‘Lady in the Lake’ Creator on ‘Reimagining’ the Bestselling Mystery With Natalie Portman, Approaching Its Massive Twist and Recasting Cleo (EXCLUSIVE)

Apple TV+’s highly anticipated adaptation of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel “Lady in the Lake” — starring Natalie Portman — will premiere with the first two episodes on July 19, the streamer announced Wednesday

Published Time: 08.05.2024 - 17:31:36 Modified Time: 08.05.2024 - 17:31:36

Apple TV+’s highly anticipated adaptation of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel “Lady in the Lake” — starring Natalie Portman — will premiere with the first two episodes on July 19, the streamer announced Wednesday.

The seven-part limited series follows a bored Jewish housewife (Portman) in the 1960s, who divorces her husband and moves to Baltimore to work as an investigative journalist. She soon becomes fixated on the perplexing death of Cleo Johnson (Moses Ingram), a mother who struggled to provide for her family while navigating the political underbelly of Black Baltimore.

The book was brought to famed director Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach,” “Honey Boy”) by the late Jean-Marc Vallée and his producing partner, Nathan Ross; she jumped at the chance to adapt the complex novel, which has made headlines since its straight-to-series pickup three years ago.

In 2022, Variety broke the news that Lupita Nyong’o, who was initially cast as Cleo, had exited the show. Ingram stepped in shortly after, a casting move that was a “huge turning point” of the series, Har’el tells Variety in an exclusive interview. The change happened “three or four months into filming,” she says, noting that they filmed the show by cross-boarding all seven episodes, filming all of Portman’s scenes first, which paid off. “We hadn’t started to shoot Cleo yet.”

Ingram is from Baltimore, Har’el says, and grew up hearing stories from her parents about things that occurred in the same locations where they filmed. “I think most people know Baltimore from ‘The Wire’ or from their own experience with Baltimore today and political challenges, the economical challenges that are taking place over there. The time we’re showing — Penn Avenue being kind of the mecca of jazz, and the numbers game and the Black economy that was happening in the city — all those things were stories that Moses grew up on,” she says. “So to bring her perspective and her authenticity into it, it was just the glue that we needed. I always felt that when she came into the show, something just clicked.”

As for why Nyong’o exited, Har’el says, “It just didn’t work because of logistical reasons.”

Lippman’s page-turning 2019 novel became a best-seller upon its release, due to both the novel’s resonant themes and the mystery’s twist. Although Lippman is an executive producer on the show, she gave H -

ar’el — who wrote and directed all seven episodes — full freedom to change anything and “take it wherever I want.”

“She did come to visit our set on a very meaningful day,” Har’el says. “Natalie and I were very nervous. I think the show is a reimagining of the book, so we weren’t sure what she would think about where we took it. But we stuck it out, and her face was covered in tears by the monitor, so we took it as a good sign. She was extremely supportive and very excited about where we took it. I think the thing all of us agreed on when we did meet on set, after she’d read some of the scripts and saw what we did with it, was that we kind of re-imagined Cleo’s part in the book. The book itself opens with Cleo, but you don’t really get to spend time with her and experience the story from her perspective and see her life. And that is a big difference in the show. The show is more of a two-hander.”

One important thread in “Lady in the Lake” is about the intersectional relationship between Blacks and Jews. To Har’el, during that time, “Jewish folks in Baltimore had to make some choices that came from survival,” which affected both groups “in terms of civil rights movements and political goals.”

“The show does deal with the consequences of that, and what it did to our society at large,” Har’el says. “So, I think that it’s actually very timely.

“It’s a very humanizing look at all of this,” she continues. “I think that in everything I do — and I wish the whole world was capable of this — the goal is to humanize every experience, and not just find out who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Those who have read the book know that there’s a major twist at the end. One challenge Har’el had was to both honor the novel’s avid readers, while also creating an unexpected turn.

“I think people just have to buckle up and go on the ride, because, from Episode 5 onwards, you have to experience it,” she says. “Nothing I can say can prepare you for it, but I definitely would say that the twist of the book has only been expanded on.”

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