It’s been 10 years since audiences first met Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) in her quest for revenge on the wealthy Grayson family, who she believed were responsible not only for her father going to prison, but also for his death.
Loosely based on “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, the series, aptly titled “Revenge,” ran four four seasons on ABC, from 2011-2015. It followed Emily (real name Amanda Clarke) as she moved to the Hamptons to carry out her plan, only to become more embroiled with the Graysons than even she could have expected and to learn secrets about her father than shocked even her.
Here, the cast and crew talk about the series’ overnight success, the confines of network television and about the departure of a key figure integral to the show’s DNA.
Mike Kelley (creator and showrunner): I met with Channing Dungey, who went on to become the president of ABC. We bonded over our love of nighttime soaps and lamented the fact that it had been missing from the landscape for so long.
ABC said, “Look, we are really missing that big soap opera that we talked about.” So, I stopped and I thought, “I don’t know if we’ve ever really grounded anything in a historic great book.” I started going through my favorites and landed on “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
While Edmund’s character would’ve been interesting, I also wanted to make sure I was hitting the demographic that ABC was aiming for, which was younger and female. So, I basically took the Count and made him a Countess, and that was how it all began.
For the series lead, Kelley and ABC execs saw a number of young female actors, including Adrianne Palicki, Sara Paxton and, of course, Emily VanCamp, who ended up nabbing the role.
Emily VanCamp: I had just finished “Brothers and Sisters” and was looking for the next thing. I remember reading “Revenge” and thinking, “This is interesting. I could do something with this.” I got the call that they were testing another girl the next morning, and they wanted me to test too. I was like, “Couldn’t you give me a bit of time?” [Laughs.]
I remember a friend of mine saying, “You’re only going to regret it if you don’t give it a go.” The rest is history.
When casting Victoria, the matriarch of the Grayson dynasty who would be going toe to toe with Emily, both ABC and Kelley wanted a big name. Stars such as Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, Daryl Hannah and Jane Seymour were considered at one time or another. But when Kelley met Madeleine Stowe, his mind was made up.
Madeleine Stowe: I remember my agent called and said, “There’s this interesting script that’s kind of a two-hander.” I sat down with Mike, who was so charming, and I think we began talking about balance of power. I think that Mike always wanted me to do it. And for some reason, the network was afraid that I couldn’t be mean, that I didn’t have that dark streak or something. I just threw caution to the wind and I did it, and they cast me.
The first season featured a robust cast, including Ashley Madekwe as Ashley Davenport, the first person cast in the series; and Henry Czerny and Christa B. Allen as Victoria’s husband Conrad and daughter Charlotte, respectively. Also playing principal roles were Gabriel Mann as billionaire tech genius Nolan Ross; Nick Wechsler and Connor Paolo as brothers Jack and Declan Porter, the former of which would serve as a potential love interest for Emily; Ashton Holmes and Margarita Levieva. But one key character wouldn’t be cast until the 11th hour: Victoria and Conrad’s firstborn, Daniel, played by Josh Bowman.
Joe Fazzio (writer and producer): We didn’t meet Josh until the table reading in North Carolina before the first day of shooting — which is scary to be going into production and to not know who Daniel Grayson is.
Josh Bowman: I think they were struggling to cast that. Obviously you’re never the first person they think of. I was probably like the fifth, sixth…10th, whoever person it was.
Then in the second season, the cast expanded further to include Barry Sloane join as Aidan Mathis, and Karine Vanasse joined as Margaux, an old girlfriend of Daniel’s, for the latter half of “Revenge’s” run.
Barry Sloane: I was supposed to do four episodes.
Karine Vanasse: It started with six episodes and then it evolved and then I just became a regular for the third season and then I came back for the fourth. Things were great.
Margarita Levieva: I actually tested for Emily’s role. It was between the two of us. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about that; I don’t know if that’s a weird thing to tell people. I initially came on just to do two episodes.
Christa B Allen: “Revenge” was my first experience being part of a show that was, at the time, a worldwide phenomenon. Nothing can prepare you for an experience like that.
Connor Paolo: It was quite a large difference [to being on “Gossip Girl”] because I wasn’t a series regular. I didn’t think about the show as a long-term process. If you’re entering a project as a regular, you at least need to grapple with that idea [of] “Oh I may be doing this for the next half decade.”
Ashton Holmes: I only saw the first script. Mike was super hands-on. He was giving me an idea of who Tyler was without telling me where he’s going. He was friends with Daniel at university, pretended he came from a lot of money, but there were always holes in my story.
Gabriel Mann: I remember Mike approached me at one point and said, “Hey, we’re thinking of lots of different ways we might go with this character, are you open to different interpretations?” and I said, “Mike, do whatever you want with this character, I am there with you 100%.” And I believe the next episode I was sleeping with Tyler to complete a mission.
“Revenge” proved to be a complicated series, tonally, due to it airing on a broadcast network, which had strict episode order and censorship rules.
Kelley: I told ABC that I had 60 episodes I could do, and they were horrified. Back in the day, you wanted a show to run 10 years. They actually asked me in Season 1 if we could do 24 or 25 episodes. I almost died after episode 19. I wanted to do 15-episode seasons.
Nick Wechsler: When you have to write 22 episodes, you don’t have the whole story mapped out in advance. You’re writing road as you’re driving, and you’re trying to keep it moving. It’s like, “Oh shit, this character is playing really well with the audience or their chemistry’s good, let’s keep writing stuff for them.”
Henry Czerny: It had to do with advertising. How many commercials can you fit into a piece that you have millions of eyes on? So if you can fit in 23 episodes and nobody dies, great! We get another however millions in advertising.
