How 'Altered Carbon' Brought its Breakout Character to Life

Altered Carbon - Still 6 - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains full spoilers for the first season of Netflix's Altered Carbon.]

"And neither the angels in heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea, can ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee."

Edgar Allan Poe's haunting words fuel what's quite possibly the most emotional moment in the entire first season of Altered Carbon, the new Netflix drama from showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. The final episode of the season sees an unexpectedly heartbreaking death, in the form of artificial life form and Raven hotel proprietor Poe, played by Chris Conner (American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson). Given the show's central premise, that humanity has all but fully conquered death, mortality is a fleeting concept at best on Altered Carbon — which makes it all the more tragic and unforeseen when a character suffers "real death." It's all the more surprising when a character like Poe, who seemed literally untouchable due to his virtual nature, ends up joining the season's final body count, as he does at the hands of mustachioed murderer Mister Leung (Trieu Tran).

Before his death, there's so much life in Poe, so much so that he's among the show's most human characters. At least, he's the character most interested in human behavior. By design, Poe and other virtual hotel proprietors like him are obsessed with human beings. Unlike his contemporaries, Poe lacks disdain for his flesh-and-blood creators, despite their neglect and often outright abusive behavior toward his kind. Instead, Poe is enamored with the mortals he encounters, whether it's his first guest of the series, protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), or the virtually imprisoned Lizzie Elliot (Haley Law), with whom Poe develops an unexpected connection.

Just as unexpected: the connection between the viewer and Poe, who stands apart from the Altered Carbon cast as one of the single most memorable players of the season. In light of his unforgettable time on the stage and his equally memorable exit, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Conner all about the work involved in bringing this artificial creature to stunning life.

What was your access point into understanding Poe?

Laeta initially asked for my opinion about what I thought. There was a beautiful essay about Edgar Allan Poe by Mary Oliver, the Canadian poet, and it really helped. There's a heightened language and heightened circumstances… it's Shakespearean, in a lot of ways, and the character who stuck out for me over and over again was Falstaff. He's someone who is constantly failing and alone, but in the middle of trying to lead Hal somewhere. That's exactly what Poe ends up doing with Takeshi Kovacs. It's more than love. It's obsession. It could be on the edge of being psychotic. But it's trying to figure out what this human animal is, and how it could possibly keep going, even though they destroy each other over and over again. That's what the AI was trying to figure out, overall. He just happens to be in the form of Edgar Allan Poe. Why did he choose the form of Poe, as opposed to other things he tried in the past — like [M.C. Escher]? At one point, I think there was talk about him trying out Snoop Dogg, which would have been ridiculous. (Laughs.) There would have been a lot more smoke in the Raven. Choosing Poe was so great, because he's that lonely and tortured man in real life. Even in his death, much the way Laeta wrote my character's death… it's not easily explained. He was found on the streets in Baltimore in someone else's clothes, utterly drunk.

How much did you research Edgar Allan Poe's life?

That's the best thing about being an actor. You get to slip in and out of different "sleeves," if you will. Different identities. I read the whole canon of Poe, and a lot of the criticism of Poe's writing, which is always a way in — to see how other people saw him. At some point, you have to take the leap of faith and make this someone who is a fictionalized character, as opposed to American Crime Story when I played Jeffrey Toobin. I was in a scene when Jeffrey was actually off-camera, and I'm looking at the real Jeffrey Toobin while I'm playing Toobin. That made it pretty easy to not fictionalize and take a bigger leap of faith; I'm just going to stick with what Jeffrey wrote. With Poe, I get to play with my interpretation of it.

What discussions did you have in terms of honing in on Poe's voice, his appearance, his overall aesthetic?

For all of her amazing ability to create a universe and to see three hundred and sixty degrees around her — she creates huge worlds — Laeta is also brilliant at the minutiae. Just giving me the language to work with was easy. Even the punctuation she wrote into the dialogue was really fun. Miguel Sapochnik directed the pilot, and he's a brilliant creator of worlds. He was leading me towards someone who ended up being a little darker and a little more nymphish in his behavior, which really helped me have a lot more fun in the role. He ended up being very delicious at the end of the day. I think that's what people connect to the most: I get to have a lot of fun.

We first meet Poe on what's supposed to be Kovacs' final night before going back on ice. Ahead of time, Kovacs is warned about the obsessive qualities of these virtual hotels. As soon as he begins interacting with Poe, and the big action scene that ensues, the viewer is on high alert about Poe's deadly potential — but there's something more benevolent about his obsession with Kovacs.

