Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan on ‘Fatal Attraction’ Hesitations and “Tricky Balancing Act” of Revisiting Alex Forrest
Times have changed, point out the stars of the Paramount+ series, which is what attracted them to explore and expand the characters first played by Michael Douglas and Glenn Close: "She wasn’t happy with the ending. And the audiences weren’t looking for that careful work that she was doing."
[This story contains spoilers to the first three episodes of Paramount+’s Fatal Attraction.]
Glenn Close has made her thoughts on Fatal Attraction known in the conversation around the legacy of the iconic 1987 film that co-starred herself and Michael Douglas.
Reading about Close’s character work, the original (and then retooled) ending to the erotic thriller and Close’s wishes that the Oscar-nominated film had explored more of Alex Forrest’s mental illness, instead of labeling her with extreme villainy, are all partly what inspired Alexandra Cunningham to agree to adapt the movie into the Fatal Attraction limited series that has now begun streaming on Paramount+.
“[Close has] always said that if anyone was going to do [a remake], that she hoped someone would dig deeper into Alex’s point of view and her motivations,” Cunningham told The Hollywood Reporter (in an interview that took place before the Writers Guild of America went on strike).
So when the showrunner heard through a mutual connection — the show’s hair department head, Rick Caroto, is also Close’s longtime hairstylist — that Close was aware of the series, Cunningham was excited: “She gave him her email to give to me. And basically said, ‘If she wants to talk about the sausage being made, tell her I’m here for her.’ For the first few days after that, I was composing these long letters in my head thinking: I’m going to be best friends with Glenn Close. How can I make this happen?”
But, then she stopped herself. “I finally wrote her back and said, ‘Here’s the thing: People are going to be asking you if you saw it and what you thought of it. And if we bring you into our process the way we are all dying to do, you will feel like you can’t say if you didn’t like it. Because you’re going to feel loyalty to us, because that’s who you are. Because you’re kind, and we brought you in,” shares Cunningham of her correspondence with Close. “I wanted her to have that freedom. So now I’m just going to live in anxiety and terror wondering, will she watch it and will she ever say anything? And I actually deserve for her to never say anything. She should be inscrutable forever.”
After the first three episodes of the TV reimagining (which released together before moving to a weekly drop), viewers begin to see how the Fatal Attraction series approaches revisiting the story decades later. The series explores two timelines: One in present-day, where Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) is paroled for the second-degree murder of Alex and seeks redemption with his family and to clear his name; and another in the past, where flashbacks retell the events of the film but from added perspectives, including that of Alex for the first time in the world of Fatal Attraction.
There are many Easter eggs to the movie — the third episode ends with Alex telling Dan she won’t be ignored, after throwing acid on his car — but this Fatal Attraction also changes things up as it attempts to dig deeper. In a chat with THR, co-stars Jackson and Caplan talk below about their initial hesitations, unpack some of the series’ most intense scenes, both erotic and violent, and explain that, if the show does its job right, the answer to the show’s murder mystery over who really killed Alex Forrest won’t be what viewers are left thinking about in the end.
It’s a cool exercise to take a movie everyone knows and say: “Let’s explore what happened after the movie ended, and also expand the perspectives.” What attracted each of you to doing a Fatal Attraction TV series, and did you have hesitations?
Joshua Jackson: There was hesitation, for the reason you just brought up. When this came across my desk, you [Lizzy Caplan] were already on it, that’s a good thing. [Showrunner] Alex Cunningham, I had never worked with before but she knew a guy that I had just worked for and he recommended her to the moon; that’s excellent. The script itself was really good. But it’s Fatal Attraction and I had an opinion of what that means. I was like, “Why do you need to tell that story again?” So, definitely hesitation.
And then getting into the first couple of conversations with Alex, she said, “Look, you’ve got to go watch the movie again. Because you have an opinion of it that doesn’t actually match the film. It’s a great film, but it’s not from where we are now, and we have a chance here to really talk about who [Alex] is, both before and after the [affair] and we also have a chance to really examine the kind of man who does that, and then protects himself over and above his own family, and his work and his everything else.” So, that was the hook for me. There’s stuff that the movie implies but doesn’t examine because it doesn’t have the space for it — or frankly, in 1987 people weren’t asking those questions — that we now have the opportunity to examine in this telling of the story.
