If you’re on the fence about a subscription to Apple TV Plus, let Servant’s unsettling plot, captivating performances, and brilliant cinematography push you over the edge.
We follow Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell), a well-off Philadelphia couple coping with the loss of their newborn child. To fill the void, they’ve adopted Jericho, a hyper-realistic “Reborn doll.” While Dorothy takes to the doll with perhaps too much enthusiasm, Sean remains skeptical especially when Dorothy hires Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), a quiet, devout young woman, to babysit the doll.
Created by Tony Basgallop and directed by M. Night Shyalaman, Servant is by far, one of Apple TV Plus’ best shows so far. The concept is dark, but universal in many ways as it explores how we react to what scares us most. M. Night lends his skill as a master of suspense and the unexpected. Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell step seamlessly into their roles with performances that capture the hallmark tensions of a marriage in distress. Nell Tiger Free masters the art of unsettling glances in her restrained, creepy performance as Leanne. And you wouldn’t know it from his role as Julian, but this is Rupert Grint’s first go at playing an American and he nails the accent and rough-edged demeanor of a true Philly dude.
We spoke to some of the cast and crew at Servant’s “black-carpet” premiere on Tuesday night. You can read our interviews below and make sure to check out our exclusive video interviews of the main cast here!
The Knockturnal: You’ve been writing this series for quite a while. What inspired you to start it?
Tony Basgallop (creator and executive producer): Having children changes your life, as everyone says. I know it’s a cliché, but most people, you know they concentrate on oh how do we change a diaper or oh my god he was up all night. Me, I tend to go to a darker place and think what can go wrong with this you know? How quickly can I drop a newborn? And what are the things that I most fear. As a writer, tapping into your darkest fears is always rewarding. You always come up with the best material when you do that.
The Knockturnal: The show’s got a really strong relationship with food, with Sean’s job as a chef. Was that part of your original idea?
Tony Basgallop: That’s always been there. I trained as a chef when I was very young, and I find food fascinating. I find people’s attention to detail to be great. With Sean as a character, you know it’s a form of art. He doesn’t just cook because he’s hungry, he cooks because he wants to express himself. And that’s a really good way to show character.
The Knockturnal: How do you think that relates to some of the broader themes of the show?
Tony Basgallop: We’re constantly using food in the show to reflect the mood of the characters and the tone of the piece. When things are going well and everyone’s being romantic, we do nice light beautiful desserts. And when things are getting a little bit more terrifying, we’re cracking bones and we’re boiling root vegetables and we’re being more earthy. So it helps to tell the story to have the right menu.
The Knockturnal: Was the show always set in Philadelphia in your head?
Tony Basgallop: In my head, it was always just set in my head. The important thing was that it’s a well-off family living in a beautiful brownstone and everything in their life is perfect. It’s about cracking that nut, mining the imperfections in their perfect world. When I met with Night and started discussing location, Philadelphia felt really natural and the house was there.
The Knockturnal: Where did you get the baby doll from for filming?
Tony Basgallop: You’d have to ask the props department. I think we got lucky and found someone who owned one and we made a very good offer and he’s ours. He’s ours for life now. We’ve got to raise him. We still care for him every night.
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in the show and how it was pitched to you?
Toby Kebbell (Sean): Yes, I read an incredible script and that led to an audition and another audition and another audition and another audition and then a sit-down with the writer and producer and then a phone call with Night. And then eventually to being cast. So it was a long process, but I truly loved it. It’s such a good story. I felt like I knew exactly how to bring Sean to life. And it was just an incredible opportunity to work with Lauren Ambrose, to work with Rupert Grint, to work with Night, to work for Apple. It was just really tremendous and I’m glad I got it.
The Knockturnal: There’s a lot of twists and turns in the show and I’m wondering if everyone has the same information about what’s going to happen in the episodes.
Toby Kebbell: Yes, we do. We all have the nine scripts because we were still working on the tenth, and so we got three, and then we got another three. And by the time we started shooting, we got another set, so we had all nine. But I tend to find if you know too much, it’s hard to not have knowing when you’re performing something. So I’m telling my story, I’m working my piece, and making sure that my piece is exactly along the lines of my story, and letting Night do the weaving and the behind-the-scenes making the story work. So for me, it’s much more than anything, telling my story and doing my lines. That doesn’t mean not supporting. That doesn’t mean not giving all the support that is required, and the best performances to enhance other people, but at the same time, we know what we know. And that’s helpful and more realistic for me.
The Knockturnal: Do you know what happened to the actual baby Jericho at the start of the series? Your character knows, but do you, as the man playing him, know?
Toby Kebbell: Yes, I knew, and I tried to forget because that’s what Sean was doing. It doesn’t matter what actually happened. It’s just a horrible, horrible thing to happen. So I’m really just playing exactly that.
The Knockturnal: Had you ever done a Philly accent before? Because that was very convincing.
