Jack Bender at At The Television Critics Association In Beverly Hills at The Beverly Hilton on July 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California to promote Season 3 of MR. MERCEDES | ©2019 AT&T Audience Network/Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AT&T Audience Network

Jack Bender at At The Television Critics Association In Beverly Hills at The Beverly Hilton on July 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California to promote Season 3 of MR. MERCEDES | ©2019 AT&T Audience Network/Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AT&T Audience Network

In Season 3 of MR. MERCEDES, premiering Tuesday September 10 on AT&T Audience Network, mass murderer Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) is dead, but private detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) is still on the case. For one thing, Hodges feels responsible for the fact that Lou Linklatter (Breeda Wool) is in jail for killing Brady. Bill and Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe), his partner in the Finders Keepers detective agency, are trying to help Lou when another case crops up. Bill’s favorite author, Henry Rothstein (Bruce Dern) has been murdered in a home invasion robbery. We know, though Bill doesn’t yet, that the killing was committed by Morris Bellamy (Gabriel Ebert), a young man mentored by grafter Alma Lane (Kate Mulgrew).

Jack Bender, an executive producer and director on all three seasons of MR. MERCEDES, developed for television by David E. Kelley from Stephen King’s trilogy of novels, sits down to talk about this year’s saga.

ASSIGNMENT X: Season 3 of MR. MERCEDES is actually based on Book 2 in the trilogy, FINDERS KEEPERS, while Season 2 was largely based on the third book, END OF WATCH. Did the MR. MERCEDES creative team decide when you were developing Season 2 that you would flip them?

JACK BENDER: Yes, we did. We realized that FINDERS KEEPERS wasn’t going to work for Season 2, because we needed to keep Brady alive and well to continue the love-hate relationship with Hodges, and we determined that, if we had a Season 3, we could go back to FINDERS KEEPERS, which we did.

AX: Early on, Morris winds up in the hospital. Is it the same hospital that Brady used to be in?

BENDER: That is not a point in the script. We don’t go down that road [of tying Morris and Brady’s stories together in that way].

AX: In the book FINDERS KEEPERS, we become involved in the story through the little sister of Bill’s associate Jerome Robinson, played by Jharrel Jerome. In the series, Bill Hodges gets involved because he’s a huge fan of Rothstein. Did you have a moment of thinking, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Bill Hodges turned out to be fannish about something?”

BENDER: Well, that really evolved. David Kelley and I had a lot of conversations about the fact that we didn’t want that storyline for Jerome. We wanted to deal with some of the wounds Jerome carried with him, both from his unsuccessful time at Harvard – emotionally unsuccessful, not so much academically – and we wanted to not deal with the younger sister and the family as much. So we found a different way in, and really enriched the journey of Hodges, that he was somebody who was very much influenced by Rothstein, in the same way that Morris was.

AX: Now, because Stephen King is somebody who has influenced a lot of people and has a lot of experience with literary fans – he wrote about the bad side of that with MISERY – did he have an opinion on that. Also, even though he now believes in the supernatural, Hodges is generally so pragmatic, did you think it would be fun to make him a big fan of someone?

BENDER: Well, that comes up in our script. Stephen was a real fan of David’s [script for the premiere] episode for Season 3. [King] didn’t really express too many specific in terms of things that were changed. He just loved it. I think that our show is character first, and anything that can cross over between plot and character, that’s really the borderline and the fault line of our show, where all the good stuff comes from. So anything that can enrich Hodges and our other characters, and at the same time serve the plot, which that did, is a home run.

MR MERCEDES Season 3 key art | ©2019 AT&T Audience Network

MR MERCEDES Season 3 key art | ©2019 AT&T Audience Network

AX: Bill seems to start out Season 3 in a reasonably relaxed frame of mind, even though he’s obviously very concerned about Lou. Is he happy or upset by the fact that there’s this big new mystery in his life?

BENDER: I think that not only is he driven to take it on, because of his love for Rothstein and what Rothstein meant to him, but I think he’s like the bullfighter who misses the ring. And even though he might be too old to fight the big bulls, he can’t help himself. So I would say that he’s invigorated.

AX: When the season starts, where is Holly at with what she wants to do?

BENDER: Holly has taken a real step. This is one year later. She’s a full partner in Finders Keepers, it’s actually a functioning place, they’ve cleaned it up, and they have some cases. And she has taken a real step to leading a more independent life from her parents, and of course gets affected by things that happen in the season, and goes through her own obstacle course of vulnerabilities, but I think she’s taken a major step forward in terms of living an independent life, which is certainly in large part due to Hodges and what he’s provided for her, and his support.

