“The Red Road,” Sundance Channel’s new drama, is a tense, dramatic thriller about a small town with feuding cultures covering up a terrible tragedy — so it makes sense that it comes from “Prisoners” writer Aaron Guzikowski. But although it’s a serious, cinematic experience, the producers want you to know that it’s not a bleak, tough watch — it’s a gripping story that you’ll want to see more of.
Martin Henderson plays New Jersey sheriff Harold Jensen, whose life is turned upside down when his childhood friend and now-nemesis Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa) comes back to town. Kopus is a member of the local Native American tribe, which is federally unrecognized and which Jensen must also help police. “On the surface when we meet Harold at the beginning of the series … his life is sort of ticking along fine, but what we then realize is that in his past there is an event that he regretfully chose to lie about,” Henderson tells reporters at the TCA winter press tour.
“He’s not haunted at the beginning of the show but the ghosts become awakened by [Kopus] coming back and revisiting his mistakes,” Henderson says. “He’s in this position where he has to fight for his life and defend what he loves, which is his family. He makes decisions that corrupt him and he has to live with that, but he’s doing it in his mind for good reasons.”
Everyone — from Harold’s schizophrenic wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), to Kopus — doesn’t necessarily make the right decisions, but they are motivated from a good place.
“You look at them and you can’t readily judge them for being good or bad,” Henderson says. “In a typical cop thriller, which this certainly is not, it’s pretty easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, whereas [here] that line is continually being blurred. … I’ve personally loved this role and getting to explore some darker stuff too, these themes that come up in the show about guilt and shame but all encapsulated in love.”
Adds executive producer Bridget Carpenter, “But it is a fun watch, everyone!”
Nicholson says that she immersed herself in preparing for her role, which ended up being one of the most difficult of her career. “[Jean] is struggling. She’s heard voices for about 17 years and she’s never admitted it to anyone and actually has taken the road of claiming she’s an alcoholic because she finds it easier to deal with that [as a stigma]. I read a lot about schizophrenia … people shared a lot of personal stories with me.
“I was very relieved to know that it looks different on everyone which made me feel a little bit more relaxed and gave me some freedom to just use these beautiful words and my imagination and what I read and heard and create her version of that. I just loved the script. It leapt off the page. And it’s my hardest role I’ve ever played.”
This role is a departure for Momoa, who has quite a bit of fantasy and sci-fi on his resume — notably “Game of Thrones” and “Conan the Barbarian” — but not necessarily anything that relates to Kopus. “I’ve been very fortunate to have played a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. It’s fun because there are no limitations in those worlds,” he says. “When this came along, much in the same way as ‘Game of Thrones,’ I was like ‘This is my role; this is perfectly made for me.’ I don’t have a lot of stuff that demonstrates the things that I do on this show, but [the producers] took a chance. Obviously I auditioned, and I wanted it. When I want something, I’m gonna get it.”
Tamara Tunie, who plays one of the tribe members, says she too had a visceral reaction when she read the script. “Like Jason, when I read the script and I saw the role of Marie, I completely wanted to grab a hold of that character and play that role,” he says. “Her ancestry is very similar to my own in real life. I have Native American blood; I have African blood; I have European blood; so it was the first time a role was presented to me that actually completely embraced my entire DNA makeup.”
“The Red Road” premieres Thursday, Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. on Sundance.