Warning: Spoilers ahead for Outer Banks season 3.
Madelyn Cline has been waiting since the end of last summer to publicly discuss all of the spoilers from the third season of Netflix’s Outer Banks, dodging questions from fans, friends, and journalists alike for months. So, when she logs onto a Zoom call on the morning of the latest 10-episode drop of the soapy teen drama, the actress can finally breathe a sigh of relief. “It’s always so funny dancing around plotlines that you don’t want to give away, so I feel like there’s a weight that’s been lifted off my chest,” Cline tells W.
For three seasons, Cline has played Sarah Cameron, the queen bee from a wealthy family of Kooks who has switched allegiances to a friend group of working-class Pogues. It’s a role that has put Cline both on the map and through her paces. In the international search for an ancient treasure, Sarah has survived being shot, drowned, and strangled—and that’s just at the hands of her own family. But the third season brings a new kind of heartache for Sarah, whose loyalty is tested when she is faced, once more, with the life she left behind.
Below, Cline unpacks the latest chapter of Sarah’s journey, (including the experience of shooting that finale), her character’s ill-fated hook-up and subsequent betrayal of John B. (Chase Stokes), and whether there is any hope for Sarah’s complicated relationship with her brother, Rafe (Drew Starkey).
The Outer Banks finale is easily the most ambitious episode of television that you have ever shot. How did you react when you discovered the scale of this episode would require you to film in a dark cavern hundreds of feet underground?
The last two episodes feel like a short film because of the expanse of what we were trying to achieve; it’s the accumulation of the last 30 episodes. I remember reading the last two episodes, and I was like, “How are we gonna figure this out? How are we gonna shoot this?” I remember walking into the production office [during] our last few weeks in Charleston, and I saw the drawings of what they were wanting El Dorado to look like, and I was like, “Where on earth [can we find that]? Are we building a stage?” We went back to Barbados, and we shot in an actual cave for three or four days.
I didn’t realize that I was claustrophobic until I was in that cave. There was no sunlight, and I had no concept of time. And of course, I have intrusive thoughts, so my mind was just racing, going through the worst case scenarios: “Oh my God, has no one seen that documentary [about the Thai boys’ soccer team who had to be rescued from a cave]?” I definitely had to talk myself down, but we pulled it off. We would not have been able to make any of that possible if it wasn’t for our crew. [But] I was glad when we wrapped the cave. [Laughs.]
How much of the finale required you and Chase to do your own stunts in that cave, and how much of it was achieved through visual or practical effects?
There were a lot of camera angles that were put in place to make it seem like we were jumping over this big crevice, when in reality it was just a little jump over a small stream. While we can cheat with cameras, there’s only so much you can do. We were in the water. We were trekking through the cave. We were in parts of the cave that people aren’t normally supposed to be in, which was such a privilege.
Towards the end of the finale, Sarah’s father, Ward (Charles Esten), in a rare act of selflessness, pays the ultimate price to save her from a vengeful bodyguard. How did you want to play those final moments between Sarah and Ward?
[The writers] had written for Ward to fall backwards off the cliff, and Ward saving Sarah and the Pogues as an active decision was actually a Chip call [meaning it came from Esten]. Chip felt like it was way more poetic if that was the way Ward went. And I felt like he was spot on because it only seemed right that the one time Ward showed up for Sarah without any ill intent or underlying malice was the one time that it killed him.
[Co-creator and co-showrunner] Shannon Burke asked me, “If Ward fell backwards off the cliff, how do you think Sarah would react?” And I was like, “Sarah is so angry at her father. I don’t know if she would react. I don’t know if she could even process that in the moment.” But then, on the day—and it was also Chip’s last day, so I was already emotional—I was crying all day.
Just the thought of him never being around, that this was [his] last season, I was in tears. Seeing Chip in that emotional state, seeing the love that Ward was finally giving to Sarah and that connection between the two of them right before he threw himself off the cliff, moved me [to tears]. And that was something I could only really feel on the day. The pain that her father couldn’t show up for her the way she always wanted him to [hit me]. It was the loss of a relationship she used to have, [so she was] mourning the death of someone who was still around, and then also mourning the actual death of them.
It’s almost as if a part of Sarah dies with Ward, because he was one of the last people connecting her with the Kook upbringing that she has renounced in favor of becoming a Pogue. But throughout the season, Sarah continues to struggle with her identity, and she briefly hooks up with her ex-boyfriend, Topper (Austin North), creating a major obstacle in her relationship with John B. How did you come to understand the motivations behind Sarah’s decisions?
I want to get one thing straight: Cheating is not acceptable under any circumstances. I had a hard time when I first read this arc for Sarah, and I had extensive conversations with our writers about it. It wasn’t necessarily where I saw Sarah going, and for me, it contradicted everything that we’d built up in the past couple of seasons, so I definitely had a bit of a moral dilemma.
