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Jennifer Carpenter on Treating ‘The Enemy Within’ Character as ‘Life After Death’

After spending eight seasons on a premium cable drama (Showtime’s “Dexter”) and one on a broadcast procedural (CBS’ “Limitless”), Jennifer Carpenter is placing her bets back on broadcast. She stars as former CIA agent Erica Shepherd, who gave up classified information to some very bad people in order to keep her daughter safe, in the NBC drama “The Enemy Within” from Ken Woodruff. The goal of the show is “to make the audience work really hard to get ahead of us,” and therefore, she hopes, will elevate the offerings on broadcast.

“I want to do the muscling of raising the bar for network television to feel like the complicated world of cable,” Carpenter tells Variety. “I think [this show] begs a larger question, like ‘Who do you trust in your life and on a wider scope in your government, your country? Are you checking your sources? Are you doing things based on feelings; are you doing things based on information — and where is that information coming from? I hope there is a ripple effect. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be?”

As an actress on the show, Carpenter adds that she is constantly “acclimating” as her character is meeting a “new normal…every other minute.” The woman who was once a powerful government employee was charged with 15 life sentences in federal prison and was in the middle of serving her time when she is plucked from an ADMAX cell in the pilot episode to help the FBI with a case.

“All of this is borrowed time,” she says of her character’s attitude. “I, as the actor, am kind of treating it as life after death.”

ADMAX, Carpenter notes, is a place where people can easily “go crazy” because they spend all of their time alone. She wanted to play that reality in the pilot episode, so when the audience first meets Erica, Carpenter reveals, “all of her facets [weren’t] there.” She couldn’t be “too sharp,” but she also had to be somewhat afraid of being “found out” that she didn’t have complete control over herself. When she first meets FBI agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut), who wants her help, for example, “she’s wondering if [he] is a hallucination.”

“All of those things, all of that self-doubt, it’s all there, but it’s blanketed by this very calculating and equipped woman with a really encoded mind. And the irony of it is she’s a code breaker — or once was,” she says.

When Erica makes decisions to help the FBI, Carpenter considers motivations including “is it self-serving [or] is it her patriotism?”

“I think the second that Erica becomes a part of any sort of team we will be jumping the shark,” she says. But she acknowledges that “it’s too narrow to think of it in terms of good or bad, or villain or not.” On a day to day basis, she says, she is still making those types of decisions — “still watching in slow motion this chip that is Erica Shepherd fall. And that’s the fun of it: it’s like batting a balloon back in the air. Just when everybody thinks they know where they stand, you confuse it again.”

Another element that made “The Enemy Within” feel fresh to Carpenter was the solitude of seeing her character in ADMAX. Those are moments where “there are no props to luxuriate in,” she points out. “There’s no twisting and twirling of the hair to distract you from something that doesn’t feel organic in the writing. The writing has to be top notch.”

Although Carpenter admits she had no idea how this would be an episodic show after reading the pilot script, she was intrigued enough by the writing and the character to go in and audition. Woodruff, she shares, wrote “many pages” about what Erica’s formative years were like, which helped her better wrap her head around the role she would play and also fall in love with her more.

Whether or not some or all of that backstory makes it into the show remains to be seen, Carpenter says, but because the show “is really all about perception,” she has been focused on “as soon as I feel someone targeting me as one thing or another, then it becomes my work to shift their focus or shift their opinion.”

While Carpenter believes the audience’s allegiance may shift from week to week, her constant has been Chestnut, who she has found works very similarly to how she does. “I think he actively avoids conversations with me about what the scene is the same way that I do with him because all of that stuff is supposed to be revealed and cooked and simmered while the cameras are rolling, and I think that helps to elevate the show,” she says.

Carpenter acknowledges there is “an emotional expense to playing pretend,” especially with such heavy content. “I know that from work in the past,” she says, but “this is…everything you would want episodic television to feel like, I think, if you were going to be on something long-term. Otherwise it literally would feel like a prison sentence. … I’ve been there. They’re golden handcuffs, but they hurt like hell.”

“The Enemy Within” premieres Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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