Tuppence Middleton probably cried more than any of her fellow stars in the first season of Sense8— and a lot of tears were shed by everyone.
The British actress plays Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ who is the emotional heart of her cluster of sensates—the group of total strangers who are so connected psychically that they can share physical abilities as well as thoughts and emotions.
Riley bonded most tightly with Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith). And when she was captured by the evil Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann), Will hopped on a plane to Iceland to save her. But when Season 2 returns May 5 on Netflix, their roles will be reversed. Riley will help Will fight his dangerous link with Whispers that could compromise their cluster.
Middleton spoke with a small group of writers last summer in Chicago during a break in filming the new season. She talked about how Riley and Will adjust to being on the run, how Riley’s tragic past helped her find the character’s deep emotions, and what she thinks about creator Lana Wachowski’s sex-positive message in the series.
Will saved Riley last season, but at the end things changed because he is compromised. How do they handle this new situation?
It’s a kind of a massive role reversal this season because Riley becomes, I suppose, more of the carer of the two. She has to kind of be strong and be practical and kind of put all that emotional stuff behind her and really come through for Will and the whole cluster. Because she was at a very vulnerable point in her life when we last saw her.
Now Will has sacrificed for her and she has to really come up and be on the front line now. Because of this role reversal, she has to toughen up a lot in the second season. Will, as a cop, has to take a step backward and that’s quite unusual for him and I think makes him feel quite vulnerable.
They’re essentially on the run and it’s a really kind of interesting role reversal.
Your story was kind of wrenching toward the end of the first season. Is it super difficult to get to that place?
Emotionally it’s draining and it’s difficult, but in the most amazing way as an actor. It’s a real challenge to do something like that. It’s a real thrill to get something like that in the script.
Because the nature of TV shows you have a much longer period to develop your character and to have a bigger story arc than sometimes you do with film. So that was a really appealing thing.
But this show is just unlike any other TV show I’ve seen or read. So when we took this on I was aware that the journey was going to be very interesting as the character and as an actor. There were lots of things that I’ve had to do just in that first season, which I’ve never had to do in any other job. I was giving birth, being in a car crash; it was a real thrill to tackle all those kinds of things. And there’s more to come in the second season.
I don’t know where you pull it from; how do you cry on camera like you do?
When I first left drama school I was really confused about which way to go. Because they teach you all these kinds about methods at school and go like a method way where you kind of like draw from your own backstory or you kind of do that kind of Meisner thing or Stanislavski. There are so many very different ways to go.
I never really felt like any of those worked particularly. I always tried to do that method thing where I thought, what in my past can I connect to this? But I found myself completely out of character and thinking about something from my own life and then I found it even harder to connect to in a way.
So for me, it helps if I’m always in the eyes of that character. I just think about some of those things that happened to her—losing a baby and being in a car crash and losing the love of her life. When you’re filming on a freezing cold hill in Iceland, that helps. And there’s a helicopter circling you, which is making you even colder. So all of that kind of stuff helps—the whole atmosphere. The sets are always so beautiful and convincing, the lighting is great and you just feel really in that zone.
And Lana is very good at kind of bringing you into that moment and kind of judging the tone of the scene. So if it’s something emotional she’s kind of quieter. If it’s an action thing she’s screaming. She really kind of feeds that energy onset as well, which is helpful.
The birth montage was incredible. How was that done? Did she film real births or was it movie magic?
It was crazy prosthetics. They have an amazing team on this. Lana probably has filmed quite a few fake births before, so they kind of know what they’re doing. But it was times eight so each one had to be slightly different. … It’s kind of amazing the varieties of birth they’ve managed to capture in that montage.
They’re just very good at creating those kinds of images. It looks completely real and I think what was amazing about that is the camera doesn’t turn away. It’s there. We’re seeing everything, which I think is an amazing thing. She’s not scared to go there.
Most people have experience with someone—friends, families, themselves—have gone through giving birth. It happens, so why shouldn’t we show that? It’s a beautiful thing. Everyone is worried about being shocked or shocking an audience and I think actually on this show they’re really not scared to go there. That’s really refreshing.
Something I appreciate that Lana is doing is nudity parity. Generally in movies or TV shows they’ll show the woman fully nude but show only a guy’s chest. She kept it real.
[Laughs.] And it’s not sort of gratuitous or graphic or like you said female heavy or exploitative. You get the sense doing it on the set as well, that it’s very artistic and very beautifully shot. It feels like all of that is about love and connection.
The first season [pool] scene has been branded [an orgy], which it isn’t actually an orgy. People were like, “Oh my God.” But I’ve seen much more graphic and kind of shocking scenes. I think people just strangely have an odd reaction to seeing sex in such a positive light. Lana has a really amazing sex-positive message in the show across genders, sexualities, races. For some people, I think, it’s quite sort of a lot to see that. But we all do it!
Is that only in America though?