She still is Holly, but she has still got her OCD, she still walks out of her little apartment and has to turn and lock the door three times. I had all that as a kid, so I recognize it and would always give Justine little ideas of that kind of crap to do [laughs]. So I would say that, yes, she’s still plagued by some of that stuff, but I think she’s got it under control.

AX: Morris’s killing of Rothstein is almost accidental, and then he seems to become more deliberate as he goes along …

BENDER: Yeah. I kept thinking it’s like A DOLL’S HOUSE, a really twisted version, where the woman, the character, steps into more and more problems, and one leads to the next, and every move, she’s faced with a dilemma and a choice, and makes the wrong one, or at least one that leads her to the drama of walking out of her marriage and her house. In the same way, I think this is similar in that there are a lot of choices that are made along the way that lead people down dark paths.

AX: But Morris is not a sociopath in the way that Brady was …

BENDER: No, he’s very different. He’s a very different, wounded beast. He definitely is somebody who had issues growing up. You couldn’t point to the fact that, like Brady, his mother tragically certainly didn’t help whatever issues he had growing up as a young man in growing up. So it’s how much are kids born with – nature versus nurture. Brady was screwed up from the time he was born, electronically, in terms of his wires. They were crossed, whatever that is, spirit, karma, or biological, who knows, exacerbated by a really sh*tty environment. I would say Morris wasn’t your run of the mill kid. He was a really bright boy. So was Brady, in his own way. But he wasn’t maladjusted because he had a mother who was sexually doing things to him, and engaging with him in a way she shouldn’t, both emotionally and sexually, and in every other way. Morris certainly has a woman in his life, Alma, that he crossed paths with, who didn’t help him along the way. And at the same time, I would say that he’s got some issues. Both these guys have issues, and even though his intention is not to kill Rothstein, and the next murders that are along his path aren’t always intentional, at the same time, he’s a sick puppy.

AX: Do you handle scenes with Morris differently than you handle scenes with Brady, where you’re visually indicating their mental state?

BENDER: Yeah. In Season 1, the cinematographer, Armando Salas, and I really wanted a language for Brady’s world that was not visually over the top, and obviously weird with lighting and camera. But we wanted it to be uncomfortable in a way that Hodges’s world wasn’t. And as they merged, we tried to visually merge the show. So there was some of that going on in Season 1, Season 2 also. With Morris, because of the environment he lives in, because of the people who are around him, of course there are visual approaches to all that. But I really always wanted this show to be about the acting and the characters. And whatever visuals I put them into, with our cinematographer and production designer, had to really frame who those characters were. If they were supposed to be uncomfortable in the chair, the chair would be uncomfortable, and stuff like that. But we never wanted to impose a style that came before learning about these people. And I think the way I work with every actor is different. So certainly the way I work with Gabe, who’s a brilliant actor, and the way I worked with Harry, who’s a brilliant actor, were different, because they’re different actors. But both were incredibly open, incredibly creative, and I think do a superlative job playing these damaged killers.

AX: Kate Mulgrew has some sex scenes as Alma in MR. MERCEDES. Back when she was starring as Captain Janeway on STAR TREK: VOYAGER, she rather famously nixed the idea of a romance between her character and the Robert Beltran character, because she felt that nobody wanted to see someone of her age in a romance, and she was younger then that she is now. Has she rethought her philosophy about that?

BENDER: The only thing she said to me about that was that she insisted she not have a romance [on STAR TREK: VOYAGER] because she felt that it would vitiate her power as the commander if they went down that road. That was that show. This show, David Kelley called me one weekend and said, “Oh, my God, I’ve come up with this great character, Alma Lane.” “Who’s that?” And he told me. He said, “It’s going to be great.” And then, once we read it and flipped out for it, we thought of Kate Mulgrew, which actually was David’s suggestion. And she thankfully said yes, because the script, the character of Alma, is a brilliantly written and colorful demon, and Kate brought humor and vitality and sexuality. And sex is part of what she uses in her tool chest, and certainly in relation to Morris, who she’s had a longstanding relationship with.

Myself, Hannah Owens-Bender, our wonderful costume designer, and Kate had conversations about how to portray some of those scenes, if you get my drift, because they did involve a certain amount of sex. And Kate had never done that, and I held her hand – directorially, not literally – and Gabe was fabulous with her, and we got through the scenes brilliantly, and they’re wonderful. And she also understood that this is very much a part of this story. If you read the scripts that she read before she said yes, it was going to be very difficult to deny that aspect of her. As long as she had the reassurance that I would do it tastefully, which I did, and make sure she was comfortable in the process. And it’s not as if it’s all sex – it’s not. She acts the hell out of this character, and is brilliant. And most of the time, she’s fully clothed.

