(Photo by ABC/Frank Ockenfels)
There’s really only one reaction to the cliffhanger ending of the first episode of ABC’s soapy Montana-set mystery series Big Sky: What?!
The series, which marks the return of super-producer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) to network television, is based on the Big Sky book series by C. J. Box and, according to ABC’s advertising campaign, is a drama about a trio of private detectives with messy love lives (read: a love triangle) who investigate the disappearance of two sisters who go missing after driving on a stretch of highway in Big Sky Country.
Spoiler alert: This article discusses events occurring in the series premiere of Big Sky. Stop now if you have not watched the episode.
(Photo by ABC/Sergei Bachlakov)
But that’s not really what the show is at all. While the two women, private detective Cassie (Kylie Bunbury) and ex-cop Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), have a full-blown fist-fight when Jenny learns Cassie has been hooking up with her pseudo-ex, Cody (Ryan Philippe), that will all become moot now that Cody is dead.
Of course, the women don’t know that yet, but viewers who watched to the end of the first episode certainly do — and maybe their neighbors, too, if they screamed loudly enough at the screen like this reporter did at the conclusion of the hour.
“Right? Shocker,” teased star Winnick when Rotten Tomatoes spoke with her on the day the show was set to premiere. “And that’s what I love about the show — the unexpected is expected when you have David Kelley writing it. When I was reading the initial script, I was blown away that you would kill off a lead character, especially someone that’s so prominent in the pilot and also prominent even in terms of how ABC is marketing it. I think that’s what draws people in — you never know what’s gonna happen.”
But what, exactly, will the show look like going forward? Winnick, who starred for the better part of the last decade as the fierce Lagertha on History’s Vikings, promises plenty of surprises as Jenny and Cassie hunt not only for the two teenage girls abducted in the pilot, but for Cody, too.
Read on to find out what else the Canadian actress had to say about the series, which is currently filming its first season in Vancouver.
Now that the cliffhanger is out of the way and you don’t have to talk around it — Cody is dead, though Ryan Philippe will continue to appear on the show occasionally — how would you describe Big Sky to viewers?
I think it was a very smart and interesting marketing campaign to use him as part of the draw. That triangle that you actually see, it’s physically on all the posters with my character, Jenny, and Cassie and Cody Hoyt. Even though he isn’t in majority of the rest of the series, his character — because he is the thread for Jenny and Cassie’s relationship — he will constantly be in the back of the mind, if not part of the underlying tension between the two of us. So he’s very much still a part of the show, a part of who these two women are and what drives them to solve the cases. Even though they’re two polar-opposite, strong, independent women, they have a mutual love for Cody Hoyt, and they also have a mutual respect for one another and a mutual goal to help try to find a him and try to help find the girls now.
What does the show look like going forward? Obviously Jenny and Cassie will have to team up, but are they going to be looking for Cody? Are they going to focus on looking for the girls? How much do they have to work together?
You don’t really know until you read the scripts of what exactly is [coming], but these are two very empowering characters, very flawed as well. They each have their own quirks and traumas independently. What’s interesting about Jenny’s character, she’s gone through so much and obviously she definitely feels betrayed by Cody, but also by Cassie, her friend. And that was added in on a last-minute basis — we reshot that opening scene, just really, honestly, two and a half weeks ago. I can’t believe it’s already airing today. But I think it highlights the fact that it was important to establish that they do have a history. And in terms of where this series is going to go, well, you do know that it’s based on C. J. Box’s books, David Kelley is adapting and making Jenny a big part of the case-solving moving forward. But for Jenny, it’s really one step at a time right now. You will see her find out the news of Cody’s death, and she has a lot of healing to do and needs closure. And one way of doing that is to figure out how that happened, and to get the girls and to try to find them.
It’s interesting on procedural shows because usually there’s just an opening close case per week, sometimes it may bleed into several episodes. But what’s interesting about David Kelley’s writing stakes are higher and there’s a personal motivation to do it. You see that it’s very evident in the first episode, and it’s very important also as the series goes on to see that this is what’s really driving Jenny to find her husband and to find the reason why and find these girls.
(Photo by ABC/Kharen Hill)
You can tell from the first episode that Jenny is passionate, which is exemplified in this physical fight that Jenny and Cassie have over Cassie hooking up with Cody. But do you think that two grown women would really have a fistfight about some guy?
Right away, especially when you see the first episode, you want to get as much information as you possibly can and where the series is going to go and who these lead actors are. And I think that says a lot about it — these girls have no problems getting down and dirty and fighting for what they believe in. And in that situation, when you find out you’re betrayed by a close friend and your husband, there are heightened emotions. We’ve all gone through traumas and sometimes you react a certain way that is not necessarily the right way. But I think for me also, coming from a martial arts background and training martial arts for many years and running martial arts schools and doing my own stunts, it was important for me to keep this raw and real and dirty in a lot of ways, because you don’t really see two girls just going at it. I wanted the hair pulling and the punching and stuff like that — it’s Montana, [and] these girls are rough and tough. They’re outdoors women, and they can hold their own.
