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‘The Missing’ Star David Morrissey on Playing a Father Dealing With a Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Variety logo Variety 2/13/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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[This post contains plot details for the first episode of “The Missing” Season 2.]

Starz’s “The Missing” returned for Season 2 with another story about kidnapping — except that in the first few minutes, Alice Webster (Abigail Hardingham), lost for 11 years, stumbles back into the small German town she disappeared from. That is the beginning of a time-shifting story about how resolution does not mitigate loss — and how long-buried traumas can unearth in surprising and terrifying ways.

In quite a genre shift from his role as the Governor in “The Walking Dead,” David Morrissey plays Sam Webster, a captain in the British army whose turn of duty at a German base becomes an exile of bereavement when his daughter Alice goes missing. In the intervening years, Sam and his wife Gemma (Keeley Hawes) have made the town their home, building new lives around their loss. When Alice returns, the bereaved couple have to start over again. Sam in particular is altered — there are burn scars all over one side of his body, and early on, it’s revealed that he is cheating on his wife with another soldier at the base (Laura Fraser).

Variety spoke to the versatile actor about playing a role that is a nightmare scenario for any parent — and how Sam’s military background is so central to his identity and to the overall arc of the season.

How did you come to this project?

Well, although it’s a standalone series, there was another incarnation. The first season. And I watched that, and I loved it. I thought it was great. What I loved about it was the fact that it was a multi-time scale, multi-character drama, so your constantly piecing it together. And that’s what we’ve taken into this season, too.

And the only common denominator between the two is a French detective, played by Tchéky Karyo, who is a specialist in child abduction. He’s the person who links the two shows. But what I love about this is the sense that you’re … Obviously there’s this horrific incident at the start of the show which is that our daughter is taken from us and she’s abducted — we don’t know where she’s gone.

But then the show jumps forward 11 years, when this girl walks back into their life, and it’s about that sense of how a family copes with having their dream answered, you know? The thing they’ve always longed for is to have their daughter back, and she comes back — and it’s sort of destroys the family, in a way, that she’s back.

And then we jump forward to present day, and my character not only is emotionally scarred but is physically scarred. He suddenly has all these burns all over him. We suddenly see our French detective is in Iraq, but his head’s shaved. He sort of looks … He doesn’t look well. He looks very ill. We’re constantly asked, as an audience, “What? What has happened to these people?” The return of the girl means that everything is starting, not that anything is finished.

I think that, like a really great novel in some way, is challenging us as an audience. When it came out in the U.K., I’d walk around London and people would just stop and give me their theories. I loved that investment in story.

So much of the emotional heavy lifting in the season happens from your character and Keeley Hawes’ character. Can you tell me a little bit about how you prepared for that?

What I like to do when I research a part is go find people, if it’s possible, who had that experience. And it just didn’t feel right with this project. It just didn’t feel right to go and talk to people, because I couldn’t find anybody whose child had come back. I could only find people whose children were still out there. And I didn’t want to trade on that, really, or bring any of that up.

I just read a lot of testimonies. I read of lot of books, a lot of reports and testimonies from people that this had happened to. It was harrowing. It’s horrible, and any parent would have that fear. Thankfully though, it must be said, it’s a very rare occurrence.

And also, while she’s not around, their imagination is terrible. Their imagination, and their fears, and the pictures they paint for themselves. But once she returns and she actually fills in the gaps so it becomes real about what’s happened to her — it’s awful. There’s one scene where, once she returns, the investigation starts again because they want to know where she is. There’s a scene when she’s in hospital telling the police what has happened to her and Sam, her father, just can’t handle it. He can’t handle being in the room with her. It takes it in such a way that he ends up in this little toilet, smashing the hell out of the wall, because he can’t. Particularly as a soldier — there’s something about him being a soldier, being a good soldier, that he can’t handle the fact that he’s powerless over this situation.

The other thing about the drama, which I loved, was that the incident happens to this family, but it affects the community. The community is all affected by loss — the rumor and gossip and fear that people suddenly live in because of this abduction. And how people sometimes feed on it and sort of indulge the idea a family can have sympathy for something like this but only for so long. For some people it simply runs out, and it’s like, Oh come on, it’s been two years now. Or even suspicion starts to go onto them, and the idea of their parenting: How could you let that happen? It’s a very murky, complex thing.

