Don’t call Kate Winslet’s new HBO drama Mare of Easttown a “thriller.” She wouldn’t, anyway.
“So often, crime stories and small town murders are described as a ‘thriller,'” the Oscar winner tells TVLine. “I don’t think you could really describe this as a thriller, in that sense. It has those elements to it, but it’s just so much more than that as well.”
Indeed, the seven-episode crime drama (premiering this Sunday at 10/9c) centers on Winslet’s police detective Mare Sheehan and her search for a young mom’s killer, but it also expands its focus to shed light on the small Pennsylvania town she lives in… and the secrets and grudges its long-time residents have been holding onto for years. The murder investigation is “only one part of the narrative,” Winslet says. “For me, it’s a story about community, and family, and mercy, and hope as well.”
The character of Mare Sheehan is hard to pin down, too: She’s a cop in an area without much serious crime, a former high school basketball star in a town where that can make you famous for life (they still call her “Miss Lady Hawk”) and a mom who’s harboring some serious guilt. “She was extraordinary to play, and just profoundly challenging,” Winslet admits, describing Mare as a study in contrasts. “She’s lovable, but she’s loathsome. She’s strong, but she’s weak. She’s vulnerable, but she’s stoic. She’s disgusting, but she’s charming. She’s morally sound, she’s morally corrupt.” But through it all, Mare is “completely committed to looking after the people that she loves more than anything. I think that’s what I appreciated about her and loved about her the most.”
There is that lingering guilt, though, stemming from Mare’s fractured relationship with her son Kevin. That guilt “manifests itself in these enormous ways and just infiltrates her world to a really destructive extent. And it makes her make some bad choices, too,” Winslet hints. “This is a woman who is on the absolute outer fringes of real desperation.” Mare is “just trying to do the right thing by everybody, and not knowing how to deal with her own anguish. It’s a fascinating role.”
The town of Easttown is almost a full-fledged character as well: Since everyone knows each other and has lived there all their lives, Mare’s family and friends start to bleed into her murder investigation, and vice versa. (Jean Smart plays Mare’s mom Helen, and The Office‘s David Denman plays her ex Frank.) “That sense of lives overlapping the way they do in Easttown is so very true of any small town,” Winslet, who was raised in the English town of Reading, notes. “It’s like that where I grew up.” When a crime happens in Easttown, no matter how petty, “everyone bypasses 9-1-1. They just phone Mare. Because they know her.” That kind of local flavor is what sets Mare of Easttown apart from the standard murder mystery, Winslet adds: “That sense of family and community… that is the beating heart of the show.”
The setting also led to the famously British Winslet adopting an eastern Pennsylvania accent to play Mare — and she worked hard to get it right. With the help of a dialect coach, she “really broke the dialect down and drilled it and worked on it for several months.” She also spent time with “lots of locals” while filming on location near Philadelphia, which “helped enormously,” she says. “It’s such a strong dialect. It can sound very hard. The voice can become a character all of its own.” But “I had to make sure that it just evaporated into the character.”
To make it evaporate, “I was doing the work every damn day,” Winslet says. “I would listen to my dialect samples all the way to work, and in the hair and makeup chair, and then on set as well, and then on the way back home in the evening. It was just absolutely constant, this trickle of sound in my ear.” But there’s nothing quite like hearing the real thing… like how “water” sounds like “wooder” coming out of a local’s mouth. “One guy who works at the Easttown police department, he said, ‘You want some wooder or something?’ I was like, ‘Whoa, say it again!'” Winslet recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Holy hell.'”