Yeah, and what makes Poe different compared to the other AIs is his love of the human animal. He doesn't have disdain. It's like trying to find love in the abusive parent. Humans invented us, and I'm the kid who keeps coming back over and over again. Even neglected, you still go back. No one has come to see me in 15 years, and I still want to know: "Why don't you love me? Why won't you stay?" That really helped a lot. It's something anyone can relate to through other pieces of fiction and even in their own lives.

Poe is more than your physical human body. He's also the hotel itself. Did you start to look at the physical space as an extension of your performance?

Yes, and that's the brilliance of Carey Meyer, who was our production designer. One of the first mornings at work, maybe even during a camera test, I was standing in the middle of the Raven. He walked in and said: "Here you are. This is you." It just clicked. I'm everything in this hotel. I get to be anywhere and I get to be anything, which is hysterical once you start to film. I reappear behind people and move all over the hotel, which as an actor, you can't do… so they would keep the camera running, and I would run to the second spot where I would reappear, and the actor would have to pretend that I'm suddenly behind him. If you watched it back, it ends up being me just running around looking like a chicken with my head cut off. It's really funny. I would appear behind the bar sometimes, or the check-in counter. They would have to put in a little step ladder so I can walk up the stairs, over the bar, and hop down and start the scene. It ended up adding a lot of fun to the process, because it became very theatrical, as opposed to us making a movie — which at some points can be plodding, in terms of the process. I'll also say the floor design of the Raven, which is M.C. Escher, and it's a throwback to one of Poe's different personas. There's the grandfather clock with some of Poe's writing. There's tons of little Easter eggs all throughout the Raven. The prop department always helped facilitate everything. I had a huge room I could go in where I could pick props and come to set with the knife, or the shotgun, which they came up with the idea for. That was very fun. Everyone got to have their own little take on who and what Poe is, but also hide their own little Easter eggs in the Raven. When you go back on a second or third viewing, you can definitely pick them out.

Poe meeting Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law) is a major turning point for the character. How do you characterize that relationship? Is it paternal? Is it similar to how he views Kovacs?

I think it related directly to the real Poe's writing, and the loss of his mother and the loss of a mother figure after that, and the loss of his wife. Continually losing any female in his life, and losing any sense of what it is to be loved by the feminine. All of the sudden, he's presented with this damaged creature, and he gets to caretake. Hopefully, at some point, he feels the love back from a female. That helped tremendously, reading Poe's writings. The last lines of my character happen to be from "Annabel Lee," which might be one of the most tragic and heartbreaking poems in history. It was a tremendous help. I think there's a paternalistic aspect to his relationship with Lizzie, but there's a creepy side to it as well. Is he sexualizing her? That's a question we had to deal with [on set] over and over again, but I don't know if we answered it yet. I think the viewer gets to decide. If we were to tell them the answer, they might not get as much as they could out of it.

Death is such a fleeting concept in Altered Carbon, that it's almost challenging to actually die — so you're caught off guard when a character suffers "real death." As a viewer, you're never really considering that Poe might pass away. It's a real surprise.

It was rough. I actually knew early on. I had a meeting with Laeta and Miguel and knew it was coming from before we even started shooting episode one. It was such a gift to know where you're going, so you can actually create an arc. The rest of the cast and crew, as they were getting scripts, realized when [the finale] came: "Did you read what happens in episode ten?" It was heartbreaking for all of us to see that at some point, this would come to a conclusion. But the actual doing of it? It was totally freeing. Peter Hoar, who directed the episode, was very sensitive to the idea of making sure we played the scenes in service of the greater story. For Poe, there was no better way to be in service of his guests in the Raven than the ultimate sacrifice. That made it much easier to play. 

What do you remember about filming the death scene, which involves Poe's body crumbling in the real world, and depicts him in all-white in the virtual world?

There were a lot of simplistic things to it. It felt rather simply choreographed. It allowed us to play the scene in a very real way, so it was grounded and connected to the emotion of the moment. Then there's the brilliant visual effects that ended up adding the destruction of Poe. It shows the actual death scene, where I don't actually have to do too much except stay connected to my scene partner. They made it very easy for me, because the storytelling is so good. As far as well-written scenes in the entire show, I think my death scene is my favorite. 

What did you think of Conner's work as Poe? Sound off in the comments, and keep checking for more Altered Carbon coverage.