Stars want viewers to be 'haunted' by kid violence of 'Under the Bridge'

Vritika Gupta's "Under the Bridge" premieres on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Hulu
1 of 5 | Vritika Gupta's "Under the Bridge" premieres on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Hulu

NEW YORK, April 17 (UPI) -- The young stars of Under the Bridge say they felt a tremendous sense of responsibility because their new TV drama is not only based on real people and events, but also explores serious social issues, such as bullying, with which many teens deal.

Premiering Wednesday on Hulu, the eight-episode series is based on Rebecca Godfrey's similarly named true-crime book about the 1997 murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk (Vritika Gupta) at the hands of bullies in Canada.


Aiyana Goodfellow plays Dusty, a fictionalized amalgamation of several teens involved in the shocking incident, while Riley Keough plays Godfrey, who is investigating the incident for a book; Archie Panjabi plays Reena's mother Suman; and Lily Gladstone plays police officer Cam Bentland.

The ensemble also includes Chloe Guidry, Javon "Wanna" Walton, Izzy G. and Ezra Faroque Khan.

"It's really important to feel that responsibility and really feel that pressure in playing that real person," Vritika told UPI in a Zoom interview Monday.


"We both tried our best in really giving respect to our characters," Vritika said, referring to herself and Aiyana.

Vritika called Reena a "loner" desperate for friends and searching for her place in the world when she accepts an invitation to the party where she ultimately dies.

"It was really important to me to share that story and her perspective," Vritika said. "I definitely hope this show encourages purposeful conversations about these situations, how it's not a light matter and you never know what [people] are going through."

Aiyana described Dusty as an "internal person," who doesn't reveal a lot of what she is thinking and feeling.

"There are very few roles for Black actors to play Black characters in a story that isn't completely about race. I found that really fun and that was one of the things that made me really excited to play Dusty," Aiyana said.

Because the show is a dramatization and not an exact retelling of the events, Aiyana had a little more freedom in her portrayal of Dusty because she is not based on one specific person.

"The beautiful thing about being an audience member is that you get to decide what you take away from the story," Aiyana said. "There could be thousands of people watching the exact same show, but each individual gains something or learns something new from it.


"Overall, I hope the audience is haunted because I think we should be haunted by Reena's story. This is something we need to remember and learn from, so that we can know how to protect other people from the same experiences."

Although the actresses finished filming the project nearly a year ago, they said this story and the characters they played remain a part of them.

"Dusty's still here. Dusty's never left me, personally," Aiyana said.

"I remember waking up one morning, feeling this heavy, horrible feeling in my chest and I was like, 'What did I do yesterday?'... And I realized that Dusty's guilt was still hanging around with me. I think this will never leave me."

Vritika echoed Aiyana's sentiments.

"Once you play a character with such a unique personality, it always will stick with you," she said.

"I did go through a lot of changes during [filming]. I had to change my makeup drastically. I cut my hair super short, so I think there were those things that differentiated me from Reena," she added. "But I think it definitely will always stick with me."

Quinn Shephard wrote the screenplays and executive-produced the series with Samir Mehta.

"Keeping all of the facts was very important, but, also, I think the most important thing to retain from the book was the beauty of a lot of sensitivity around the way the story was told," Shephard said in a separate Zoom interview with Mehta.


"It wasn't exploitative. It was very poetic and I think it was very important -- when we talked with the visual language of the show -- to constantly be referencing the poetic nature of the book and how to infuse that wonder of childhood and the coming of age story into a crime story."

Mehta said he and Shephard were mindful that they were making a period movie for a 2024 audience obsessed with true-crime tales.

"When it came to adapting for television and presenting in a medium -- given the modern climate and the fact that we need to make a show that is thrilling -- that became kind of a fine art," he added.

"The guiding principle for us was, while we may change an event slightly here or there: 'Can we actually maintain an emotional truth? Is the feeling of the book actually being translated to the screen in high fidelity?'"

Godfrey served as an executive producer on the series, working closely with Shephard for three years until her death from lung cancer at age 54 in 2022.

Shephard said the author's generosity, courage and expertise were essential to the project's success.

"We were really close and it was a very beautiful experience working with her and then she passed away a couple of weeks before we started shooting the series, which was really tragic," Shephard said, adding that Godfrey had gifted her diaries from the 1990s to let her fellow writer fully understand her mindset at the time.


"She was amazing collaborator in the process," Shephard said. "She didn't seem to have any fear around us taking some fictional liberties or honestly exploring some of her most personal deepest moments in the show."

Godfrey knew she was being made into a television character and was excited to learn that Keough would be playing her.

"She said she always felt a connection to Riley when she watched her in things and she didn't know why," Shephard said.

"We had a lot of spiritual conversations about things being fated and I think she felt a real connection to Riley and loved that Riley was so involved in youth advocacy and restorative justice."

Although Reena's murder occurred nearly three decades ago, the events that led up to it and the issues the kids involved in it faced will still be sadly recognizable to contemporary viewers.

"When you make anything nowadays, you do want it to be reflecting culture. You want it to be commenting in a way that might actually have an impact," Mehta said.

"The importance of telling stories like this is to make some effort to try to prevent it from happening again," he added. "Our attempt in the show is definitely to look at every aspect of it and take a holistic view, so that we might more deeply understand all of the ingredients required for something this tragic to happen."


Shephard said time was spent showing each character's point of view in the hopes the story will inspire nuanced conversations about challenges with which many teens are dealing today, such as bullying, mental illness, identity and physical and emotional abuse.

"Youth has a lot of pain in it and sometimes it comes out in incredibly brutal ways," she said.

Mehta said the show's casting director "scoured the planet" for new talent, finding hundreds of teens to audition to play the young, but complex characters.

Veteran actors Keough (Daisy Jones & the Six) and Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) were protective of their young co-stars, some of whom were acting in their first major TV roles.

"You couldn't have two better actresses to be around a cast of teens than Riley and Lily," Shephard said. "[The kids] flocked to them for hugs. They are so wonderful."

Vritika and Aiyana said they felt safe on the show's set, no matter how dark the material they were dealing with was.

Vritika didn't have a lot of scenes with Keough or Gladstone because their characters are investigating Reena's murder, but the younger actress was happy she still got to interact with them on the set.


"It was really fun to see them both work," Vritika said.

Aiyana had some quality time with Gladstone in particular.

"I remember flying to Vancouver, Canada, where we were filming, and I was so stressed on the flight because I was going to be in Vancouver by myself, living alone, which was a really big deal, and I got to the set and my first scene was with Lily and a new director," Aiyana said.

"We were doing a pretty deep scene, and I remember Lily and I were just doing ridiculous 'Yo mama' jokes [in between takes]. We were really silly together and it completely relaxed me and instilled a lot of confidence in me for the whole process.

"So, I'm grateful to her for that and I think she's a great person."

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