'Altered Carbon' Star on the Show's Sensuality: "It's More About Warfare Than True Pleasure"

Kristin Lehman speaks with THR about playing the "crocodilian" femme fatale Miriam Bancroft on the new Netflix drama.
Courtesy of Netflix
'Altered Carbon'

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

Three episodes into showrunner Laeta Kalogridis' Netflix adaptation of Richard K. Morgan's novel Altered Carbon, protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) comes across an incredibly bizarre scene.

Kovacs, a warrior from a forgotten time, stalks through a glitzy party brimming with one-percenters, searching for the person responsible for murdering Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an incredibly rich and incredibly ancient industrialist — someone whose death didn't exactly stick, considering the flexible nature of mortality in the show's world. Eventually, Kovacs sets his sights on a top suspect: Miriam Bancroft (played by Kinnaman's fellow The Killing alum Kristin Lehman), Laurens' wife, and someone Kovacs has already encountered in a one-night stand. Except, the woman he follows isn't Miriam after all. It's Miriam's daughter, gallivanting around the party wearing her mother's "sleeve" (or "body," as we would call it), causing mischief. According to Lehman's interpretation of the scene, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in the Bancroft family.

"I really loved that scene," Lehman tells The Hollywood Reporter, laughing at the memory of playing it out. "For me, the guiding principle was duplicity. Everyone in the Bancroft family is very duplicitous. In this case, it was about playing dress up, but in one's parent's body. It just could not have been more fraught with Freudian everything."

Indeed, "Freudian Everything" could have been a compelling alternate title for Altered Carbon, given the world in which it exists, where men and women are able to change physical appearances, races, genders and identities outright as easily as one puts on a new pair of pants. At least, the people with vast quantities of wealth can make those alterations with ease — people like Miriam and the others gathered at the Bancroft family affair. For the people on the oil-slicked streets of Bay City, where a time-displaced Takeshi Kovacs dwells, their definition of "the good life" boils down to living at all. Easier said than done.

For her part, Miriam's journey throughout Altered Carbon sees the veritable femme fatale plummeting from her life in the clouds to the world down below — not as literally as Mary Lou Henchy (Lisa Chandler), the woman whose sky-falling death fuels the season's mystery. Instead, it's a figurative fall from grace, as Miriam, initially one of the most suspicious parties in Laurens' death, later comes to be revealed as a willing participant in the conspiracy after all. At the end of the season, both the Bancroft patriarch and matriarch are under arrest for different reasons — and to hear Lehman tell it, that's as far as the road goes for her role in the series.

"I know there's a heady and spectacular season two planned, should they get picked up, but this was a stand-alone story," Lehman says about the future of Altered Carbon — a future she does not expect to experience as anything more than a spectator. (Indeed, even star Joel Kinnaman won't be involved in season two, speaking toward the massive status quo shift for the series' cast moving forward.) Lehman adds: "I believe they'll follow the rules of the world, but with different characters."

With the book closed on Miriam Bancroft, Lehman sat down with THR for a heady conversation about her role in the first (and so far only) season of Altered Carbon, her character's animal instincts and use of sexuality as a weapon, and more.

Altered Carbon is unlike almost anything you can watch on television right now ...

In what way?

The world is so expansive — and clearly expensive — and immediately realized, whether it's an ocularly implanted cell phone that barely gets a mention, or the full backstory behind the "stacks." 

It's a testament to Laeta's vision. She has spent so many years trying to bring this story to the fans. Laeta, Netflix and Skydance knew how to do this project right. Richard K. Morgan's book is a very specific world. They really did it right — and you're right, they did it with a budget. But they used that budget in a very specific way. Everything you're responding to is the specificity that requires attention and commitment and investment, and it pays off, whether that's the specificity of character choices in the hands of the actors, or the specificity of building the world so completely and taking the time to do the source material justice. It's used as a jumping-off point for Laeta to add her own visionary touches. We were very lucky to be part of a project that could put its money where its mouth is. It was thrilling. I did almost no green screen, and I didn't witness very much green screen. A lot of [the world] was really built for us. When we're looking outside the balcony of the world, when we're down with the grounders, that's digital film that's later enhanced for us with obviously gifted visual effects added later — but I was watching a film of what it would eventually be. It was such an experiment to be a part of something so sumptuous and so detailed and so built, that it was impossible to not get swept away with it.

Adding to that, you're dealing with some very rich themes, whether it's power struggles between class and gender, what happens when an incredibly significant technological breakthrough is mostly in the hands of an elite group ... the show is set hundreds of years into the future, but it's chewing on contemporary subject matter.

