Altered Carbon, one of the most anticipated new series of 2018, is finally here and its stars see a rich future for it — even if they may be “re-sleeved” for a season 2.
An adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s acclaimed 2002 novel, the Netflix series stars Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad, The Killing) as the latest incarnation of the mysterious time-jumping hero Takeshi Kovacs; James Purefoy (Rome) as Laurens Bancroft, Kovacs’ mega-rich and immortal owner-employer; and Martha Higareda (Royal Pains) as Kristin Ortega, the Bay City cop originally tasked with cracking the case of Bancroft’s murder.
Altered Carbon is set in a distant dystopian future in which an individual’s consciousness can be downloaded and stored digitally outside the physical body to be later uploaded into a new body, otherwise known as a “sleeve.” The importance of physical existence is limited, and for the right price, ultimate death is simply a hypothetical. This advancement in technology, however, allows only an elite and wealthy few — nicknamed “Meths” for Methuselah — to actually live their lives for hundreds of years in the sleeves of their choosing, while those less fortunate only descend further and further into destitution.
Parallels to social issues today are hardly coincidental, which the series’ stars underscore.
Bancroft is one such Meth — the richest one, in fact — who in an effort to solve his own attempted murder, purchases Kovacs out of his digital exile. While he was alive, Kovacs was an Envoy, a military agent used in interstellar warfare with the ability to drop into a new sleeve and overtake it instantaneously. If there’s a man who can solve Bancroft’s murder, it’s him. Kovacs’ consciousness, meanwhile, has been imprisoned “on ice” for the last 250 years for being part of a revolution — led by his lover Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his sister, Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman) — against the rise of the Meths some 250 years prior. His physical body (played in “O.G.” form by Byron Mann at the time of his capture and Will Yun Lee before that) has long been dead, so his consciousness is re-sleeved in the body of Elias Ryker (Kinnaman) a corrupt cop and ex-lover to Ortega. Beyond that, we don’t know much about Ryker’s identity.
Kinnaman said that the story opens up in episode 5 to a “big reveal,” when Rotten Tomatoes caught up with the Altered Carbon cast to discuss the mysteries of their sci-fi series, the changes showrunner Laeta Kalogridis made to Morgan’s novel (hint: girl power!), the ongoing political undertones between the haves and the have-nots, and, finally, what’s in store beyond this inaugural season. Catch our 10 major takeaways below.
Kinnaman admitted that when he was first presented with the series, he “was a little skeptical” because he wanted to make sure it was done right. This is no small project to take on.
“Checking up on the source material, this kind of world really needs some muscles behind it to be able to realize it in a proper way,” he said, “and usually, that’s only in big-budget Hollywood movies that can deliver that. But then when I met with Netflix and Skydance and they sort of walked me through the whole scale of what they wanted to do with it, I just really understood that this was going to be a one-of-a-kind show, so I jumped right in.”
And it wasn’t just a matter of budget to perfect the dystopian skylines and first-rate CGI effects; Kinnaman wanted to be sure that the actual content and heart of Morgan’s epic would also be seen onscreen.
“I think the book is a fantastic piece of science fiction dystopia,” he said. “We got the scale of a big-budget Hollywood movie, but at the same time, we’re doing it on Netflix, so we can portray the book in an honest way. The book was very violent and had a lot of sex, so we can do all of those things at the same time.”
He credits the accomplishments on the streaming screen with “Netflix’s ambition.”
The notion of immortality and re-sleeving in various physical bodies across time doesn’t just make for great TV, it’s an utterly unique opportunity for actors to dig their teeth into meaty material, to play with centuries of knowledge and constructed backstory, and, in a sense, to be as bold and fearless as the fictional characters they’re portraying.
Veteran actor Purefoy said “to be re-sleeved as anybody for eight months,” he’d have to find them interesting to keep the creative juices flowing. “And playing somebody who’s 350 years old? That gives you a lot of things to think about how a man like that would be. That’s good enough reason for me.”
Kovacs doesn’t know the backstory of his corrupt ex-cop sleeve or that he was Ortega’s lover, which throws an unexpected wrench into their dynamic from the very beginning. Not only was Ortega originally assigned Bancroft’s case before being replaced by a resurrected Kovacs when she is unable to deliver, but resentment also arises between the two of them because over time, as she looks at Kovacs, she can’t help but see the man she once loved. Kinnaman and Higareda crackle onscreen with resentment, distrust, confusion, and lust.
