Olivia Williams as Emily Burton Silk and Nicholas Pinnock as Ian Shaw in COUNTERPART | © 2018 Showtime

Olivia Williams as Emily Burton Silk and Nicholas Pinnock as Ian Shaw in COUNTERPART | © 2018 Showtime

The premise of Starz’s Sunday-night speculative-fiction drama COUNTERPART is that, 30 years ago, reality split and created a second universe that was at the time identical to our own. Only a privileged few know about this. They are headquartered in a complex that sits above the underground tunnel in Berlin that joins the two dimensions, which have since taken different paths.

Olivia Williams plays two different versions of Emily Silk. This world’s Emily is in a coma after an accident. Her devoted husband, Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), comes to see her every night at the hospital. Howard, a low-level functionary, is astonished to find out a) there are two worlds, b) he works for the organization that communicates between the worlds and c) his “Other,” Howard Silk (also played by Simmons) from the Other Side, is a steely espionage agent who insists that this world’s Howard be brought up to speed. The other world’s Emily works for the Other Side’s version of the organization; she and her world’s Howard used to be married but aren’t now.

Williams, a native of London, England, played botanist Liza Winter in WGN’s series MANHATTAN, about the nuclear Manhattan Project, and costarred in both seasons of Joss Whedon’s DOLLHOUSE as the enigmatic house proprietor Adelle DeWitt. Williams is also a prolific stage and movie actress, with bigscreen credits that include THE POSTMAN, RUSHMORE, THE SIXTH SENSE, AN EDUCATION and VICTORIA & ABDUL.

Williams is so spoiler-phobic that, even though COUNTERPART is now in the middle of its first season and its pre-premiere trailers all revealed the pivotal plot point, she’d rather viewers went in knowing nothing. “I’d like them not to know the twists. I’d like them to watch it without reading the spoilers, please, about the parallel universe. When I read the script, it was a punch in the solar plexus. And I want the audience to have a chance to see that.”

Williams is therefore judicious in what she’ll reveal about COUNTERPART, but the conversation is still informative.

ASSIGNMENT X: Since you spend much of the first episode playing comatose Emily, I was wondering how this was pitched to you – “The good news is, you get to work with J.K. Simmons …”

OLIVIA WILLIAMS: And also, you get to be directed by Morten Tyldum. He directed me on how to lie very still, which I can already do, and how to sit in a chair, which I’m quite good at as well, I like to think. But how did they pitch it to me? Well, they made a promise, which is a promise that’s been made to me many times before, “There’s loads of amazing stuff coming up for you in the rest of the series.” And I said, “What, do you think I just left drama school and it’s my first f***ing rodeo? I don’t take jobs on the promise of something I haven’t seen on the page.” And they kept on saying what was going to happen, and I was like, “Where’s the guarantee?” And in the end, they were just so interesting, the concept was so interesting, the quality of the writing was good enough, and I thought, “Even if I don’t wake up, this is not something to be ashamed of being part of.” So I took it. It was a big punt [risk].

AX: Is Other Side Emily an even bigger secret agent than Other Side Howard?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know. I don’t know how you qualify “secretness.” [laughs] But they are slightly different types of operative. Her job is not to cross over, but she works for the Office of Interchange, but on the domestic side, so she doesn’t cross over.

AX: The producers and creator Jason Marks have been referring to this world’s Howard as “Howard Alpha” and the Other Side’s Howard as “Howard Prime.” Does that apply to the two Emilys as well, Alpha and Prime?

WILLIAMS: They’re not my character. The terminology we used in the call sheets and rehearsal was very, very confusing [laughs]. I’m “Prime” and “Silk,” which is weird, but we didn’t use “Emily Alpha.” I don’t know why that was. It’s just how it organically developed, evolved. But yes. Emily Prime is the tough bitch who is divorced from Scary Howard. And the comatose one was happily married to Fluffy Howard. There’s Scary Howard and there’s Fluffy Howard.

AX: And your nicknames are Silk and Prime?

WILLIAMS: Yes, don’t know why, because the one who divorced him is Burton, Emily Burton. So Emily Silk is still married to Howard Silk. Emily Prime is Emily Burton, because she’s gone back to her maiden name.

AX: Do you have scenes where you’re playing with both of the two Howards simultaneously?

WILLIAMS: No.

AX: So you don’t have scenes where you’re dealing with the technology they use to put two of J.K. Simmons on screen at the same time …

WILLIAMS: No. I didn’t have to do those shenanigans. But I did have to try and work out which one I was meeting, who I’m dealing with. It’s brilliant. If there are any TV nerds watching, they’re going to have a field day. They’re just going to love this show, because trying to work out which Howard you’re watching and who in the room knows which one it is and how they respond to him.

AX: COUNTERPART shoots on location in Berlin. Have you gotten to work in Germany before?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I’ve done two movies. In Berlin, I worked on THE GHOST WRITER with Roman Polanski and Pierce Brosnan and the gorgeous Ewan McGregor, who’s just won a prize, [the Golden Globe], for FARGO. And then I did a film called HANNA, which was in Hamburg.

AX: So you were somewhat familiar with the area …

WILLIAMS: I love Berlin. They have such amazing crews, and their lighting, their d.p.s, the makeup artists, the set-up there, Studio Babelsburg, is a great place to work. Their aesthetic is very pleasing. We really felt good. I love working in America, I love coming here, but when we got to Berlin, it felt like the show’s spiritual home.

