Closer Look: 'Snowpiercer' Team on the Show's "Prescient" Portrayal of Class and Justice

Stars Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs and showrunner Graeme Manson break down the conflicts at the heart of the TNT series and its parallels to the real world in this episode of Closer Look.

Snowpiercer has taken a long and winding track to becoming a hit for TNT in its first season. The sci-fi drama based on Bong Joon Ho's 2013 movie (itself based on a series of graphic novels) about the last remnants of humanity living aboard a constantly moving train on a frozen Earth, first went into development in late 2015. After changing showrunners (and networks, briefly) it premiered May 17 to strong ratings — and became eerily relevant in a world where protests for racial and economic justice have become widespread.

"Those are the things I see playing out more in the front of the show now than we knew they would be when we were shooting the show," said Daveed Diggs, who plays former detective Andre Layton. He's called forward from the squalid tail section of Snowpiercer to investigate a murder — and at the same time is gathering intel for a revolution among the train's lower classes. Diggs, fellow star Jennifer Connelly and showrunner Graeme Manson spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the two lead characters' opposing visions of society aboard the train, a mystery at the heart of the show and where the story will go into the second season. (The interview contains some spoilers for the first half of the season.)

Graeme, when you came onto the show you did a pretty thorough reworking of the original pilot. Can you discuss what you wanted to bring to the show and what your overall vision for the material was?

GRAEME MANSON | I absolutely love Bong Joon Ho's movie, and it was the movie that then drove me to the graphic novels. So I was familiar with them from the start. You know, the graphic novels were concerned with a different kind of apocalypse, and it was director Bong and his writing partner who brought the idea that climate change was the impetus for the disaster. I thought that was really important, and we felt that was going to be the thing that resonated really strongly when the show was airing. Little did we know that these themes of incarceration and immigration would not only not be buried, but would be taken over by something like COVID or the pressing political action of the Black Lives Matter movement right now. They all seem prescient to the film. They all seem germane to the series, and I think that's because the series has these iconic stories of human struggle and inequality. Any way you flip it, there's going to be things occurring in the real world that are reflected in this kind of sci-fi.

Jennifer and Daveed, the show's depiction of class differences and the somewhat authoritarian structure of Snowpiercer seem strikingly relevant at this moment. Can you discuss Melanie and Andre's different viewpoints on the system that's set up on Snowpiercer? How are those themes resonating for you two right now?

DAVEED DIGGS | The structures mimic our own, and all the structures are in place. A lot of the reason you get things being criminalized is because there's a need that isn't being met equally for everybody in an even way. One of the things that Snowpiercer as a society is grappling with is that people are going to have to give up things in order make it more equal. That's tricky. That is tricky for people to do, particularly when you look at a class of people like us who are in the tail, who didn't have tickets onto to the train. So there's an argument to be made that "Y'all are not even supposed to be here, so how dare you get included in the participation of life that happens on [the train]? Why should I have to give up anything in order to make things better for you?

Jennifer, what do you think about that?

JENNIFER CONNELLY | Melanie didn't create the system, but she as a person in charge didn't decide to take it apart either. She chose to, in the service of her ultimate goal, which is to ensure the survival of the train and its inhabitants, she chose to maintain the status quo and keep the system going. At a certain point in the arc of the season, there's a reckoning, and I think that's when things get really interesting for her. I agree with everything Daveed said — Snowpiercer looks very different depending on which car you're in. That applies to the living quarters, it applies to education, it applies to justice. That's a very relevant issue right now.

Graeme, the story within the train is that the people in the tail are a drain on resources. Is there truth in that, or is more a convenient fiction to keep order on the train?

MANSON | I think the train does have the capacity to absorb the tail forward into the train. It has the resources, but the class structure does not allow that. That's the trap that Melanie is in.

DIGGS | And the shortsightedness of that comes with the fact that most of the work and most of the things the tail is doing to keep the train moving is happening unseen. So this is when you get into interesting parallels with the immigration debate we're having. The greater question that begs is what are you willing to give up that you didn't even realize you had? Those are the discussions you really need to start having with yourself, and they're the discussions we start to see being had on the train as we navigate first class and see the differences of opinion even within that class. Those are the things I see playing out more in the front of the show now than we knew they would be when we were shooting the show.

