‘True Detective’ Star Unpacks Fatal Choice: “It Was the Least Bad Decision”

Heading into the finale, The Hollywood Reporter speaks with star Finn Bennett about the latest violent twist on HBO’s detective series and the response to the season.

True Detective: Night Country

Jodie Foster and Finn Bennett in ‘True Detective: Night Country.’ MICHELE K. SHORT/HBO

While Jodie Foster and Kali Reis’ Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro are the two detectives at the heart of creator Issa López‘s True Detective: Night Country, there is another vital twosome at the center of the series: Hank and Pete Prior, the father and son duo who both serve as police officers in Ennis, Alaska.

Well, not both of them, not anymore.

The penultimate episode of the HBO crime drama’s fourth iteration sees an explosive climax in the relationship between the Priors, fraught and tense as it was all season long. Hank, played by HBO veteran John Hawkes of Deadwood fame, has long been a crooked cop, doing favors for money. But his final assignment to kill a witness sees him pass a point of no return. Despite his initial reservations, Hank accepts the task, kills a pivotal player in Danvers and Navarro’s investigation, and nearly kills the cops as well. But his son Peter shows up on the scene and, after a tense moment where it’s unclear which will win out — his loyalty to his father or his loyalty to the force — Pete ultimately shoots and kills his own dad, to prevent him from killing Danvers.

For Hawkes’ character, it’s the end of the line. For Pete, however, it’s certainly the climax of his story — but he’s still alive to dictate what happens next. What exactly will that be? No spoilers yet, but for deeper insight into the decision, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Finn Bennett, who plays Peter Prior. Ahead, he explains his take on Pete’s decision and the different iterations of the scene, while weighing in on the response to the season and what fans can expect from the upcoming finale.

Pete’s journey all season long features this tension between his personal and professional lives, and it comes to a head here in episode five, when he shoots his own father.

That scene went through various rewrites. Obviously, the bones of it were always there and what happens always happened. But we rehearsed that scene in Issa’s apartment. We were shooting six days a week, and then we would have one day to rehearse, and we would go to her apartment and read though the scripts. Watching Jodie Foster and John Hawkes argue over you in a rehearsal space is kind of a real sight to see. (Laughs.) The scene changed a lot from what it originally was to where it’s at now.

Finn Bennett as Peter Prior in True Detective: Night Country. MICHELE K. SHORT/HBO

How was it originally conceived?

It was less emotionally charged, a bit more wordy. Hank was like, “Why do you always have to do this shit?” I thought it was great, but I’m not a writer. But John and Jodie picked it apart and felt like very little actually needed to be said here: “Pete’s in the middle. We just need to convince him to come to our side.” So it became a bit more simple, really stripped back, and a lot more heartbreaking. It wasn’t such a flurry of anger, as much as it became a real disappointment between Peter and Hank. The scene’s really about Danvers appealing to Pete’s rationality and his moral compass. Hank appeals to something more sentimental. It’s a tug of war, with Pete as the rope in the middle. And Danvers wins.

Did you struggle to justify Pete’s choice to shoot Hank?

It’s a really good and hard question. I don’t think there was a right decision to make here. He made the least bad decision. Calling it a decision in the first place almost gives it too much weight, because it’s a snap, it’s almost a reflex. There’s something John told me that I’ve remembered ever since; that he really dislikes when actors say, “Oh, my character would never do that.” Because everybody in everyday life makes decisions and does things they would never expect from themselves. You’re a mystery to yourself. I don’t think Pete has decided to go with Danvers in this moment. It was just a thing he did. And it’s something that he will regret… maybe too harsh a word. But it’s definitely something he will think about every day for the rest of his life.

In some ways, is this Peter proving he’s a good cop? That he’s able to make this choice in this moment?

That’s all he’s trying to do all through the series, be a good cop. I get asked questions like, “Why does he spend so much time away from his wife and kids? Is he a bad father?” I don’t think so. He just wants to prove himself. I haven’t made it to Alaska yet [ed. note: Night Country was filmed in Iceland] although I will one day, but I have been to the Canadian arctic and had the pleasure of meeting a cop very much like Pete, who married an Indigenous woman and worked his way up through the rankings. He said young cops will do anything to prove themselves, and if you come from a small town, you’ll do even more. Right up until this moment, Pete’s been the perfect cop. In many ways, he’s trying to solve this case for Danvers. He makes a good cop decision that makes him a dirty cop after. John said it was almost suicide by cop: less Pete killing Hank, and more Hank killing himself. But it does make Pete a dirty cop.

Do you have any memories of working with John you’d like to share? Did he ever play his guitar for you?

Yes, he did. He actually lent me a guitar, and I don’t even play. I can play a chord, that’s it! He’s just such a kind and understanding man. There’s this intensity to the dynamic between Hank and Pete, less a battle of wits, and almost more of a grudge. They both hold onto the outside of it. John hosted us multiple times in his apartment, and he would play guitar, he would sing… we would have a glass of red wine, and there’s John Hawkes, playing music. You just have to imagine it. I wouldn’t care if nobody had seen this series, just knowing I had that experience would have been enough for me.

John Hawkes as Hank Prior in True Detective: Night Country. MICHELE K. SHORT/HBO

Of course, people have watched the series. How are you feeling about the reception?

I’m really, really pleased with it. The name True Detective carries a lot of weight and is a heavy cross to bear.

Did you feel that weight, making the show?

I think so, yeah. But it quickly became clear that this was mostly True Detective in name. There are obviously parallels with [earlier seasons], like the spiral and the symbolism and some Easter eggs like Travis Cohle [who is season one star Matthew McConaughey’s character’s father]. But I think this is a very new chapter, ultimately. Once I accepted that, while it still felt like a lot of pressure, it did kind of start to fall away. And I’m very happy with the response. There has been some unfortunate backlash, some of it just plain misogynistic, and for me, if those are the only comments they have, then we succeeded, because that’s not a based comment.

Were you surprised at all about Nic Pizzolatto’s recent criticism about the season?

I don’t want to talk about it too much. He created a fantastic series. Season one is one of the best pieces of television ever made. His name is attached to it. But whatever happens, I stand behind Issa, and I take her line on it. He’s entitled to his view.

The finale’s up next. Were you surprised by its resolution?

Yeah, and I was also entirely satisfied. That’s the most important thing when you’re trying to make a really good detective show. You need to be satisfied by the ending. Endings are really, really difficult. So I was surprised in how the mystery ties itself together. Sometimes, endings can feel lazy, and this really didn’t feel that way. It stays true to the piece. I remember watching the finale for the first time and bursting into tears, because I was so proud of what we created, but also because the ending is just so beautiful. It’s my favorite episode by far. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

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