Check out the travels of Leslie Hope of ABC’s paranormal hit, “The River,” and you get the impression that very little scares the Canadian actress.
Long before “The River” came along, when she was playing Teri Bauer on “24,” Hope trekked deep into the Amazon River basin to live for a week with the Huaorani Indians. She’s traveled to Iceland, Peru, the Faroe Islands, Turkey, China and Laos. A 2003 trip took her to Cambodia, which inspired her to make the award-winning documentary short about street kids called “What I See When I Close My Eyes.”
Apparently, she’s not easily spooked. At least not until “The River,” which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC.
The Halifax, Nova Scotia-born actress plays Tess Cole, the wife and on-camera partner of famous TV adventurer Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who has gone missing along the Amazon River. Tess, her son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and others are searching for Emmet while a documentary crew films the expedition, which so far has unleashed a blood-thirsty spirit, disturbed the ghost of a dead child and incurred the wrath of Los Ciegos, the guardians of the forest.
The story is fictional (for the most part), but that didn’t make the experience of filming it in Hawaii any less freaky, said Hope.
“The truth is some situations we were in on the show were scary,” she told me during a phone interview from Calgary, where she was prepping to direct a TV movie. “It’s not my natural inclination to think that things are haunted. But some of the places we were at, you just would feel that active kind of spirit life. ... With the combination of material we were doing and the places we were, I would say half the time we really were terrified.”
Hope expects that fans, too, will feel more terror as the season progresses because a lot of what we learn happened to Emmet—and “a whole lot is revealed”—is based on real legends in the Amazon.
“There’s a core of truth to these things that are happening, and particularly when you put Bruce’s character with other characters,” she said. “That stuff gets really freaky.”
The supernatural legends, and the possibly haunted locations, weren’t the only challenges Hope faced while filming the series. But her biggest fears were grounded more in reality.
“I’m actually terrified of the water,” she said, laughing, no doubt because most of the series is filmed on a boat or in a jungle near the water. “I realized I have a real phobia about the water, and about bugs. So that was a challenge.”
Hope talked about other challenges, and joys, of filming “The River, as well as projects she has directed. Plus, find out why she says, “I’m a good time once you get to know me.”
'THE RIVER' AND HER TRAVELS
One thing I learned in researching was you have been to the Amazon before.
That is correct; it’s not a lie, that’s very true. I was in the Amazon—the reason I remember it so vividly was because I literally flew out of the jungle and the next day I was at the TCAs for “24” I think. So I was literally squatting in the dirt to have a pee 24 hours before I was eating chocolate chip cookies off of silver plates at Pasadena restaurants with, no offense, a bunch of critics, you know what I mean? It was a completely different experience.
But yes, I was there. I had traveled pretty extensively and that was a place I was really interested in seeing for myself because of what I’d read about the oil companies and what they were doing to the land down there, and I just wanted to see. I tend to be lefty liberal anyway and I jump on those bandwagons pretty quickly. But I always like to see for myself first what’s really going on and guess what, it’s true. The land is being completely devastated by oil companies and the people there are being devastated.
I flew into a small town and then took basically a truck ride for about six or seven hours to the edge of the river, and then nine hours by motorized canoe, and then an additional canoe ride in even deeper. We were pretty deep. We were in places where the people that we were meeting, some of them—they were my age—remember the first time they’d seen anybody from the outside come in.
So it’s a pretty new idea that people like me were tromping around in there. And I lived there with the Huaorani Tribe for about a week. I can’t say I’m an expert on the Amazon, but I did have a little experience of living with those people in that area. I went on a monkey hunt and thank God had to leave the next day, so I didn’t have to, as a guest of honor, eat boiled monkey. But I did help carry it back and I helped make the—it’s sort of like a cheap chow—fermented yucca root for this party they were having the next day. I pounded all the yucca root and just basically lived with them as they would for the week.
An awesome trip actually. It literally quite changed my life and my perspective on things.
Did that experience help you decide to take this job?
Well, I think that experience helped make me a good choice for this job, do you know what I mean? That it was a good match of ideas. I’ve also made a documentary on Cambodia. I went there about five or six years ago. I was there as a tourist and then went back to make this documentary about the street-living kids there. So the notion of making a documentary or traveling sort of on a lower scale, not as a high-end traveler, and to be running a small crew, and that all made sense to me, the practicality of that made sense to me.
And then the emotional storyline of being crazy in love with your husband and doing anything to find him, that made sense to me. And I have, in real life, a son who is almost 19, and I have a son in the show. And my son and I get along great, but I understood what it would be to be at odds. I know what it is to not agree with your son, so all these sort of emotional elements made sense to me.
There’s a lot of tension between Tess and Lincoln, like in the first episode he blames Tess for breaking up the family and making the dad go off on his own or whatever.
