In Netflix’s Altered Carbon, anyone can be anyone. A dead child can be brought back to life in an adult body; a wife whose husband misses her dearly can return to him in the form of another man.
That’s how the show’s main protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs — who was born into the body of an Asian man — is portrayed for most of the show in the white male body of Joel Kinnaman (House of Cards). Despite this controversial decision, Altered Carbon boasts a diverse cast. There’s Kovacs’ love interest Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry), his confidante Kristin (Martha Higareda), his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman), and Kovacs’ original avatar, played by Will Yun Lee.
Goldsberry, Lachman, and Lee spoke at a Netflix press event about taking on such robust action roles as people of color, and how Altered Carbon treats race and gender.
“People of color, we tend to live on the edge of the screen, and that’s kind of our purpose,” said Lee, who has been working as an actor for almost 20 years. “This show allows segments and portions and beautiful, pivotal moments where each character finds the center of the screen and is able to hold the center of the screen … just being in it as an actor, it’s rare, it’s so rare, and you hope that these times become small needle-movers.”
Lee might be referring to episode 7, a flashback to Takeshi Kovacs’ time in Lee’s body. Kovacs (and eventually Reileen) joins a group of rebels led by Quell, and the result is an episode upheld entirely by people of color — not to mention a clear standout in the season. The diversity of faces on screen is incredibly empowering, especially during the love scene between Kovacs and Quell. It’s a rare interracial relationship without a token white person to “ground” it.
Goldsberry told reporters that one cannot discuss Altered Carbon without discussing its prominent female influence: That of writer, creator, and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator: Genisys, Avatar, Shutter Island).
“She’s doing film noir, and if we know what film noir is, it’s a genre where something horrible has happened specifically to a woman,” Goldsberry said. “Typically in those kinds of shows, you’ll have a group of men uncovering what happened and saving the day, and in this instance that’s not the case. In this instance there have been some women heroes that are empowered; they’re leading the charge to figure out what’s gone wrong and what’s dark about this world.”
“I personally feel safe — if I’m talking about subject matter that’s hard to digest — when I know the person who’s got the pen in their hand believes in the things that I believe in, believes in the empowerment of women, believes in universal man … and believes that their mission really is to create a place where you can see leadership and beauty and all of these things we love in all kinds of people,” she added.
Under Kalogridis’ leadership, the actors felt comfortable where they otherwise might not have — like during a pivotal scene in which Reileen was required to be naked. Lachman always thought that if she had to do a nude scene it would be in the context of sex or manipulation, but on Altered Carbon, it’s neither. Reileen appears in nothing but her sleeve and savagely attacks Maria (Martha Higareda) in a bloody fight scene full of shattered glass and blunt force. It’s visceral and powerful; one of the show’s most memorable fights.
“There’s something crazy about being naked in front of a hundred people, that after you do it you feel like you can do anything.”
“After I had actually done the scene and worked toward it, as difficult as it was — not due to the naked part of it but just the logistics themselves — I felt so strong,” Lachman recalled. “There’s something crazy about being naked in front of a hundred people, that after you do it you feel like you can do anything.”
The scene is an anomaly; the final episodes do depict and dissect a lot of violence against women. Lachman said that though this is difficult, facing the reality of it can lead viewers toward empathy. She and her costars praised Kalogridis and the show for telling a difficult story in a unique way, and Goldsberry echoed the sentiments of her costar James Purefoy (they never actually shared a scene) on the relevance of Altered Carbon.
“This is a dangerous world we already live in,” she said. “What choices we’re making now take us to the Altered Carbon world, and what choices we make differently … might take us somewhere else? I think in order to really examine ourselves we can’t really shy away from the best and the worst of us.”
Altered Carbon is now streaming on Netflix.
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