While shooting the first season, VanCamp and Bowman grew closer, eventually forging a romantic relationship. The couple tied the knot in December 2018 and just this August gave birth to a baby girl, Iris.
VanCamp: The funny thing is, the show had everything to do with us meeting but not much to do with our story. I would say our relationship developed outside of the workplace and I think that’s why we worked so well together throughout those years. I miss working with him, to be honest; it was nice to have that time. People have these ideas that these romances happen on set — it wasn’t really on set, it was this friendship outside of set that developed into something much, much deeper.
Bowman: Things just happen after a long time. You just get captured by someone’s soul and personality. I can’t really explain it. How do you explain that? They’re your counterpart.
When Season 2 came to a close, Kelley left the show. (Sunil Nayar was hired as his replacement.) Executive producer Mark B. Perry also left the series as a sign of solidarity with Kelley.
Kelley: My deal was up at the end of Season 2, and I said, “I need to be able to do this in a smaller order and I need to tell you when it’s going to end.” They said, “No, we want this to go forever, so why don’t you make this a big splashy soap opera? It doesn’t have to be so connected to ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ parameters.”
I was burnt out. It was just a very hard job and at the end of it, I think ABC really wanted to go in a direction I didn’t want to go in, and I left. It was a very hard decision, but I was also so tired that it wasn’t an impossible choice.
VanCamp: That was really hard for me. Mike and I have talked about it since, and for various reasons — some which I found out later, some which I knew at the time — it was pretty frustrating because I’d felt like we had all gone on this journey together, and the one person in my mind that truly understood the core of this show was Mike. I felt like he’d been pushed out a little bit.
Bowman: I’ll be honest and say Mike was the show. I think from a character perspective, the first two seasons are probably better. I think three and four have their own identity.
Mark B. Perry: If Mike had stayed, I would’ve stayed. I would’ve done the duration. It was one of the most fun jobs writing I’ve ever had. All I will tell you is this: I personally realized too late in Season 2 that an episode of “Revenge” was actually taking place behind the scenes.
“Revenge” also lost an on-screen member of the family at the start of Season 3, when Madekwe departed, something she did not know was going to happen when Season 2 ended. With this development, “Revenge” suddenly featured an all-white principal cast — something that wouldn’t change for the duration of the series.
Kelley: It’s embarrassing, frankly, to look back and to know that that’s where we were. I was thinking of two families which were Caucasian, and I was not thinking about the socio-political terms beyond the initial reason I got into it, and really at the center of that is white privilege. I wish I had done better. Certainly if this was to be done again, it would be a more diverse cast and I would’ve figured out how to bring different cultures and experiences into this.
Fazzio: I don’t remember much conversation being had, which in hindsight was obviously not the right thing. I think if there’s anything that “Revenge” failed to do [was] be as inclusive as it should’ve been.
Madekwe: I think I was less willing at that age and at that stage in my career to confront the complexities of race than I am now. Some of it came from fear, I think. It’s not the actors job to make sure the show is diverse. But I do think I could’ve pushed harder to make maybe elements of being a woman of color more apparent to my storyline.
“Revenge” entered its fourth season in the fall of 2014, but the cancelation was not announced until April 2015.
VanCamp: I think I had an idea that it would be the last season. A lot of us felt like the stories had been exhausted and we were trying to figure out different avenues that we could take. We began that mourning process early on in Season 4. These were not easy characters to play by any means and I certainly wasn’t the only one who was probably exhausted and wanting to see some type of wrap-up to this story.
Stowe: I do think the show could’ve gone on longer. I was actually very surprised that they didn’t decide to keep it going. But I don’t think that you could’ve banked on making the story of the two women going at it central.
Wechsler: I think in its current trajectory, it had to end when it did, unfortunately.
When “Revenge” concluded in May 2015, it had delivered 89 episodes, which was 29 more than what Kelley had envisioned. Through all the gut-wrenching work, Kelley and the cast look back at their time on “Revenge” fondly.
Stowe: I loved the scenes that Emily VanCamp and I had together; that was always fun.
VanCamp: [It was] truly one of the best experiences — one of the most challenging — but the best. I realized I’d been living on my adrenaline for four years straight and never really took that mental break. I think that was partly because inevitably when you’re invested in the character part of it, a part of her drive became a part of my drive. Not to say I was method at all; I never took Emily Thorne home with me. But then the grueling aspect of it, the physical toll it took on my body, I think it was just, “Get on with it, stop complaining and just keep moving forward.”
I remember after we wrapped that final season, it had taken such a physical and mental toll on me, my body was shutting down. I had to go on all sorts of weird supplements and get my body back on track because it was very physically challenging, that show. Now that it’s 10 years later, I don’t know that my body would put up with that — like, “No you did that at the right time; not any more.” [Laughs.]
Mann: I get overwhelmed when I think of what an important time that was for me in my life for a lot of reasons. It was just amazing to get to experience when something really works in this business [and] when people respond to something, when there’s an audience there, when they show up for the thing that you put so much of your heart and soul into. Every single one of us every single day were having a “pinch me” moment. We could not believe this was real, that it was really happening. To experience that with people you love and care about and get to show up to work with, I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth to that experience.
Kelley: I don’t think you’ll meet a lot of show creators that don’t know how their own show ended. [Laughs.] It’s the truth, and it’s part of the whole tapestry of this journey of “Revenge.” It kind of had to be this messy. I’m grateful I got to be a part of it, and I’m grateful that these characters got to see the light of day.