Jennifer, your character is all about maintaining control and order on Snowpiercer, or at least the appearance of it. When you have to show a poker face a lot of the time as a result, how do you convey what she's thinking or feeling at any given moment?

CONNELLY | I think order is a byproduct of her primary concern, which is the survival of the train and its passengers. That's really what she's fighting for. The interesting thing is that methodology is challenged at a certain point in the show, so the facade you're talking about starts to crack when she is challenged. That's part of what made her really interesting, is her inability to maintain that facade. In the early episodes, this train has been running for approximately seven years, so she was used to playing that part. Then this opposition presents itself in the form of Layton, and she really takes that on board and questions the methodology and her own actions and responsibility.

Daveed, a similar question for you: When Andre is out of the tail, he has to keep a lot of things close to the vest about what he's observing and picking up about how the train works. What sort of things did you do physically or with your eyes to try and show that he's taking everything in?

DIGGS | I hope it comes across. I was hoping to make Layton much more observant than I am [laughs], so he is constantly catching things and picking up on things. The script was always pointing to that — little tidbits of information he was collecting in order to bring information back to the tail, because it turns out the real currency on the train is information. Layton has always struck me as the kind of person whose skills were particularly useful to being a cop, but also as someone who's always questioning — he's always questioning systems.

He's both been a cop and been Black long enough to understand the way those things are at odds sometimes. I think once transferred to Snowpiercer, he is constantly trying to be pretty democratic with the way that he does things. But he's also just good at some things, so eventually he ends up becoming a pretty reluctant leader in a lot of ways. But I think the power element of it for him, the imbalance of power is something he's always thinking about and trying to figure out how to distribute that to as many people as possible.

Graeme, why was it important to you that Layton figures out at the end of episode four that Wilford is not on the train? What does that help you do in moving the story forward and continuing the tension between him and Melanie?

MANSON | I think we always saw the initial detective story as a way into Layton's larger revolutionary ambitions. Our idea always was to meet Layton and establish that character and set him up against Melanie in this enforced cooperation, and to make sure Daveed always had that extra agenda to play with. While solving the murder, he is learning how the train works. He's going to apply that to how to help the tail and ultimately how to resist and kick off their long-awaited revolution.

Jennifer, can you elaborate on the burden Melanie feels in carrying the secret that Wilford in not on the train?

CONNELLY | Running the show is not what she was trained to do. That's not her education. That wasn't her calling, what she devoted herself to all of her life. She's an engineer. That's what she was first and foremost. She made this decision, and when she made this decision certain things were set in motion — no pun intended — and then she's caught up in it and has to make choices along the way. Like all the passengers on the train, she experienced an extreme trauma getting on the train, she suffered a great loss. I think that she compartmentalized that to such an extent, and the choices she is making to keep this train moving are further compartmentalizing her and kind of calcifying her. I think she's almost cut off from it at the beginning, and she starts to really experience what she's lost and what she's done, and what that means for other people and the cost of it all. She feels that burden more and more as more and more of herself is uncovered and revealed, and she confronts the choices she's made and the impact it's had on the people of Snowpiercer.

MANSON | It sets the big mystery question of the season: What happened to Wilford? But it also really helps to drive Jennifer's character, Melanie, because it's like, what did Melanie have to do with it, and how did she come to be sitting in the engineer's chair? Unpacking her reasons for doing this is really unpacking Melanie's character arc for the first season. She's got this terrible conundrum, as Jennifer alluded to, and I think it's probably the most interesting dilemma that I've worked on with any character, because the stakes are so high. It's literally the future of humanity, and these are the things Melanie is balancing.

And lastly for Graeme, without giving too much away, what can you say about the remainder of this season and how it feeds into the second season?

MANSON | Certainly at this point, halfway through the first season, we have set up [Andre] and Melanie in these opposing positions. Melanie has betrayed him in a terrible fashion. The interesting thing that will unfold here is how these two characters come to see what they have in common. At the end of the day and at the end of this season, Daveed and Jennifer will have each gone through something, where Jennifer's humanity has been opened up, or she's been forced to look at it, and that Daveed's, or Layton's, own authoritarian tendencies and the difficulties of leadership, he's forced to confront that. These two people from opposite ends of the train come together and clash, but when the future of humanity and future generations and kids are on the line, how close are they willing to be and work together, and what and who are they willing to sacrifice to survive?

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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