AX: As far as the Other Side Berlin, is there anything the production designers do to it to make it look like a different Berlin than ours?

WILLIAMS: There are the two different worlds, and the way the two different worlds have evolved have made the city different. And so the set decorators have done the most beautiful things, because you can be in the same room, but it’s the same room that has experienced different developments, separate development, and so some things have moved around, and these pieces of furniture are gone. It’s a real hunt for the clues – spot the difference. It’s very exciting.

AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything physical for the job? Emily Prime seems like she might be a kickass who could perhaps hold her own opposite the assassin characters …

WILLIAMS: That’s nice to hear. I have actually done quite a few gun-toting, door-kicking-down characters. I made a truly unsuccessful film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I did get full sort of CIA training when I did it, which was fun, so I have those skills down [laughs].

AX: You had said earlier that you liked getting all the scripts on COUNTERPART before you worked, compared with not knowing where the story was going on DOLLHOUSE …

WILLIAMS: No. I was using that as an example, because with DOLLHOUSE, we didn’t know when we were going to be canceled, and Joss [Whedon] wrote the end of Season 1 as if we had been canceled, it was the end. The end of Season 1 was an apocalypse [in the story]. And then he was told that we had a Season 2, and he was like, “Oh, f***.” [laughs] I in no way mean criticism of Joss. The amazing way, the creative way Joss would deal with the fact that at any moment Fox was threatening to come in and go like that [makes plug-pulling gesture] on us. Which they eventually did. And what’s amazing is that his extraordinary and sort of athletic brain could come up with a scenario that could end tomorrow, or end in seven years’ time. But the joy of this is that [COUNTERPART creator] Justin [Marks] didn’t have to deal with that. He was given twenty hours [of screen time], and not by some series of accidents divided by commercial breaks, but really let the thing grow.

AX: So COUNTERPART has already been picked up for two seasons?

WILLIAMS: Before we even started. It was, “You have twenty hours to tell the story.”

AX: Is there room for third season if it’s a big hit?

WILLIAMS: We’re all signed for five, seven years, whatever it is.

AX: And if not, might you jump across the street and go onto BERLIN STATION?

WILLIAMS: [laughs] If they’ll have me. I met up with [BERLIN STATION regular Michele Forbes] for a drink. She’s lovely. She and I look bizarrely similar. She and I spent an evening together, and it was like, “Are you my long-lost sister? Why haven’t we played sisters?” Anyway, we had a great night out in Berlin, and I was like, “If ever your character’s sister turns up, I’m in.” [laughs]

AX: In COUNTERPART, Emily Prime seems a very knowing type of person. You’re often cast that way – do you enjoy those types of roles?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know how it goes – parts breed parts, and also, people make assumptions. I was sort of massively over-educated [laughs], so if you want someone who sort of sounds as if they know what they’re talking about, you hire Olivia Williams, but I wouldn’t actually say that that is my limitation. I’ve played Mrs. Darling in PETER PAN, so I can do those [gentler characters as well. Emily Prime] is a very angry person, and I have played this a lot, and I think she suffers from it really badly, which is what I call the Cassandra trait. That’s not an original thing. But this idea that you have this ability to predict the future, you know what the f***’s going on, and no one will believe you. And you know, as a woman, that’s incredibly tiring. And the ancient Greeks were onto it. Why people think it’s a modern affliction – the ancient Greeks created a myth around a woman who was given the gift of prophecy, but because she [was cursed not to be believed, she was ridiculed] – “I’m telling you the truth, I’m telling you what’s going to happen.” And because [Emily] is a woman and because she has a history of addiction and drug abuse or alcohol abuse, nobody listens to what she’s saying. And what I have is a sort of weary, “Here we go again, I’m telling you what happened, and everybody is going to ignore me.” Scary Howard and she have been through some terrible stuff, which you haven’t seen yet, so you’ll see why.

AX: Do we ever see Emily Silk awake?

WILLIAMS: No comment. But we do see her in flashbacks.

AX: Do you enjoy getting to play two different versions of a character within the same show?

WILLIAMS: It’s absolutely thrilling. That’s why you take a part. If you sign up for something for seven years, “How am I going to stay awake?” But on this [it deals with issues of], I go through life going, “Who might I have been if I hadn’t met this person, and I hadn’t got this job, or been a lawyer,” as I thought I should have been? “What kind of person would I have ever learned the lessons I have learned about the value of emotional truth and the importance of putting aside words and mainly using your body to communicate? If I’d been in a world that was so verbal and academic, would I have learned these extraordinary lessons I’ve learned about communicating without words?” So yeah. That’s what these questions are, there in this incredible story.

AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?

WILLIAMS: No, because we knew Season 2 was coming. So I did a play, MOSQUITOES, in the hiatus, which was an absolute dream come true at the National [Theatre in England]. What my ideal life is to work on camera and then work on stage and then change the two, and I have done that. I did MANHATTAN, a play, MANHATTAN, a play, COUNTERPART, a play, COUNTERPART. MOSQUITOES was written by a completely brilliant woman called Miranda Sawyer. It was at the National, with Olivia Colman, who’s just been signed up to play the Queen in the next season of THE CROWN, and we’ve often been mistaken for sisters, or for each other, and we were playing sisters. And J.K. came and watched it in London and I have had one of the most thrilling, perfect years of work and family life. I’m just very lucky.

This interview was conducted during Starz’s portion of the Winter 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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ArticleCOUNTERPART: Actress Olivia Williams talks secrets in her new Showtime series – exclusive interview

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