Tell me a little about the military component. That started out seeming like unimportant detail. But then you begin to see how much the experience that veterans have had in Iraq is affecting what’s happening in this town all the way back in Germany.

The main thing for Sam, being a soldier, is that the Army has always done everything for him. The Army is his mother, his father, it’s his bank. The fact that there’s a code of honor amongst these men that they really sort of live by, because they’re in … They have to be there for each other in combat zones and Sam has been in combat zones. He’s lost colleagues. He’s lost friends. The fact that he can’t protect his daughter is compounding, I think.

And also, they’re in a foreign country. They’re a community who speak English in a German community. They’re never gonna blend — none of them are gonna learn the local language. They don’t have to. They live in this bubble. It’s almost like a gated community that they’re in, but they’ve got tanks and guns. That’s where they are.

And this girl being taken is an affront on all of them, not just him. That’s what I thought very important for this man, that he had a code of practice. What also happens whenever I’ve worked … I’ve played soldiers in the past. I’ve played policemen. I’ve got policemen who are friends of mine. Of course in all of our Armed services, there is trauma counseling available to men and women inside the service. But the idea of taking that opportunity to have that counseling is not always taken by the men and women in the roles themselves. Policemen, soldiers are very, very suspicious of things going on their record — or being seen to be weak or being seen to need some sort of care. They don’t run towards that.

I think Sam, in those 11 years when his daughter was abducted … There would have been lots of care available to him from the Army, and I don’t think he took any of it. I think he just carried it.

You see that with the other characters who are soldiers as well — some very nasty secrets that have been really bottled up.

And it’s things that you’ve done in the past, which people have witnessed or been part of themselves. Suddenly it can be used against you.

With Sam, what I thought was really great about the writing is when we see him in the present day, he’s having an affair with another officer, someone who’s involved in the story. But there’s nothing in that affair that is like champagne glasses and candlelight. It’s something that both of them are doing as a punishment to themselves. It seems that it’s an affair that’s grown out of hatred — there’s nothing loving about it. There’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s just about two people who are desperate, finding each other and adding more misery to their lives because they don’t know what to do with their shame they don’t know what to do with their guilt. They’re in awful situations. I thought that was a really human quality that the writers had gotten.

I know that you probably have to get makeup done for the scarring. Did you guys film the timeline chronologically?

Yes, we did, which was brilliant. So I started off … There’s a little scene which never made the final cut, which is Sam and Gemma being told that their daughter’s been taken. That was 11 years before. We started with that little bit, where the parents are told that their daughter’s gone. And then we went straight into 2014, so we tell all of 2014 in one hit, which is great. You never usually get that as an actor.

It makes it very immediate, that it’s happening to you right there, right then. One of the things which was very helpful for me was working with Keeley Hawes, who I’ve known for a long time and she is a wonderful actress. We were able to meet up before we did the film and we went through our [characters’] lives, how we ended up in Germany, we did all that. And then we went through the 11 years without Alice, what that must have been like. Because they could have left Germany. In all sense, no soldier would stay that long in Germany. They’d do their assignment and then they’d come back or they’d go somewhere else, but this family decides to stay because that’s where she’s been taken from, so they want to be close to that place.

Real, real sacrifice on their part, and certainly from his point of view with regards to things like promotion, or stuff like that. He decided not to climb that military ladder in order to be close to his daughter.

It was a real chronological way of telling that story. And then we broke for about two weeks and then we came back and we did all of the second part of the present day stuff — with the scarring, and Tchéky had his hair shaved, and Gemma had her hair cut, and all sorts of different things. They packed my house differently.

And the scarring was an interesting process, because it was about an hour and a half every morning. We started to get that down so in the end, the makeup team could get it done in about an hour. But it always took an hour and a half to get it off. And every night I had to peel my own shirt off from the glue that was — it was horrible. I went through about 50 shirts because it was just awful. [Laughs.]

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