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‘Gone’ Team Talks Portraying Psychological Trauma in Missing-Persons Procedural

In adapting Chelsea Cain’s novel “One Kick” into an episodic drama, Matt Lopez had a tall order on his hands.

The protagonist of the book, Kit “Kick” Lannigan is a survivor of a childhood abduction and child pornography ring, who, despite never fully healing from her formative years’ trauma, works with the FBI as an adult to help solve present-day missing persons cases. The 12-episode series Lopez titled “Gone” was co-produced by an American entity (NBCUniversal) and an international one (France’s TF1), which meant adhering to different decency standards when it came to how much violence against children could be shown on-screen. But Lopez also wanted to build the story out to focus more on Kick’s present-day cases, with the larger mystery of the network behind Kick’s abduction to be a season-long arc. The balancing act for the show became not only about when to unravel more of the longer arc, but also how much of Kick’s formative years’ trauma to dive into.

The opening scene of Cain’s book, Lopez recalls, is when an FBI agent named Frank (played by Chris Noth in the series) rescues Kick from her abductor’s house. “What he finds is there’s these film sets … it’s this incredibly gut-wrenching moment,” Lopez says. “I kind of felt … like it’s almost scarier to not show on-screen depictions of abuse and torture and so on. I think we all know what happens to those girls. … I don’t think you need to hit the audience in the face with it.”

Although Lopez starts his series with the same rescue moment, the young Kick is simply playing a board game with her abductors before the FBI storms in. When she runs down to the basement to enact the protocol her abductor Mel (Lee Tergesen) put in place should such an event ever occur, she deletes files on a computer without the audience ever seeing what they are. Because we “all know the Jaycee Dugard story [and] the Elizabeth Smart story,” Lopez points out, it is easy to infer some of the darker, more sinister things that happened in that house. Later episodes of the season do explore those things a little more, as well.

“Her past is present, even in the purely procedural episodes. I think and I hope what you get from the character is the sense that her past is something she’s able to bring to bear and in fact is kind of her superpower. That’s what I liked about the book: she’s not [a] super experienced, trained law enforcement officer, she is in fact a victim,” Lopez says.

However, Lopez adds that it was an intentional choice to make the adult version of Kick (played by Leven Rambin) less “damaged” than she was in the book. Here she has a job, for example, as well as “a couple of friends,” he notes.

“I made the decision actually that it would allow the audience to become more invested in her if she were a little bit further along in her road to recovery,” he says. “It gave us the benefit of a character who’s able to be more active [and] giving her a little bit more of a life … gave her more to lose.”

For Rambin, the “level” of how such past trauma affects a person’s day-to-day behavior even years later was what she was most excited to dive into. In addition to reading Cain’s novel for specific character backstory, she immersed herself in books by Dugard and Smart, as well as working directly with Alicia Kozakiewicz, another survivor who has since founded an advocacy group to raise awareness about online predators and child sexual exploitation.

“Kick’s language is more physical. She’s not super expressive and vulnerable to anyone at this point. [She’s] dominating and untrusting [and] the way she walked and the way she talked and the way she carried herself, to me, was like a pit bull,” Rambin says.

Working on the physicality of the character meant working with a trainer and studying Bruce Lee because his philosophies are what the character has studied, Rambin shares. While working on the physical side helped Rambin channel the emotional work, because there was a lot she could portray without having to say anything, it was even more important to her that the character was “not just kicking ass and taking names,” she says.

“This is a very deep, courageous, psychological struggle that she’s doing every day. … I really wanted to be really truthful … so that anyone who’s been through that could be really seen and heard and understood by me and our team.”

Working with Kozakiewicz was imperative, Rambin says, because she taught her about the ways a survivor sees the world that Rambin admits she was naive to before. “She would say things like, ‘No, you could never do that — you could never go into a public place without somebody else’ … or ‘You can’t sit with your back toward the restaurant door. You can’t look at children holding hands with adults the same way,'” she explains.

Additionally, Rambin wanted to seed her performance with some elements of survivor’s guilt. When she first starts working with Frank, she admits Kick has been letting herself go in some respects because of the psychological effect her past has held over her.

“If Kick was an addict, it’s the equivalent of her not really being in AA at the moment,” she says. But when the opportunity to work with the FBI presents itself, “she sees a chance to make something meaningful of her life and to make this all have not been for naught.”

The first four episodes of “Gone” are focused on cases of the week on which Kick and her friend James (Andy Mientus), another survivor, are brought in to assist. Lopez says he structured the show this way to “firmly establish our footing and deliver the goods on the procedural with the twists and turns — and then once we’ve got people hooked, start planting those Easter eggs” about how Kick’s past and present will soon enough collide and force her to “reexamine certain elements of her past.”

By the end of the season, Lopez reveals, Kick will have to confront “the biggest, darkest thing from her past of all” by sitting across from the man who abducted her as one of her present-day cases is revealed to have a connection to the network in which he operated.

“There are fantastic, twisty-turny stories that viewers of the series will see that are detective stories. In that sense they tap into a well of stories that people have consumed through books and television and movies for over 100 years,” Lopez says. But what he thinks makes the show unique is the perspective through which the story is being told.

“There’s this vulnerable, yet strong female lead who, to use Frank’s phrase ‘lived in the wolf’s den [and] knows how the wolf thinks,'” he says. And she’s not the only one who has such a personal connection to Frank or the cases on which he brings the team. “They’re all kind of emotionally plugged into these cases in a way that hits home more than if they were just hired by a police department to do a job.”

“Gone” premieres Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. on WGN America.

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