Truth Be Told Stars Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul Examine Our True-Crime Obsession

What real-life damage do shows like Serial and Making a Murderer actually cause? That's one question the stars and showrunner of Apple TV+'s new true-crime drama hope to answer.

by | December 6, 2019 | Comments

What happens when a professional journalist goes free-range as a podcaster with no checks on her work? That’s just one question Truth Be Told creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Justified, The Good Wife) tackles in the new Apple TV+ legal drama.

Based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel “Are You Sleeping,” Truth Be Told stars Aaron Paul as Warren Cave (Paul), a young man sent to prison 18 years ago for a murder he may not have committed, and Octavia Spencer as Poppy Parnell, a journalist and podcaster who initially helped put him behind bars only to realize two decades later that she may have contributed to the incarceration of an innocent man.

Exploring topics of race, privacy, and the way we consume and are influenced by media, Spellman flips the true-crime genre on its head in Truth Be Told, which premieres also stars Lizzy Caplan, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, and Elizabeth Perkins.

True-crime podcasts have been the rage for some time. Yet, as addictive as they can be, there are also concerns about the lack of oversight in the way information is researched, collected, and delivered to the public. What is true one week, can be debunked in the next episode. And that can be tough for audiences to keep up with, especially if the show has already done its part in swaying public opinion.

Just how harmful can “unchecked journalism” be, especially in this fast-paced cancel-culture period we’re currently living in? And what are the consequences that may lie behind the public justice that can unfold after consuming popular episodic true-crime entertainment like the hit podcast Serial or Netflix’s docu-series Making a Murderer?

Octavia Spencer in Truth Be Told s1 (Apple TV+)
(Photo by Apple TV+)

“I like the idea of this woman who’s a trained journalist with really great credits, who is now in a field where there are no checks and balances. There are no bosses — she’s her own boss,” Spellman explained during the show’s press junket. “As she goes down this rabbit hole, there’s no editor, there’s no publisher, there’s no one to pull her back in. She goes against the first rule by making it personal. That’s how we sort of got into the story, asking if there’s a ripple effect in crime. The person at the center of it, how does her ambition couple with her guilt?”

Spellman and Spencer both share an obsession with the true-crime genre and the armchair-detective aspect of shows like the ones mentioned above, as well as Snapped, Cold Case Files, and Forensic Files. That listener-as-participant element of the story drew the Oscar-winner to the project.

“I was just excited to get to play something very close to how my mind works as an investigator,” Spencer revealed. “The only thing is, I like working from behind the screen, you know? The idea of actually being out in the real world asking questions, investigating in that way is a little scary.”

For the Shape Of Water actress, the biggest allure of the project was being able to play a character with a flawed moral compass. Sure, Poppy wants to discover the truth, but is it her guilt or the ever-present threat to her professional reputation that is driving the podcaster on this dangerous mission?

“That’s what I love about Poppy,” she answered. “Her ascent into greatness — or fame or money — came on the back of whether or not this affluent young kid would get a fair trial. Would he be found guilty? For her, everything pointed at guilty. Fast forward 20 years, when you now have the cancel culture with social media and people are listening to her podcast. There’s this fervor around it, an excitement, and she realized: Could she have been wrong? And what are the implications of her being wrong?”

Aaron Paul in Truth Be Told (Apple TV+)
(Photo by Apple TV+)

This all brings us to the man on the other side of the argument: Warren Cave. When Poppy decides to re-examine his murder case for her podcast, the two eventually reunite, and the results, at least at the beginning, are a bit upsetting. Not only did Poppy possibly have a hand in putting an innocent man in jail, but his survival in prison meant Warren took some drastic measures.

“He was pushed into a corner,” Aaron Paul said, discussing the reason his character became a white supremacist. “He was thrown in prison at a very young age and he had to pick a side — that’s the only way to really survive. Otherwise, he’s just a punching bag 24/7. The side he picked was the Aryan Nation Brotherhood, which is a really terrifying sort of just dangerous place to be.”

