HBO’s The Outsider explores the murder of a local child and the mysterious force surrounding the case. It’s based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel of the same name.
Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Ready Player One) portrays police detective Ralph Anderson. He’s overseeing the horrifying crime of a mutilated body of an 11-year-old boy found in the Georgia woods. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the case leads him to bring in an unorthodox private investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo, Academy Award nominee for Harriet), to assist him.
The miniseries was written for television by Richard Price (The Wire). Jason Bateman (Ozark) appears in the first episode as Terry Maitland. He is also the executive producer of the series, and directed the first two episodes. The drama is currently running on HBO.
Jason Bateman and Cynthia Erivo came to the TV Critics tour to talk about their eerie new project.

I watched the first episode of The Outsider right before I went to bed and immediately regretted it. How do you figure out what the balance is between a normal crime thriller, and then trying to scare the crap out of everybody?

The Outsider, TCA - Jason Bateman and Richard Price
The Outsider, TCA – Jason Bateman and Richard Price onstage during the HBO segment of the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 15, 2020 ©2020 HBO, photo by by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

Jason Bateman: I’m not a huge horror fan or scare-jump-gore-slasher-kind of audience member. I really love dread, thriller and tension. So I was really excited that this story lived in more of a Stephen King Shining world as opposed to some of his other great stories that live more in that frightening, scare, shock world.

I was directing the episodes that Richard (Price) was writing and he was the ultimate arbiter of what would go where, what would make for a good end of an episode, and get you wanting more. But I wasn’t trying to frame things up as we’re going to scare you here. I was trying to create a bit of a mood.

Cynthia, when you are approaching a character that already exists in a novel how much research do you do?

The Outsider - Cynthia Erivo
The Outsider – Unorthodox private investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) ©2020 HBO, photo by Bob Mahoney

Cynthia Erivo: I didn’t read the novel to prepare for Holly, because I didn’t want to be influenced by what was already there. The script gave me a lot to work with, and so I tried to use that.

I feel like the character is really fully realized and so I tried to fill her as much as I possibly could. Knowing that there was an oddity about her, and I was intrigued by the fact that, as a woman of color, you never really get to see these kinds of women onscreen.

I wanted to make sure that she was fully human, very much in charge, and that you got to know her as you met her in each episode. I was given a gift of the character, to be honest, and it was written really beautifully for me.

Jason: She’s being very humble. Those characters can easily be overplayed, and her taste was extremely beneficial to this project. We’re very lucky to have you, missus.

Cynthia, did this project interest you because it’s a different world than you’ve ever occupied before, seemingly ordinary, and then it says Stephen King so we know it’s not ordinary.

The Outsider - Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo
The Outsider – Police detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) and Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) ©2020 HBO, photo by Bob Mahoney

Cynthia: I leaned into this role because it is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and not just as in a role that I’ve never played, but I just haven’t seen this person exist on a screen before. I read the script, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her, because she was completely new and also kind of foreign to me.

I like a challenge [and] like to see women who are complex and different. Women who you don’t get to hear from very often. Those are the women I want to play, and Holly is that.

I know you can’t say too much because of spoilers, but for people who have read the book are there some fun surprises in store for them? Have you made some tweaks to the story that might surprise book readers?

Jason: Well, Episode 7 is animated. Episode 8 is a musical. So, get ready (he laughs)…

You’re developing this career as an executive producer, director, shaping the content as well as performing it. Do you see yourself doing more behind the scenes work rather than acting in front of the camera?

The Outsider, TCA - Richard Price and Jason Bateman
The Outsider, TCA – Richard Price and Jason Bateman pose in the green room during the HBO segment of the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 15, 2020 ©2020 HBO, photo by by Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

Jason: I feel very lucky to be given some opportunities to try to see if I have absorbed what I’ve been trying to learn for all these years. I’m really appreciating these opportunities with the material, the actors, the studio and network support that I’ve been lucky enough to get. It’s all learning for me.

The negative reviews you learn stuff that you missed, or even just perspective from a different opinion. And the positive ones are assuring and encouraging.

Do you ever see yourself reaching a point where you might not act?

Jason: No, I really enjoy acting a lot. But right now I’m enjoying the challenge of the directing. So much more just given its wider scope, as opposed to a single channel as an actor. Not to belittle that at all. It’s equally difficult. But I like acting in the things that I direct. Only because it makes things a little bit easier because I don’t have to direct that actor.

Cynthia, can you tell us what you were doing when you heard that you’d been nominated for an Academy Award for Harriet?

Cynthia: Yeah. I was completely disorientated when I found out about the Oscar nomination. I was in the air on the way to Tokyo. So that was interesting. I’m now still having an out-of-body experience because it keeps coming in waves. I really didn’t expect to have that happen, which is amazing.

The Outsider Soundbyte

Stephen King got into trouble on Twitter when he wrote, ‘I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me to do otherwise would be wrong.’ Cynthia was asked to comment on his remarks.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.