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HBO’s ‘The Outsider’ Is Playing Catch-Up at the Emmys, as Cynthia Erivo Shines

Erivo could follow up her Tony win and Oscar nomination with an Emmy nod for creating an otherworldly investigator in HBO's "The Outsider."

The Outsider Cynthia Eriva HBO Episode 6

Cynthia Erivo in “The Outsider”

Bob Mahoney / HBO

The Emmys work in mysterious ways, and this year, predicting the frontrunners in this sprawling annual contest is made more difficult by the pandemic, which has kept 25,000 TV Academy members home watching television. “We do a lot of guessing,” said one veteran awards campaigner. “We don’t know who everybody is.”

At least Emmy voters have time to sample more online content (with new players Apple+, Disney+ and HBO Max added to the mix), and while awards campaigners have figured out how to showcase their talent and stage FYC panels online (swag and parties have little currency), it’s still hard to measure their reach and impact. “It has shifted because we all have shifted,” said one Emmy strategist. “People are experimenting with new shows and seeing more. But the stuff has to be good.”

That could mean that the usual advantages thrown to shows spending the most on awards campaigns may not apply for Emmys 2020. Each year, the networks and studios consider their potential candidates and weigh the usual elements (ratings, reviews, star power, agent and publicist clout) before deciding where to throw their time and energy. (If a show nabs poor ratings or reviews, it’s easier for the network to say, “Sorry, not this year.”) Social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are also spreading viral word of mouth about what to see, enhancing the usual media curation.

More likely than ever is that viewers, with more time to discover and catch up with old series and check out new ones, will go with what they love — so why is one of HBO’s most popular series, Richard Price’s unerring adaptation of Stephen King’s psychological thriller “The Outsider,” not higher in the rankings?

Last time around for Price, his collaboration with Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian on HBO’s Manhattan crime series “The Night Of” over-performed at the Emmys, nabbing 13 nominations and five wins — in the same year “Big Little Lies” ran away with most Limited Series categories. All this came on the back of steadily growing ratings (2.2 million tuned in for the finale) and strong reviews (which averaged out to a 90 Metascore).

“The Outsider” was also a huge hit with viewers, mirroring “The Night Of’s” word-of-mouth ratings rise. After drawing less than 1 million viewers for its premiere, the finale scored a season-high 2.2 million viewers, and the first nine episodes ended up averaging 9 million across all platforms — the best performance for a new HBO drama series since 2016, the first season of “Westworld.” Still, reviews were less enthusiastic, as the first season “The Outsider” landed a tepid 69 Metascore.

While many turn to Gold Derby’s oddsmakers for a sense of awards momentum, surprises lurk in every category. Newer shows can be hard to gauge, given the TV Academy’s fluctuating taste, while the “too much TV” era floods the ballots for Comedy and Drama series. Conventional wisdom gives a leg up to old shows over recent launches, as well as popular series over niche favorites.

Does that bring back into contention Showtime’s “Homeland,” which pulled out its best season and a hugely satisfying climax in its last go? Could the buzz around Netflix’s superb breakout “Unorthodox” push the new series past more branded competitors?

Genre is one more reason why “The Outsider” seems to lack awards gravitas, along with mixed reviews and the sheer volume of the competition. Certainly, the series is an unconventional hybrid: half procedural, half mystery-thriller, it follows a group of detectives tracking down a series of grizzly murders, resisting the potential solution: a shapeshifting paranormal menace is the killer at work across multiple locations. In short, the series is terrifying.

Nonetheless, creator Price and producer-director-star Jason Bateman’s series has been slowly rising in the ranks, even though it’s not one of HBO’s favored shows. Any HBO series must compete with the best of the best — just on the subscription service itself, including this year’s drama rivals “Succession,” “Big Little Lies,” and “Westworld” among others. “The Outsider” is not in the Top 10 dramas on Gold Derby, with 100 to 1 odds. Not ranking either is series star Ben Mendelsohn (as a pragmatic detective who believes that “a human being cannot be in two realities at the same time”), nor a stellar cast of top character actors including Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Julianne Nichols, Paddy Considine, and Yul Vasquez.

Cynthia Erivo as paranormal investigator Holly Gibney has the long-shot at an Emmy nomination for Supporting Actress in a Drama series. The RADA-trained actress with a towering voice has already taken home a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy. The rising star stole Steve McQueen’s “Widows” as an athletic member of a female gang, and popped out of Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” ensemble, partly because she delivered a show-stopping song.

A scene from “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo

A scene from “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo

Glen Wilson/Focus Features

But Kasi Lemmon’s mythic biopic of slave-turned-Underground-Railroad-conductor Harriet Tubman gave Erivo the showcase for her wide skill set. She notched two Oscar nominations, for embodying the freedom fighter and also co-writing and singing “Stand Up,” the emotional original song for “Harriet.”

Erivo eagerly signed onto “The Outsider” as soon as she talked with series executive producer and actor-director Bateman, who was open to her ideas about how to create the character. Bateman wanted to take an approach that was “more creepy and unsettling and moody,” he said at HBO’s recent FYC panel. “It isn’t specific stuff to make you jump out of your seat, it’s a more emotional/psychological/supernatural environment, challenging.”

