Walter Presents’ new Belgian drama The Twelve (De Twaalf) is a gripping legal drama and murder-mystery which ultimately becomes a fascinating character study not just of the accused but of the jurors assigned to decide her fate. The series follows the case of respected headmistress Frie Palmers who stands accused of two murders, the latter being her own child. The series views the trial through the unique perspective of a number of the jurors: delving into their personal lives and the reasons behind the biases that they bring to the table when it comes to deciding Frie’s fate.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat with actress Charlotte De Bruyne who plays Holly Ceusters: juror number one in the series. Amongst other things we got to talk about: the importance of multi-faceted female characters and authentic sex scenes and about how her theatre background probably stood her in good stead when it came to filming the series. In this version of the notes I made of our conversation we do get into talking about plot specifics – including depicting Holly’s trauma and about feeling judged by your feline friends. If you haven’t finished the series yet I’d recommend you go and do that first. You can also check out the spoiler free version of this interview first if you’d like.
I wanted to start by talking a little bit about how you got involved with the series in the first place. Was there some kind of audition process or was it a case where the role was yours as long as you were attracted to the part?
It was in the super classical way of going through a casting process.
Was there something in particular that attracted your interest to audition for the role?
Yes – I knew the writers (Bert van Dael & Sanne Nuyens) already & that they were making interesting work which looks at character psychology on quite a high level. For example I really loved Hotel Beau Sejour which they did a few years ago. So I was definitely interested initially. And then reading more about the part I was very into playing a multi-faceted character who was very vulnerable but at the same time strong. Someone who has a lot of scars she carries with her from her past. A lot that I could get my teeth into and show a big range.
Talk a little about your character Holly specifically (which you’ve already talked about a bit) – your first impressions of her and how they might have changed – if they changed – as time went on. Did you have all the important information about the character at the start of shooting or were you finding things out yourself as time went on?
I did find out. I think people are already starting to realise the need for more women in big roles and we are seeing more and more of those characters. I think sometimes the emphasis can be on the fact that they have to be strong women and I liked portraying a character that showed her vulnerable side as well. At first you see her hard shell. She has a very personal sex scene, the fact that she has f**k buddies but plays hard to get (on an emotional level) and later you get to know more about her past and see a different side of her. It was about wanting the audience to identify with her as a human being as well as a woman.
I saw an interview with the producer and director talking about how the actors were involved in developing their characters and wondered if there was anything in particular you fought for for Holly in that regard.
Yes. It sounds quite personal maybe but I really cared about the sex scenes. I often really dislike them/don’t believe them. I really wanted her to be completely free in that situation. We talked a lot about how to shoot those scenes. She’s someone who decides to have sex with people she’s not really connected with in an emotional way and I really wanted her to be going for it in a way that felt real to the viewer. As we find out later Holly had a traumatic experience where her parents were shot in a home invasion and she feels incredibly guilty because it turns out she was there and too terrified to call the police. We talked a lot about how she copes with this trauma and how it affects the way she listens to the testimony in the courtroom. Her way of dealing with her emotions listening to these traumatic events when she already had her own trauma years ago. Being in that room was a kind of therapy for her.
I wondered if your background in theatre was also a factor in attracting you to the part particularly when it came to the courtroom scenes. With those it felt like a very intimate set which could almost be like a play. But then I also wondered afterwards how the courtroom scenes were shot and whether all the actors were actually together for those scenes or if the actors only had to be there for certain reaction shots and a lot of other scenes were edited together later?
We were together a lot. It was very much a case of “we’re not going to decide everything beforehand and want to be flexible in the moment”. That can be difficult sometimes – when as an actor you just have to listen but it was actually a great theatre class. Watching amazing actors perform for 3 and a half weeks. It was kind of beautiful to feel the tension in the room where you’re performing for an audience and where you make a mistake it’s for 60 people. Sometimes it was super clear in the script that you needed a reaction shot – for example when Frie is talking about finding her child (in the first episode) but a lot of the time it was about having flexibility in the montage when it came to editing.
Have you ever been on a jury in real life – or did you get the chance to follow any real life cases as part of preparing to shoot the show?
