Some concepts just endure: It was November of 1939 that Agatha Christie first published a gripping story about an island mansion where increasingly frantic guests are killed one by one. That twist-ending classic was published under several titles including “And Then There Were None …” and “Ten Little Indians” and became a persistent presence through the following decades of film, theater and literature. Its spirit lives on now with the CBS series “Harper’s Island,” which stars Irish actress Elaine Cassidy. Cassidy talked to Hero Complex correspondent Michelle Castillo, who sent in this report. –G.B.
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a well-told whodunnit, whether you’re playing “Clue,“ watching “Law & Order” or delving into an old Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes novel. It’s a nostalgic feeling that Elaine Cassidy, star of the CBS mystery “Harper’s Island,” is hoping to call upon.
Cassidy plays protagonist Abby Mills, an up-and-coming writer who has come home to Harper’s Island, the place where her mother was among the victims of a serial killer and where her father serves as the sheriff. The show, which premiered in April, airs on Saturday nights and the body count grows each week as old mysteries (and new ones) present themselves. All questions will be answered by the 13th episode on July 11.
Cassidy said the big reveal won’t be as uplifting as “The Bachelor.” But, then again, for the 29-year-old actress — whose career has included roles as a compassionate murderer, a teenage mother and an undercover cop — difficult material is right up her alley. She insists that for those who love a great brain exercise, it’s not too late to visit “Harper’s Island.”
“It’s such an intense time because you’re working really hard with subject matter like this,” Cassidy said. “There were lots of hard days where you got knocks on your shoulders because of a situation that all the characters are in; it’s not a romantic comedy, that’s for sure.”
Cassidy made her mark overseas with Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey” (she earned a best actress nomination at the Genie Awards) and “Disco Pigs,” a dark drama in which she won the 2003 Irish Film and Television Academy Award for the best actress in a feature film.
The CBS show got off to a rough start. It was on Thursday nights, which is prime real estate in the television week, but it couldn’t hold on to the viewers who were watching its potent lead-in, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which pulls in more than 16 million. (Fewer than 10 million were sticking around for “Island.”) The show was shifted to Saturday nights at 9, which is traditionally viewed as a ghost-town slot. Still, in this age of DVRs, fans find shows and “Island” is happy to be afloat. The New York Daily News called the show “a slasher flick stretched over 13 weeks to maximize suspense and gore” while Mary McNamara wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “‘Harper’s Island’ does not attempt to rise above the confines of its genre because it’s too busy rolling around in them. It’s tense enough, mysterious enough for those of us who enjoy occasionally watching the screen from behind our hands.”
The show takes place on a small island off the coast from Seattle, where past and present residents have gathered for a “destination” wedding. It just so happens that a serial murder is among the guests and he or she is bumping someone off every episode.
For Cassidy, the “Harper’s Island” role is something completely new. It’s not just the subject matter, but the part itself: This is the first time she’s portayed an American. “I’m used to playing different accents — that’s part of why I love this job,” said the native of Kilcoole, a village less than 20 miles south of Dublin. “I love when you get to learn about different places and characters and where they’re from. It identifies
with who they are.”
To prepare for the role, Cassidy researched screenwriters and authors and the craft of writing. She also focused on Abby’s internal struggles with abandonment issues. She let the story and script guide her from there.
“The questions that you ask are always in the writing,” she said. “That’s what I love about this job: You find yourself doing things and researching things and learning things that you would never normally think twice about.”
The show’s creators wanted the cast to immerse themselves in the mind-set of amateur and anxious detectives,so they kept them in the dark about the truth behind the murders. Just like the audience, the actors were waiting each week to see who went in the ground next..
“That was really exciting because it was just we were kind of living our characters to a certain extent,” Cassidy said. “We knew our back stories and then it slowly unfolded. We were the audience while we were filming as well, which I thought was really interesting.”
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Elaine Cassidy in “Harpers Island,” courtesy of CBS