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Cast, writer call 'Servant' a 'risky story' that plays with perception

By Karen Butler
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Cast, writer call 'Servant' a 'risky story' that plays with perception
Left to right, Toby Kebbell, Lauren Ambrose, M. Night Shyamalan, Nell Tiger Free and Rupert Grint arrive at the world premiere of Apple TV+'s "Servant"  on November 19 in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Co-stars Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell warn that viewers shouldn't believe everything they see in M. Night Shyamalan's new psychological thriller, Servant.

The disturbing, critically acclaimed, half-hour drama series debuts Thursday on Apple TV+. Produced by Shyamalan and written by Berlin Station scribe Tony Basgallop, the character-driven study in perception and reality was filmed on location in Shyamalan's hometown of Philadelphia.

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The story unfolds primarily in one house, following wealthy married couple Dorothy and Sean (Six Feet Under actress Ambrose and King Kong: Skull Island actor Kebbell) as they hire teenager Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to be a nanny for the doll they treat like a real baby after the death of their infant son, Jericho.

While Dorothy and Leanne appear to believe the effigy actually is a child, Sean and Dorothy's brother Julian (Rupert Grint) seem to accept it is an inanimate object.

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"It's a matter of questioning what you are seeing. Your character is living one reality and then Night has created this whole other world that is going on underneath and around you," Ambrose said during a recent roundtable interview with reporters at New York Comic Con.

Careful not to confirm whether there are paranormal forces at work in the tale, Kebbell said, "We can both see a curtain move, and if you are convinced that something moved it, you're convinced of that. It's the supernatural. It happens to us in reality and whatever your perception is what you see it to be. One perception is not necessarily the shared perception."

"There is the supernatural explanation and sort of the world-of-matter explanation for any phenomena," Ambrose added.

"It's an emotional conceit to the show, but once Leanne as a character enters into this house, all manner of oddities occur, and it's her presence in the house that triggers everything that follows," Basgallop said.

"The family that should be healing and repairing is now in a position where they are looking to this stranger, this cuckoo in the nest, so to speak."

Free agreed that Leanne is the "catalyst for the drama in the house."

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"I'm a mysterious character that you spend the season trying to figure out who or what she really is," said Free, who is best known for her work on Game of Thrones.

Harry Potter alum Grint called Julian, the lawyer he plays on Servant, "Sean's only ally and confidante."

"Julian is quite bullish and brash. He is also kind of enabling Dorothy's delusion. He's an interesting guy because he is floating between two realities," Grint said.

Sean and Julian keep up the charade that Jericho still is alive because they love Dorothy and think they are helping her move on from the trauma of losing her son.

"Julian and Sean are making a best effort to fix Dorothy -- offering her anything she wants," Basgallop said.

"This is a family of privilege. They're not used to having these type of problems. They're used to being able to solve anything that comes their way," the writer went on. "Julian is like the devil on Sean's shoulder, the person that's always been pushing him toward the darker choices we make in life, so having Rupert in the role is just such a joy. "

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While the show focuses on these core four characters, other family members, friends and co-workers eventually will be introduced.

The series already has been renewed for a second season.

"It's a risky story to tell. It's not one of these huge fantasy worlds that we have created. It's a very small and intimate reality that we are dealing with and Apple have allowed us to do what we want to and to push things as far as we want to," Basgallop said.

"They promised us that and they didn't let us down. There were no studio executives sitting on our shoulders, at any point, threatening to take the money away."

He wouldn't clarify what the title means.

"It will become obvious as the show goes on, but it centers around our antagonist," he teased.

Servant is a rare TV project for Shyamalan, who is known for his films, The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable and Split.

In addition to producing Servant, he also directed two episodes and edited them at his home studio.

"The great thing about the format is it's character-driven. You come to watch week to week because you connect to the characters and I love that," Shyamalan told a crowd of thousands at a separate New York Comic Con event.

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"But the amount of content that you have to deliver for the amount of time and the amount of resources, it just doesn't work, which is why we can -- on two hands maybe -- count every show that has gone from beginning to end with the same quality. It's just a machine that keeps going and that was terrifying to me."

Shyamalan decided to work on Servant because each episode is 30 minutes, not 60.

He also knows how the story will end and how long it will take to tell.

"In my head, it is 60 episodes ... over six years," he said. "That would be three seasons or less of Game of Thrones."

The show only occasionally leaves the main location of the house, meaning time is not spent moving the production from place to place.

"It has this almost play-like quality to it. So, we got to concentrate on the performances and the writing and the cinematography. Every shot is thought out," he said.

Shyamalan hopes viewers will be so engrossed in the story and acting that they will be unable to type on a laptop or check their social media accounts while they watch Servant.

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"I want you unable to do something else," he said.

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