Lizzy Caplan: I agree with everything that Josh said. I think the movie is so special because it really holds up, while also feeling of a completely different time. All of the ways in which it needs to hold up — it’s still scary, it’s still suspenseful, it’s still very sexy — still works, I think, as well as it did back then. But it’s hard to watch it through a lens of 2023 and not have the desire to know more about these characters. And not just Alex, but also Dan. It doesn’t work in the same way that a married man can cheat on his wife and still be the “unvarnished hero” of the story. There’s very little that he has to answer for outside of Alex’s pursuit of him. That just doesn’t really work in 2023. In the same way that labeling a woman crazy and that being the whole story doesn’t work in 2023.
Glenn Close herself has talked so much about how much work she put into her characterization of Alex Forrest and how much work she did on mental illness. All of that is so vividly portrayed on screen, and yet, she wasn’t happy with the ending. And the audiences weren’t looking for that careful work that she was doing. It just didn’t need to be part of the story; the story worked just fine for audiences in 1987 that: He’s the good guy, she’s the bad guy, she deserves to die, that is the end of it. And now, we’ve changed. There has been a great deal of progress. It’s important to note that I don’t think we’ve arrived at any destination, but the culture has shifted and I think that is really promising.
Lizzy, what were your conversations like with showrunner Alexandra Cunningham about addressing Alex’s mental illness in a way that the movie never did?
Caplan: We wanted to honor the fact that she’s clearly struggling with some pretty major issues. It was also important to not give it the most specific diagnosis. Because we do sort of cherry-pick. And one of the mental illnesses that we talked a lot about was borderline personality disorder, which is not uncommon and very treatable — and doesn’t lead to a person [doing things she does later in the series]. It’s a tricky balancing act, also under the umbrella that we’re making Fatal Attraction and we’re not making this super serious study of mental illness. And, Alex does become the villain of the piece. So you can’t forget that when you’re also trying to address the mental illness part.
There is a certain level of responsibility to not say, “She has this thing and it leads to these actions” and, circling back to the 1987 feeling, “deserves to die because she’s evil.” We wanted to be more nuanced. For me and the conversations that I had with Alex, she was an unbelievably rich resource; she had been researching this stuff for months and months and months before we even had our first conversation. She set me up with a forensic psychiatrist who I spoke to. I read books about some of these things and my main takeaway was that it just upped my level of compassion for Alex, which was already there, but it was so clear that had anybody chosen to help her along the way, had anybody chosen to really notice how in distress she was, that this story could have unfolded very, very differently. She was very unlucky to have the brain chemistry that she has and to be raised in the household that she was raised in.
Did you reach out to anyone involved in the movie, or did you want to keep your performances their own thing?
Caplan: It felt very separate, while also clearly not being completely separate — it’s Fatal Attraction — but this feels like its own thing. That our Dan and our Alex were always going to feel different, just because what was on the page was so different. [Jackson has spoken about his Close conversation.]
After the first few episodes, the audience gets to know present-day Dan and learns more about Alex after getting her perspective in flashback. Dan’s relationship with his grown-up daughter, Ellen Gallagher (Alyssa Jirrels), makes you want to root for Dan’s redemption, which gets more conflicting the more time you spend in the flashbacks. Josh, how did you approach Dan as you are explored more about him in the present-day storyline?
Jackson: I’m so happy to hear that because that conflict that you were feeling is exactly what we and I, separately and together, were trying to do. Which is, at different points along the journey of our story through the eight episodes, we hope that you’re going to feel sympathy for one, sympathy for both; antipathy for one, antipathy for both. And that it will shift and little things will pop out. Because at the end of the day, if we do this right, these are both human beings. And human beings deserve our love and empathy and sympathy, and also are capable of behaving in monstrous, tragic, terrible ways.
When we first meet Dan, [director] Silver [Tree] and I talked a lot about making his life frictionless. Even down to things like when he arrives at work in the morning, magically the door is open for him. And when he goes through security he has his own line and breezes through, and he doesn’t have to wait at the elevators. We represent that everything is set up for him to be as good as it can possibly be.
