'Altered Carbon' Star on Her "Daunting" Naked Action Scene and That Violent Twist

"She's not there for the male gaze," Dichen Lachman tells THR about her shocking turn in the Netflix drama.
Courtesy of Netflix

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

Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) was on ice for centuries. When he was brought back into the world, he was tasked with finding a killer, without a single loved one from his old life still alive for company. Imagine his surprise, then, when he found out in virtually the same instant that, yes, someone he loves very much is still alive — and this person is also the criminal he's been tracking all along.

Such is the twist toward the end of season one of Netflix's Altered Carbon, from showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. In the sixth episode, it's revealed that Kovacs' sister Reileen, played by Dollhouse and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. alum Dichen Lachman, is not only alive and well, but is also responsible for the gruesome crime at the heart of the series: the apparent murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), which is actually a suicide, albeit one Rei helped engineer. What's more, we learn that Reileen was the woman responsible for betraying Kovacs and his allies, the Envoys, so many centuries ago — including Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the love of Kovacs' life. 

For her part, Reileen swears that her violent actions are all fueled by her undying love for her brother. But did Rei really become impossibly wealthy through so many criminal enterprises (including but not limited to owning a high-end brothel where the selective clientele is permitted and even encouraged to kill the employed sex workers) purely out of family loyalty? It's a tough sell, to put it lightly, made even more difficult once Rei starts targeting the new people in Kovacs' life. 

Among those people: Bay City police officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), the person at the heart of the most shocking action scene of the series. Near the end of the eighth episode, Ortega discovers a secret headquarters where Rei houses several different copies of herself for resleeving purposes. The two women then engage in battle — Ortega armed with her new cybernetic arm, and Rei wearing absolutely nothing, armed with a sword. Soon, various different Rei sleeves burst out from their shells, all of them naked, all of them dead set on stopping Ortega at all costs. 

"That was a really difficult sequence, obviously because of the situation the actors were in, not having clothes on," visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell previously told The Hollywood Reporter about putting the fight scene together. "That's a tough scene to navigate around, keeping it cool and action-oriented while also not revealing too much. We don't want to get an X rating. That was a challenge, keeping it amazingly well choreographed while also being prudent about the nudity."

In the end, Rei wins the battle against Ortega, but she loses her war, dying in the arms of her own brother at the end of the season — assuming it was her final death. Will we see Lachman and Rei on Altered Carbon again, assuming Netflix renews the series for a second season? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lachman about that very question, as well as her character's motivations, and what was involved in bringing her elaborate fight scene to life.

As Reileen, you're playing one of the most complicated characters in Altered Carbon — someone who is emotionally vital to the protagonist, but also serves as the antagonist of the season. What was the key to figuring out how to play this role?

I had a rough idea of the character early on, but I was still slowly getting the material. Once I started getting deeper and deeper into it, I figured out how to make Reileen human, but at the same time portray that she's lost a lot of her humanity. It was about finding that balance. She has done some horrific and unforgivable things in the series, things that are difficult to come to terms with. At the same time, I really wanted to — and I talked to the producers about this, and they agreed — to make her vulnerable, and still have some humanity. It was a tricky balance. She has to be the bad guy in order for the story to unfold, but I also wanted people to be able to see her point of view and understand that she really believed she was doing the right thing.

Reileen commits unforgivable acts across the series, and it starts even earlier than the many centuries she spends creating her business empire. She's the one who betrays Kovacs, Quellcrist and the rest of the Envoys, for one thing. She also spent her youth working alongside the yakuza. What was your interpretation for how Reileen was able to commit so much violence?

In a way, violence begets violence. She already grew up in a very violent environment, with domestic abuse, in terms of her mother and father's relationship. She then ends up in the yakuza world, which is a matter of nurture. Her relationship with violence will be very different from someone else who doesn't grow up in that environment. I think that nurture has a lot to do with it. When she finds Takeshi and she joins the Envoys, what happens is… her love for her brother is so deep. She says it in that moment in episode seven, that they only just got each other back in the last few years — and now Quell has provided this enormous threat. Her brother is going on this suicide mission. In a way, Quell is going to take him away. Reileen doesn't believe in any of the stuff that the Envoys are going on about. For her, she thinks it's crazy.