Yes. And more of that is revealed. I think one of the reasons that I think the show works and that is done is our first little foray into this. And one of the things that really also kills me about this show is, besides the scare-the-crap-out-of-you stuff that happens every week, which is amazing, the emotional arcs of these characters stay fulfilled and keep turning and twisting. And Bruce Greenwood actually said something I thought was so right, that the further we get into the Amazon, the more mysterious the characters become, and more and more secrets get revealed between them.
And you realize that everybody’s got something on everybody else in that cast of characters, and everybody is holding a secret, at least one on the people you wouldn’t expect. So it doesn’t stay ordinary, those relationships; they also I think sort of need taking change as we continue on the show.
How challenging was filming on the boat?
The reality of a lot of people in a small space [was challenging]; you can’t go anywhere. We shot the pilot in Puerto Rico and the series itself in Hawaii. Hawaii and Puerto Rico are both extraordinarily beautiful places with amazing landscape. But the reality of shooting on a boat there is it’s hot, it’s humid, there are bugs, there’s nowhere to go, you’re kind of trapped. So luckily, for us anyway, we had a great, great crew, but for the actors, we were lucky that we all got along so well because I think somebody would have ended up murdered.
Was the documentary style filming, with all the cameras around you, a challenge at all, or did you find that to make things much easier?
To me, to have all the cameras around as an actor, was really liberating because first off, you never had to stop the flow of things to have glamour lighting or sort of special beauty stuff. You didn’t have to worry about that, which I love, that we didn’t have to deal with that. And I also love that you had to be on all the time, sort of like doing a play; that just because you weren’t speaking or you weren’t in a formal part of the scene didn’t mean you weren’t being photographed. There were cameras everywhere, 17 cameras at any time that could be going. So I liked that, that you had to stay always on. I thought it was great for the performances. It kept everybody kind of jacked up and it kept me connected to the material.
I also loved the fact that—it’s evident in the pilot but more evident as the show goes on—that everyone of us picks up the camera at some point. So the footage that you’re seeing in the show sometime is actually what the actors have shot. And it’s a different experience as an actor when you’re playing to a camera that’s being held by another actor as opposed to playing to a camera held by a crew member. You just relate in a different way when the person behind the camera is actually somebody that’s in the scene with you. So I found that to be really great and fun and, like I said, liberating. That stays throughout the show, and I was really happy to be able to work like that.
Would the actors do more improv and go off script because of the odd filming style?
No, we were very tight to the script. But I think what starts to happen is your physical behavior becomes a little more free than it might normally be under a so-called “regular show.” It just allows you the freedom of movement that you don’t typically have. But no, we didn’t go off script, it was just more about geography of the actual place we were shooting.
Does it make shooting go faster?
That’s an interesting question. You’d think, right? I think it probably makes the shooting smoother but the editing process longer, because there’s so much footage to go through. We moved at a good clip but there are still the practical concerns of putting a camera in an actor’s hand and sort of working stuff out. You still kind of have of rehearse the beat, and generally what’s going to happen emotionally in the scene.
The paranormal stuff, are you into that kind of story?
I never saw a frame of “Paranormal Activity.” Apparently those films do pretty well, huh? It’s not particularly my genre; I don’t know that much about it. But obviously, they’re hugely successful. And now that I’ve seen our show, I get why. I mean there’s something immediate, and in my opinion more real, when the camera is in the hands of the people that you’re following. And that’s, I think, used very effectively in our show.
Well, it’s scary.
Yeah, it’s scary, right? One of my bosses—I think it was Michael Green—said that perhaps the difference between a successful movie like that and a successful series is you just get a longer time to invest in the characters. So that’s a big part of what they’re trying to do with “The River,” is use all these elements to make the show scary. But what really makes it scary, we hope, is that you’re scared for those people. You know enough about them to know that it matters if something happens to them as opposed to perhaps in more traditional horror movies where you can peg from the get-go who’s going to get killed. You know who the types are. It’s the girl who goes upstairs, right, and she’s usually a cheerleader? Don’t do it.
So we’re trying not to fall into that with our show. And because it’s a series, you just have time to get to know these characters better. And as I said, one of the things that I think also becomes scary is the behavior of those characters and what they know but they’re not sharing.
When you guys are acting with the paranormal stuff happening, does the director have to really explain that since nothing’s there obviously?
I think, for me anyway, the challenge of doing that stuff when—you’re right, nothing’s there—is you just have to take a leap of faith that ultimately something will be there, which is to say sound or music, or the story’s going to thread in such a way so you don’t feel like such a complete jerk when you’re screaming your head off for nothing. It seems to me the only way to do this stuff is to go big or go home. You can’t scream quietly, right? You can’t be terrified for your life in a sort of appropriate way. Your nose runs, you scream, you sweat, your hair looks shitty, you make weird faces, all this stuff happens when you’re terrified.
