Alycia Debnam-Carey is a woman on a mission. After seven seasons of playing Alicia Clark on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, the Australian actress made the difficult decision to depart the long-running, post-apocalyptic franchise in search of greener pastures in the fall of 2021. Following a brief return to her native Sydney to shoot the Prime Video miniseries adaptation of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, in which she stars opposite Sigourney Weaver, Debnam-Carey received an offer to take a trip to Saint X, the new psychological drama that premieres Wednesday on Hulu.
“It was actually the first offer that I’d ever received, which is kind of a big deal, because it was the lead for a Hulu show,” Debnam-Carey tells W over Zoom from Beverly Hills, dressed in a navy blue pinstripe Staud dress. “It takes a long time to get to a place where people are coming to you for things, and I thought that was really special.”
Based on Alexis Schaitkin’s 2020 novel of the same name and adapted for TV by Leila Gerstein, Saint X follows Emily Thomas (Debnam-Carey), a documentarian whose seemingly idyllic life in New York City is turned upside down when she crosses paths with Clive “Gogo” Richardson (Josh Bonzie), one of the men accused of killing her older sister, Alison (West Duchovny), on the final night of their Caribbean family vacation nearly two decades ago. Told across multiple timelines, the eight-part series attempts to upend the girl-gone-missing genre with an ambitious examination of race, class, privilege, trauma, and missing white woman syndrome.
Below, the 29-year-old—who is also known for playing Lexa on The CW’s The 100—explains her decision to leave the Walking Dead universe, how Alison’s tragic death connects Emily and Clive in the present, and her attraction to playing darker characters (and which Beyoncé album became her salvation during the six-month shoot last year).
What prompted your decision to leave the Walking Dead universe last May, and how does Saint X fit into the kinds of stories that you want to tell at this stage of your career?
I had worked on Fear the Walking Dead since I was about 21, so it really did encapsulate a lot of my twenties—not just as an actor, but also as a person. I learned from the best, and I also grew as a person amongst an incredible group of people. But at the same time, what inspires me about acting is being able to transform. There are so many stories to be told, and I just needed the change. Saint X was exciting because it’s a present-day narrative. A lot of what I'd done has been in the genre, sci-fi, horror world. This felt a little bit more grounded in reality, and I was really attracted to the psychological downward spiral of this character.
Speaking of, Emily gets this singular focus on figuring out who murdered her sister when one of the suspects, Clive, suddenly reappears in her life. How does this set things in motion for Emily?
I view Emily as a fractured individual. Trauma often freezes you at the age that it happened. When we first meet adult Emily, she has this picture-perfect life as a filmmaker living in a cool part of Brooklyn with her boyfriend. But really, she’s trying to fill a void by becoming a version of her sister so that she doesn't have to confront the really traumatized child inside of her. When she meets Clive again, it's really an exploration of who she is without [her sister] Alison.
What do you think Emily and Clive learn from each other during the time that they reenter each other’s lives?
What they both have in common is a deep isolation and loneliness that they recognize in one another but can't quite pinpoint. Josh Bonzie, who's wonderful and plays Clive, and I talked a lot about how when people go through a really extreme traumatic event together, it bonds them in a different way. That tragedy has absolutely influenced the course and direction of their lives. The friendship and dynamic that evolves between them feels uncomfortable to watch, but at the same time, it's coming from this deeply rooted energetic space that they've shared.
What did you find most challenging about sitting with the unresolved grief that Emily is feeling?
I tried to create two different temperaments, essentially. With the Clive and Emily interactions, there is this unhinged and slightly uneasy, childlike need to be seen and to feel like she can be herself, which is essentially awkward and unhealed and not perfect like her sister. There's this need for her outside life to look and feel a little bit more restrained and restricted, like she's having to hold herself up while slowly watching that crumble.
Having played intense characters who find themselves in high-stakes situations, how do you get into the headspace for some of the heavier and more emotional scenes?
I really am overdue for such a pretty, breezy, sweet, romantic time on a job. Each genre offers a muscle that gets a little easier to flex, just like any instrument, any body part. In some ways, having done genres like this before helped because I knew where I could draw from. But this one didn't offer a lot of levity. So it was just about making sure I could check out at the end of the day—having a hot shower, getting in a robe, pouring myself a glass of wine, listening to Beyoncé's Renaissance album on repeat. That became my baseline of how to function when I got home. [Laughs.]
Funnily enough, this isn't the first time you've played a character who loses an older sister in a tragic way. What do you think are some of the similarities between Emily in Saint X and Frances in A Violent Separation?
They both dealt with it in very different ways. In Saint X, the fetishization of the “white girl gone missing” and this national story being a spearhead of a lot of the trauma was what I took into account when thinking about Emily. With A Violent Separation, it did feel a bit more intimate and contained, whereas this show feels almost like the lid was about to pop off. I also found it interesting that this is now the second job I've done where I've had a younger actress play the younger version of the character, and then for me to play the older version.
You mentioned that you’re looking for new creative challenges, so how did leading this show make you a better actor?
I genuinely feel like each job is an opportunity to grow and change. There's always something new to learn. For a long time, I had a feeling of inadequacy, like, “Am I doing it right? Or is this enough?” For Saint X, I was just like, “Trust in the fact that this is what you know how to do. Just lean in.”
Looking forward, is there a genre or a story that you’d like to tackle, or a collaborator that you're looking to work with?
A goal for me is definitely to work with A24. That, at the moment, is a production house that I'm really excited by. Everything Everywhere All At Once was my favorite movie last year, and I was so inspired by it. I've always wanted to work with Sofia Coppola, and I also really want to work in more genre and period pieces. I'm finding a lot of appeal at the moment in stories that are also a little bit more hyper-stylized with a really intriguing color palette and lighting. Career-wise, I'm excited to direct more too. That's something that I did at the end of Fear the Walking Dead, and something I want to keep exploring for myself.