Julia Roberts and Sam Esmail on translating Homecoming from podcast to TV

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Julia Roberts, who long ago earned the right to be selective in her projects, is stepping into the TV realm for the first time—technically the streaming episodic realm—for Amazon’s Homecoming. An eerie and compelling adaptation of a hit narrative podcast, Homecoming is helmed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail. He’s taken the purely auditory story and developed it into a stunningly visual show, with Roberts playing Heidi, a waitress trying to escape her past at the experimental Homecoming Transitional Support Center. The A.V. Club sat down with Roberts and Esmail to talk Homecoming, Catherine Keener, and Roberts’ love for Mystery Show.

The A.V. Club: When did you first hear Homecoming, and when did you first know you wanted to adapt it?

Julia Roberts: I heard the podcast because my agents had sent me a link. I had never heard a podcast that was one story told in parts like that, and I just thought it was great. I had it playing in my house when I was doing some housework, and just got super caught up. I listened to the whole thing in one day.

I thought, “This is like a cool, old-fashioned radio show.” The sound production was so cool and evocative, and they hired actors with these incredible voices. Catherine Keener—who I am an admirer of, and she’s a friend—she has the greatest voice.

Then time went by and enter Mr. Esmail…

Sam Esmail: Yes! Kind of similarly, my agent sent me the podcast.

My knee-jerk reaction is not just to adapt something because it’s getting critical acclaim, or because it’s popular, and honestly because if it’s in podcast form, maybe it should stay in podcast form. But when I binged it—I binged it the first time as a fan, and then I binged it the second time with my wife. It was on that second time that I really started listening to it, and then on my third time I saw that there were moments on that podcast where instead of being in the audio format where people were recalling events that you could be with those characters during those moments, maybe adding suspense and tension. That’s where it really started opening up to where it wouldn’t just be interesting as a television show, but different than the podcast, because it could stand alone as its own thing.

AVC: Did that reimagining factor into why you cast a whole new slate of actors for the show?

SE: Yes. It was really important to me to make a distinction and to deviate from the podcast, and that goes all the way from the casting to the storyline. The storyline is very different, and I didn’t even listen to the second season of the podcast because we wanted the TV show to be its own thing.

When we were talking about the TV show, we decided the storyline should really focus more on Walter [played by Stephan James in the show] and Heidi’s relationship more than the podcast did. In that way, we really made a conscious effort to make a big difference between the two.

AVC: Julia, you had heard the podcast. When you got the scripts, did you hear Catherine’s voice in your head the entire time? How did you make the distinction?

JR: I was trying to imitate Catherine the entire time. [Laughs.] It’s futile and impossible.

AVC: I read she only recorded for a week, and David Schwimmer—whose character Colin is played by Bobby Cannavale in the show—only recorded for a day.

JR: Yeah, what the fuck? I was involved for months! Maybe I’m in the wrong business…

No, I mean… Catherine was so great, and I did absolutely attempt to steal any and all of her greatness, and I just really can’t. After attempting that, we really got into it, and with Micah [Bloomberg] writing all the scripts for us, it really was just a different animal that we were just creating—the new ideas of Heidi and Walter and what it was all about. It was pretty fun, and it definitely helped to have such great source material, and in a way to be able to get rid of it. Some of my castmates I don’t think ever listened to the podcast, or listened when they were done filming, because they didn’t want to be influenced. But I like being influenced.

AVC: Sam, the show really sounds great, which I have to assume is an intentional decision. Can you talk about that process?

SE: Sound design is always critical, especially when you’re doing a thriller with a lot of suspense and tension. Sound goes a long way. I have a brilliant sound design team who’s been working with me since Mr. Robot, and one of the things we always think about—and it’s also something we think about with cinematography—is how we get inside the characters’ heads, and how do we place the audience where we want them to be or how we want them to feel at any given moment.

For example, the phone call conversations between Heidi and Colin—typically when you see a phone call scene, when you’re on Heidi, you’ll hear her audio in full but you’ll hear the other side through the phone futz, and then you’ll cut back and forth. We chose to do the whole conversation as if you’re hearing it through the phone. We felt that, doing that, the audience felt like they were eavesdropping on a conversation they shouldn’t be listening to, and that just added to that sense of paranoia and suspense that we wanted. Also, they were talking about things that we as the audience didn’t necessarily know about or understand, and hiding it from the facility and the soldiers at the facility. It was all in service of adding that tone we were going for.

AVC: In the show, when you shift between present and past, you shift camera orientation and tone. Why did you make that decision?

SE: Again, it starts with character. If you’re talking about 2022 Heidi versus 2018 Heidi, you’ll notice that in 2018, the colors are fuller, the aspect ratio is wider. Here’s a Heidi that’s eager and aspirational. Cut to 2022 Heidi, and here’s a Heidi who’s defeated, who doesn’t understand what’s happened, who’s in a fog, who’s boxed in. So that’s why the aspect ratio becomes a 1:1 box that Heidi’s constantly in. She doesn’t see the full picture. The lighting’s a little flatter, and the color’s desaturated.

AVC: Julia, how well do you know Heidi? You obviously know 2018 and 2022 Heidi, but do you think about what 2010 Heidi was like, or before? Do you know her motivations?

JR: There are some scenes from 2018 where you get a little insight into Heidi before she got to the facility, and I think from her relationship with her mom you see get a glimpse into the past. So, I don’t have Heidi down from the age of 9, but I have her pretty good.

AVC: Sam, you mentioned season two…

JR: You did? I told you not to mention season two.

AVC: What can you tell us about season two?

SE: There is a season two. That’s about all I’m going to share, because we’re a spoiler free zone over here. [Gestures to Roberts.]

JR: I feel like you’re giving everything up about season one already. Before, when we were talking about it, people hadn’t seen anything. Then, people saw four episodes. Now, people have seen 10 episodes, so we’re just talking about everything.

AVC: It feels like people want that now, though. They’re completists, especially when it comes to shows on streaming services. Did you think about how people were going to take in the show and how that might be different from both of your past projects?

SE: That was part of the thinking behind the format of the show, because it’s a half-hour drama, which is sort of unusual. There was something really cool about the way it was on the podcast that I wanted to retain when we did the TV show. There was this lingering effect at the end of every episode. It wasn’t like this big cliffhanger where you had to see what was next, but there was this type of slow burn effect that was really great. That’s one of the reasons why, in the credits, we play out whatever the last scene was in the episode, because I think it just adds to this weird creepiness that seeps in that will want to make you go to the next episode. It only works in a binge model, which is what Amazon will do for us.

AVC: Do you listen to other podcasts?

JR: I listen to podcasts. When you live in Los Angeles, you spend so much time in the car that you have to.

SE: We’re both into the new Serial.

JR: Yeah. Mystery Show. Have you ever listened to Mystery Show? I love Mystery Show. I wish she would do more.

AVC: What’s your favorite episode of Mystery Show?

JR: The belt buckle.

SE: I haven’t listened to Mystery Show, but I should.

JR: You should. It’s really good.

AVC: Sam, what’s your most recent podcast obsession besides Serial?

SE: I gotta plug these guys because I love them so much. I’m a huge fan of The Watch, and I’ve also been on a few times. It’s Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan’s show on The Ringer. It’s just a great podcast about television.