'Quantico' Boss on Torture Episode Amid Trump's Election: "We Didn’t Expect It to Be Prescient"

Quantico Blair Underwood ABC - H

[Warning: This story contains spoilers to the seventh episode of Quantico season two, "LCFLUTTER."]

Quantico raised the stakes with its most disturbing episode yet — largely due to the timely nature of Sunday's episode, which tackled the torturing of one's enemy and the lines humans are willing to cross.

While training his CIA recruits, lead instructor Owen (Blair Underwood) tasks Alex (Priyanka Chopra) and her fellow trainees with breaking him by any means necessary. Though at first his students debate the line between interrogation and torture, they ultimately hit their teacher with every device in the book. The hard-to-watch episode puts Owen through sensory deprivation, forced stress positions and endurance exercises, torture music playlists, starvation and extreme temperatures and physical torture. In the end, they break him by forcing him to watch as they waterboard his daughter.

The episode, which was filmed and locked ahead of Election Day, is now airing amid an altered landscape, one where a divided country is facing a Donald Trump presidency — the ABC terror drama now directly confronting some of the country's most relevant fears.

"It’s been an interesting week because of course, none of us want to deal with terrorism at this moment when a lot of us feel potentially terrorized," Quantico showrunner Josh Safran told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday after the episode aired. "I’m incredibly proud of last night’s episode and I’m well aware that it will most likely be the least-watched one we’ve ever done. I don’t even know if I would have wanted to watch a show about terrorism last night. While we are going to work hard to reflect the world, I’m aware that by the very nature of the show, it’s a tenuous place."

Below to THR, Safran breaks down the grueling torture scenes, reveals how the election will impact the rest of the season and discusses the changing TV landscape with a Democratic presidency now in America's rearview mirror.

This episode was, of course, locked before you knew that Trump would be our president-elect. Given his policies — and this episode airing after his first interview to 60 Minutes — how are you grappling with its shocking timeliness?

With a cast as inclusive as Quantico, it represents America but not the America that has just been elected. So that’s been difficult in itself, because we want to make the show as political as possible. On Wednesday morning, it’s all we talked about. The weird thing is that the story was already on this track, which is sad because we didn’t expect it to be prescient. But it is. For instance, in two weeks, it’s going to be even crazier for you to watch an episode that shot and locked months ago and includes in it a speech from a character where you would think we wrote it yesterday. We actually cut it from the show and then Wednesday morning, the producers and I ran to post and put it back in because we realized how important it was. That’s sad that it’s the case but it’s there.

How will Trump's election impact the show moving forward?

Moving forward, we can’t change the direction of [the three] episodes that are in the can already, but we always planned the show to be about what America does in the shadows, and we are definitely going to take this opportunity to really exploit that. The episode we’re shooting now, we were able to go in and reflect the world better. And ongoing, it’s going to be an issue. Unfortunately, our show represents a Democratic presidency, but we are talking a lot about how the female president on our show (Marcia Cross) was not elected, she only got that position when the president stepped down. And there’s discussion about how she never would have been elected if she had run herself. So there’s things like that. Any place we can, we are going to look at the world. I always look at the West Wing where it was nice to see this hopeful president during a time of less hope. Right now, it’s hard for me to make Quantico a show that terrorizes you in a time of terror, so the goal now is: How can we make the show representative of what the world could be as opposed to what it is? In times of happiness and prosperity and good will it’s okay to have a show that raises your blood pressure because you can turn it off and say, “But I’m okay.” But in a time of despair and despondency, I definitely don’t want my blood pressure raised so high that I feel even more in a spiral when it’s over.

The argument at the heart of the episode is: How far should America go, even if we know other countries will cross that line? Where does Quantico land on that question?

In the way that we wanted to, it doesn’t actually land. It presents this information to you and allows you to think on it for yourself. Owen and [his daughter] Lydia [Tracy Ifeachor] discuss what happened after the waterboarding, but they don’t discuss if it was right or wrong. It's more about the Lord of the Flies atmosphere of the recruits taking it to that place because they feel like they have to in order for this situation to end. But we don’t come down on it on either side and for me, that’s the best example of an episode of the show. It’s by far my favorite since the pilot. It unfolds before you and you just watch them stare into the darkness without making a judgment on it. Politically we talked about all of our attitudes, of course, and it is a very touchy issue. But we were very respectful of each other to come together and discuss: "What rights do we have? How far can you go and how far should you go? And if no one knows, does that make it more okay?" That latter question is pretty much the thesis for the first half of the season. The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, if it’s all in the name of good  is it ok to do bad to do good? That’s the whole series.

