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‘Counterpart’ Team on Defining Identity Through Two Unique Worlds in the Starz Spy Thriller

What if you were a grown adult working a seemingly mundane bureaucratic job, caring for your comatose wife, and you learned that there existed not only another version of yourself but of the whole world? Suddenly questions of true self, identity, and nature versus nurture would permeate even the simplest everyday interactions. At least, that is what happens to Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) in Starz’s new drama, “Counterpart,” a series designed around the “nostalgia of a classic spy novel with a science fiction element sprinkled over it,” per creator and executive producer Justin Marks.

Inspired by his childhood reading of John le Carre and Graham Greene, Marks deconstructed the “tropes, conventions and language” of the thriller genre as the landscape on which to build a character-driven show that explores multiple versions of its characters in its two worlds — worlds that started out similar but whose history diverged, resulting in different advancements in technology and different behaviors in its version of the people from Howard’s world.

“You’ve got a whole different narrative to the other side based on world history that’s different for the last few decades,” Marks explains. “What we realized was rather than servicing a different underlying aesthetic between both worlds, we should let aesthetics come out of the choices we made in the story on the other side. So if there are different rules about public health on the other side, how does that manifest itself in terms of costumes? Same with technology: why do their cell phones look different? Well, it’s because they have a different timeline of smartphone development than we do.”

Noting that he prefers to “build a world and turn off all the lights and hand the audience a flashlight,” Marks says that it is important to him to never try to intentionally confuse the audience as to what world they are in or play the elements of a world as a twist. Instead, he and his production team worked hard to create visual clues to aid with centering the audience in any given scene, even when action moves fast.

“The lighting is cooler over there because it’s all LED bulbs because they are more energy efficient. On our side we use a warmer Tungsten bulb,” he points out. “Also, we try to build, especially in the first three to four episodes, a rhythm of cross-cutting. We’re always going to give you a transition or an understanding of what that is or play out a story before we cut back to some other place. I think that’s important because when you’re dealing with different worlds or different versions of one character, it can take the audience out of it if you don’t find the technical choices that really draw distinction.”

Howard learns about the existence of the other version of himself (called Howard Prime in the show and also played by Simmons) early in the premiere episode, driving the questions of identity and nature versus nurture that executive producer Jordan Horowitz says are at the crux of the show.

“The answer to ‘Why are there two sides?’ is where a hard science fiction show would drive because it is a big concept, but the human element inside of it and the implications of it existing was always more compelling to us. ‘OK so it exists but where do we go next?’” Horowitz says. “Resources were allocated in different places, and we may be genetically identical but because of our circumstance, one aspect of our personality was developed and another was repressed.”

Just as the worlds appear different, so do Howard and Howard Prime — simply by the way in which they carry themselves, which allows Simmons to tap into different tools to embody each individual man. Although Simmons says that he considered “losing or gaining 20 pounds” to physically differentiate the men, the production schedule, which often had him flitting between both characters just hours apart, did not allow for that. Instead, he relied solely on their psychologies and emotions to set them apart. “It just became a question of how life has beaten down or attacked these characters in different ways and how it’s sort of empowered them in different ways,” he says.

Although both versions of Howard were born of the same exact genetics and had the same experiences for the first few decades of their lives, the last several decades, when their worlds’ histories diverged, is where they began to “peel off” from each other.

As time goes on, though, Simmons reveals that the Howards find “how similar they actually are” at their core, despite the different circumstances that have led them to very different behaviors and personality traits. “Every new piece of information Howard gets is elucidating and mind-blowing,” Simmons notes. “There can’t help but be a butterfly effect to his learning new information and being changed by it.”

“The act of observing changes the experiment in some way,” Marks adds. “It’s a chance to stand outside of yourself and see yourself under a different set of circumstances and then use that to say, “If that’s me, here, then do I truly know myself?’”

Howard won’t only be challenged by the realization of his own personal double but also of the fact that his wife Emily (Olivia Williams) should exist in the other world, as well. While he and Howard Prime are tasked to work together, temptation to find out more about the other version of Emily and what their relationship is like complicates things.

“We see this, in a lot of ways, as a love rectangle between two versions of the same marriage,” says Marks. “The regret that comes from different members of each version really drives the whole show. There are questions of ‘Could you fall in love with a version of your significant other that’s not your significant other? What is the best version of the self, and what is the best fit? How well does one know who they’re really married to, and what do you learn about that person by meeting their other?”

Adds Marks, “There are a lot of twists that come down the pike!”

Counterpart” will get a special premiere Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. on Starz and then air the rest of its nine-episode season starting in January.

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