Truth Be Told may be inspired by “Are You Sleeping,” but Spellman takes liberties with the story being told here. Not only did she pivot a bit from the original subject matter — according to the showrunner, Poppy Parnell was an ancillary character in the book — she also kept the outcome of the series a secret from the actors.

“At the very beginning of the shoot, my first burning question was, ‘Well, did he do it?'” Paul revealed. “And Michelle was like, ‘I’m not telling you.’ And then I go, ‘But I’m the actor playing the guy, I should know if he did it or not!’ I honestly did not know whether or not he was innocent until the very end, truly.”

Aaron Paul in Truth Be Told s1 (Apple TV+)

How does an actor play a convict who may be innocent of the crime he was imprisoned for? Especially if you, as the actor, don’t know if he is in fact innocent?

“I always try to bring heart to any character I’m playing whether it’s a very bad person or a good person,” Paul said. “I just had to play him as honest as I saw him.”

Putting the actors’ pursuit of the truth of their characters onscreen may be tricky, but created an intriguing push-and-pull dynamic between the honesty of the roles and the show’s overall quest for truth.

“In the criminal world, in the true-crime world, one of the things that they tell you that you can’t rely on is the eyewitness because the truth is always malleable,” Spencer said. “To an eyewitness, you may not see or remember the same thing that I see or remember. So truth is … sadly, it’s perception and how we all remember this moment. I think truth is shaped by whatever lens you view the world. And whatever your truth is will inform what you think the truth is.”

A much as fans of the genre yearn to do their own investigative work in between episodes of their own favorite podcast, there’s a largely not-talked-about component to the popularity of true-crime reporting and dramatization: the impact on the families involved.

“I was watching Making a Murderer,” Spellman said. “There was one point in the first season where I was thinking, ‘God, this must be awful for the woman’s family.’ You know what I mean? That this has become something that’s like watercooler talk. And that idea that, if you had this tragedy in your past, and it’s been personal, and it’s something that your family has dealt with, and then it becomes this thing, where maybe your coworkers are talking about it. Maybe that’s a secret that you didn’t tell at work, because it’s too painful. And then we have this discussion, this back-and-forth about these very real people as if they’re fictional characters.”

Octavia Spencer in Truth Be Told (Apple TV+)
(Photo by Apple TV+)

Take cinematic stories like Netflix’s Mindhunter, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the Zach Efron–starrer Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, for instance. The bloody exploits of serial killers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy have become a part of our pop culture lexicon, but their violent deeds caused very real pain for their victims and their victims’ families.

“It just becomes a story after a while,” Spellman explained. “Other people’s pain is just a story. It’s now a shorthand story, but that pain was real and it’s still real for all of those families. So we touch on it when we go to Warren’s family, Poppy’s family … [there’s a] ripple effect there.”

Which brings us back to Poppy’s podcast that threads it all together. As gimmicky as it may sound to have a voiceover narration guide an audience through the mystery that is slowly unfolding, that component works for Truth Be Told. And one of the reasons why, according to Spellman, is the unreliability of its host.

“The podcast is kind of an unreliable narrator,” she said. “We don’t know Poppy’s agenda. And we don’t know when or if we can believe her.”

Truth Be Told episodes 1-3 are now streaming on Apple TV+.