“It’s really tricky in a way, because I get put into this body that she has a very strong physical relationship with,” Kinnaman said. “Anytime that you’ve been in love, when you have a strong physical relationship to somebody…you’re almost physically addicted to that person. And so it was interesting for us to play that. I don’t know her; I’ve never met her before in my life. But there’s this familiarity and there’s this really strong connection. But at the same time, she’s being very annoying and getting in my way. And at the same time, she’s feeling like I’ve kidnapped the body of her lover.”
Kinnaman equated his situation with Ortega to “common human themes and relationships, but with a twist because of this technology. So we would, like, be in a love triangle, but I would be two ends of that triangle, and I would be in a situation where I would be jealous of her boyfriend — but it’s my body. So I’m jealous of myself in a weird way.”
Despite the physical connection shared between Ortega and the newly sleeved Kovacs, Ortega is still incredibly distrustful of him in the beginning of the series because he is an ex-Envoy. As Higareda explains, that is because they were not the ones to write the history books.
“The way we see Envoys in this future [and] the way we see it in the history of the story is that they were terrorists who were fighting against [us],” Higareda said. “But in reality, they were fighting to try and stop people like Bancroft from existing and prolonging their lives. They knew this technology was a danger for society and the world. But from Ortega’s point of view, he is some sort of a terrorist.”
“History is written by the victors,” Kinnaman said.
Purefoy added: “So, you know, it was probably written by me.”
That is an important perspective to keep in mind when watching Altered Carbon’s first season: Why does each opposing side believe they are on the right side of history, and which side actually is?
Kovacs brought out of imprisonment in the pilot episode of Altered Carbon and all but enslaved to Bancroft, but Bancroft gives Kovacs the option of freedom by way of a legal pardon and a mini fortune for doing his bidding or life spent for the rest of eternity on a digital hard drive. We know going into the series that Kovacs does, indeed, take up Bancrofts’ bidding to stay out of prison, but his actual intentions are unclear. Is he in it for the money, or could he stage the early rumblings of another lower-class revolution as he did all those years ago? We’re guessing that it will take more than a pile of cash to get an Envoy like Kovacs to switch his allegiances so flippantly.
But there is, Purefoy said, a mutual respect between the two men.
“Them both being alpha males, there is always going to be a respect between alpha males of that kind, I think. They both know that they’re prepared to go over the edge,” Purefoy said.
After all, Bancroft likely wouldn’t have hired Kovacs if he didn’t have a certain amount of respect for the man’s abilities.
Altered Carbon has been described by some cast members as a character-driven “ballet of bullets,” and both Kinnaman and Higareda confirmed that the stunt work required throughout was grueling in unpredictable ways. By the end of it, Kinnaman was in a boot after breaking his foot and Higareda found herself in a neck brace.
“I was like, Great! What are we gonna do? We have a big fight coming up,” Higareda remembered thinking.
“I was training for almost six months before we started shooting [with] one of the best stunt teams in the business,” Kinnaman said. “We trained for five hours a day — ju jitsu and tae kwon do and Philippino knife fighting. For me, I wanted to take everything to another level and be able to do all my own stunts. I really wanted to step into those shoes, so I had a real ball with it. And Martha was incredible. She was training just as hard. We were in constant training, and we were constantly preparing for the next fight.”
With such an intense training regimen and with filming for the series taking up eight months out of the year, you can’t help but wonder if these actors are already training and gearing up for a possible season 2. While no orders have been made just yet, Kinnaman says that he hasn’t. The reason? He’s not sure that he’d be coming back for a second round.
“I would be very surprised if Kovac doesn’t get re-sleeved,” he teased.
Higareda: “We don’t know, actually, we don’t know what’s going to happen. I wish I knew.”
“Because the very nature of the plot and of the way that this show is set up, these characters could carry on, but they could carry on in [anyone’s] body,” Purefoy added.
Kinnaman also said that were a second season to come, it would take place in a different place, on a different timeline.