Well, clearly you’re very good at playing a woman who can hold her own.
I’ve been really lucky in my career to work with incredible showrunners and creators that write women well, and I’ve been so blessed. I think that’s why I signed on to this series, especially so quickly after Vikings. David Kelley, I had been a huge fan of his for many years, from the Ally McBeal years, and obviously what he’s done with Big Little Lies. He knows how to write women, and not just their strengths, but also their flaws and their vulnerability. And I think that’s important, too, for everyone to see that you can be strong, but you also can be empathetic and you can be authentic as well as a woman.
(Photo by Bernard Walsh/History)
After being on Vikings for the better part of a decade, did you intend to sign on for something that could also run for another 10 years or so?
I told the TV department of my agency, I’m like, “I’m gonna take a break.” I have a movie coming out with Sean Penn that I’m very excited about called Flag Day, and I got a chance to direct Vikings, and I was honored enough to get an award for Best Director just recently for the Women’s Image Awards. I was kind of ready to settle down and get to L.A. because I was in Ireland for so many years. But this was a straight offer and it’s David E. Kelley, and there are some times in your career where you’re like, “Well, I can’t say no to something like this.”
And I’ve been so blessed also with ABC taking a risk, and they’re taking a risk in so many different ways: They’re taking a risk with not only two strong female leads, but also it’s a very dark show, it’s a very twisted show, and to be on a network, on ABC, where typically it feels like this should be more of a cable show, but to take that risk and try some new material, I commend them for that. Also, even our casting choices — such a stellar cast: everybody from John [Carroll Lynch] to Natalie [Alyn Lind] and Jade [Pettyjohn] and Brian [Geraghty], but also the first non-binary [series regular] on the show as well [Jesse James Keitel]. I’m just really proud of them that they’re not afraid to tackle not only great casting choices, but also material; we’re dealing with sex trafficking, the pandemic is also written in the script, and topics that are somewhat uncomfortable, and that’s what I find really makes compelling, exciting television.
(Photo by ABC/Darko Sikman)
Vikings has a very devoted fan base. Do you think that Big Sky will appeal to those fans?
This is a very different show in a lot of different aspects. This will appeal to people that love thrillers and love suspense. This also will appeal to people that love strong women characters. This will appeal to people that are looking for a serialized procedural that want to come week to week to turn on their TV screens. So the show has a lot of different elements.
[With] Vikings, we were so blessed to have the most devoted fans from all around the world in all these different countries. I really found that it was a show that was a lot of water-cooler talk, that people started talking about and telling their friends, and we developed an incredible loyal fan base as the years progressed. Whereas this show, I feel that it can check a lot of boxes really quickly and that if you’re in any age range, any ethnic background, you will come for the show for not only just thrills, but you will stay for the characters, and you’ll stay for the interesting storylines.
And also the marketing campaign is completely different. This show is coming out with a bang — so you can see it in bus stops and billboards and commercials and everywhere. We’re here shooting in Vancouver, so we’re a little bit in a bubble, so I haven’t seen it firsthand, but I’ve been hearing about it. We’re so lucky to have ABC really believe in us and believe in the show, and we’re one of the first shows in COVID land to really be out there and making it work. We’re just so lucky to be able to work in this time.
The pandemic is written into the show, but it almost feels like it’s happened in the past and isn’t actively happening at the moment so viewers aren’t necessarily in the thick of it.
I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time in Montana recently. I have a house there with my fiance, so it’s nice to actually see what Montana girls are really like. And it is a small place. Everybody knows each other. The women are pretty tough there. The sense of equality is really strong — women do take care of themselves and provide for their families. It’s a very interesting culture for women there. And in terms of the pandemic, I feel that now it’s hit everywhere, but at the time we started shooting it was definitely a zone that wasn’t necessarily as active for COVID. And also there’s a lot of landscape, there’s a lot of free, open air. You will see that in our show as well.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession and History)
You got to direct an episode in the final season of Vikings, so is that something you’re hoping to do more of in the future?
Absolutely. I actually will have the chance to direct Big Sky, hopefully in the coming seasons if not next year. I think for any actor it is such a blessing if they ever have the opportunity to get behind the camera. I was so lucky to get a chance to have my directorial debut on Vikings and have a crew who, after six years, really had my back. It’s one of the reasons I got a chance to direct. But it’s it’s something that has been such a learning curve and and for any actor is such a great learning experience because you really see a different view of storytelling through a director’s lens. If anything I started directing before I was an actress. I started directing plays in high school, so directing has always been my first love, believe it or not. In front of the camera has always taken precedence for many years, but I will be directing a lot more, and you will see me in the future direct a lot more.