Arkangel—a parental control device used to shield children from things their parents don't wish for them to see—could be every parent's dream software, until it becomes their nightmare. That's what happens in the latest season of Netflix's Black Mirror, where Rosemarie DeWitt stars as a single working mother who installs the Arkangel software in her daughter's head after a near-miss of losing her child on a playground.
In Charlie Brooker's eerily prophetic (and sometimes technophobic) anthology series, "Arkangel" stands out for its depiction of a very near future—or at least much nearer than the worlds in the rest of the series' episodes—where parents are able to implant Arkangel software into their child's head, and see what their child is seeing via the screen of a tablet device. A sort of GPS meets parental control software, Arkangel functions as the ultimate spy tool for a mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) who just doesn't have the time or the resources to be able to shield her daughter from everything, and she relies on its surveillance properties until one day she realizes it's time to let her daughter grow on her own. The episode dredges up fear surely every parent must come across—what would happen if you lost your child, or at least thought you lost your child? How much of your child's adolescence should you be privy to as a parent? When you overprotect your kids, how do you know they won't act out even harder if given the chance to do so?
A conversation with DeWitt—who appears in the Jodie Foster directed episode that feels more like an independent short film about a blue collar neighborhood in Anytown, USA than the show's usual sci-fi fantasy-turned-nightmare aesthetic—revealed that while technology is embedded in the fabric of our everyday lives and can be a helpful parenting tool, sometimes it's best to just rely on our natural human instincts.
What made you want to get involved with Black Mirror? Had you been a fan of the series?
No, and I’m embarrassed to that, but I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old which made me really identify with the part, but it also has sort of made me step away from pop culture for a minute. I know more about Moana and Coco these days than I do about anything hip and cool like Black Mirror. Jodie [Foster] sent me the script. She wanted me to do it, and that was already going to be a huge incentive. I read the script and it was perfect on the page. Then I started binging it, and I stopped because I started getting really intimidated! I was having that “I’m not worthy” feeling, and then we went and shot our episode.
Usually these episodes do can feel like they take place decades in the future, but this one feels unique in that it involves technology that could exist next year if it doesn’t already exist.
Ours was very much this sort of small character driven indie piece, you know? Some of them are super high concept, and of course technology is a big component, but it felt really grounded and only a few minutes into the future rather than many, many years. It already sort of does exist because we have GPS on our phones. I think Charlie [Brooker] explores it in such an interesting way. He so easily finds a way into your fear, you know what I mean? In parenthood, there’s so much fear around parenting in this day and age, and there’s so much fear around technology. In our episode he puts those together in a really unique way. Rather than our children using the technology, it’s the parents finding a device that might be able to keep their children safer, and of course they bite on it.
Watching this show can make a viewer feel so paranoid with its “be careful what you wish for” message present in nearly every episode. Did you have to draw anything from personal experience to play the mother character in "Arkangel?"
In a way, it’s so easy when you have kids because you relate to everything in the episode, and pretty much everything in the world, because you have these people that you love so much that you want the world to be perfect for and to keep them safe and happy, and unfortunately that’s a tall order. I haven’t been really guilty of being an uber helicopter parent; I took the baby monitors out when they were three months old because I thought that was an invasion of their privacy. [Laughs]. I’m like, if they want to color on the walls, I’ll yell later, I don’t want to catch them in the act of everything! I didn’t relate to it in that way—if anything I’m a bit of a luddite, I don’t embrace technology the way some people would. I feel like I have a minute until my kids are embracing [technology] and it will be different, the things that everyone is worried about. With Twitter and Snapchat, it’ll be totally new by the time they get cell phones.
The scene in the beginning where your character momentarily thinks she’s lost her daughter, which becomes the catalyst for her purchase and installment of the Arkangel software, is really a harrowing few seconds.
There’s nothing scarier than just having a moment where you looked away and lost your child. I think that would be enough—especially with my character because she’s a single mother and doesn’t have a lot of resources—to sort of rely on something else, something other, because it’s not like she can afford babysitters. She has an aging dad who helps her. I think Jodie wanted to paint a picture of where America was shortly in the future. How technology was advancing, but also the human race and its decline a little bit. So we shot for a city in America where the industry had gone away.
What was it like working with Jodie as the director?
It was heaven. To say she is “actor friendly” is an understatement because she’s a brilliant actor herself. She’s prepared, she knows how to run a set, and she knows how to make actors feel comfortable and how to get the best out of them, especially child actors. There were days where the little ones would be bouncing off the wall, like, “Maybe I’ll just start doing cartwheels in the middle of this scene!” And she would gently say, “Maybe not, maybe you’ll just look at my finger and pretend it’s the device!” That kind of thing. She’s really awesome to work with. She’s really smart and she and I, we talked a lot about being mothers and being daughters, and we felt that the mother-daughter relationship is so different than the father-son relationship or mother-son relationship. We explored some really personal things in there, but differently. Where I felt like I was really rooting for my character, I think at times, she was trying to be fair to both of them, but I could feel her really rooting for the daughter. I sometimes thought at moments, “Wait! Don’t make me the bad guy in this. I’m trying to be a good mom!” It was a good tension of opposites that I think helped the struggle of the piece.