“If you look at the books, each book takes place in a completely different universe, so if [Netflix gets] the rights to the other books and then [makes] them, to follow them, it would be basically a new cast for every season. It would be more of an anthology,” he explained. “But nobody knows that the second season [is happening] or what the continuation would be, but if they follow the narrative of the books, then it would be a new cast for every one, maybe with a couple of holdovers.”
Rotten Tomatoes also got accounts from Altered Carbon supporting players, the aforementioned Goldsberry (a Tony winner for Hamilton), Lachman, and Lee, and they especially dug into the significance of having Kalogridis attached as the series’ showrunner. Whereas many of the female characters were secondary or subservient in the original text, Kalogridis made them strong, complex women who could stand up to the boys of their world. Goldsberry says that Kalogridis’ love of the book and previous friendship with Morgan, the author, allowed for such alterations to come about rather seamlessly.
“He was interested and invested in what we were doing and came to the set and hung out and had a lot of conversations with [Kalogridis] dreaming of how to filter his story through the eyes of these powerful women,” Goldsberry said of Morgan’s involvement. “I feel like his presence, it’s the world he created, but also his physical presence was very beneficial to us.”
Dichen also relished the opportunity to flesh out the female characters in a way they weren’t in the book.
“Even the smaller characters, every single woman has such a powerful intention and purpose,” she said. “She’s not just a wife or someone in peril who needs to be saved…. Women in this story are really essentially driving it. If you watch it from beginning to end, in a way, almost more than the men. That, for me, is so exciting.”
While some cried foul at Kinnaman’s casting as Kovacs (who in the book was of Asian descent), the series has picked up the slack in other arenas, casting minority actors across the board to represent different languages and cultures throughout its 10 episodes. Also, Kovacs is represented by actors of Asian descent in his first two incarnations prior to re-sleeving into Ryker.
Higareda was especially excited for an episode that portrays Mexico’s traditional Día de Muertos (or Day of the Dead) festivities.
“Ortega, for example, when you read the book, you don’t get to see a lot of what’s going on with her family and her life and [Kalogridis] expanded all of that,” she said. “And Laeta was very generous. We had large conversations about [what] is it to represent the Latino community and how would it be in the future? There’s a whole episode about Día de Muertos, and a lot of things that you don’t see in the book. She made them richer.”
Goldsberry later added: “So often, you know, our stories are told within the world of just, you know, ‘African American people story,’ ‘Asian people story. This is a story. It’s a global story.”
She specifically cited the relationship developed between Kovacs and his sister, Reileen, and the power of seeing two Asian actors interact in that way.
“We spend a lot of time understanding what [this] family was, the life that they grew up in. And this brother and sister — it’s not even a romantic relationship, but the brother-sister relationship of two powerful Asian characters in a story that’s not [just] an Asian story — is [an example of] the kind of stories we should be telling in the global world.”
The allegorical significance of the Meth’s power and the lower classes’ alienation is powerful. In particular, the way that Altered Carbon’s themes of immortality reflect today in the United States’ ongoing healthcare debate are especially timely and impactful.
“Medical advances are great, but not if they’re only available to the ultra-rich, and we’re seeing that in our society today,” Kinnaman said. “That’s why I think Altered Carbon is very relevant because it becomes a window into the future if we don’t deal with this inequality now. That is where we might end up.”
Purefoy detailed how the series’ portrayal of access is key to understanding the larger social issues that face many of us today.
“It’s all about access. ‘Access’ is just going to be the key word, I think, over the coming years,” he said. “It’s about access to power, it’s about access to knowledge, access to technology, access to medicine. You know, the whole #MeToo movement is about access. An awful lot of what we’re talking about today is about access, and we’re going to see it more and more and more. And that’s when it’s going to become, I think, real points of contention [and] disturbance in society; the realization that you don’t get the access that other people get, whether it be to drugs or medical technology. When you watch 13.5 million people fall off the healthcare system in this country because of the tax cuts, that immediately is 13.5 million people who are going to have access to less life.”
In other words, as the very best of science fiction often does, Altered Carbon reflects back to viewers the world they live in, even if it takes place in a completely foreign future.
Altered Carbon streams on Netflix starting Friday, February 2.