Under the Surface: 5 Things To Know About the Psycho-Thriller Show

The Morning Show alum Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in the thriller about a woman who doesn't know her past — or who she can trust to tell her about it.

by | July 28, 2022 | Comments

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw Surface Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Why would a rich, beautiful and popular member of San Francisco’s elite tech financing world jump off a boat seemingly to end her life?

If only she could remember herself.

In the new Apple TV+ psychological thriller from High Fidelity co-creator Veronica West, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Sophie Ellis. The wife of finance bro James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who lives in a picturesque Bay Area mansion, Sophie’s current life is a murky sea of flashes from her past as she listens to stories of how great everything was before the incident and works with a therapist to delve into repressed parts of her psyche.

She tries to put the pieces of the past back together in her mind when a handsome stranger (Stephan James’ Thomas Baden) emerges to tell her that he knew her when and that he’s the only one she can trust.

But can (and should?) she believe him? Rotten Tomatoes wondered this and more when we spoke to West and the series’ stars.

1. Can Gaslighting Be Used For Good?


(Photo by Ed Araquel/Apple TV+)

West says that the concept of gaslighting, or manipulating someone’s perception of reality, is “a theme that is natural to the premise of the show.”

But it’s also possible that some characters are doing it to protect Sophie.

West continues that “everybody is looking at this accident as a second chance to start their relationship with Sophie. They shape their own narratives and not necessarily malevolently.”

“Nobody in the show is all villain or all hero,” she says. “Everybody’s really gray and I think that really informs their attitudes toward Sophie and their motivation.”

2. You Will Detect Nodes of Hitchcock. But also Hamlet

Oliver Jackson-Cohen Surface

(Photo by Apple TV+)

West is aware that setting her show amidst the San Francisco gloominess and darkness will draw comparisons to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. She says that Vertigo, his 1958 thriller about a detective driven mad as images from his past are confused with the present, “came to mind when we set the show in San Francisco.”

“There are a couple of nods to that film and the classic [psychological thriller] genre,” she says. “Of course, we’re bending it all different ways and twisting it for the modern audience.”

Plus, James and Jackson-Cohen have experience in the messing-with-reality genre thanks to the series Homecoming and film The Invisible Man, respectively.

Jackson-Cohen jokes that “I think I’ve found the niche market for playing toxic men” before saying more seriously that “the great thing about Surface is that nothing is ever what it seems.”

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

(Photo by Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia 1851–2, © Sir Henry Tate, Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

More directly, a late episode in the series pays homage to Sir John Everett Millais’ 19th century work, Ophelia, an oil painting depicting the water death of the titular character’s romantic partner in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, Ophelia drowns herself after going mad with grief when she learns her lover killed her father.

Coincidentally, the painting is also one that means a lot to Surface star Mbatha-Raw, who played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in a 2009 production of Hamlet that was staged on the West End and on Broadway. (Another fun fact: Mbatha-Raw’s middle name is Sophia, and she says “I was actually called ‘Sophie’ for the first three days of my life until my dad changed my name to ‘Gugulethu.'”).

3. The Series Is Not Meant To Be a Commentary on Anglophilia

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Oliver Jackson-Cohen Surface

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Although it’s easy to get drawn into the allure and mystery of a posh Brit, West says that her first version of the script actually was about an American in London. She went stateside when Mbatha-Raw’s name came into the casting mix.

What was important to maintain, she says, is that “Sophie’s past [is] a mystery and something that she was willing to cross an ocean to run from. That really informs her character and what she left behind and where she came from — something that we are still building out as the series continues.”

Also, Jackson-Cohen is a Brit playing an American, and the series is helmed by British director Sam Miller.

“We had this tension of the British and the American perspective on all of our characters, and behind the camera as well, which was really cool,” Mbatha-Raw says.

4. Nor Is It Supposed To Be a Commentary on Race Relations

Stephan James and Gugu Mbatha-Raw surface Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Although Sophie is a biracial character who is suddenly told by a Black character not to trust her white husband, West stresses that this was not meant to be seen as a political or social commentary.

She and the other writers broke the season before they wrote the episodes and before the casting process started.

“We were really just looking for the actors that felt like the best fit for these characters,” she says

James adds that “I think that it was clear that they wanted to create a character in Baden that came from a much different place from Sophie and have that add to the challenge of that dynamic of believing or trusting him.”

5. It Is a Different Take on the Unreliable Narrator Storyline

Gugu Mbatha-Raw surface Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

As to whether we can believe anything Sophie sees or interprets through the series, West offers the reminder that “Sophie is only an unreliable because she has no choice.”

“She wishes she knew the truth,” West says. “She’s not really lying to anybody. She is trying to figure out the lies all around her.”

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