Motherhood and daughterhood are so complex that it’s almost impossible to represent that relationship on screen with a limited amount of time, but this year, I’ve noticed a lot of TV and film that’s done an exceptional job at portraying layered moms, like in The Florida Project or Better Things. Do you think your character was ultimately a good mom?
I’m kind of stealing this from Jodie, but I think it really makes sense—technology is benign, it’s like a blender. It’s about what you do with it. It doesn’t do anything for you that you don’t ask it to do. I think my character’s intentions are really pure. We all have unexamined, unconscious parts of ourselves, and wounds. I think there’s a slippery slope with how much is too much information regarding your children. You often hear parents saying, “I don’t want to know,” and I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to or that they just shouldn’t. While they’re little, and in the course of this story we see the daughter from birth to the teenage years, there does come a point where parents have to let the child individuate. They have to fly and be free. I think that’s where you get into a gray area about people’s capability to do that. I think my character makes some choices, and what I appreciate about the piece is that she starts one way and changes throughout the course because sometimes, like you said, these relationships are so deep that it’s hard to explore all of the complexities that span sixteen years in an hour.
I loved the shift where the mother takes the Arkangel software away and you see the daughter grow and learn about all of the things the software shielded her from as a child, proving that ultimately kids will do what they want to do regardless of what their parents say they can or cannot do. Do you think that being overprotective of children tends to backfire and cause them to act out even more than they would have had they not been too sheltered?
It’s an interesting question, right? I’m sure you’ve had experiences, too, with friends throughout adolescence and college, who are so sheltered that it almost makes them harder or wilder. It’s hard to say! My kids are really little, but when you meet them, their temperament is there. They have instincts towards certain things. They’re all different, they really are. I’m sure it’s a whole combination platter, but you really don’t know what you’re doing and you have to make it up as you go along and trust your instincts. I feel like in "Arkangel," you can check out or make some bad choices, or rely too heavily on things like technology. You can rely too heavily on babysitters or a school to do your job! We’re in an era where we can let technology do a lot of things for us, and we are all guinea pigs; we don’t know if it’s good or bad. I think we’re only going to know in retrospect. We don’t even know what it’s going to be like for all of these kids who’ve never known anything but technology, or never known anything but a world without privacy. That’s why I think people are so hooked on Black Mirror. It examines all that and weirdly, a lot of stuff that they wrote about a couple years ago has come true. That’s super scary.
One of the final scenes gets quite intense between the mother and daughter. Was that difficult to shoot?
It was really hard to shoot. It wasn’t hard to shoot the emotional stuff, that stuff I find thrilling and exciting, but what was hard about it was, we have this young amazingly talented actress Brenna Harding, and just working with people that age, when the emotions and adrenaline gets going, it can be scary because you don’t know how in control they’re going to be. And we have stunt people, but you do kind of take some of the hits. This was one of the scenes where I did rely on the stunt people. Actors love to say they do their own stunts, but I was like, “I don’t want to chip my teeth! I don’t want a black eye! You guys will be much more skilled at it than I am!” So it was one where I felt probably the most in my life like, “Let’s be safe.” It’s so athletic and you have to repeat it many times, and you do wake up the next morning feeling like a car ran over you from the moves.
Was there anything else in regards to conceptualizing those characters that you found particularly challenging?
I find it challenging not to act with a human being. A lot of my work was with inanimate objects, like a screen that didn’t even have anything on it. I relied on Jodie to not let it get boring and ask where we were in the scene after acting for hours. Usually you play the arc of the character, doing all of the screen work that day, so that was a little challenging. And also, we were in Toronto during the election. I think I shot the aftermath scene of the violence, and I’m looking at the gadget trying to get it to work again, and I was just like, “No! No! No!” but it was really all the election results. I had been crying and looking at my phone for like twelve hours. There was no acting required, it was a fraught day.
Rosie O’Donnell also shared that she shot the pilot of her show SMILF the same day as the election results and it very much affected the shoot. Did it inform the way you acted on set for that day?
An audience never knows what you’re drawing from. Sometimes you’re relating to the events as they are, sometimes you’re in totally different territory just because it is more meaningful to you. That’s what was up for everybody—it was like, “Holy cow, we’re so afraid.” And I was like, “Okay, so this’ll be easy to shoot this.” [Laughs.]
Have you been able to watch more episodes from this season?
They don’t let us! Jodie knows more about it. I’ll see them when the rest of the world sees them.
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