And when we meet him in the 2023 storyline, all of the things that he thinks about himself are stripped away. He’s no longer a good husband, he’s no longer a good father, he’s no longer a man in good standing in society. He’s not successful or wealthy. He’s just a blank slate that has had to live with, or has built a framework in resistance to grappling with responsibility for his own actions. And so for me, the opportunity to tell the story of that personality as well as the guy at the apex of his powers [in the flashbacks] inside of the same story, and sometimes inside of the same episode, was an amazing opportunity.
How do you view Dan in the present, as he confronts his past and sets out on this redemption tour with his daughter and ex-wife Beth Gallagher (Amanda Peet) and clearing his name?
Jackson: For Dan it’s like, you can do this thing, but there’s a ripple effect down to the end of the chain here and this is what it feels like. And even when he comes out [of prison], he is still so incapable of seeing himself. Not that we diagnose Dan, but he is, in my opinion, sub-clinical narcissist, right? And he’s still incapable of seeing what he’s actually done, what he’s actually responsible for, because he’s fixated on this concept of legal justice, whereas what he’s actually culpable for is an emotional violation. And I find that fascinating.
I certainly can relate to a person making a mistake and then making that mistake worse by not taking accountability for that mistake, and not being able to reassess oneself when you’re being presented with the fact that you’re not quite who you think you are. I don’t mean to be cryptic about it, but I just feel like our egos are so built up in how we are perceived and lots of us go through life without ever examining the unpleasant things of ourselves and the things we’re truly capable of, and I think Dan is definitely one of those guys. So when he does something that seems “out of character” he’s not able to assimilate that, so he can never admit that’s actually just a part of who he is. You are that guy. You can do that. And as a father myself now, to put your own ego above that of your child and for him to choose to cut off his relationship with his own daughter in order to be able to protect his image of himself? That to me speaks of somebody who is in deep, deep psychological distress. And that was an interesting character for me to play, because that relates to somebody I didn’t know very well but would have liked to have known better.
A big question this show is asking is if Dan should be forgiven and in different ways: by his ex-wife, his daughter, the law, Alex. Do you think that question is answered by the end of the show and have you answered that question for yourself?
Jackson: Should Dan be forgiven? No. Because for so much of this story, he’s not capable of actually forgiving himself, because he’s not capable of admitting that he is responsible. The consequences for him are outsized to the action in my moral cosmology, right? But he’s not ever able to actually ever be accountable. Sure, this thing got out of control. But he’s the one who lit the fire.
There is a culmination of Dan’s story that is the point at which he could actually achieve forgiveness that happens right at the very end. From that moment forward, maybe there should be forgiveness in his life. But until you can actually truly, really apologize — which is not a “hey, sorry this hurt you,” but until you can say, “I’m sorry to myself for disappointing myself by acting out in ways that I’m not proud of and therefore I can recognize the pain and suffering I caused in you” — like, a genuine apology, no I don’t think you’re worthy of forgiveness.
Caplan: I also think that even after he comes out of prison after all this time to ruminate on his sins, he still thinks that he will fix his relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife by clearing his name. And that’s just another example of Dan thinking he knows what’s best for everybody else, instead of actually talking to people and finding out what they need.
The third episode introduces Alex’s perspective for the first time ever in the world of Fatal Attraction. Lizzy, what unanswered questions did you have about Alex and how would you say this starts to answer some of them?
Caplan: For me, the job description is not labeling somebody that I’m playing, not judging them. Not seeing them as bad or evil, but rather, trying to figure out how to make the decisions that the character makes make sense for the character in that moment. To have those decisions feel like the right decision, the smart decision, the heroic decision. Because in her mind, she’s the hero. She’s not the villain.
And I do think her intentions are not wholly bad. I think she feels a connection with this person. She’s so desperate to connect with somebody. She’s so deeply lonely. The desperation in her loneliness is so obvious with her brief relationships with other men that you see in the series as well. Her deep desire to feel seen, loved and respected by her father [explored in later episodes]. All of these ingredients bake this cake of very, very misguided actions. But in her mind I believe that she thinks she just needs to orchestrate a few things here and there, and then she will get what she wants, which is not to steal this man from his wife and child, but to be with somebody who she feels a real emotional connection with, which is more important than any physical connection.