Erivo never had seen a woman like Gibney. “She was this brilliant mind, slightly off, different, with a peculiar way of communicating what she was thinking and feeling,” she said on the phone from Los Angeles. “There was so much open to my own interpretation in the way she looked and wore her hair, those details drew me in. I hadn’t done anything creatively like this before.”

The trick was to allow her to stand out with all her eccentricities but remain relatable and believable. “She’s still a human being, in her special quirky way, communicated slightly different than everyone else,” Erivo said. “I didn’t want to turn that into a caricature. Richard Price’s detailed speeches gave me space to figure out how she proceeds. This is not a savant who blurts out ideas. It’s watching her processing consistently. She does it faster than everyone else.”

Gibney may be ahead of her police colleagues, but the show gives us room to catch up with her. “I loved her, she was so different from anything I had ever played before,” said Erivo. “I wanted to make sure people were with her and understood she was a brilliant young woman figuring something out. She had to combine awkwardness when it comes to communicating with this wonderful brain she has, trying to manage all of that, knowing something is far beyond people’s comprehension.”

Erivo followed Price’s script as her reference, not King’s novel, and started prepping right after finishing “Harriet” back in December of 2018. The script did not describe Gibney visually, but Erivo could imagine her. “I thought, ‘If I could be part of how she looked, and we could figure out her aesthetic together, it was a ‘yes.'” She texted Bateman, telling him she couldn’t get the character out of her head. He texted her back that she had the job.

“From then on, I had a wonderful communication with Jason about what she looks like, the button-ups, she never wears jeans or black, the braids. Her hair is like a mask, it falls over her face, she can look through it.” Braids are complicated. Erivo had them when she was younger, and has friends who wear them. “As a black girl, it’s a nostalgia thing. You put your hair in braids to be tidy and manipulate easily. For her, braids are a wonderful signifier of who she was and where she had come from.”

As a professional woman, Gibney protected herself with a kind of uniform. “I wanted to make sure that whatever she was wearing didn’t necessarily scream how sexual she was, but was expressive of her sexuality. I wanted her to feel like she wore armor, her uniform was a button-up, she felt protected, but I still wanted to balance that with a femininity flipped between the masculine way she dresses and the long braid, a pretty simple face, and her nails, which are feminine. She’s not dressing for anyone but herself: This is how she presents herself to the world.”

It was liberating to play Gibney. “It felt like this character was about what she did,” Erivo said. “It had nothing to do with trying to be attractive for anyone, trying to find friends or teammates because of way she looked. The way she looked was part of who she is. She walked in with her slightly different uniform button-up, green or blue or striped, blue or beige chinos, boots or moccasins. No jewelry — I wore the same earrings, little gold studs or small little hoops, one ring on my right index finger. That was it. Nothing else. It meant that it didn’t matter what she was wearing or what she looked like, it was a byproduct of what she was doing, and she was able to do her work in an effective manner.”

It was also fun to play a character where “you know that whatever comes out of her mouth is true,” said Erivo. “She doesn’t understand jokes. She learns to make small quips and jokes by end of it, it’s not who she is: For her, it is the truth of the matter. It doesn’t matter how much you resist her, eventually you have to come around to her side, because what is true is what she knows. You know it’s not coming from some highly emotional place. It’s coming from pragmatism as you try to figure out a solution for an issue.”

The Outsider HBO Ben Mendelsohn Cynthia Erivo

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in “The Outsider”

Bob Mahoney/HBO

Gibney’s greatest resistance comes from Mendelsohn’s pragmatic detective, who believes in facts. “My favorite thing in a scene is with someone who gives it back to you as hard as you give it to them,” she said, “It feels like a tennis game.” In one pivotal scene she tells the struggling detective: “If you can’t get yourself to really believe in this you are a danger to everyone else.”

One morning before an eight-page speech that Erivo had to deliver to assembled cops who will not want to hear what she has to say, Mendelsohn came to her trailer to run over lines. “He was there for me, so helpful,” she said. “It takes away the pressure, it becomes about not just getting it right, but finding the best way to get there.”

In “The Outsider,” more of the women are willing to see the paranormal side of the equation than the men. “How far can you be pushed before you believe something supernatural can happen in the world we live in?” said Erivo. “Can we believe that? Are we willing to believe it when we have no other answer? Maybe male egos get in the way of something that feels otherworldly and less grounded than most of the things we feel and see and touch. Maybe it takes a woman to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t of this world.'”

Next up, Erivo is back in an otherworldly place with two sci-fi thrillers in post-production: John Ridley’s “Needle in a Timestack” and Doug Liman’s  “Chaos Walking” (Lionsgate), as well as “Genius: Aretha” (NatGeo) which interrupted filming in Atlanta in the middle of Episode 6. “We had intended to have it finished before Memorial Day,” she said. “And aired in May. I’d rather wait to make sure it’s right and ready before it’s being aired, however long it takes. We’ll probably be ready by fall to get back to shooting.”

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