Certainly. What I also felt was that while this is a genre-heavy story in terms of sci-fi, it also explores themes that are age-old. It has everything to do with our human frailties. The existential crisis of being born only to die, and the giant vast chasm between those who have and those who have not, and the marginalization and abuses of power that happen with that kind of disparity ... certainly, we're seeing it in the modern day with our politics and society, but I would also hazard a guess that you're seeing it in aristocratic societies all throughout time. As human cultures and society evolves, there are themes that have played themselves throughout our interacting with each other. It just happens that now is the time we're looking at it. It's not that different from a feudal scenario. That's a larger conversation, but there are times that have described an economic disparity, coupled with the desire of humanity to live forever, throughout history and literature and good storytelling. We're part of that grand gesture, in exploring these themes. The reason they resonate is because they have always resonated. 

In playing Miriam Bancroft, you are playing someone who not only has vast wealth, but has had vast wealth for such a long period of time. She's lived for centuries as one of the "Meths." Do you approach a character like Miriam and the Meths almost as if they are gods?

I think with James Purefoy's character, Laurens Bancroft, certainly. He fully plays out his god complex. I thought that was displayed in an incredibly interesting way in the episode where he visits the diseased like he's Jesus. I thought that was a real complexity; what he's doing is quite benevolent, but it's also twisted with his own ego. It's not really truly the right action ... it is, but it's coupled with pride and ego as well. With Miriam, I felt less a god complex with her, and more that she has had such infinite leisure that she's actually become crocodilian in her existence. It's really all about protection and her own assumptions of power, and wanting to hold onto that. I don't know if with her longevity has come ease. I think it's bred entitlement and opulence, and a certain amount of madness, to tell you the truth. The stakes for her, at a certain point, went out the window. The vitality of living is the snake eating its tail, in that it's funneled back into her own leisure adult psyche. I think her deep desire to maintain power is just an evidence of madness. She has to create some kind of conflict. Living forever with tremendous resources could provide some kind of ease, but that's not where she goes. She manufactures conflict in order to keep the stakes of being alive relevant. And I also thought she was such an alligator.

What do you mean by that?

I thought she was prehistoric. She's lurking. Always lurking. Slow and destructive. It's almost like she dwells in the darker elements of the psyche, and I'm sure she didn't always. I'm sure she loved her husband and I'm sure she loved her children, but I think somewhere along the way, her brain was just not able to stay connected to reality. Really, everything is a performance for her. I played her a bit like she's a crocodile, always under the water, or scurrying away.

In a way, you could describe her role in the greater narrative of the season in those terms. From the first episode, Altered Carbon is a murder mystery, and by extension, the viewer looks at every character as a possible suspect. Miriam is a top suspect right from the start, especially because she's one of two people who had obvious access to her husband and the kind of weapon that killed him on the night of his death. Midway through the season, the story moves on and you almost forget about Miriam — only to find out that she really was involved in the plot after all. In that sense, you forget about the danger of this person, lurking in the water, until it's almost too late.

That's right! She's laid in the hot mud for long enough that you don't think she's a threat. It's like, "Oh, that alligator hasn't moved for days, so it's not going to get us." I'm grateful. I didn't necessarily have the words to explain why that characterization of her [as a crocodile] resonated with me, but the way you just described it? Very much yes.

What does the arrival of Takeshi Kovacs mean to Miriam? There's clearly the physical attraction, which they act upon. What does his presence mean for someone like Miriam?

Miriam has commodified her sexuality to be her way into power — and possibly for ego-building, to build her idea of herself as desirable and vital. But I also think it's more about warfare than it is about true pleasure. For her, it's not about sensuality. It's about dominion. Because she's manipulating Takeshi, I feel like it's a chess game more than anything else. It's rare for her to be enticed by something new, and he's very much new, but also connected to the past, which I think she's nostalgic for. She wants dominion, in the same way Laurens does, in all of the ways she's come to describe and define power for herself.

Miriam is arrested at the end of the season — a real subversion for someone who has literally been living in the clouds for hundreds of years, now brought back down to earth. How do you view her emotional state at the end of the season?

Well, first of all, I have to tell you: I'm guessing she and Laurens are in some extremely cushy maximum-security prison. (Laughs.) Why would it be any different then than it is now? Money still talks, even when you're being punished. But I will say, at the time, I played a sense of relief with her. Maybe relief isn't the right word ... but a sense of resignation. She didn't have an aversion to the resignation she felt. I think she was exhausted. The idea of a reckoning at the end almost felt welcome, like she almost didn't want that life anymore. My feeling when I watch it and when I did it was very much resignation. I think she probably remained resigned — and now she's probably the head of some gang. (Laughs.) That's probably too trivial! But I bet she's still experiencing tremendous opulence, just in whatever maximum-security prison she's in. I think she still has power. Old habits die hard. But the facade had to crack. She couldn't bear the weight of that life anymore. 

What did you think of Lehman's role as Miriam Bancroft? Sound off below, and follow THR.com/LiveFeed for more Altered Carbon coverage.