[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Homecoming” Season 1, Episode 8, “Protocol.”]
Two shots in “Protocol,” Episode 8 of Sam Esmail’s “Homecoming,” turn it into the season’s game-changer. Four years separate their timeframes, but both focus on Heidi (Julia Roberts) as she realizes the ulterior motives of the therapeutic facility where she treated veterans.
In 2018, she realizes that the Homecoming program is meant to erase memories so the soldiers can return to combat; in the year 2022, she retrieves that memory, realizing that she programmed herself to forget it.
In the 2018 scene, Heidi is in her office and gathers the items on her desk, clutches them to her, and finally sets them back in their respective places. For Roberts, that scene “speaks directly to my complete faith and surrender to Sam Esmail,” she said. “Because I sat down at this desk, and I was like, ‘So what am I doing?'”
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He explained that the scene would last two minutes (“Two minutes?” Roberts asked. “That’s a very long time.”) Said Roberts: “He goes, ‘I just want you to sit at your desk, and I just want you to collect the things on your desk.’ … I thought, I just didn’t want to let him down. I thought, ‘If Sam thinks I can have a breakdown and collect these things on my desk for two minutes, by God, I’m gonna fucking do it.'”
“We were like, ‘This is a very weird thing she’s gonna do — just gather all this stuff and put her head on it. Is it gonna work?'” co-creator Eli Horowitz said. “And then, yeah, she made it work.”
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She did ask first assistant director Peter Kohn to let her know when a minute had gone by. “Because all of a sudden you’re in a vacuum,” she said. “Because I had to collect, and then I had to collect myself, as I recall. Try to restore a little bit of order.”
On Esmail’s end, capturing the moment meant a stripped-down approach. “I generally save the handheld for certain moments like this, where I just want to be with the character,” he said. “And so one thing I did know is that because this is such an intimate moment, she’s in there by herself with the camera operator, and maybe the boom? Maybe the boom. Or, I don’t know, maybe I kicked the boom guy out,” he said.
Added Esmail, “And I wanted it to be completely quiet. Generally, our set is very loud, we’re cracking jokes, playing music. But this was going to be really quiet. It was at the end of the day, and I just really wanted to give her a safe environment. And I really wanted her to feel like she was by herself as much as possible because, you know, that’s such a heartbreaking moment for Heidi. That’s, like, the crux of it all. That’s what we’ve been building up to the whole season.”
As cinematographer Tod Campbell said, “Just watching her act, too, you’re mesmerized by it… it’s pretty magical, honestly. Gives me chills a little bit. Every single thing she does from her facial expressions to her movements, the choices that she makes. There’s no doubt, you’re in the room watching her and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, dude, this is a movie star right here.’ It’s pretty awesome.”
Said Esmail: “When you have Julia Roberts, it’s like, you just have to get out of the way and let her do her thing.”