30 May 2024
0 8 mins 1 mth

Riley Keough wasn’t sure at first whether she wanted to star in a true-crime project. The genre relies on a grim fascination with horrific violence, and dramatizations risk doing the victims a disservice.

But in “Under the Bridge,” a new Hulu series about the 1997 murder of Indian Canadian teenager Reena Virk, Keough saw an opportunity to paint everyone involved as human beings — not just 14-year-old Reena and her family but, to an extent, the perpetrators as well. Why did a group of teenagers, some of whom had befriended Reena in previous months, beat her to the brink of death? And why did two of those teenagers, one of them a complete stranger to Reena, drown her in a river? Perhaps there was a societal benefit to trying to understand their motivations — and remorse, as became the case for that 16-year-old stranger.

“I’m always asking why. … What am I putting out in the world?” Keough said in a recent interview. She added that executive producers Quinn Shephard and Samir Mehta “were really open to having more complicated conversations about things that are usually looked at as very black and white.”

“Under the Bridge” draws from the 2005 nonfiction book by Rebecca Godfrey, a writer who investigated the crime that rocked her idyllic hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, and its surrounding area. The book is defined by its literary quality, turning years of research and interviews into a vivid exploration of what sparks senseless brutality. Though Godfrey doesn’t figure much into her own narrative, the series uses her investigation as a framing device. She is played by Keough, who also produced the show.

Reena (Vritika Gupta) appears in flashbacks, depicted as a passionate and caring but lonely girl who rebels against her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing in a desperate effort to fit in. Through these flashbacks and Rebecca’s research, viewers encounter the girls Reena tried to befriend: Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), a tempestuous teenager living at a group home who starts her own gang; Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow), a kinder kid with a troubled past who also lives at the group home; and Kelly Ellard (Izzy G.), Josephine’s cruel, well-to-do friend. After the incident, Rebecca also strikes up an acquaintance with Warren Glowatski (Javon Walton), a boy who runs in similar circles and lives alone in his estranged father’s trailer.

Keough’s involvement in the series piqued the interest of another true-crime skeptic: Lily Gladstone, who was fresh off shooting “Killers of the Flower Moon” — the Martin Scorsese film about a slew of murders afflicting the Osage Nation in the 1920s, for which Gladstone would later receive an Oscar nomination — and hesitated to embark on another foray into the genre. Gladstone had befriended Keough on social media years before she was pitched the fictional role of Cam Bentland, a police officer who pushes the local precinct to investigate Reena’s sudden disappearance.

“[Keough] was amplifying some of the posts I would be making about missing murdered Indigenous relatives or Savanna’s Act,” said Gladstone, who has Blackfeet and Nez Percé heritage. “She cared about a lot of the same things I did, … so knowing that she was coming on both as an actor and as a producer, I was like: ‘Okay, she believes in the character, and she believes in the project. I’ll take the meeting.’”

In a way, Cam mirrors Reena. Her experience as the sole Indigenous member of the police department recalls some of the discrimination the Virks face in their very White town, where Reena is bullied by peers who pretend to be her friends. Cam frequently argues with her White father, the police chief who adopted her as a child, just as Reena clashes with her parents over cultural differences. (Per Gladstone’s request to incorporate local history, Cam discovers that she was taken from her Indigenous community as part of the Sixties Scoop, a decades-long period of targeted policies that enabled Canadian child welfare authorities to forcibly “scoop up” Indigenous children so they could be adopted by White families.)

Gladstone was reassured by the fact that Shephard and Mehta had optioned a memoir written by Reena’s father, Manjit Virk, to better empathize with and depict the family. “That gave me a lot of faith, because coming off ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ part of what made that so successful — particularly the adaptation of an Osage perspective through it — was community involvement,” Gladstone said. She was also encouraged by Shephard’s commitment to exploring the concept of restorative justice.

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In real life, after the group of teenagers beat and abandoned Reena, Ellard and Glowatski followed her. They continued the assault and drowned her, and they both were convicted of second-degree murder. Reena’s parents, Manjit and Suman Virk, eventually forgave Glowatski, who had been a stranger to their daughter. Suman described him upon his 2007 release on day parole as “a young man who has taken responsibility for his actions and is trying to amend the wrong that he did.” In the show, Suman (Archie Panjabi) asks Rebecca to take her to meet Warren before he begins serving his sentence.

Cam and Rebecca, old friends in this fictional rendering of events, come to blows over Rebecca’s desire to humanize the teenage suspects through her writing — particularly Warren, who seems to remind Rebecca of her late brother, who accidentally drowned when he was 16 years old (a tragic detail pulled from Godfrey’s real life). “A lot of her journey is a personal exploration of her own feelings and emotions, … and I think sometimes that can come across as a bit selfish,” Keough said. It was a challenging role to inhabit, but one the actress considered to be “about honoring [Rebecca] and her grief.”

Keough never spoke to Godfrey, who died of lung cancer in late 2022, before “Under the Bridge” began filming. (The author is listed as an executive producer for the three years she spent developing the series with Shephard.) The series paints the fictional Rebecca as conflicted — determined to understand why the teenagers committed such brutality, while also grappling with “a sense of guilt,” per Keough, over her desire to do so. The actress theorized that it might be easier for some to extend grace to children.

“Two things can be true: Something can be horrific, and also a mistake,” Keough said. “It’s a gray area that I’m always thinking about, … and I like putting that out there for others to consider.”

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