AX: Is Alma’s interest in Morris primarily that she wants him to make money and she’s involved with him sexually to keep him hooked, or is she genuinely fond of him?

BENDER: Well, this is a woman who is a pedophile, who seduced him when he was thirteen. She has a long history of being a predator, and she has a longstanding relationship with him, and she introduced him to Rothstein’s writing, when he was, let’s say, sixteen, fifteen. So she is not your normal adjusted person/woman/man. She is not. She is f*cked up. And Kate a brilliant theatre actress, so when she got monologues like she got, that David Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro wrote for her that were wonderful, she was like, “You don’t get this in movies, let alone television.” So she had a blast playing this role. But her history with Morris is pretty dark.

AX: With Lou Linklatter’s case as part of the main story, how much of this season of MR. MERCEDES is a courtroom drama? It’s a genre we know David Kelley likes …

BENDER: You know what? We ended Season 2 with a trial, with a courtroom scene, obviously, where Brady was killed. So Lou going on trial is part of the story, but it doesn’t play all the way through, and it’s not the dominant setting for most of the series, even though the trial is a part of the season.

AX: And we know there is a supernatural element in this universe. Lou thinks she’s seeing something. Do we know or surmise early on if what Lou is seeing is supernaturally there, or if she’s falling apart psychologically?

BENDER: I hope that we’re not sure, and I hope that if you’re watching it with somebody, you think one thing and that person thinks the other, because I think that makes the most interesting story. It really depends on if you believe people can haunt us, and the weird part of it – I kind of believe everything. I believe that there are people who are telepathic, I believe there are people who are telekinetic. I probably, if I got pushed, I’d say, yeah, I believe in spirits and ghosts. And are there those who are more vulnerable to all those aspects of the brain that most of us don’t have access to? So I would say that, not only because of Lou’s connection to Brady and loving him, caring about him as a friend, which she grapples with this year, having killed him, and because of how vulnerable she is in this shape that she’s in right now, I believe that she’s somebody who’s receptive to whatever is coming to her. So you might argue that Brady is able to do that, if it’s Brady we’re talking about, or it’s all in her head. And I wouldn’t want to answer that. I think the audience should answer that.

AX: Will that be addressed by the end of this season of MR. MERCEDES, or does it remain ambiguous throughout?

BENDER: I have to think long and hard. I know that I never made the conscious choice. I definitely led the audience visually, and in terms of the scenes, down the path that, whatever Lou was experiencing was real to her, which was good enough for me. And I think it may be for the audience. But we’ll have to see.

AX: If it isn’t too spoilery, can you say if you’re planning on three seasons and out for MR. MERCEDES, and then three and out for THE OUTSIDER, a Stephen King book outside the trilogy that includes the character of Holly?

BENDER: Well, THE OUTSIDER at this point is something else. And Stephen never likes to commit to whether there are going to be multiple seasons to anything. And THE OUTSIDER he always thought was one, and I suppose in success, it will all be reconsidered. But even though I started that project, I’m no longer involved.

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

BENDER: The next Stephen King book we’re developing that we’re going to do comes out in September, called THE INSTITUTE, which is fabulous, and I’m honored to be doing that.

AX: Is that also for AT&T Audience Network?

BENDER: We don’t know for whom yet. We’re going to do it as a probably eight-to-ten-episode series again. It got a great review in Publisher’s Weekly. There are various other things that we’re developing and going to be doing, but that’s probably the most certain thing right now.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about MR. MERCEDES Season 3?

BENDER: I would like people to know that it may be our best season yet. The new actors who are in the show are superlative. I feel proud, like we’ve pulled off every episode, and yet at the same time, I think this one will not be a disappointment. I think people will love it.

This interview was conducted during AT&T Audience Network’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

Related: Exclusive Interview with MR. MERCEDES actreess Breeda Wool on Season 2 of the AT&T Audience Network series

Related: Exclusive Interview with producer-director MR. MERCEDES – Season 2

Related: Exclusive Interview: Brendan Gleeson in MR. MERCEDES – Season 1 of the Stephen King series

Related: Exclusive Interview: Harry Treadaway on MR. MERCEDES – Season 1

Related: Exclusive Interview: Actress Breeda Wool chat about the new Stephen King series

Related: Exclusive Interview: MOONLIGHT actor Jharrel Jerome on MR. MERCEDES

Related: Exclusive Interview: Director Jack Bender on new Stephen King series MR. MERCEDES

Related: Exclusive Interview: Kelly Lynch on new Stephen King series MR. MERCEDES

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Article: Exclusive Interview with MR. MERCEDES Director/Executive Producer Jack Bender on Season 3

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