What amount of research went into this episode?

We always wanted to take a look at the modern way that interrogation is taught. Torture came second, barely, to that. When we first started, we met with our consultant who had gone through the [top-secret CIA training facility] The Farm and went through the list of things that recruits would be taught. Among them was how to withstand torture. Which wasn’t really the same as how to torture somebody else. From there, we did a bunch of research on what was no longer allowed and what are the new guidelines and rules. And then emotionally: how do you not cross the line from the new rules into an older way? We had been planning all of the characters’ backstories to come out and in the ways that we all torture ourselves about our past lives, it was a natural progression and our consultant was very helpful. He was on set during the torture scenes and that helped us a lot.

What was the most difficult moment to shoot — physically or emotionally for the cast? 

The waterboarding because we had to teach everybody how to do it appropriately. In that moment, you’re actually learning how to do something that nobody in their right mind would ever want to do. The actual filming of the waterboarding was less difficult because that’s not Tracy under the cloth, that’s a double. You’re stepping it out in pieces, but the rehearsal and the instruction was the most difficult. None of us have experienced that except probably our consultant. I can’t say for certain, but he knew what he was talking about. Our cast is so global, so they represent global concerns. There’s a deeper conversation than just, “Should America do this?” Some of our castmembers come from war-torn countries so there was a lot of discussion about that as well.

How many days were the torture scenes?

Three days. The dunking was on one day and the waterboarding was on another. Then all of the classroom scenes and Blair doing the time lapse, all of that was in the span of three days, back to back. Then the fourth day of that run was Priyanka and Pearl [Thusi, who plays Dayana] being tortured [in the present]. So Priyanka felt what happened in the classroom and then here Alex was experiencing it herself. It was tough. I’m also very glad that we are able to air what we aired. I also know that it’s crazy that level of violence can air on television. But I also think it’s important to see it.

What did you actually put Blair Underwood through and what was it like to film his torture scenes?

Blair is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. He’s game for anything. He does his research, he approaches it with such care. He’s like a master, so he wanted to do everything himself. We even had people standing by to do the dunking scenes, for instance, and Blair was like, “No, I want to be dunked.” He’s like, “I’m a good swimmer, I can hold my breath under water for a really long time. Dunk me.” The director, Steve Robbins, said, “Fine, if you’re going to be dunked I’m going to be dunked first.” So Steve did the test to make sure it was safe for Blair and Blair did it. It was a bottle episode, because it takes place all on The Farm. So we were able to live in our sets uninterrupted for almost two weeks. It was eight business days. So the pervasive feeling of being trapped in those rooms really took hold. Everybody was sort of just in it.

What wowed you the most about Blair?

The crazy thing for me is that there is time lapse in the show. There’s actually more time lapse than was used. But Blair had to sit on that set for hours by himself. We left him on the stage by himself while everyone went off to a different station to shoot the scenes so we could get the time lapse. So there he is alone in that room for hours in a dark soundstage. You loved it. And also, because our consultant was there, everyone was having the conversations that you and I are having right now — about, what does this mean noticing how easily you can sleep into it? The idea of how unchecked interrogation is because once you’re there, who’s to say how far you can or cannot go? Because starting is really all that matters. Once it’s started, how do you keep yourself in check? We were having those conversations for days. That was the attitude on set.

Since Trump’s election, the LGBTQ community is fearful of the future. The episode also had Sebastian (David Lim) coming out and kissing Harry (Russell Tovey). How important are stories, like this one, to be told now? 

All stories feel important when you’re telling them. The Sebastian story is important because it’s based in partial fact on somebody that I’ve known. The sadder part is that it is again prescient. In fact, next week, there’s an off-hand remark about a conversion camp, which is something that when we wrote it, we didn’t think we would have a vice president who believed in conversion camps. And moving forward, there’s a whole prescient sequence in an upcoming episode shot already in which Sebastian talks about how you can be a good religious person and still believe you have sin inside of you that means you aren’t going to get where you’re meant to get.

I couldn’t be more depressed about this. I don’t want to have conversations about this but at the same time, anything that inspires conversation is important to me. The thing that I and all of us at the show like is the Trojan horse nature of Quantico. It’s entertainment and meant to be a blockbuster action show with a woman and all of the fun that comes with it, but underneath that, we’re still dealing with real issues. Whether it’s Dayana having been a child soldier or Leon (Aaron Díaz) having worked with cartels in Mexico or Sebastian struggling with his sexuality while being a devout person. I’m grateful we’re able to tell these stories and I’m sad they reflect so much of the world we live in.

The midseason finale of Quantico airs Nov. 28 on ABC at 10 p.m.