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Future Noir: Actress Kristin Lehman Talks 'Altered Carbon,' the Importance of Story, and Stepping Behind the Camera

January 31, 2018Ben MK

Kristin Lehman is an actress with an impressive resume. For four seasons, she starred in the police drama Motive, a show which she eventually went on to also produce, and she's appeared in roles both big and small in shows like The Killing, The X-Files and Prison Break. Her latest project is Netflix's Altered Carbon (read our review here), a new sci-fi series that draws its aesthetic from the world of Blade Runner, which also happens to be the latest television series to be shot in Lehman's hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.

I recently caught up with Lehman to chat about the show and her character, as well as her penchant for directing and what she thinks makes a good sci-fi story resonate with audiences.

With Motive, you were quoted as saying it wasn't "your typical cop show," and with Altered Carbon, there is definitely a similar kind of unconventionality about it. As an actor, what's your guiding principle when it comes to choosing projects, and how does Altered Carbon meet that criteria?

Lehman: That's a great question. The story. The story and the people who are making it. That is, producers and actors. And also, I had the great fortune of being able to do a show that shot where I live. So sometimes, that's the criteria. But again, [I've had] such good fortune that the projects that have been in Vancouver thus far are projects that I would clamor to be on regardless of where they are. So in truth, it's story — do I resonate with the story, do I think I have something to offer, do I understand why they might be interested in me, how invested am I in the story?

Again, that's a real luxury, because as a journeyman actor there are times also when you need a job, and you're willing to bring your strengths to a project that you're not necessarily as invested in. But I've had really good fortune to be able to be exposed to material and be hired on material that I really wanted to be a part of.

Your character, Miriam Bancroft, strikes me as someone who doesn't really care what others think. Part of it might be that she's so rich that she doesn't have to care. She just seems used to taking what she wants. Is it fun to play that type of role?

Lehman: You know, it's really interesting, I think that if all the scenes were set up for Miriam to be met with success, then it would be smooth sailing, it'd be very comfortable, but that's not what the scenes are. Miriam — her success is always in question, so it was uncomfortable. Most of my scenes were uncomfortable. Because I don't think Miriam is feigning confidence in any way, shape or form. I think she's uncertain of the outcome of what she wants is, and that uncertainty is a friction for her.

But me as an actor, I am hoping that what I am exuding, or the place I've gone, reads as the ultimate confidence. [laughs] And I have not been alive for 200 years; I don't have the data of hundreds of years of testing, whether or not this behavior sets me up for success. So it's kind of everything rolled into one. I didn't step on-set and think, "I've got this." Miriam thought that, and I had to lead with that, but the scenes were always about resistance.

My scenes with Joel [Kinnaman], my scenes with James [Purefoy], they're always about some sort of friction and resistance. So, that's where I emotionally dwelled — in the friction and resistance. It didn't make it less fun, but it didn't necessarily always feel like smooth sailing. Do you know what I mean?

Altered Carbon has a very kind of film noir feel, but you also can't get much more sci-fi than this show. Are you a big sci-fi fan in general? And if so, what do you think makes a good sci-fi story really resonate with the audience?

Lehman: I think story. I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi fan; I'm a dyed-in-the-wool story fan. So if the story is compelling, I'm there. So I think if you ask that to a person who really loves the whole concept of sci-fi — really the science element being blended in with fiction, and that sort of man versus science — they're gonna give you a different answer.

I asked a friend of mine who owns a special effects company; he was just, "I love sci-fi." I said, "What is it that you love about it?" Cuz I said I don't look for sci-fi; if the story's great, it's gonna compel me. If it happens to be sci-fi, then I wanna tell it. He was like, "No, I just love the sort of odd future, I love futurism, I love the idea of where we might go, and how science gets in there, it feels both dark and also hopeful." So it kind of has everything he wants.

I think that lies in the story, and I think that the genre part is the dressing afterwards. Now, some of that's because the sci-fi that I've been exposed to happens to be that it's story-based. I don't know that I could get into a story that was told from the outside in, or really heavy on the tech, or heavy on the science. I probably wouldn't be into that. But I have yet to read something like that. I know it exists; I'm sure it exists out there.

But I think that even at the heart of sci-fi is man struggling with his own frailties and [his] own vulnerabilities or passions, which are age-old themes that are in every kind of storytelling. It just happens to be that this one's dressed up with futurism, and what that looks like. And I understand why people really dig it, because ultimately you're talking about a genre that asks you to be fantastical.

It's not a Netflix show, but for example, a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel takes you into a whole other world. And it's a specific world, and it's dressed up, and it's fantastical. Well, sci-fi has that too, so I'm using two extremely different examples, but they have the same element. And Mrs. Maisel is a very rare show in mainstream storytelling — or "normalized" storytelling, or drama, even comedy.

Sci-fi has this additional element of heightened worlds, and you're asked to go into the heightened worlds intentionally, so it's almost like people must love it just to escape, in terms of imagination. So I dig it from the story perspective, but understand that most sci-fi fans like it from the worlds that are being created, I think.

Aside from being an actor, you've directed a few episodes of a couple of the other shows you were on, namely Motive and Ghost Wars. Any chance you might direct an episode of Altered Carbon if the show returns for a second season?

Lehman: Good Lord, I should hope. Are you kidding? That would be the best! Probably I won't. [laughs] One day, one day I would love to. The directors we had were really seasoned with the particular sweeping scope of a show. Proven. Adept. Not that I am not those things; I would rise to the occasion in a heartbeat. And do I think I could do it? Yes, I would do it.

But, you know, it takes a long time to be vetted by the people who are putting out the money to do these shows. But I find the idea inspiring, and I hope one day, yes. Also, I think if we go a second season, there's only a couple of us that remain with the story. So I don't know that I would be on their set. But thank you, bless you! [laughs]

Altered Carbon begins streaming February 2nd on Netflix.

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