No – never been on a jury. Some of the cast had a few trips to courtrooms in preparation but unfortunately I was filming at the time so wasn’t able to do that. I was able to sit down and talk with the writers who had already done heaps of research and that was super helpful – also when it came to talking about the trauma Holly had gone through as they’d spent a lot of time talking with people who had been traumatised as part of that research. It was super diverse how different people dealt with that but one common factor was how people tend to build a wall around the trauma. I also watched the OJ Simpson trial (The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) on Netflix which I think is a terrific drama. There it feels like it’s very clear at times who is the bad guy whereas we consciously tried not to tell you what we think is true but let the audience doubt along with the jury.
How do you think you – Charlotte – would have voted (Guilty or Not Guilty) based on the evidence you had?
That’s a really good question… Oh, I don’t think I can separate myself from the character at this point so I’d have to say the same as Holly.
A bit of an odd question possibly but the cat in episode 1? It seemed like it took Holly out of an intimate moment. I wondered initially if that was some indication that the/a cat was some kind of trigger in Holly’s memory to past trauma but maybe it was just a sign that Holly wasn’t really in “the moment” so it didn’t take much to distract her?
I don’t know. For me at the time I think it was the feeling that she felt watched by that animal and that it was judging her somehow. It’s not even clear – and I don’t think it matters – if the cat is actually there or is just in her head. To her someone is watching and she suddenly becomes too self-conscious about having this intimate moment in this house (where she’s also experienced a past trauma). But I like that there are things in the show that we don’t completely explain and that people can read into what they want to read into it. Your explanation also works well but certainly for me when I shot it it was about being judged. I recognise the feeling of being watched by a cat & being judged (laughs).
I did wonder a bit about the Holly identity thing. If it made sense that she had this new identity yet was still living in the same house?
We had a lot of discussions about the identity thing and the fact it’s not well done and is something people can discover easily. I think we liked the idea that it was so see through. Basically a really bad idea & unnecessary. She’s someone who wants to start again, who is building a wall around this trauma where she also has a huge feeling of guilt where she doesn’t dare to say who she is. It maybe feels like a scenario that isn’t totally correct but it completely suits her as a character.
How did you feel about where the story left Holly? Was she in a good place?
I think meeting Joeri she sees what a trauma can do to somebody else. By helping him she’s also helping herself. At times she’s giving essential advice and it’s also essential advice for herself and helping two people at the same time. I think at the end it’s completely unclear if they’re going to end up together but they really helped each other in that moment. It’s really important for the character to feel like she genuinely cares for someone again. I think that feeling of being able to love somebody again is really important for her character.
You think it was her relationship with Joeri that was the most important thing to her (coming to terms with her past) rather than the trial?
I think those two things are very much tied together. For example the discussions she has with Joeri after the trial and whether he would’ve voted differently if the Brazilian guy hadn’t died. I think Holly and Joeri’s story is very mixed up with the case & not a separate thing – the same with a lot of the characters. I think in the beginning her wish was to see people who deserved to be punished being punished (which to her mind didn’t really happen in her parents’ case). She wanted to do the right thing. The courtroom didn’t give her completely what she needed: along the way she realises it’s never going to be quite that simple. (As we talked about prevously) there’s no one answer to these things though and my own thoughts are sometimes shifting so if you talked to me in a month my answer might be slightly different.
I wanted to quickly ask about any other projects you have coming up. For example Soil – which is going to be on Netflix around the world?
I don’t know if I can say too much about Soil at the moment but it’s another exciting project which started filming in July with full Covid safety measures in place. I’m currently writing a new drama – 29 – with a friend, which is about two women (of that age) & what it’s like to be a woman right now. It’s early in the process so maybe in 2 more years we can talk about it some more. I’m also part of the theatre group Ontroerend goed which plays the Edinburgh Fringe each year and has also received a warm welcome at a number of London locations including the Almeida Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre.
Thank you so much to Charlotte for being such a wonderful interviewee.
The full season boxset (10 episodes) of The Twelve is available on Walter Presents via All 4 and on Sky Box Sets.
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