She's the last person to volunteer when Quell announces the dangerous stakes of their mission…

Absolutely. For her, she believes that people should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to live forever or not. It's not something you should impose on somebody. For her, she feels it's completely ludicrous. I have to bring up the ending here: it's open to interpretation, but I always believed that Rei backed up Quell before she died. She knew her brother loved her, and she knew in order to have her brother in her life in the future — and for him to be happy — Quell would have to be there. I think she figured, "I can change their minds later. I'll worry about that in the future. Right now, I have to save our lives. We're not going on this suicide mission. It's out of the question." I always believed that Rei really believed in what she was doing, that it was right. Then there's so much time missing in terms of what Rei was doing while her brother was on ice. But in terms of working on the character, I had to believe it was a slow degradation of her humanity, and the first thing she did was kill all of the Envoys — or betray them, at least, resulting in her death — which gave her all of this money and power, but nobody to share it with. It slowly eroded away. It was a progression. I don't think there was one moment. I think Rei is a good person who made bad choices, and those choices led to the erosion of her humanity over a long period of time.

Altered Carbon features at least one major action scene in every episode, and you were at the heart of what's easily the most memorable of these sequences: episode seven's fight between Ortega and a small army of naked Rei sleeves. How did you prepare for that scene?

When they brought it up, it was nerve-wracking, of course. But after talking with [the producers], that scene is so important. Reileen's nudity in that scene represents her power. It's not objectifying. She's helpless. She's so much in her body. As Laeta said it, she's not there for the male gaze. Knowing that, and then going back into my work on the character, I started to get excited about it. It was daunting. It's such a vulnerable place to be, to be completely naked. Nudity can be tricky in some cultures, for varying reasons. I personally have no issue seeing it in art and content, as long as no one was pushed into doing anything they didn't want to do. But Rei is so physically fearless, that I leaned into her. It made sense for the story and the world. That's why I decided to do it.

Then there's the preparation for it. It was months of training with the sword with [Eighty-Seven Eleven Action Design], the stunt team, which was so remarkable. I felt so supported. They did such a great job. As an aside, and some people might not know this, but every fight scene on this show was [pre-visualized], which means they shoot the entire fight scene with the stunt actors. They edit it with music and special effects. It's remarkable. Some of the videos the stunt team made were so good, that I was just astonished. With the naked fight, they had done that, just like they had done for every other fight. Before I even shot it, I had a very good idea of what I was walking into. They made a huge effort to set up shots and work on the choreography so I felt comfortable in terms of doing it naked. I don't think this has been done before, so I was having trouble, not knowing a lot about stunt choreography and filming something like this. I didn't know how to imagine what it was going to look like. So it ended up being a huge advantage, to see it before. When you hear about something you've never seen before, it's hard to visualize. Those pre-viz fights came in extremely handy, just in terms of my training and rehearsing, of course, but also in really feeling like everyone was on my side to do whatever they could do to make me feel comfortable and make sure there was nothing in the shot I didn't feel comfortable with. 

Reileen dies at the end of the season, but given the premise of the show, it's easy to see how she could return — whether that's in flashback, or if she had back-ups of her stack. Will we see Reileen in season two? 

You just said it: this world is very different from the one we're living in, so of course there's the possibility. But it all depends on what they want to focus on. There's such a wealth of story, even in the first book, and ways to expand on different periods of time or different characters. They probably have an embarrassment of riches in terms of which story they want to tell, if they do go with a second season. But of course it's possible. Rei is one of the most powerful people in the universe, at least as far as it says in the book. She's very powerful in the show. I can't imagine she doesn't have a back-up somewhere. She's very organized. I think she would have a lot of contingencies planned. It's a possibility, but we don't know yet.

Do you think Rei will return for Altered Carbon season two? Sound off in the comments section below, and keep following THR.com/LiveFeed for more coverage of the series.