Toby Kebbell: That’s very kind of you. No I hadn’t, but I was working with a tremendous chef named Drew DiTomo and we became very close. Anytime I struggled with a word I’d call it out to Drew and he would say “Lobstah!” and I’d be like there we go.
The Knockturnal: I know you had some background in cooking.
Toby Kebbell: My mom is a Cordon Bleu chef, yes.
The Knockturnal: Did you get the chef attitude from her as well or was that from other places?
Toby Kebbell: No, my mother’s a very loving and sweet person, so she didn’t have any business acumen, which I think really good chefs have. They have that kind of get it done, get it done, get it for this price, do it f cheaper, better, you know. She’s more like “Oh, I’ll do it for free.” She’s a sweet person, and that’s why I worked for her so often. For free.
The Knockturnal: How did you first hear about this show and how was it pitched to you?
Rupert Grint (Julian): I did a tape, so I got a scene of these two guys arguing about a dog. It’s really intense. There was no context. I had no idea what the story was around that. There was something about it that really intrigued me. Once I had read the first three episodes, I was absolutely hooked. It’s a very disturbing, unsettling subject matter and I just loved the surreal elements with the food and there was this real dark humor that ran through it, which is something I’m always attracted to. And with M. Night, I’m a huge fan of his. He’s one of the greatest storytellers in suspense in particular. Whatever he does, he always adds that little sprinkle of magic. It’s amazing to be around him on set. He was very inspiring.
The Knockturnal: The whole show, it basically takes place in one room. So what’s the vibe like on set give the disturbing subject matter, and there’s just the four of you most of the time.
Rupert Grint: It’s an incredible set. Usually with sets, you turn a corner and you can see how two-dimensional it is. There’s like guys off-set eating sandwiches and it’s very hard to get completely lost in it. But this was an actual functioning house, with a functioning kitchen and toilets. It’s a difficult place to be, considering you know what’s happened there, especially for Julian, whenever he goes into the house. He’s different in the fact that he doesn’t live in the house so he can kind of come and go, but whenever he enters the house, it’s kind of like going into a haunted house. There’s something unspeakably disturbing about it. And it is like that in reality.
The Knockturnal: It’s like the house is a character.
Rupert Grint: Yeah, it’s a difficult place to be.
The Knockturnal: The show has a lot of unexplained happenings and I have a feeling that even by the end of the first season, there are still going to be some questions about some of the stuff that’s happened. Do you know what’s happened or…?
Rupert Grint: Do you know what? I don’t. That’s the amazing thing about this. You think you know and you kind of convince yourself you do. But there’s always just so many questions. That’s what I love about this script is it really skates that thin line between supernatural, and completely rational and explainable. You are left with a lot of questions after every episode, which something that keeps you wanting more
The Knockturnal: And congratulations on your Philly accent. How did you develop that?
Rupert Grint: It’s a tricky thing. It’s the first time I’ve played an American, so it’s very new. Occasionally some words really trip you up. You can’t really explain it. What I found amazing was what your tongue does. I had a voice coach who was really great, but it’s a challenge for some of them.
The Knockturnal: I’m sure lots of American actors who play British characters would say the same.
Rupert Grint: I imagine it’s probably harder because we grew up with American pop culture and things in our heads, but yeah it’s different.
The Knockturnal: What was your reaction when you first heard about the show? What drew you to it?
Soojeong Son (Wanda): I read the script and it was awesome and for my part, for Wanda’s part, you don’t know the whole story. You only get fragments of it, because it was actually being written while we were shooting it. I think that’s really exciting. As an actor, you are forced to stay really present. You don’t know all of what’s going to happen in your future, so that was an interesting exercise.
The Knockturnal: What was it like being on set? There’s multiple realities that everyone’s living in, especially the main cast. They all have certain beliefs about what’s going on, but your character’s a little more outside of that, more present in the real world with the audience. Did you have different information?
Soojeong Son: At first, I didn’t know what my character’s deal was until I read the rest of the episode. And that wasn’t until after I got the part. So it was really interesting. I feel like everyone does have different bits of information like you do in a thriller and that’s what’s so great about the making of it. You don’t see the full story until the very end. My character—I don’t want to reveal too much—is connected to another specific character that is revealed a bit later.
The Knockturnal: Are you a big horror fan?
Soojeong Son: I’m not, I’m actually really afraid of horror so when I saw some of the props and things that are on the set, I really got freaked out. But I do appreciate M. Night’s style and his really excellent twists and turns, so it was a real pleasure to work with him.
The Knockturnal: How has it been working with Apple TV +? Their whole is artists and creativity first, so do you feel it was a freer process?
Soojeong Son: At least from what I saw, it was—maybe it was also the director’s style—but there was a real trust on set. And it wasn’t overly corrected or directed. It was a very natural style. Apple does champion creators so it’s nice to not get overnoted.
The Servant premieres on Apple TV Plus on November 28th. Check out the trailer in the meantime!