SOCIETY divided down the middle, one side in bitter conflict with the other, both locked in a potentially catastrophic battle for control while hidden agendas lurk in the shadows of the corridors of power… OK, you can see where I’m going with this. One thing you can say about murky dystopian thriller Counterpart is that it feels, shall we say, timely.
Describing the plot of Counterpart is like chasing your own shadow through a labyrinth. Parallel universes collide, there are two versions of every character, and the whole thing is cloaked in a mask of menace and mystery. Paranoia rules as an enigmatic government agency makes and breaks lives at will. So how does Olivia Williams, one of the show’s principal players, navigate her way through the maze? The London-born star of TheSixth Sense and The Postman furrows her brow as she leans forward.
‘The hardest part is remembering which version of Howard Silk — my character Emily’s husband — I am talking to,’ she says. ‘That can be tricky!’
An ace up Counterpart’s sleeve is that the Howard Silks are played by Oscar winner JK Simmons. And, of course, you get two Olivia Williamses for your money. For while her portrayal of cool and calculating government agent Emily, which dominated in season one (‘I always get cast as the power-suited one’), is recognisable as a Williams stock-in-trade, in season two she gets to spread her acting wings as a fractured version of Emily, this one a woman who wakes from a coma after a car crash and finds her memory has been wiped.
‘This is a woman who is, in reality, a 50-year-old newborn,’ says Williams. ‘She wakes up and has absolutely no idea who she was. She’s a completely blank page and that was fascinating to play. As she starts to piece things together, she is horrified by what she discovers about who she was before.’
This twist in the plot raises fascinating questions about the choices we make in life.
‘Everyone has the capacity to be other people, lead other lives,’ muses Williams. ‘It’s a question we all ask ourselves — if we had gone down a different path, if something else had happened at a given time, would that have made me an essentially different person? The answer is that you certainly would be.’
‘My role’s like a 50-year-old newborn girl’
For Williams, the most obvious parallel life she could have led was as a lawyer, the track she was heading down at Cambridge University before diverting into acting. There are traces of the lawyer in her still: bright and combative company, you get the sense she relishes a battle. She is also refreshingly outspoken: when I last interviewed her she was campaigning to reduce pollution in her north London street. One of her two daughters with her husband, the actor Rhashan Stone, suffers from asthma. This time she is equally inclined to veer off TV promo topic: she’s no fan, for example, of her local rail service Chiltern.
‘I’m a socialist but that’s not the issue — this is not even proper capitalism,’ she says. ‘For as long as those people have a monopoly, things will not be run properly. British Rail failed through a lack of investment, not because it was the wrong idea.’
Though she’s achieved success in Hollywood, one attraction of Counterpart was that it was filmed in Berlin.
‘The truth is that in Hollywood so often you are treated like a piece of s***,’ she says. ‘You have no say in anything, it’s appalling. In Germany there are rules over how many hours you’re allowed to work so everyone has their life. Yet it still comes in on budget and you get treated like a human being.’
Our time is up and I haven’t even mentioned Counterpart’s brilliant title credits by Karin Fong, which took this year’s Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Title Design.
‘They’re extraordinary, aren’t they?’ says Williams when I praise their eerie, Kafkaesque atmosphere. ‘They tell another story all by themselves.’
That’s Counterpart — layers within layers within layers. Time to get wrapped up.
■ Counterpart season two, episode one is available on Starzplay via Amazon Prime. New episode each Sunday. Season one available now