So I think we all just sort of made a pledge that we were going to go big in hopefully the best sense. So sometimes I felt a bit like I was doing an opera, but I don’t think you can do it any other way. I don’t think there’s a pretty way to be terrified or there’s a sensible way to be running for your life. You just do it.
Well, anything else you want to say about the show?
What else can I say about the show? I can tell you that I’ve been acting for a long time. I’ve been acting for 30 years and I didn’t think I would be this happy in an acting job again and it’s been fantastic, and that really is the truth. I’m so pleased to be working with Zack [Estrin] and Michael [Green], in particular, who are the showrunners, and that cast. ... The reality of being nine actors away from home, working with each other for the first time, there was room for everybody, and that too was great.
You’re up in Calgary to shoot “Merry In-laws,” right?
This is “Merry In-laws” with Shelley Long and George Wendt playing Mrs. Claus and Santa Claus. I don’t know why, I just think it’s hilarious, right? And my buddy, Lucas Bryant [from Syfy’s “Haven”], is playing the son of Mr. and Mrs. Claus. We still don’t have our girl yet, so I’m hoping that’s going to be settled today or tomorrow.
Sounds like a lot of work but a lot of excitement. Do you enjoy the directing side a lot?
I’m very, very happy to be directing, which to say it’s a job that suits my personality. I tend to be somebody who’s interested in all aspects of production. If I’m acting, from what kind of car my character drives to what kind of shoelaces I have. And as a director I can engage in big-picture thinking, which you don’t always get to do as an actor.
Do you prefer directing nowadays?
I can’t say I prefer it per se, because frankly, when you get a job like “The River,” it’s a big-thinking kind of job. And I’m playing a filmmaker. In real life my bosses on that show are incredibly collaborative and open, and allow me to sort of engage all parts of my brain in playing that character. When it’s like that I love it. When they tell me to shut up and get in the corner, I don’t love it so much. They don’t tell me, but on other jobs essentially you get told that, and that doesn’t work as well for me.
Tell me about this short film you made, “GayKeith.” I watched last night and I found it a little sad but funny.
That’s good, that’s what you’re supposed to think. That’s very good. What can I tell you about “GayKeith”?
How did you get involved with it?
Two things had happened. I had directed a movie where I was dealing with a certain level of oversight, because when you’re doing TV movies you have a lot of people to answer to. And I came off of that movie and decided I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want. If I can think it up then I’m going to try and shoot it. And I had this monologue that my friend, Scott [Edgecombe], who plays Scott in the movie, had written. That was true and I just thought it was so funny. I mean the basic storyline is true; the dancing isn’t true, but the basic storyline is true.
And I just thought it was so hilarious, this notion of you went to these lengths, so to speak, to find out what you should have known, right? Like it’s not that you just went on a date or something. I mean you went downtown, in the middle of it, and went, “Oh, I don’t think so.” I thought that was funny ...
I was also really interested to see how you could make a movie work on the Internet, and how to build a campaign for that. So I tried that too, about eight or nine of these little 30-second sort of seemingly unrelated spots for the movie. And I was fortunate enough to hire whoever I wanted; I could cherry-pick my favorite people in terms of crew. And I was also interested in working with animation.
It’s done really well, I have to say. It was released right before Christmas. It went all over the place on the Festival Circuit, which I also think is hilarious. It went to New York at CineKink, which is the kinky films store. And it was picked up by TriCon, which is a Canadian distribution company, which I’m very pleased about. “GayKeith” has distribution!
I also can tell you that there are certain people I’ve shown it to, my attorney included who I really like and respect tremendously, and she was offended by it. And she goes, “Leslie, I don’t know what to say.” She was trying to be nice. She goes, “I have so much respect for you and I really want to get behind you as a director and I just can’t send this movie out.”
It’s one of the few things I’ve done where I was able to say I really don’t care if you like it. I love it so much I still laugh when I watch it by myself. It doesn’t matter to me in the best sense what anybody has to say about it. I mean I hope they like it, I hope they’re not offended, but I don’t actually care.
I thought it was great because as wacky as it gets, there are so many little pieces of truth in it. I’ve been alone at Christmas. And people often do crazy things that they don’t even know why they’re doing it, but they can’t stop.
Yes, yes. And I don’t know about you, like you live in Chicago, but North Hollywood and L.A., no offense to North Hollywood I’m saying because I’m supposed to, but something about that area of Los Angeles where those kinds of things happen, where people meet on Christmas and have these sort of anonymous exchanges and then just go their separate ways again.
I hope that I get to do the bigger version of that kind of story, which is to say a mash-up of the bizarre and the perfectly poignant, and the absurd and the funny and the outrageous. That really appeals to my sensibility.
It’s funny. When your publicist told me that you were inappropriate all the time, I thought it was interesting because I would never guess that from your roles.
Yeah. That’s the rap. That’s not an uncommon perception of me, yeah. And I don’t know why I get those parts. I think because I’m bossy maybe. But yeah, I’m a good time once you get to know me.