Maybe it’s less shocking in Europe—a little bit in the UK maybe. I don’t really know because I’m not from America. But I just think Lana has a really amazing way to look at [sex] and I thought everything was really beautifully shot.
People show killing and violence every day on TV and most of us have never killed someone—most of us. And yet it’s still a shock to see sex, even though everyone has sex. That’s a weird balance, so I think she’s trying to address that.
Will we see another scene like that in Season 2?
There is something that explores that connection more. Lana is really interested in creating that very positive message about sex. In those scenes, the [sensates] are not physically there.
Conceptually, it’s about this kind of connection that extends beyond two people and is shared between this cluster. It’s never about like a group sex scene because those people aren’t physically together. And I think that was the kind of amazing thing is that she’s saying—everyone experiences this. Everyone knows what it’s like to experience love and sex and that connection and it’s just a really kind of interesting like to show it. So yeah, there’s more of that coming definitely as much as there’s more of all of the different things that existed in the first season. It’s kind of all of those ideas and concepts are expanded upon.
With you and Will on the run this season does your character get a lot of help from the other sensates? Was there a lot more communication in that way?
I think Season 1 was a lot about establishing each of these characters and their world and them kind of coming to terms with this new skill, power, experience that’s happening to them. In Season 2 they’ve kind of got the hang of it a little bit more, so they know what they’re doing. They know what to expect. They know where their strengths lie in each person and they’re starting to work as a group a lot more effectively.
I think we see a lot more of the cluster kind of working together, which is really exciting. It also means we get to travel more because we’re going everywhere.
Speaking of strengths, what were yours?
I remember a meme on the Internet of all the characters: You’re fighting and Brian’s is a cop. And Riley is a DJ. What is it exactly that you do?
I think Riley was kind of the emotional heart of the group. Riley and Will, I always felt, were kind the parents of the cluster in an emotional kind of way. I feel like that’s what Riley’s strength is, fighting through the emotional vulnerability and she possesses the inner strength that comes from overcoming tragedy.
You brought people together emotionally through music, which I thought was pretty cool.
I think there’s something very kind of amazing and tribal about dancing and music and that kind of shared experience.
We learned so much about her past last season.
In the same way that the roles are reversed slightly with Will and Riley this season, we also start to go a bit more into Will’s backstory. We learn more about his vulnerabilities. In his present day he has to give up his life in Chicago having completely gone on the run. He didn’t tell his partner and his dad all these things. He has a lot of things to address.
Whereas Riley was a lot more disconnected from her present anyway, so her present is kind of Will and what they’re doing and what the cluster’s doing. He has this whole other life that was going on and he’s had to leave it, so he’s still picking up the pieces there and also trying to stay strong for what’s happening to them. So he’s got quite a journey ahead of him.
Are they the only ones who are physically actually together?
They were the only cluster members physically together in that last episode of the first season. So now they are physically together throughout most of the second season, whereas all the other cluster members are still spread out. Sometimes in different countries than their own countries.
Do Will and Riley make it back to Chicago so he can tell his partner that he wasn’t crazy after all?
I’ll say that Riley and Diego definitely meet. But I don’t know if he thinks he’s less crazy or more crazy because of that. I don’t know. They definitely hang out a bit.
As Riley and Will share more of the same physical space does that change how their sensate abilities work?
That’s a good question. It’s an unusual thing that they’re together [physically] and also together in other places [psychically]. I suppose that that strengthens their bond even more in a sense.
They had this really strong connection psychically when they were on opposite sides of the world and they could kiss in that sensate way. Now they can be together in real life and it makes their connection that much more intense. That was kind of an interesting thing to explore.
I think it just makes them a stronger unit. They’re also able to be more communicative because their life is the real world and also the sensate world. They’re both in both worlds, whereas a lot of the other characters have their other lives. Nomi has Amanita and Lito has Hernando and they kind of dip in and out of the sensate thing, whereas Will and Riley are really living it. So it’s quite a full on thing for them.
I feel like they are the kind of glue of the cluster because they’re able to be together and I supposed be fully in it. That’s their life now so it’s kind of intense.
When he looked into Whispers’ eyes … how was that moment for you?
Even though I was there when we filmed it I was like, “No, no, no!” when I saw it. And the amount of times we went down in that lift! Terrence was standing there and we had to film him while moving in the lift and we missed it a lot. So we had to go up and down the lift several times just to get that moment. And then they slowed it down really slow. It was funny.
So this season, again, you have to care for Will and navigate this world with him?
Absolutely, and I think he becomes the kind of the voice over my shoulder. He’s the one guiding me to do a lot of things, which maybe I wouldn’t have the courage to do before. But he still has that cop brain and he still knows how to kind of fight the guys, so he’s an amazing tool for that. But he’s also physically quite weak and quite dependent on Riley, so there’s that strange dynamic for him.
When he appears in the sensate world he has this kind of focus and this dynamism and then he’s back in the real world and he’s sort of a shell of the person that he was once.
He is trying to get that strength back. He’s still with us. We need him.