But I’m also not my character, and my job is to portray my character with as much empathy and understanding as possible. So I spent a lot of time, obviously, not trying to justify it, but trying to approach it: “Why would Sarah do this?” There’s a little part of her that dies with Ward, but I think a little part of her died when she realized that family can also be chosen. When you go through big changes, as she has in her life, there are little parts of you that you say goodbye to and little parts of you that die. She’s given up her family, she’s given up a lot of her friends, she’s given up her whole life to be with this newfound family. And when they get back to the Outer Banks, we see this new arc where she realizes, “I don’t have anywhere to go outside of John B. or the Pogues, and now I’m high and dry,” because she’s being gaslit by John B., she has nowhere to stay.
When you’re sitting there and the life you’ve chosen is showing up empty-handed for you, it’s natural and very human to find something that gives you comfort—and something that gives you comfort is something that’s familiar. Even if it’s a part of her that has been dormant for a while, or that she has said goodbye to, there are still people who are welcoming her with open arms, and those are her old friends. That, I think, is where this [lapse in judgment] can come from. She’s mourning the loss of parts of herself. … So her whole arc this season, I think, is picking up the pieces and confronting past versus present, and it’s very internal.
It also helps that you were given a chance to do voiceovers in the seventh and eighth episodes, which helps to explicitly communicate Sarah’s internal struggle to the audience.
I was grateful they trusted me with some of the voiceovers this season. It lets the audience get a front row seat to how she’s feeling and what she’s thinking. I think it also is a testament to learning that, yes, you can choose your family and have the love of your life, and that’s all wonderful, but at the end of the day, you also have to stay on your two feet; you can’t just put all your eggs in one basket. Otherwise, if you’re not there for yourselves in moments like that, who’s gonna be there for you?
Was there an individual Pogue dynamic outside of John B. and Sarah that you were looking forward to exploring further this season?
I was really happy to do a lot more work with Madison [Bailey] this year, because we always talk about Sarah and Kiara’s relationship—how they were best friends, but we only see it in the context of the group. I feel like Sarah has been missing having another girl to lean on.
I really love Sarah and Pope’s [Jonathan Daviss] dynamic—how Pope is always the brains of the operation, and sometimes Sarah comes in and helps him. We got to explore glimpses of it this season, but I really want to see more of Sarah and J.J.’s [Rudy Pankow] friendship. He’s more like the brother she never really had.
But let’s not forget that Sarah still has a brother of her own who will continue to be a thorn in the Pogues’s side. At this point, do you think Sarah and Rafe will ever reach a point where they’re able to reconcile, or has that ship already sailed?
Rafe is a raging psychopath. [Laughs.] And I think Sarah is very aware of that, but [in] the same way that there was still a part of her that loved her dad—she has that with Rafe, too. Sarah just sees the best in people, so she’s like, “If you were to stop being such a psycho for one second…”
It might be too far gone, but I have this idea that Rafe and Sarah would be able to team up against a common enemy. They kind of explored that with Kiara and Rafe this season, but I always thought it would be really cool to see Sarah and Rafe put differences aside for a second to work together. But he’s insane and also tried to kill Sarah, so... [Laughs].
At this point, having survived so many near-death experiences with these characters, you each seem to have a pretty clear idea of how your character would react in certain situations, which gives you all some room for improv.
If [co-creator and director] Jonas [Pate], or whoever is directing, doesn’t rein us in, we will absolutely derail a scene, because we have so much fun and we do know the characters so well. But our writers have always trusted us. Now, in scripts, we’ll see, in parentheses, “(Pogues improvise.)” [Laughs.] Whenever we have thoughts or ideas, we’ll talk to our writers because we are closer in age to our characters, and they also have kids who are about the same age, so there’s a lot of youthful input.
Outer Banks was renewed earlier this month for a fourth season. Now that there has been a time jump that pushes the Pogues into adulthood, where would you like to see Sarah going forward?
I want to see Sarah have a little job. Now, the Pogues have the money and they’re able to support themselves. I really want Sarah to open up a little smoothie or sandwich shack; she’s not really a great cook, but her friends stop by, pretend the food is good, and then spit it out [Laughs]. That’d be really cute, like Rachel Greene-style. But I feel like, in classic Outer Banks fashion, we’re probably gonna be off to the next adventure pretty quickly.
At this nascent but very promising stage of your career, what kinds of stories do you hope to tell in the near future outside of Outer Banks? What do you look for in a project?
I’d love to do a period piece, a psychological thriller, maybe a biopic… A period biopic? [Laughs]. Honestly, shooting Glass Onion, I got to step into a comedic, satirical world that was so fun and free, and I would love to do more of that.
When I read a script, I can feel a character—it’s this funny, tingly feeling of emotion. I’m not sure [what’s next], but I would like to do something a little different from Sarah Cameron, because I always get to come home to her.