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

diversity E! sports historical drama Reality Competition hispanic rotten movies we love PBS Peacock based on movie series Turner Television Academy YouTube Premium Cannes Pet Sematary Awards Tour ABC Family SundanceTV crime drama Lifetime cartoon Nominations breaking bad cats revenge Columbia Pictures Marathons Martial Arts GLAAD Infographic blaxploitation sag awards Nickelodeon festivals Baby Yoda The CW mutant ITV Pop Tumblr Thanksgiving MSNBC Britbox Musical ghosts adventure anime Super Bowl FX Vudu The Walking Dead RT21 AMC Trivia Adult Swim BBC America Premiere Dates LGBT cooking Comedy Acorn TV Netflix American Society of Cinematographers Avengers canceled TV shows political drama Opinion werewolf Crunchyroll dragons Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cancelled TV shows robots Christmas romantic comedy Heroines MCU Ghostbusters Mudbound Hulu TNT Emmys Disney streaming service Paramount Network cops cancelled TV series LGBTQ crime thriller spain Arrowverse Discovery Channel VICE animated TV renewals binge slashers Food Network PaleyFest miniseries directors medical drama biography Red Carpet Fantasy anthology period drama USA Network Sundance Turner Classic Movies FOX NBC Shudder Watching Series TCA 2017 Country Anna Paquin Summer Lionsgate SXSW zero dark thirty Toys Disney Channel Sony Pictures E3 IFC Sneak Peek Trailer Paramount video dceu OWN CBS All Access Election Captain marvel technology christmas movies First Reviews Film renewed TV shows Marvel Studios Crackle TCA Winter 2020 Elton John television award winner blockbuster Song of Ice and Fire Disney+ Disney Plus aliens 007 Lifetime Christmas movies TruTV halloween casting Certified Fresh Mary Tyler Moore Pixar unscripted comic supernatural Superheroes Holiday Academy Awards natural history Ovation sitcom 2018 21st Century Fox streaming History teaser crossover Universal Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Emmy Nominations Marvel Nat Geo ABC YA Cartoon Network 2020 social media canceled Mary poppins Pirates Mary Poppins Returns Showtime HBO Fox News APB travel boxoffice Kids & Family Rocky The Arrangement composers docudrama Freeform space Logo Calendar Classic Film singing competition Apple TV+ Horror Grammys Countdown Pride Month Women's History Month south america Comics on TV comics independent justice league TLC Bravo Star Wars Action 2017 X-Men Amazon HBO Max book A&E San Diego Comic-Con ESPN dc adaptation GoT batman Sundance Now zombie mockumentary psycho Brie Larson golden globes police drama zombies OneApp Apple YouTube Red Rocketman Star Trek toy story thriller jamie lee curtis DirecTV reboot Winners 20th Century Fox Hallmark Christmas movies true crime elevated horror Stephen King screen actors guild CBS Ellie Kemper WarnerMedia Dark Horse Comics Winter TV crime Endgame CW Seed finale Disney Plus Masterpiece Sci-Fi Mindy Kaling YouTube disaster sequel Syfy Reality Comedy Central 2019 Cosplay DC Comics TCM dramedy The Witch WGN Amazon Prime New York Comic Con TIFF IFC Films GIFs Best and Worst latino Music comiccon Spectrum Originals El Rey Musicals CNN FXX spanish language theme song game show Character Guide Teen Holidays Animation Tarantino Creative Arts Emmys cinemax TBS Family Black Mirror war Chernobyl cars green book spinoff strong female leads discovery NYCC CMT A24 Spring TV hist Drama TCA Year in Review Fall TV doctor who joker screenings Apple TV Plus Polls and Games Mystery Rom-Com Quiz indie Photos witnail politics kids Sundance TV TV See It Skip It vampires ratings spider-man President children's TV talk show Valentine's Day game of thrones name the review Set visit Binge Guide Esquire Amazon Prime Video SDCC 71st Emmy Awards Epix Superheroe movies Box Office serial killer BET transformers DC streaming service Extras Disney Comic Book TV Land Marvel Television Biopics Starz Walt Disney Pictures quibi facebook Writers Guild of America Schedule MTV Tubi 2016 Awards documentary 45 Netflix Christmas movies Film Festival cancelled television cancelled harry potter what to watch The Purge romance RT History USA Video Games First Look Lucasfilm nature Hallmark Rock spy thriller cults Shondaland Interview Warner Bros. DGA versus stand-up comedy Oscars Podcast 24 frames tv talk Tomatazos BBC richard e. Grant National Geographic Trophy Talk Spike science fiction foreign psychological thriller free movies VH1 DC Universe Western 2015