And they really do seem to like each other quite a bit, Dan and Alex. And so in her mind, she just kind of needs to nudge the fates along a bit, and then everything will fall into place as it’s supposed to, and she will get her happy ending. The happy ending that’s eluded her for her entire life. So I can’t say that her actions are noble. But I do have compassion for where she is coming from.
You two have scenes together that are both physically intimate and physically violent. What support and on-set coordinator support did you have, and was that a new experience for each of you?
Caplan: We both have done a lot of intimate scenes over the course of our careers, both in the Wild West days of pre-intimacy coordinators and now, including the extra steps of having an intimacy coordinator. That stuff is just… you have to find the humor and the absurdity of a Tuesday morning that looks very unlike a Tuesday morning in most other professions. (Both laughing.) But the violent stuff, that was really challenging. That was the hard stuff. It really shook us both up for different reasons, but your adrenaline is pumping. You are faking a scene that’s very violent. It’s hard to not feel your body is registering it as reality and, as safe as you can be on a set — and we couldn’t have been better supported, we had an amazing stunt team to show us. Though, I actually don’t think we had a lot of stunt people for our fight [in a later episode]. We did most of it.
Jackson: They blocked it through to show us. My recollection was that they worked on the rough geography of it and then we got in and mixed up a couple pieces. That scene you’re talking about, part of what is so awful about it is it’s not spontaneous violence. There’s also an element of physical domination that Dan is trying to portray. Like, I’m taking this power over your body and you don’t have the ability to resist me here. But that to me was the psychological element on top of the physical element that made it so scary, because I don’t think that Dan was necessarily enjoying that, but there was something very animal between a man and a woman of him being like, “You are physically helpless with me now.” And that was the message that he was trying to send: There’s nothing you can do to stop me from doing whatever I want. And there’s a darkness to that.
Caplan: Yeah, it’s very unsettling. And it was very unsettling to shoot. Even though we took a lot of care of each other. But even just the nuts and bolts of it, no matter what, you’re going to get slightly banged up. You’re going to leave bruised and injured, and that’s just the physical side of it. But as Josh is saying, the psychological part of it, it’s very unsettling. I am not frequently in situations in work, I mean not in real life, obviously, either, but in work where it is a reminder of how physically defenseless I would be if a man wanted to hurt me. That’s just like a stark reminder.
When you think about the ending to the movie, and the original ending, and how intense that was, what can you say (no spoilers) about how the show approaches the finale, given all the dialogue around the film’s ending?
Caplan: I suppose it’s the resolution to the mystery of the piece. But for me as a viewer, my own involvement in this aside, I’m rarely captivated by the whodunnit part. I am much more interested in the individual scenes, the individual interactions between characters. If those work and then if it’s a satisfying ending, that’s a bonus. I’m sure plenty of people will watch our show and see it primarily as this mystery that needs to be solved. But for me, I don’t know if I would consider it successful if that’s the main takeaway.
Jackson: For this but for anything really, the plot allows you to go through the places you want to go, but at every stop along the way, you need to have something satisfying that isn’t just about getting to the next step of the path. And especially when you’re talking about TV and having all that time. The resolution of the mystery I think is good and shocking. But it also then throws a new life onto several of the core relationships. It allows us to get to the place with Dan at that end of the story. He thinks he’s looking for a certain kind of absolution, which is the absolution of public opinion: If I can clear my name, then all of these other sins that I have committed after the event just magically go away. And instead, what he learned is that life doesn’t go in reverse. Actually, all the timing between is the sin. That absence that he created in his ex-wife and kid’s life in particular is the primary cause of pain and it’s when he comes to that realization, that’s to me sort of when the story for Dan actually ends. When he realizes that you can’t go back and make this right. You can only start making it right from now on.
One more thing: The bunny makes an early appearance. Alexandra Cunningham already confirmed that this show does not kill the bunny, unlike the famous bunny boiler scene in the film. What would you say about approaching the bunny of it all?
Caplan: Oh, I think what Josh has been saying is most accurate. I think it’s holding up a mirror to you as an audience member: Why do you want to kill a bunny so bad?
Jackson: (Laughs.) It’s so true. Everybody wants to kill that bunny, man!
Caplan: A bunny is a sweet, innocent animal!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Fatal Attraction‘s first three episodes are now streaming on Paramount+, with the remaining five episodes releasing weekly on Sundays.