that lesson the hard way.

When you first read for the role of Jay, which we later learn is a shortened nickname for Jesus, what’s the first thought that came to your mind?

Andy McQueen: The first thought was, “Wow, I’m nervous. “Also, wow, this is crazy and this is cool. I would love to be a part of this world, and thankfully, I am, so that’s a great thing.

There have been many versions of Jesus onscreen, and this one is a calm, funny, and charming version of Jesus. How did you develop this version with Damon and Tara?

McQueen: I would have to say that it was all about honoring the script and honoring the writing. I’d have to say that I had a lot of great material to work with, and I feel like as an actor, I have to always remember that it’s about being thoughtful and caring when approaching every character and finding the humanity within that character. Put that up on its feet opposite Betty Gilpin as Simone, and you’ve got this beautiful synergy between the two of them. It really made for a lot of finding a lot of beautiful moments. That’s a testament to the fact that it takes two to tango, and you’re only ever as good as your scene partner, and Betty Gilpin is a dream to work with.

A group of nuns stand in unison in Mrs. Davis.
MRS. DAVIS -- "TBD" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Betty Gilpin as Simone -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

When you’re reading for the part of Wiley, you see this cowboy-like figure jump off the screen. As you started to read it more, what’s something subtle about Wiley that kind of caught your eye?

Jake McDorman: Oh, man. He has such an epic introduction. I mean, he comes in on a motorcycle! He looks flashy. You think he’s going to be kind of the archetypal leading man that does everything smoothly and is cool like Han Solo. It doesn’t take long before they get under the big rock, and he starts to fall apart and bicker with his ex as you would. She can just poke holes in that theory of him being this cool guy better than anybody. It’s just like anybody that you’ve known since childhood that you’ve dated would be able to do.

His vulnerability and, I think, especially as we get into the third [and] fourth episodes, the humor in his vulnerability, really started to come out of the script. That was fun to play. As long as he’s on the motorcycle, as long as he’s at Durden headquarters, it’s still silly. But he thinks he’s still got an element of control, especially the way the second episode ends. It’s all going according to plan. It’s not until episode 3 and beyond where shit starts going off the rails, and you find out who he is underneath the bravado, you know.

I think you previously described the show as Mad Libs.

McDorman: I told them that I think in my callback when I was with Damon and Tara. I was like, “I really do mean this as a compliment because I absolutely love it, but it does feel like you guys just played a game of Mad Libs that got completely out of control.”

In the press notes, you mentioned that your father was an Episcopalian priest, and you were able to speak with nuns beforehand. What did you learn from these women that you were able to apply to Simone? Did they have an opinion on this idea of AI vs. religion?

Gilpin: So I think I had a pretty cliché idea of what a nun was like in my head. I think in film and TV, we’re used to seeing either one-dimensional pious figures who are sort of meek and silent, or horror movie nuns who are eating children with blood coming out of their eyes. And speaking to these three different women, I found, huge shock, that they’re three different women. [laughs]

They’re all multifaceted and super-connected within their community and almost living meditations as people. The things that they have opted out of have only tripled their other powers and senses and connections. I was schooled thoroughly by these three very badass women. Actually badass, not just actress, lame, fake badass.

I didn’t ask them what they thought about AI because when I was researching the part a year ago, AI was not as much a part of the conversation as it is now. … It would have been like, “Oh, this thing in our show is taking over society.” Now, I would totally ask what they think of ChatGPT. Even when we were filming six months ago, it wasn’t as much of a part of our headlines as it is now. It’s terrifying.

Mrs. Davis | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

This is a unique show, but I think a natural comparison is Black Mirror, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw Owen Harris behind the camera for a few episodes. I can talk for days about San Junipero [which was directed by Harris]. How did having Owen bring your ideas to life?

Hernandez: Like you, we were such fans of San Junipero and his additional Black Mirror episodes. Not only did … we have him behind the camera for the episodes he directed, but as a partner for us, a producer-director on the series. He is someone that has demonstrated in his work this ability to infuse tech into the story in a way that doesn’t distract from the story and feels like it only enhances the themes. In the case of San Junipero, how tech mimics an afterlife essentially, or how it’s used in Striking Vipers to unpack and examine male relationships.

When we saw that he was available and interested, we were fans like everybody else. What he was able to do on this show, I would say beyond the technology, is infuse it with his personal taste and a type of storytelling that while it goes to the height of absurd at times, can feel really grounded. So [Owen] was just such an amazing choice. Then, by pairing him with Alethea Jones and Fred Toy, who were also directors on the series, I think we had the dream team directorial lineup for the show.

A man talks on the phone in Mrs. Davis.
MRS. DAVIS -- "TBD" Episode 102 — Pictured: Jake McDorman as Wiley -- (Photo by: Tina Thorpe/PEACOCK)

I like the Fight Club references, and you mentioned that your jacket in the show references Fight Club

McDorman: Yeah, Jonathan Logan is a brilliant designer. He did the jackets for Fight Club. His credits are too many to list here. I had known him just by being a fan of his work. Honestly, for being a complete nerd for his work. I tracked him down years and years ago to see if he’d be willing to make me a jacket from Fight Club when I was like 19 years old. And he did. He took pity on me and was like, “This sweet nerd kid. Sure.”

Cut to years and years later, we stayed in loose contact. The costume designer for this show was like, “We really like the idea of this Fight Club influence,” so we’ve reached out to the actual designer who designed the real Fight Club jacket. I said, “You don’t mean Jonathan Logan.” She said “Yeah.” So we reunited over this show. It was so cool because I knew him and he’d been talking to Susie [Coulthard], our costume designer.

Before we even got to set and started filming anything, just as far as the wardrobe goes, it felt collaborative. To be brought into that process with somebody that I had admired for years and already knew previously. The three of us talking about what it should look like, with a bull on the back and maybe rib this and put a buckle here. To design it with the guy who actually designed the Fight Club jacket was great. He was at our premiere last night, so it was a really cool full circle with him.

I would have loved to see the outline for the show because you could give someone a thousand guesses on where it goes, and they would get it wrong every time.

McDorman: Totally. Especially what Mrs. Davis ends up being. That was like, “Fucking what?” [laughs]

The first four episodes of Mrs. Davis are now available on Peacock. New episodes will stream on Thursday.

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