The Crowded Room, an Apple TV+ limited series from creator Akiva Goldsman that premieres June 9, is set in 1979, but its topics are all-too relevant today.
Tom Holland executive produces the series and stars as Danny Sullivan, a young man arrested for opening fire in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Except Danny doesn’t remember why he did it or who he attacked (in the trailer, he says his memory is prone to “blank spots”).
So as Amanda Seyfried’s Rya Goodwin tries to get Danny to trust her enough to open up about what happened that day, the audience learns Danny’s tragic backstory that includes bullying, abandonment issues, and other challenges that the creative team has asked reporters and critics not to reveal.
As the story unravels over 10 episodes, it becomes less about if Danny did do this shooting and more about what (or who?) could have driven him to do so.
“The show, at heart, is a psychological thriller; it is a [series] that navigates this incredibly complicated criminal case with twists and turns at the end of every episode,” Holland said.
But he also acknowledges that the series delves into other genres like whodunnits. As an actor, he said, “it’s really challenging to try and find a way to navigate all of those different genres,” but that “I really like problem solving. It’s one of the aspects of the job I enjoy most.”
Holland’s job is to make the audience sympathize with him and believe that someone with his stature and mannerisms would never willfully harm innocent people. And, since the story is largely told in flashbacks, this meant assessing Danny’s movements both before and after his arrest.
“His physicality was a really important part of bringing him to life,” Holland said. “He has a vast spectrum when it comes to his different types of physicality for different situations … He’s an incredibly volatile character with incredible highs and devastating lows. And I loved playing him in the middle; I thought the subtleties of that character were so fun to try and figure out.”
The actor understood that his own body type allowed for some of this. Best known for playing the also-frequently-socially-awkward superhero Peter Parker in the Spider-Man and Avengers movies where his character is often referred to as “the boy,” he conceded that “I’m a small person; like you put me next to [physically larger Marvel actors] Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, I look like their son.”
But, with Danny, the actor said “I just wanted him to feel little.” For the scenes when Danny’s in high school, he said, “he does come across like he was the smallest kid in school.”
The British actor also worked with dialect coach Rick Lipton to find the right cadence and accent for a child with this background who also grew up during the 1970s and in the New York City suburbs.
“We went through so many different versions of his voice; some where he was a little more nasally at times and then he was really soft spoken at times,” Holland said, “and we found this middle ground that was tricky because it was somewhat similar to that of Peter Parker. So we decided to really slow down his cadence.”
Seyfried’s Rya also comes into this story with something to prove, and it’s not just Danny’s innocence. A single mother working in a man’s world, Rya becomes hugely invested in Danny’s case.
Seyfried said she prepared for the part by watching a lot of Jane Fonda movies from that era, like Klute and The China Syndrome because “I needed some empowered, late ’70s, ball-busting, unapologetic-woman vibe. And she nails that.”
“My character’s so empowered in a lot of ways and and doesn’t let the men in her career bury her,” Seyfried continued. “She’s the most insanely curious and compassionate woman. And she’s really exactly what Danny Sullivan needs. And it’s fate that they meet, and its fate that she’s allowed to come on board and investigate what’s really going on from a really sympathetic and empathetic place.”
But Rya is not perfect and there are moments, like when she’s working until 10 p.m. and just realizing that her son is still up and watching TV, that are pretty much asking some audience members to judge her.
“She knows a healthy relationship with her son; she knows what that looks like,” Seyfried said. “And she’s not going to give up her dreams to stay at home because she knows that that’s not healthy either.”
The actress, who has two children with husband and actor Thomas Sadoski, added that “it’s bananas that it still seems like we’re not equipped yet as a society to accept both parents being out having job.” (Sadoski also appears in The Crowded Room, playing police officer Matty Dunn).
Other forms of parental guilt and conflict are seen in Emmy Rossum’s portrayal of Danny’s mother, Candy (something the actress and real-life parent also felt, especially since she found out she was pregnant with her second child while filming this show’s penultimate episode).
As the flashbacks travel to the present day, The Crowded Room shows Candy go from a devoted mother who struggles to be there for her son to a stressed out and dead-eyed nurse who sees no way out of her marriage to a man she hates (Danny’s step-dad, Will Chase’s Marlin).
Rossum has worked with age makeup on projects like Peacock’s Angelyne, but said that aging her character over a 10-year-span for The Crowded Room wasn’t so much about getting older. Even though the character at the end of the series is younger than Rossum is now, she said you can see the “wear and tear of smoking, stress, and addiction.”
“We watch as the family secrets and decisions and mistakes that she makes have a really lasting impact on their lives and ended up shattering the bond that is the most profound to her,” Rossum said and added that audiences will see “the parallels that we learn about mother and son and how they’ve both learned how to survive what she calls a cruel world.”
She said she and Holland “talked a lot about how to play denial; how to know something and also not know it at the same time. Because the very state of consciously knowing that thing would be so deeply unsettling and uprooting to your existence and your life and your sense of yourself.”
The crux of Danny’s case lies with his friend Ariana (Sasha Lane), a character he claims actually pulled the trigger but is now MIA. Flashbacks show Ariana revealing to Danny that her childhood was just as dark as his, although she has a more of a keen fight-or-flight response.
Lane, who has a history of doing dark programming with movies like American Honey and has also been outspoken about issues that she’s gone through in her personal life, said that she didn’t feel any added responsibility to do a show like this because “I have to remind myself that, if I were to say that to myself, it might make me feel like giving myself too much weight.”
However, she said “a big part of the reason that I pushed so hard to be a part of this, and wanted it so bad, is because I knew that I would give the care and the passion to someone like Ariana that I felt she deserved.”
She and Holland also like what the show says about our biases toward who we naturally perceive to be innocent or guilty. The trailer sets up a theory that Holland’s Danny is a serial killer and Ariana is one of his victims. In the series, attorneys argue over whether Danny is being given more leniency and attention simply because of his race and gender.
“You’ve always got to dig a little deeper [because] there’s always something that you, yourself, are never going to be aware of about another individual,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how deeply, and how openly, they’ve spoken about something. It doesn’t matter what you were physically seeing in front of your face. You will never have someone else’s personal experience.”